Calls for training, better cell checks follow Harris County jail suicides (Dec. 1)
Wrote St. John Barned-Smith, "[I]n thousands of pages of autopsy reports and internal disciplinary reports, the Chronicle found 35 instances in which jailers skipped required cell checks or faked records to hide skipping them, a pattern that experts called a serious problem at county jails statewide."
The union says "the jail has never been properly staffed because both county and state leaders don't provide adequate funding. 'We just don't have enough manpower for the number of beds we have in the jail.'"
"Statewide, 154 inmates have killed themselves in county jails since Sept. 1, 2009. Suicides in county jails recently hit a five- year high: 33, up from 22 five years ago. The spike has come even as state officials have tried to shrink populations. (The total excludes municipal jails, which the state does not regulate.)"
The article also included a link to a a consultant's report on suicide prevention at the Harris County jail.
HPD jailer gets year of probation and week in jail for assault case (Dec. 15)
After an inmate allegedly spit at him, a civilian HPD jailer "attacked a mentally ill inmate, hitting him multiple times in a padded cell at the Houston Police Department's Central Jail," according to the Harris County DA, which resulted in a conviction on misdemeanor assault charges. Further, said the DA, "video surveillance helped authorities identify discrepancies" in the jailer's account of events.
"'This case illustrates the importance of having a video when complaints are made against law enforcement officials,' Julian Ramirez, chief of the District Attorney's Office Civil Rights Division, said in the release. 'We could not have proven this particular case without the video to disprove the justification given by the jailer.'"
Inmate's claims of jailer abuse fall on deaf ears (Dec. 22)
This story by Anita Hassan and James Pinkerton opened:
William Curtis Evans is serving three years in a Texas state prison for assaulting a detention officer in the Harris County Jail named Larry Poag.Inmates accused, charged despite workers own misconduct (Dec. 22)
Exactly what happened when Poag fingerprinted Evans for a bicycle theft charge in March 2014 remains in dispute.
Poag claimed Evans, handcuffed and shackled, bit him on the forearm. The 67-year-old jailer later admitted hitting Evans in the face to stop the attack, disciplinary reports state.
Evans denied biting Poag and claimed the jailer assaulted him and bent his finger back so far that it broke.
But Evans would be sentenced to prison before anyone at the Harris County Sheriff's Office investigated his complaint, learning the hard way that there were few safeguards for inmates who claim to have been assaulted by guards.
The Chronicle found eight cases in which inmates were choked, punched or kicked by detention officers and then ended up facing felony charges for alleged crimes against staff members, even though jailers were later disciplined for misconduct in connection with the same incidents - either for using excessive force or failing to report the incidents. Three of the eight, including Evans, were convicted and went to prison.
The Sheriff's Office does not routinely inform prosecutors of internal investigations into jailer's actions that are directly connected to criminal allegations against an inmate, even when disciplinary action is issued against jail staff that is related to those charges, a sheriff's spokesman confirmed in an email.
Another one from Anita Hassan, summarized in this passage:
a Houston Chronicle investigation has found misuse of force by staff against inmates is prevalent and hard to prove, especially when jail staff file charges against inmates in altercations during which their own actions have been called into question.Tough bail policies punish the poor and the sick, critics say (Dec. 26)
Between 2009 and May of this year, the Harris County Sheriff's office has pursued charges more than 900 times against inmates for harassment, assault and other crimes against public servants stemming from incidents within the jail, according to court records.
With the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division continuing its review of excessive force by jail staff and pursuing an "ongoing law enforcement proceeding" in the jail, the Chronicle found that jail staff members have been disciplined in more than 120 incidents for misuse of force and other abuses of authority since 2009, records show.
Several of those disciplined have been involved in dozens of inmate prosecutions.
This story by James Pinkerton and Lauren Caruba buried the lede, which should have been that "Fifty-five inmates died in the [Harris County] jail while awaiting adjudication since 2009. Eight were too ill to appear at initial bail hearings."
We also get this description of bail hearings in Houston, where it should be noted that indigent defendants are not represented by counsel: "Magistrates don't actually meet defendants, who are jailed across the street. Instead, faces appear on a screen. Few questions are asked. Some hearings last less than a minute."
County pretrial services employees interview most defendants, but "It's unclear whether magistrates review responses." "In recent hearings," reported Pinkerton and Caruba, "getting through the docket fast seemed to take precedence."
In summary, if you're too poor to post bond in Houston, your bail hearing will be a joke, with no lawyer to represent or speak up for you. You might get sick in jail or be beaten by a guard then convicted of a felony for assaulting him. Even if you're innocent. And if despair overtakes you and you attempt suicide, maybe no one will be there to stop you; perhaps they'll even falsify records after the fact to cover up their negligence.
That won't be everyone's experience, but these stories show it's been some people's. The Harris County Jail is so large that, among US states, it would rank as a mid-sized prison system. So when there are problems, they tend to scale up.
Houston voters sent a pretty strong message recently by failing to give former Sheriff Adrian Garcia a spot in the runoff for Mayor in a race which, at one time, some people thought was his to lose. IMO his poor showing stemmed largely from the public's recognition of problems at the Harris County Jail on his watch, some of the worst of which are cataloged in the stories above.
Perhaps that bodes well for finding solutions: If voters are going to punish politicians for these problems, maybe it will create some urgency for remaining Harris County pols with responsibility over the jail.