Asked about the high number of in-custody deaths in 2015, sheriff's office spokesman Ryan Sullivan said without examining the data closely it would be hard to tell, but he suggested that Harris County's drastic population increase could be a large contributing factor. According to county data, the county's population has grown 30 percent since 2000.Let's break this down. First, "Harris County's drastic population increase" can't explain the difference. The jail population as of August 2005 was 9,097; in August 2015 it was 9,029. So they were caring for about the same number of people each day; deaths just went up. (The Sheriff's spokesman cites population growth from 2000, it should be mentioned, but Woog's data covers 2005-2015.)
Otherwise, Sullivan said, "I can't account for why more criminals are pulling guns on officers on the street. ...If we look inside the detention center, no policy would ever prevent someone from dying from a natural illness. Inmates arrive here at a lot of various levels of medical condition. A lot of people have weakened immune systems, and they're therefore more susceptible to contracting diseases like MRSA.”
Next, I don't think there's much evidence that "more criminals are pulling guns on officers on the street." While the recent targeted shootings of police officers runs counter to the trend, overall police officers are safer on the job today than they've been in many decades. Further, as NPR reported last fall, "the numbers suggest officers are also facing fewer attacks: The number of assaults on police has also fallen, though not as sharply" as deaths.
The comment that "no policy would ever prevent someone from dying from a natural illness" in the jail is clearly misguided and wrong. Natural illnesses are typically treatable and the jail has a duty to diligently attempt to "prevent someone from dying from a natural illness" while in their care. A Houston Chronicle investigation last year "identified at least 19 cases in which inmates died of illnesses that were either treatable or preventable, or in which delays in care, or staff misconduct, could have played a role in their deaths" since 2009.
To cite a few examples, another Chronicle story from last fall opened thusly: "Kenneth Beckett died in September 2009 of respiratory failure caused by the swine flu, which he appeared to have contracted in the county jail. Records show he and other Harris County inmates who died in jail had flu, sepsis and other treatable infections." What's more, "Other inmates complained of delays or inadequate care prior to their deaths, according to autopsies and family interviews," including one man who "died of peritonitis, an abdominal infection that can be treated with antibiotics." Those may be "natural" illnesses, but nobody should be dying of them in the jail. (Chron reporters have been all over this story.)
The most outlandish comment, though, was this oblivious assessment: "Inmates arrive here at a lot of various levels of medical condition. [Ed note: True enough.] A lot of people have weakened immune systems, and they're therefore more susceptible to contracting diseases like MRSA." Grits finds this self-justifying pablum unconscionable.
Let's be clear: MRSA is a dangerous antibiotic-resistant infection, transmission of which is entirely preventable. If inmates are contracting MRSA in the jail, it's because a) the Sheriff has failed in his management duties to identify and address emerging outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and b) inmates are either lying around their cells with open sores or contracting MRSA in the jail's unsanitary healthcare facilities. Casting animadversions on inmates' "weakened immune systems" misplaces blame and needlessly adds insult to injury.
Remarkably, the Sheriff's spokesman appeared not to understand the ways in which his comments displayed an abrogation of his agency's duty of care. Perhaps federal monitors or the Commission on Jail Standards, if not voters in November, will remind him down the line.