Monday, January 30, 2012

Houston Chron surveys employee discipline at county jail

At the Houston Chronicle, James Pinkerton has a story today ("Discipline problems persist behind bars," Jan. 30) describing employee misconduct that spawned disciplinary actions and terminations at the Harris County Jail from 2008 to 2010. The article opens:
A female jailer ordered, without authorization, an entire cellblock of women prisoners to strip naked during a July 2010 search. She's still on the job.
Another jailer punched a seriously ill inmate as he lay in the infirmary in May 2010. The inmate died the next day, and the jailer's punishment: one day in jail.

Last year, a sergeant slugged an inmate so hard it took 14 staples to close a gash over his eye. The sergeant said the inmate raised his hands to hit him, but other jailers swore the inmate didn't. The sergeant was fired but not charged with a crime. He's fighting to return.

These incidents and dozens of others highlight how the Harris County Jail, one of the busiest in the nation, continues to experience problems similar to those cited in a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice report critical of the use of excessive force against inmates.

A Houston Chronicle review of disciplinary records indicates that from 2008 through 2010, more than 200 jail employees were disciplined for various offenses, some serious and others minor. Last year, the Sheriff's Office disciplined 88 employees working in detention, including jailers, deputies and civilians.

Their offenses included excessive use of force, having sex with inmates, mistakenly releasing dangerous prisoners including suspected drug dealers, sleeping on the job, and even leaving their post to have a 90-minute-long domino game. One jailer destroyed mail sent to prisoners, and another ruined a picture of an inmate's son by spraying it with cleaning solvent. 
Read the whole thing; it's an interesting snapshot of an HCSO disciplinary process rarely glimpsed by the public.

Indeed, Grits' pitch in light of this coverage goes out to TV and print editors and local criminal-justice beat reporters across Texas and beyond: Pinkerton's story could be replicated via open-records requests for any county jail in the state. In fact, information requests about misconduct by Sheriff's deputies get MORE information than comparable requests in many larger police departments (at least those in municipalities which have adopted civil service under Chapter 143 of the Local Government Code) because their activities are governed by the much-more transparent Public Information Act (Chapter 552 of the Government Code). So it's more difficult under that statute (though by no means impossible) for agencies to conceal embarrassing documents. Without reporters like Pinkerton digging into public records, in most cases these stories would remain forever secret. Notably, spokesman Alan Bernstein told the Chron, "families are not told of incidents that happen in jail unless they cause death."

Of course, as is always the case, such anecdotes do not speak to the character or professionalism of every HCSO employee. In most law-enforcement and correctional settings, a minority of officers are responsible for a disproportionate share of misconduct allegations, and that's surely the case at HCSO. Still, the story gives outsiders an idea of the range of disciplinary challenges facing managers at one of the nation's largest jails. And it's certain they're not unique.

It's great that a city the size of Houston gets this sort of in-depth, research-based coverage, but there's no reason Pinkerton's methodology couldn't be reproduced by media in other jurisdictions. You never know what you'll find until you look.


RSO wife said...

During the 6 months my husband spent in Harris Co jail before being sent to TDC, the guards ran the gamut from being very nice to being very nasty. As you stand in line while you wait to get in during visiting hours, you can only hope you get someone who treats you as though you are a person and not some idiot waiting to visit some scumbag in jail. The majority of the guards in the waiting area were courteous and some were even pleasant, but every once in a while you would run into someone who wanted to prove his authority over you.

The same was true for the guards in my husbands cell block. Some were nice while others needed to prove to the world that they were in control. While my husband was fortunate and there were very few over zealous guards during his stay, others were not so lucky.

IMO, the bullies who work there, would be bullies any where they worked. It's just easier to be a bully when you are in complete control of others as prison guards are. These bullies are small minded people with no self esteem and as a result they have to demean others to feel "better than" the people they are guarding. They want others to be impressed with their own sense of importance and the fact that they are in control. If you aren't properly impressed, or if they think you aren't properly impressed, they have to change your way of thinking.

I do agree that for the most part, the guards are reasonable people and the bullies are the minority. But the bullies are the ones who cause the problems and get the publicity. And while most of the people incarcerated just want to serve their time and leave, there are also a few bad apples that could cost a guard his life. It must be really hard to walk that line between being fair and reasonable and having to watch your back.

Anonymous said...

What do you expect with a Democrat running the show?