Sunday, January 12, 2014

Harris County Sheriff called on carpet by feds over sex abuse in jail

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia this week "was called to testify before the U.S. Department of Justice's review panel on prison rape because one of the four buildings of the Harris County Jail was found in a DOJ-commissioned study to have one of the worst rates of sexual assault in the nation," reported the Houston Chronicle ("Garcia defends record on sex abuse in county jail," Jan. 9). Though Garcia and his spokesman, Alan Bernstein, have vociferously criticized the survey in the past ("in writing, he savaged the study, calling it 'flawed and misleading'"), when offered the chance to do so in Washington, "the sheriff demurred, saying he'd rather discuss how he was working to improve the jail." Such a cagey response is perhaps understandable, given the jail's record. Reported the Chronicle:
The most serious incident came to light in 2011. An internal investigation found "numerous" female inmates had sexual relations with jailers in the laundry rooms of two downtown jails, apparently in exchange for favors.

In October 2012, Garcia confirmed he fired six employees due to the illicit contacts, and two others resigned or retired. The Harris County District Attorney's Office investigated, and one jailer was charged with improper sexual activity with a person in custody.

A Houston Chronicle review of sheriff's records showed that between 2008 and 2010, more than 200 jail employees were disciplined for infractions of rules and state law. They included the use of excessive force on inmates, having sex with inmates, mistakenly releasing dangerous prisoners, sleeping on the job and leaving their assigned posts. Two deputies were fired for receiving sexual favors from female inmates who were washing cars at the jail and received soft drinks and cigarettes in exchange.

Garcia suspended one female jailer without pay for 10 days after she ordered an entire cellblock of female inmates to remove their clothing for an unauthorized strip search.
In addition to the Sheriff firing guards found to have committed sexual misconduct, Bernstein "noted that Harris County last year implemented an LGBT policy in the jail to protect gay, lesbian and transgender inmates, one that has been hailed as ahead of other correctional systems."

But Grits must say, given the "shoot the messenger" response by the Sheriff when this report came out, it seems a bit disingenuous to decline the opportunity to attack it at the DOJ where his counterclaims could be interrogated. I'm sure Mr. Bernstein will show up soon in the comments to tell us the survey was flawed, all the problems have been fixed, so "move along, nothing to see here." (He told the paper, "we're ahead of the curve in investigating these things and preventing them in the first place.") But if Garcia isn't willing to dispute the survey results when called before the review panel that issued them, those criticisms start to seem a little less credible. Here's a link to the full report, as well as transcripts and testimony from the DOJ hearings.

See related Grits posts:

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