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Federal Probe of Harris County Jail

For more than two years, news stories by Chronicle reporters have raised troubling questions concerning the mortality rate among prisoners held at the Harris County Jail. At least 138 deaths occurred between 2001 and the end of 2007. In January, three more county jail inmates died.

Staff 03/12/2008 Deadly detention. Houston Chronicle.


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https://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2008_4529661

For more than two years, news stories by Chronicle reporters have raised troubling questions concerning the mortality rate among prisoners held at the Harris County Jail. At least 138 deaths occurred between 2001 and the end of 2007. In January, three more county jail inmates died.

Now that the Department of Justice’s civil rights division has opened an investigation, perhaps Houstonians will get some much-needed answers. Although a government spokesman did not explain the reason for opening the probe, it is likely that the prisoner deaths and numerous complaints of jail overcrowding, staff shortages and unsanitary conditions sparked it. The aim of the probe is to determine whether jail conditions systemically violate inmates’ constitutional rights.

A team of federal investigators will be dispatched from Washington to examine all aspects of the downtown facility, including prisoner supervision, holding conditions and quality of medical care. A similar probe of the Dallas County Jail in 2005 produced a critical report detailing staff failures to monitor inmate illnesses and provide adequate care. It was followed by a federal court order specifying what improvements must be made to bring the jail into compliance.

Families of some of those who died in Harris County custody claim that unsanitary conditions, lack of adequate medical treatment and neglect by jailers contributed to the deaths of inmates. In the case of 44-year-old Calvin Mack, the homeless drug addict lay bleeding on a cell floor for four hours as fellow prisoners pleaded with guards for help. Mack died later after being taken to LBJ Hospital.

A Chronicle survey of circumstances surrounding prisoner deaths concluded that almost one-third involved allegations of inadequate responses by guards and staff; 11 involved infections suggestive of poor sanitary conditions; and another dozen might have been caused by lack of proper medications. More than 70 percent of those who died in county custody had not been convicted of the crime for which they had been charged.

Jail administrators have downplayed the number of prisoner deaths in Houston, saying they are not out of line with other large penal facilities. Sheriff Tommy Thomas defended the quality of health care provided to the nearly 10,000 jail inmates and said his office is committed to improvements.

Unfortunately, that commitment hit a roadblock last November when voters did not approve a bond issue that would have expanded county jail capacity and devoted more space and resources for medical facilities, including emergency care for drug addicts and the mentally ill. Defeat of the jail referendum resulted from the widespread belief that rather than building more jails, the criminal justice system should reduce the inmate population by employing pretrial release and expedited processing for defendants charged with nonviolent offenses.

Harris County officials should welcome the federal probe, which will document if there are county jail shortcomings that must be rectified. Such a report would provide an effective argument in a future bond issue to convince citizens to support upgraded jail facilities.

Category: Harris County, In The News, Jailhouse Stories | Tags: , ,

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