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Harris County Jail Deaths Heat Up Race

Oct 3rd, 2008 | Category: About TJP, Harris County

By Alan Bernstein, Houston Chronicle

Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas and Democratic election challenger Adrian Garcia clashed Thursday over inmate deaths in the county jail, with the Republican incumbent saying many accused criminals arrive there with life-threatening illnesses.

A few hours before that initial showdown between Thomas and Garcia, the candidates for district attorney continued their series of forums on other segments of the county’s criminal justice system.

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating problems at the jail, the full staffing of which requires overtime pay to deputies in Thomas’ agency. The problems include the deaths of about 140 inmates since 2001.

“There shouldn’t be any (deaths),” Thomas said during a debate videotaped for broadcast 8 tonight on KUHT (Channel 8). “But most of these individuals have recurring problems when they came to the jail.

“This is 1.2 million people coming through this institution and a daily population of 12,000,” the sheriff continued. “We are talking a city the size of Tomball or Humble or Katy. I challenge you to see how many people in those cities die a year.”

Garcia, a Houston councilman and former police officer, said, “We shouldn’t be talking statistics when it comes to human life.

“The Sheriff’s Office has a constitutional mandate to serve, and effectively treat the people in custody. Look into the face of the parents whose children are in custody and you tell them your kid dies in the custody of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.”

“First of all, it’s not children,” Thomas retorted.

Garcia said that because the Sheriff’s Office keeps inmate medical records on paper rather than computer, jail physicians may not have immediate access to such records when ill people end up in the jail as repeat accused offenders.

“You should have those medical records immediately available and who knows how that delay could have played into some of these deaths,” Garcia said.

In addition to the Friday broadcast, the episode of Red White and Blue: The Great Debate Series will be shown again 5 p.m. Sunday.

Thomas also defended the contract deputy program, saying that the practice of civic associations paying for deputies to provide extra patrols of their unincorporated neighborhoods puts more officers on the streets through overtime pay.

The department filled deputy positions paid for by civic associations and municipal utility districts, while about a fifth of the 352 regular patrol slots remained vacant, the Chronicle reported this year.

Garcia said the program is mismanaged: “It should be a true supplemental program. It shouldn’t be the way you do business” with primary law enforcement.

In the debate about the district attorney’s office, Democrat and former Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford and Republican former judge Pat Lykos questioned each other’s qualifications.

Lykos, speaking to the local chapter of Women Professionals in Government, pointed out that Bradford was chief during the HPD crime lab crisis and the misguided 2002 raid at a Kmart where 273 people were arrested on trespassing charges that later were dismissed.

Referring to the team of HPD lawyers that Bradford said he supervised, she said, “If there was 10 lawyers in that office, why didn’t they do something about it?”

Bradford noted that serious flaws in evidence produced by the crime lab started before he was chief from 1996 to 2003.

“Surely I made some mistakes, as it relates to being chief of police, in some capacity for seven years there,” he said. “But anyone who has not made a mistake has not made decisions. Because (Lykos) hasn’t led a large organization and she hasn’t supervised attorneys, she doesn’t have that type of experience.”

The DA’s office needs a leader with such experience, he said.

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