Texas Jail Project Decries Inmate Abuse

Oct 15th, 2008 | By | Category: Conditions in County Jails, In The News, Taylor County, Texas Jail Project

by Angela K. Brown, AP wire story

At the Taylor County Jail in Abilene, some inmates say they’ve been strapped to chairs and left outside all day in the sun or rain.

Others say guards sometimes sprayed pepper spray directly into their eyes. Another staffer allegedly asked a mentally ill inmate: “Why don’t you do something positive and hang yourself?”

The allegations, some among 200 pages of complaints filed with a state agency, are alarming even in a state with a “hang ’em high” mentality, according to the Texas Jail Project. The group rallied Wednesday in Abilene to decry inmate mistreatment, saying reform is still needed nearly 2 years after the U.S. Justice Department lambasted the Dallas County Jail for serious lapses resulting in deaths.

“We want to bring awareness that these people are worth worrying about,” Diana Claitor, the Texas Jail Project co-founder, told The Associated Press. “Quite frankly, it’s a widespread problem. There’s a persistent philosophy that you’re guilty and you deserve whatever bad things happen to you in there, that jail is supposed to be more than incarceration.”

But some local and state jail officials disagree. Jails have improved in the last decade, said Capt. Robert C. Green, the Montgomery County Jail administrator and president of the Texas Jail Association.

Most county jails are “very much in good shape,” said Adan Munoz, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ executive director. Only 31 of the 248 jails are currently out of compliance for violations from management issues to broken smoke detectors found during annual inspections.

About 1,200 complaints are filed with the commission each year. Munoz said his agency can penalize jails for such violations as withholding mail, not providing a change of clothing or failing to give medical attention.

Munoz said his agency could not substantiate the 23 complaints filed since 2005 against the Taylor County Jail, which is among those listed as meeting state standards.

“Jail is not supposed to be a positive experience, and some people are griping for the sake of griping,” said Taylor County Sheriff Jack Dieken. who denied any wrongdoing by his staff. “For some of them, this is their 1st taste of discipline. Collectively, they’re mean little rascals, but individually, they’re pussycats.”

The Texas jail population has increased nearly 19 percent from 2000-07, according to a study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Also, many county jails are understaffed.

Claitor said some problems might be prevented if authorities knew more about who was behind bars. Half of Texas inmates are being held before their trials, while only 7 % are convicts, according to the study.

Complaints vary from the dire to mundane. After food vendors were changed at the Tarrant County Jail in Fort Worth a few years ago, inmates threw trays and almost rioted over the bland and meager rice-and-beans meals. Sheriff’s Office spokesman Terry Grisham said county officials eventually agreed to switch vendors.

He said the jail’s 3,700 inmates most often complain about medical treatment.

“The problems aren’t different for big jails and small jails, because everybody has to provide services to people whose freedom has been taken away,” Grisham said.

But serious problems may be easier to uncover in larger facilities.

In late 2006, the U.S. Justice Department said inadequate medical care led to constitutional rights violations for the 7,000 inmates at the Dallas County Jail, where 11 had died in 3 years. Included was an HIV-positive prisoner who was denied an antibiotic to treat an infection and a woman who hanged herself despite pleading for her medicine. A legal order issued last year outlined specific ways the jail must correct the problems.

Earlier this year the Justice Department began investigating Houston’s Harris County Jail, saying it will focus on protecting the 9,900 inmates from harm, environmental conditions and lapses in medical and mental health care. Also, 2 employees were fired this summer for lying about an inmate’s January death.

Justice Department spokesman Scot Montrey said Wednesday that he had no information on whether other Texas jails were being investigated.

Lance H. Voorhees, a chaplain with Taylor County Detention Ministries, said many current and former inmates are too frightened speak out about what happened to them.

“It seems to be a pattern of prisoners that have a smart mouth and get knocked around,” Voorhees said. “I’m not saying these inmates are angels, but it’s not up to jailers to break the law.”

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