Press release from Grieving Family Members to Harris County Commissioners Court
August 8, 2023
Today, the mothers, wives, and daughters of people who died in the Harris County Jail delivered a letter to the Harris County Commissioners Court to voice their concerns over the failed response to the ongoing human rights crisis in the jail. Texas Jail Project and the undersigned organizations stand with these brave families and join their demands that the County and Sheriff be held accountable for failing to care for people in custody, lower the number of people behind bars, and commit to bold non-carceral investments in community safety.
For decades, the Harris County Jail has been overcrowded, unsanitary, and dangerous for those trapped inside. In the past several years, however, this problem has reached catastrophic levels. An arrest should never be a death sentence. Yet already this year, 11 people have died in the jail on the Sheriff’s watch. Last year, that number was 28, a twenty-year record high. By comparison, New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex–where conditions are so poor the federal government may take over–recorded 19 deaths over the same period of time.
The appalling treatment of people in the jail is well-documented. Despite multiple citations from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for failing to meet minimum standards of detainee care, conditions are worsening. Overcrowding. Denial of necessary medication and critical medical care. Shackling of pregnant people. Severe violence, including brutal attacks by jail officers. Sheriff’s Office employees report causing injuries to incarcerated people three times as often in 2023 as they did in 2020. One man even brought his diabetes medication with him to the jail; it didn’t matter, the medicine was confiscated, never administered, and he died soon after for lack of that medication. Quite simply, the County is fundamentally incapable of fulfilling its most basic requirement to keep people in its custody safe – or even alive.
All too predictably, jails fail upwards. Record deaths, malevolence, and incompetence somehow fuel short-sighted arguments for expanding or building newer and bigger cages staffed by even more violent guards. But shiny new courts or larger jails are not the answer. Indeed, the County has already wasted over 40 million taxpayer dollars per year to ship people, like cattle, to private prisons hundreds of miles away from their families and lawyers, straining relationships between loved ones and making it even more difficult for people to fight their cases. Of course, these people are each legally innocent; and statistics show that the majority of their cases – roughly 60% – will not end in conviction. Having done little to improve jail conditions or to address the reasons that people ended up in jail in the first place, the deaths have continued apace. Last year, a 30-year-old man transferred to a private jail died just weeks after arriving.
Full Letter on Behalf of Families Impacted by the Crisis at the Harris County Jail
We know that pretrial detention causes harm, and not only to the people inside the jail. Empirical research confirms that it hurts public health – in fact, multiple studies show that pretrial detention is criminogenic, meaning it actively increases crime. Throwing more money at jails, prisons, courts, prosecutors, and pretrial services will not cure the danger within the jail nor will it further the purported goal of community safety. The only solution is to kick our addiction to incarceration, and to make investments that address the root causes of harm. Instead of spending money on wasteful jail contracts, the County could direct funding towards public education, jobs, affordable housing, community-based mental health services, and infrastructure – investments that are actually proven to reduce crime and incarceration.
The only good news is this: We made policy choices to get into this crisis. We can make policy choices to get out of it. We stand in admiration of the bravery shown by these grieving families, and we ask that the Commissioners Court meet their demands with the urgency they deserve.