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Letter From Families Impacted by the Crisis at the Harris County Jail

August 8, 2023

We, the undersigned, are the mothers, wives, and daughters of people who have suffered–and in many cases died–in the Harris County Jail. We write to you to voice our concerns over the County’s failure to adequately respond to the ongoing human rights crisis occurring within the walls of the jail. 

Topics:   2023news, Custody Death, Jail Conditions, Medical, Mental Health, Overcrowding

To Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis, Adrian Garcia, Tom Ramsey, and Lesley Briones: 

We, the undersigned, are the mothers, wives, and daughters of people who have suffered–and in many cases died–in the Harris County Jail. We write to you to voice our concerns over the County’s failure to adequately respond to the ongoing human rights crisis occurring within the walls of the jail. 

It is well known that the County has failed to address the chronic overcrowding, medical neglect, and violence in the jail. As a result, every person who spends time in the jail–usually legally innocent people who simply cannot afford cash bail–is exposed to potentially lethal consequences. In fact, Harris County runs what is likely THE deadliest jail in the entire country. We are among the many county residents who have personally felt the impact of this crisis:

“My son Evan was one of the most generous people I ever knew. He was always giving away his things to people, especially kids. He struggled with a serious mental disorder ever since his first year in high school and even had to spend some time at a state hospital. Despite his challenges, he loved to work and had an excellent work ethic. While incarcerated in the jail, Evan was reportedly involved in a fight. A week later, he was taken to the hospital with severe head trauma. I only learned my son was in the hospital when a doctor called me. Evan died four days later. By the time I was allowed to see my son, doctors told me that he was brain-dead. Evan’s death was eventually ruled a homicide. In my last conversation with him from the jail, Evan pleaded with me, ‘Momma, get me out of here. I’m dying here.’ To this day, nearly 500 days since his death, we have yet to receive his autopsy report.” 

– Jacilet Griffin, mother of Evan Lee

“My son, Jaquaree, loved to dance and make people smile. Like many people who are in this jail, he also battled mental health challenges. He suffered a brain injury in the first year of middle school and was in special education classes after that. After Jaquaree was arrested, he called me almost every day from the jail, crying and begging me for help. After a week, the worst happened: he was found dead in his cell. All I could do was scream. An investigation later revealed that jail officers had beaten my son to death. A 6-foot-5, 260-pound officer had kneed my 5-foot-4, 120-pound son in the head, struck his head against a door, and dropped him on his head, killing him. The medical examiner ruled it a homicide. Eleven officers were fired. But none of that can return my son to me.

– LaRhonda Biggles, mother of Jaquaree Simmons

“My father Lawrence loved and cared for his children. He struggled with alcoholism but he was not a criminal by any means. My dad died shortly after being transported from the jail to a hospital. Just a day earlier, a judge had determined there was no probable cause to keep him locked up in the jail. In other words, he was innocent. To add to the anguish of losing my dad, we were lied to by HCSO when we were frantically searching for my dad. No one told us that he had been transported to a hospital or that he had died. My family only found out about my dad’s death a week later when, calling around to try to find where he was, we eventually located his body at the morgue as a John Doe. It was devastating to see how my dad was just discarded and forgotten as a John Doe. He was NOT a John Doe. He was loved by his children, his sisters and his grandchildren and he is deeply missed.”

– Jeanette Gutierrez, daughter of Lawrence Gutierrez

“My son Robert, or as we called him, “Rico,” was a loving and caring son and father. He loved listening to music and Bible verses on his phone. Every day before he left home he would ask if I needed anything, if I was doing okay and he would tell me that he loved me. Those were his last words to me on the day of his arrest. Rico died three days after arriving at the jail. According to other people who were present, jail officers taunted Rico while he foamed at the mouth, vomited, and went in and out of consciousness. He was begging for help and they laughed at him. I am disgusted by the inhumane treatment my son received. Our heartbroken family held a balloon release after he was laid to rest. His younger brother Joseph recalled the love Rico had for his community, and Rico’s young son grieves the fact that his father would never again bring his lunch to school or reassure him that things are going to be okay. His funeral was the saddest day I’ve ever had to deal with. That was my son. I loved him. How many more times does this have to happen to our sons or brothers, our fathers or sisters? Ever since Rico’s death, I have been experiencing homelessness. It’s been so hard and painful.”

– Lisa Foster, mother of Robert “Rico” Terry Jr.

“My daughter Kristan Smith was the most loving daughter and mother anyone could hope for. She was a positive, caring soul and was always looking out for everyone else. She loved kids! She was the sole caregiver for her 7-year-old severely asthmatic and special needs son when she was snatched away from us. Kristan was a diabetic and had unstable blood pressure but she was very disciplined and careful about managing her condition. A month after she was booked into the jail, with no prior criminal history whatsoever, she was reportedly found unresponsive in her bunk and hospitalized. When I arrived to see her, my daughter’s condition was anyone’s worst nightmare. Having to tell my grandson, Kristan’s son, that his mother wouldn’t be coming home again was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I still struggle with the fact that had it not been for my not having $2,500 to meet her bond or the jail’s inability to provide her with medication, my daughter might still be home and alive today. I had to quit my job and take on the caregiving responsibilities for my grandson, who needs round the clock care for his asthma and special needs. Kristan’s loss has devastated our family.”

– Deborah Smith, mother of Kristan Smith

“Kevin was a mama and grandma’s boy through and through. Any little thing he ever needed he would call me. We would spend hours and hours just talking and planning what we would do when he was released. Even planned an entire release party. Just the night before we were trying to figure out logistics and he was so excited about coming home but still anxious about court so I told him I would take off from work so I can finally see my baby again! But the following day I just had such a sick feeling in my stomach. It was as strong as labor pains. I knew something was wrong with my baby. Soon after I kept getting calls from different people who shared cells with my son and I knew something went wrong and I reached out to his lawyer. My whole world and those around me forever changed when we realized Kevin had been taken from us. It wasn’t enough that they took his life; so many months later they have taken our sanity too as they continue to cover up his death and refuse to give us the answers we deserve. Kevin was a spirit like no other and can never be replaced but the looming pain of having to one day explain to his two-year-old daughter who adores him so much what happened is a heartbreak I would not wish upon anyone.”

– Tracy Smith, mother of Kevin Smith

“To know Jacoby was to love Jacoby. Jacoby was a person who could walk into a room full of strangers and leave with a room full of friends. He radiated such positivity in the darkest of situations. Jacoby was goofy. He always had a joke to tell and could put a smile on anyone’s face. He was the person you called upon at 2 AM to help you with a flat tire and you knew he would be there without hesitation. He was always there to lend a helping hand. He had the kindest soul. Losing Jacoby has forever changed our family. Our family will never be the same. The loss of Jacoby has traumatized our family. Our family was robbed of future nieces, nephews and cousins when his life was taken. A little bit of all of us died when Jacoby died and we will never be whole again. This loss has changed the ability of my siblings and I to be able to function thoroughly throughout the day and especially his siblings who had careers in the criminal justice field. Somedays are way harder than others but easy is a word I wish that I could use and won’t be able to until we get some closure and Justice is served.” 

– The Pillow Family

“My son British Vounzell Dixon went into Harris County Jail walking on his own in March and he came out on a cane and cannot walk without assistance. He was brutally assaulted within days of his booking into the jail. He suffered multiple serious fractures in the neck and spine and was wheelchair bound. While in jail he had to be rushed to the county ER multiple times. My son was scared and defenseless. He tried to file some grievances because nurses would laugh at him when he would fall trying to walk. My son is innocent until proven guilty. Harris County Jail did not protect my son, but allowed other individuals to do harm to him, while he was waiting on a court date. His life is forever changed due to his serious injuries. What can you do to stop the violence and make sure that this does not happen to another human being?”

– Terri Sanders, mother of British Vounzell Dixon

Each of our loved ones should have had the opportunity to grow old. The County took that from them. Others among us may not have lost our lives or the lives of our loved ones, but have nevertheless been forever changed by the trauma wrought by the jail.

“Jack is a sweet, kind, loving person who struggles with mental disorders and substance use. He is a wonderful son, father, and brother. He is also a very hard working man. There are so many ways his pretrial detention and assault at the jail has devastated us, but the biggest ones are the thought of losing him, watching him in so much pain, and the ways his brain injuries have transformed his personality. Not to mention the financial burdens of his incarceration and his brain damage and personality changes.”  

– F.D., mother of Jack (previously detained in the jail)

“My husband T.S. suffers from stage 4 cancer and has already lost one of his  kidneys. In January, he was arrested during a mental health crisis he experienced right after being released from the hospital. In the jail, he was assaulted and suffered a broken jaw. He urgently needs medical attention but is not receiving it. He has been found incompetent to stand trial. I have tried desperately to get help from jail staff, his court appointed attorney, and other organizations; however, I am unable to attain any kind of compassionate release or reduced bail bond to get him out of jail and into the care that he so badly needs. No one seems to care about the fact that his charges from his mental health crisis did not hurt anyone.” 

– C.S., wife of T.S. (currently detained in the jail)

“J.B. is an amazing father and husband. During this time when he was away I thought my loss was great but seeing the toll it has taken on my kids is so heart-wrenching. My kids look up to their dad as a hero and to have him stripped away from us by this system and not have the same level of access to their dad has set them back so much in their early stages. They are trying to navigate this world without their rocks and I am trying to do the best I can to not only take care of them but also be my husband’s advocate as well as I try to get him the treatment he needs to save his life. No one should ever have to go through this fear and pain like we do and I want this nightmare to end not only for us but everyone else in there as well.”

– R.B., wife of J.B. (currently detained in the jail)

“On the morning of October 20th, 2022, my water had just broken before I was released from Harris County Jail. I was 8 months pregnant. I had been booked into the jail on an out-of-county misdemeanor theft warrant and spent over three days sitting in the hard blue chairs in the booking and processing center with no hot food and inadequate hydration. My water broke as I was being processed for release but the jail staff kept saying that I had soiled myself. Instead of helping me get to the hospital or calling my husband, the jailers just kicked me out of the building with no phone, no wallet, and no means to get home. By the grace of God, there were advocates on the steps of the jail who got me home and to the hospital where I ended up giving birth later that evening to my son who was breech. He had to spend three weeks in the NICU before he was ready to be released from the hospital. That same week, advocates tried to tell the Commissioners Court about me but they were cut off half-way into their comment. I believe my son still struggles with health issues because of what happened to me in that jail. I hope and pray to God no other woman goes through what I experienced in the jail.”

B.M. (previously detained in the jail)

“I was 36 weeks pregnant and in jail when I started experiencing contractions. In agony, helped by another female detainee, I went to medical twice, only to be turned away both times. ‘You’re faking it! Stop screaming!’ a guard told me. My water broke. Finally, they are going to help me and call 911, I thought… I was wrong. Instead, they took my pants off and asked me why I peed on myself and why I was faking it again. I was crying, asking them to please just call an ambulance. I knew I was too far into labor to stop it. I also knew it was too early to have my baby. But Max couldn’t be stopped. He was here. The nurse threw her hands up in frustration as he came out. But why wasn’t he breathing? Why wasn’t he crying? If they had only believed me two days ago, we would have been safe in a hospital. By some miracle, the fire department arrived just then. The marshals had the suction bulb needed to help my newborn breathe — a basic tool that it seemed the jail clinic didn’t have. My son was rushed to the NICU. If it weren’t for the fire marshals, my Max would not be alive today. It took over a week for him to stabilize. A long, horrible week with a hole in my heart that seemed like it would never fill. All that trauma could’ve been avoided if I was taken seriously. I’m one of many people to suffer something like this in the Harris County Jail. If I could ask for something, it would be to take people seriously and help people get access to mental health medications and proper treatment instead of jails.”

Amy Growcock (previously detained in the jail)

Our stories are just a few among the thousands of families that have been irreversibly shattered by the trauma and violence of the jail. Yet the County and the Sheriff have largely ignored our voices. 

Last week, many of us attended a public meeting of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) in Austin. The TCJS commissioners had specifically asked the Sheriff himself and a representative of the County to show up and answer for the deaths and violence in the jail. We were shocked that no one from the County or Sheriff’s office was there. We wanted you to be there so that we would have an opportunity to tell you, face-to-face, about the inhumane treatment our loved ones received. We were dismayed that you did not even show up to hear about our pain.

We are still mourning our losses. What we ask from you is that they not be repeated. We know that further investments in the same system which has devastated our families will not make people on either side of the bars any safer, and will instead only bring more death and misery to families like our own. The answer to the human rights crisis in the jail is not more guards, more staff, more funding, more courts, or a new jail building. The answer will require the County to make investments in housing, community-based mental health care, education, and jobs – investments that will address poverty and mental health crises. These investments will allow our communities to flourish and will reduce the number of people coming into contact with the jail. Only by keeping our families and communities home and together, will we finally be able to reduce the harm caused by the jail.

We implore the Commissioners Court to take immediate substantive action to address this human rights crisis. Specifically, we demand that you: 

1. Place the issue of the humanitarian crisis at the jail on the agenda, including an open discussion of the County’s plans for ending the violence and deaths, as a priority for the upcoming County Commissioners Court meeting scheduled for August 29, 2023;

2. Hold the Sheriff accountable by:

  • calling him to testify before the Commissioners Court about what he has done to bring the jail into compliance with state standards; 
  • directing him to report all deaths where an individual experiences a medical issue while in the jail and later dies as an in-custody death; and
  • securing his commitment to find ways to lower the jail population without outsourcing people to other jails or building new jails.

3. Implement a policy to divert the most vulnerable people (e.g those in psychiatric crisis) immediately to the emergency room instead of booking them into the jail;

4. Allow the County’s satellite jail contracts with Southwestern Correctional, LLC, and Management & Training Corporation to lapse and expire at the end of their current terms, and redirect the $40 million dollars per year into unarmed non-carceral crisis response teams, crisis respite units, psychiatric ERs and affordable housing;

5. Withhold funding from the District Attorney’s Office until she dismisses all non-violent felony cases older than nine months, as recommended more than three years ago by the Justice Management Institute, in order to hold the District Attorney accountable her role in exacerbating the jail crisis;

6. Exercise meaningful oversight of the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD by conducting quarterly audits to determine whether the Center is complying with its contract and ensure data collection about the drivers of the forensic waitlist, diversion of people with IDD, custodial deaths of Harris Center clients and other key outcomes. 

7. Commit to a balanced safety portfolio in which, for every dollar the County spends on the jail, DAO, or courts, it spends the same amount on non-carceral safety investments such as affordable housing, education, jobs programs, public spaces and infrastructure, or community-based mental health services and crisis respite units.

We look forward to working with you to honor our loved ones’ memories by properly addressing this crisis, so no more families deal with the pain and grief that we have experienced.


Jacilet Lee Griffin, mother of Evan Lee

Tracy Smith, mother of Kevin Smith

Deborah Smith, mother of Kristan Smith

Lisa Foster, mother of Robert “Rico” Terry Jr. 

Jeanette Gutierrez, daughter of Lawrence Gutierrez 

Octavia Wagner, sister of Jacoby Pillow

Terri Sanders, mother of Brittish Dixon

F.D., mother of Jack

C.S., wife of T.S.

R.B., wife of J.B.


Amy Growcock

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