April 09, 2007
Harris County jails: Deadlier than ever

Back in February, the Chron reported that an average of 17 inmates had died in the Harris County jails between 2001 and 2006, with the latter seeing 22 prisoner deaths. If the first three months of this year are any indication, that tragic mark will be left in the dust.

Eleven deaths occurred in the first quarter of this year, compared with the 22 recorded in 2006. Last year's total was the jail's highest since the same number was recorded in 2002.

In at least one of this year's cases, the prisoner's family thinks she did not receive adequate care.

"She kept trying to get medical treatment, trying to get them to help," said Gloria Humphries, whose sister, Kimberley Humphries, died Jan. 23 after suffering complications from an apparent staph infection.

Ms. Humphries was jailed on October 29, apparently in good health. She was sent to the hospital on December 30 for that staph infection, and died 24 days after that.

The Chronicle reported in February that at least 101 prisoners died in county jail custody from 2001 through 2006 -- an average of almost 17 per year. At the time of their deaths, at least 72 had not been convicted of the charges that led to their incarceration. Of the 11 who have died in custody this year, five were awaiting adjudication.

The number of deaths thus far this year has the attention of the state agency that oversees jails.

"I think they raise a concern to anyone, whether it be the Texas Commission on Jail Standards or local officials," said Adan Muñoz, the commission's executive director. "However, I would (qualify) that with, 'What is the cause of death?' "

The county medical examiner's office has completed autopsies in three of this year's deaths, ruling that they resulted from natural causes. Similarly, none of the records reviewed concluded that jail employees contributed directly to the 101 deaths from 2001 through 2006.

However, the Chronicle found that in at least 13 cases, relatives or documents raised questions over whether the prisoners received needed medications.

Eleven of the deaths involved infections and illnesses suggesting sanitation problems. In 10 cases, county records suggested possible neglect by jail workers.

In each of the past three years, the jail commission has found the county jail in noncompliance with Texas jail standards, primarily for conditions related to crowding. A state inspector concluded in 2005 that those conditions led to "safety" and "sanitation" issues.

And perhaps to the death of Kimberley Humphries, among others. You'd think this would be a bigger issue than it is, but it isn't. Which is probably why it continues to be such an issue.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 09, 2007 to Crime and Punishment