Three Harris County Jail inmates died in the first 12 days of this year, and what happened to them is likely a part of a federal investigation announced last week.
Last year, 16 prisoners died in the care of the downtown Houston jail, compared with 21 in 2006. During the first two weeks of this year, one woman and two men died in the county's custody, according to records provided Monday by the Harris County Sheriff's Office. A sheriff's spokesman said the list was the most recent information available.
The Justice Department's civil rights division opened the investigation to determine whether the constitutional rights of Harris County detainees have been violated. Federal authorities will focus on the jail's efforts to protect inmates from harm as well as the facility's living conditions and health care.
Failures in all three areas were causes of death for inmates at the Dallas County Jail, an investigation opened by justice officials in November 2005 concluded.
According to court records, inmate deaths were the primary focus of the Dallas investigation. The government's report about Dallas jail conditions cited 13 areas of inadequate medical care. Investigators were concerned about the jail's slow determination of deadly medical conditions and failure to manage the medical needs of inmates with chronic conditions that could kill them.
Federal authorities will send a team of experts to inspect the Harris County Jail, and more than one visit is likely.
For the Dallas investigation, consultants in the fields of medical care, mental health care, safety and sanitation made two visits in 2006. One lasted five days; the other was four days. The team collected policies, procedures and incident reports from local officials as well as the grievances and health records of inmates. Four months later, Dallas officials reported how they were addressing the "deficient conditions" cited by the consultants.