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“Jail hell”

That’s the title of this Houston Press story about the experiences of those who have served time in the Harris County jail, as told by those who have just gotten out. The story is partly a response to the county’s assertions, as stated by County Attorney Vince Ryan, that the Department of Justice has it wrong about the jail and that things are much better than they were last year when the DOJ did the inspection on which it based its scathing report of the jail’s conditions. I do believe things are better now than they were then, but the problems at the jail are longstanding and deep, and will take longer than the eight months that Sheriff Adrian Garcia has been in office to fix. He needs to keep showing progress, and he will be judged in three years’ time by how far things have come since he was first elected, but there’s only so much that can be done in the time he’s had. And let’s not forget that a big part of the fix for the jails must come from the District Attorney and the judiciary, to ensure that most of the nonviolent, awaiting trial inmates that author Randall Patterson writes about don’t get put in the jail in the first place. Having said that, the allegations about violent behavior from the guards are serious, and demand a more vigilant response from the Sheriff. Also, Sheriff Garcia could help his own cause by making it the policy of the Sheriff’s department to issue citations to low-level drug offenders like the guy caught with “0.01 grams of cocaine” instead of arresting them, as the Lege has granted law enforcement agencies the right to do. Fixing the jails will require a lot of effort from a lot of people, and everyone needs to do their part. Mark Bennett has more.

UPDATE: I received the following from Sheriff Garcia’s office, which was sent as a letter to the editor of the Press:

In reading Randall Patterson’s September 8 article “Jail Hell”, one would think he’s writing about a Soviet era gulag. The unsanitary conditions and brutal treatment of inmates he describes at the Harris County Jail would be outrageous if they existed. They do not.

By Mr. Patterson’s own admission, the allegations in his article were based on the selective comments “from a really small sample” of newly released inmates. Had Mr. Patterson bothered to contact the Sheriff’s Office for his story, we would have fully investigated these claims of mistreatment. He did not contact us.

And had Mr. Patterson requested to tour the jail facilities himself, he might have been surprised (or perhaps disappointed) to see that the jail is run in a very civilized and professional manner. The floors are clean, the meals are hot, and the staff is professional. Jail isn’t meant to be paradise but it certainly isn’t the “hell” described in Mr. Patterson’s article.

If the inmates allege such beastly and savage treatment why didn’t they file a formal grievance or complaint so that we can investigate their allegations? If the conditions are so inhumane and deplorable, why did the Harris County Jail recently pass a surprise state inspection just last month? Did the inspectors miss the alleged feces on the floor or did they just walk over them? Did they also fail to see so called fungus- and mold-covered cells, mildewed showers and the bloody faces of the beaten inmates or did they just look the other way? One has to wonder. Why would Adan Munoz, Jr., Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards in his letter of compliance to Sheriff Adrian Garcia write “This [certificate] attests, signifies and demonstrates your department’s dedication and professionalism in providing a safe, secure and sanitary facility”?

It’s no secret there are more inmates in the Harris County Jail than it was built to hold. That is why the county has entered into agreements with neighboring county jails to temporarily house some of our inmates.

The bottom line is the Harris County Jail is safe, sanitary and in compliance with the strictest of standards. And by the way, Mr. Patterson, your invitation to see the jail for yourself still stands.

Christina Garza

Media Relations Manager

Harris County Sheriff’s Office

As noted before, sending inmates elsewhere is, or at least it had better be, a temporary fix. I do hope we keep our eye on the ball on this. I certainly intend to.

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  1. […] had recently spent time in the Harris County jail. Much like an earlier article by Patterson called Jail Hell, it painted an extremely unflattering picture of the conditions, procedures, employees, and in this […]

  2. Former HCJ inmate says:

    Having spent 12 weeks in the HCJ system (about half the time at the 1200 Baker St. location and half at little Baker) I can tell you that the 1200 Baker street facility IS as unsanitary as has been stated. Particularly the “medical” holding tank.
    The two times I was in that tank, the toilets were backed up, there was no tissue, no feminine products (when we asked for them from guards we were cursed at and told to shut the ___ up etc.). There were numerous inmates detoxing from who knows what & would vomit and deficate etc. in place & NO ONE cleaned it up. I saw women bleeding (menses) through their clothes, even one who was clearly pregnant. There was no screening for TB and everyone was in a PACKED full tank for MANY HOURS. I could go on & on. The “doctors” there barely spoke English & it took a MINIUMUM of FOUR DAYS to get medication delivery started. THey’d give ONE dose when you first got seen & then send you to be housed. You’d wait at least four days for your next dose of meds., be it pscyh. meds., blood pressure, HIV treatments…whatever, you just have to wait!

    I will say that at the “little Baker” facility, the sanitary conditions are MUCH better! That said, the guards are BRUTAL over there! Even in the womens pods.

    It is understandable that a Media Relations Manager probably believes that there the “strictest of standards” adhered to in the HCJ & perhaps she’s only been exposed to certain parts of the jail. I challenge you Ms. Garza, GO down to the “medical” holding tank UNANNOUNCED…do it more than once…I PROMISE you will see what I am saying is true! OF COURSE if you give them warning, the guards round up every floor worker & send them into cleaning frenzy mode & tell them if anything bad is written about them (the guards or the floor seargent) the floor workers will get their bands cut! I KNOW it happens because I WAS a floor worker on the 4th floor at “Big Baker”.

    I’m hopeful that stories of the gulag on Baker Street keep coming out & I pray that finally, something will be done to hold the criminals (the ones allowing HCJ to run in this dangerous manner) will finally be held responsible.

    EVERYONE who works at HCJ should have to spend 48 hours as an inmate…maybe THEN something would be done to correct the horrors there.

  3. Andrew says:

    I recently spent 10 days in the Harris County Jail at 1200 Baker. The conditions are deplorable. Overcrowding, filthy toilets and showers, mold growing on the water fountains. The pod I was housed in was also extremely cold. Guards would commonly wear thick jackets and even knit hats when coming into the pod where inmates were left to battle the cold with just their uniforms. I actually contracted pneumonia as a result of these conditions but thankfully I was released before it got any worse and was able to get proper medical attention.

    I don’t expect jail to be anything close to a resort but the way this facility is run is an outrage. By the way, I did my time just this month, December 2011.