Feds’ report on Harris County jails

Still a lot of people dying in the jails here, at least as of the last federal inspection.

Their experiences are detailed in a U.S. Department of Justice report, completed last week and obtained Monday by the Houston Chronicle, which found that conditions at the jail violate inmates’ constitutional rights. Justice officials have declined to release the report, but a jail spokesman last week discussed some of the findings.

The report also found that the downtown lockup, which houses some 11,000 people, has failed four of its last six state inspections and has come under scrutiny for poor medical care, overcrowding and inmates’ deaths.


The Justice Department issued a series of detailed recommendations for changes to policies and procedures at the jail, and officials said they expect to work with the Sheriff’s Office to implement them. If the changes don’t occur or are insufficient, the Justice Department can take legal action against Harris County.

The report is based on inspections of the jail in July and August and on the review of documents provided by the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the lockup. The report cites the jail for inadequate medical and mental health care and criticizes the Harris County Sheriff’s Office for jailers’ excessive use of force against inmates, noting the “Harris County Jail does not train staff that hogtying and chokeholds are dangerous, prohibited practices.”

Note the first sentence in that last paragraph. This report is based on an inspection done last year, when Tommy Thomas was still in charge. We can consider it the baseline against which new Sheriff Adrian Garcia will ultimately be judged. I have faith he’ll do a lot better – it’s hard to imagine doing much worse, after all. I presume there will be another inspection in the near future, which will hopefully give us a clearer picture of how things are now, and how they have improved. There are some positive early signs:

A spokesman for Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who oversees the jail, noted that the report is based largely on an inspection that occurred nearly a year ago, before he took office in January. (Read the full report here.)

“The report is based on a snapshot of what the jail was like then,” Keir Murray said. “Things are different now and they are going to continue to improve. The sheriff is committed to improving the jail.”

Murray outlined improvements made in each area the Justice Department cited, adding that the report does not reflect some of the changes.

The jail has started using peer review of medical and mental health care, using experts to review the work of jail staff to ensure inmates’ illnesses are detected and treated. Medical staff also must document all interactions with inmates and detail what follow-up care is necessary. Finally, even before Garcia took office, the Sheriff’s Office issued a new policy on when and how officers can use force against inmates.

The report does offer some praise for the Sheriff’s Office, particularly for its cooperation with the investigation. “We appreciate the assistance that they provided us and the candor of their responses,” it says. “Indeed, we were impressed by the level of professionalism exhibited by staff at all levels.”

Glad to hear it. We ought to know fairly soon if conditions really are getting better.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has 45 days to convince federal officials it is making progress on protecting inmates’ rights at its troubled jail and avoid a lawsuit to force improvements.

Well, at least that’s a simple enough way to judge the effectiveness of Sheriff Garcia’s mitigation efforts – either there’s a lawsuit filed or there isn’t.

On Tuesday, county officials downplayed the findings and instead focused on changes made since federal investigators toured the jail last year.

“Actually, if you read the report, it is fairly positive,” County Judge Ed Emmett said. “It has some episodic events but it does not show a pattern of problems.”

Nice to know politics aren’t an obstacle to overcome. As I said, I have faith Sheriff Garcia will get the job done. He sure does have his work cut out for him, though.

UPDATE: Grits has more.

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