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More jail troubles

It’s ugly, both in content and in timing for Adrian Garcia.

Adrian Garcia

Adrian Garcia

Over the past nine months, the Houston Chronicle has reviewed more than 1,000 disciplinary reports provided by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Nearly half of those internal affairs investigations from 2010 through May 2015 resulted in discipline against jail staff who often brutalize inmates and attempt to cover up wrongdoing but rarely lose their jobs. Court records show jailers seldom faced criminal charges even in cases where they used excessive force.

“It was like an animal shelter,” said Jamarcus Hill, who was jailed in 2013 as a 19-year-old on an auto theft charge. “You do anything – you get punished, you get pepper sprayed. You got to fight for your food, you even have to fight for your shoes.”

In June 2009, the Justice Department concluded after its own yearlong investigation that inmates’ constitutional protections had been violated by excessive violence and by substandard medical care that led to an “alarming” number of prisoner deaths. The Justice Department has taken no public action since then despite what records show are similar instances of unreported beatings, inmate deaths and medical neglect. Officials provided a letter indicating that the Civil Rights Division has an “ongoing law enforcement proceeding,” but provided no specifics.

Adrian Garcia took over management of the jail in January 2009 as Harris County sheriff and promised reforms. He resigned in May to run for mayor of Houston. In a recent interview, he said that hundreds of disciplinary cases reviewed by the Chronicle resulted from his “commitment to transparency and accountability.” He said he put systems in place that addressed Justice Department findings and notes that the average number of annual deaths dropped from about 16 per year from 2001-2006 to roughly 11 during his administration. Still, the jail has become more violent in recent years, with fights, assaults and attacks on staff escalating, the Chronicle’s investigation has found, based on the sheriff’s own statistics as well as custodial death reports, autopsies, lawsuits and interviews with current and former jail officials, former inmates and attorneys.

Among the findings:

Harris County jailers were disciplined more than 120 times for misconduct involving abuse of authority or misuse of force, including beating, kicking and choking inmates. At least 15 were handcuffed at the time. In 84 of those 120 cases, jailers or supervisors failed to file required reports, lied or falsified documents. Stephen LaBoy, 25, was beaten by six jailers in his cell after flashing a mirror at a guard station. Drissa Pickens, 28, was assaulted by an accused murderer after a jailer unlocked a cell door and allowed the attack.

At least 70 inmates have died in custody since 2009. Three, including Hicks, died after guards used force. Other elderly or ill inmates were unable to make bond and died while awaiting trial. Latoshia Clark, 36, died pre-trial, of AIDS, after six weeks in jail for drug possession. Ten who died committed suicide, including Alex Guzman, 28, who hanged himself while two jailers ate a Domino’s pizza and missed required cell checks. Guzman’s case was among 35 documented instances where jailers skipped required cell checks, or faked records to hide skipping them.

Most jailers disciplined for abuse of authority or unnecessary force received only short suspensions. Since 2010, 33 of those jailers were fired for use of excessive force, unprofessional conduct, neglect of duties and lying or falsifying reports. Criminal charges were pursued against guards in only six of those cases.

[…]

Civil rights attorneys and other critics of the Harris County criminal justice system say jail violence and chronic overcrowding are symptoms of the deeper problem of local judges’ strict bond practices Few accused offenders get released unless they can pay a non-refundable 10 percent commission charged by a Harris County-approved bondsman – a group that collectively makes millions from the county’s tough lockup policies.

Hundreds of others are serving sentences of less than a year for minor crimes.

Let’s be clear that some of these problems would not exist if the jail were less crowded. That would require Harris County judges to use pretrial services and be more reasonable in setting bail – no one should be in jail because they are too poor to post bond – it would require the District Attorney to prosecute fewer low-level drug offenses, and it would require the state of Texas to expand Medicaid so that the many inmates with mental illness could get proper treatment when they are not in the clink. Until these things change, they will be a problem for the past Sheriff, the current Sheriff, and the next Sheriff. Even granting all that, there were some serious shortcomings with the way the jail was being run, and with the discipline system for the jailers. Adrian Garcia inherited a jail that was in complete disarray, and I do believe he improved things, but there was a lot of work left to be done, and a number of issues that don’t appear to have made much progress. He owns that, and it’s on him to explain it to the voters. Grits has more.

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8 Comments

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    Kuff, I agree with some of that. The War on Drugs and mental illness are two big reasons why our jail is perennially overcrowded. The problem with the War on Drugs is, the people who support it are people who refuse to admit the emperor has no clothes. They prefer to perpetuate failed policy, and they are the clear majority in Texas. As to the mentally ill, the problem is, you can medicate them and get them clear thinking, but you can’t force them to take their meds, so it’s a revolving door, especially for homeless mentally ill. I don’t know what to do about that, short of locking people up en masse in mental facilities, which we don’t do anymore.

  2. DWJ says:

    Jail overcrowding does not explain mistreatment. How is is possible to have to fight for food and shoes when surrounded by officers? Why was it ok for the jailers to break the law and not be arrested? The answer is no one cares. Majority of these people are awaiting trial, which means they are innocent. The only was you run a facility like this and sleep at night is because you see the inmates as animals, not humans.

  3. Steve Houston says:

    We elect sheriff’s with absolutely no expertise in jails and jailing people, then expect the outcome to be anything different?
    Then we pay low wages to nearly anyone who applies, especially those under 25 or 30 with some life experience under their belt, to deal with a population filled with mentally ill and (often) no regard for others, and again expect a different outcome?

    Garcia, just like Hickman, was woefully under qualified for the role. To his credit, suicides dropped nearly 33% under his watch and reforms were starting to have some positive effect but why not elect someone with the right credentials rather than by a letter next to their name? Given the number of assaults and fights each day, keep in mind some ultra liberal bonding policy to release most of them will only allow all those “innocent” people awaiting trial to victimize others.

    It’s one thing to advocate bail reform for first time offenders or for those accused of victimless crimes, many agree on that (at least those that don’t make money off bonding), and decriminalizing pot and getting mentally ill sent to an appropriate facility seems reasonable. On the other hand, the type of people that work in detentions have historically been very similar to those they watch, a different type of person needed given changing attitudes regarding incarceration. But no one wants to pay what it will cost to truly reform such a system, the bulk of comments in articles like these amounting to “don’t break the law and you won’t have to worry about it”.

    Sheriff Hickman has decades of law enforcement experience and he doesn’t want responsibility for the jail, the man even appointing one of his buddies with no experience to be in charge of jail operations. Does anyone expect conditions will improve or will we get manipulations of information to change the perception of those conditions (it’s cheaper), at least until next year’s elections are over?

  4. Paul Kubosh says:

    There you go again pontificating about Bonding. I will skip my usual retort and just say we should not legalize pot. Can’t we talk about getting the cars out of the bayou? 🙂

  5. Paul Kubosh says:

    “no one should be in jail because they are too poor to post bond”

    This statement shows a complete lack of knowledge about the criminal justice system and especially about the people who commit crimes.

  6. Steve Houston says:

    PK, the state decriminalized pot to a degree when it changed the law to authorize writing a ticket instead of the full ride in many cases. Other communities in Texas have run with it and seem to be doing just fine, the same for trace cases, so in an era of budget crunches forcing us to prioritize it seems prudent to at least consider trying such a program too. I neither smoke pot nor snort drugs or even drink alcohol yet see the benefits of trying, saving at least some man hours and jail costs strikes me as a worthwhile opportunity even if you don’t believe in the civil liberties of such a move.

    I thought the city was already planning to clean out the bayous of cars though, an effort in part led by your brother on Council? And yes, there can be a happy middle ground on bonding issues. I agree that free bonding for all is an idea that is as crazy as those who propose it but there are plenty who should qualify for a PR bond that can’t because some in the system are not open to change unless forced upon them, others making serious bank from the process. As someone that has never been charged with a crime needing a bond, it’d be easy for me to say “Stay out of trouble and it won’t matter” but that seems a little too much out of a Dickens novel for my tastes.

  7. Bill Daniels says:

    @Steve:

    Paul makes money off of people committing crimes, so he’d be shooting himself in the foot to support drug legalization, or the repeal of any law that would necessitate people to make bail or use a lawyer. He has been very transparent about that, and if I was in his position, I’d feel the same way. I’m sure the prison guard union, as well as prison builders, judges, court workers, etc. all feel the same way. If suddenly people weren’t getting locked up for drugs, people and businesses would be negatively impacted. The War on Drugs is nothing, if not a jobs program.

  8. Steve Houston says:

    Bill, I think PK makes much more from his dealings in the city courts where such tickets would end up than in the county courts where higher level charges are adjudicated so the city switching to a ticket for small amounts of pot could work in his favor there. As far as the bonding goes, I don’t think easing up on PR bonds for first time offenders of non-violent crimes would impact the family bonding business very much at all and potentially increase business as more beds would be open for other people charged with crimes that have worse records, the bonds likely higher for such.

    From the city point of view, a war on drugs makes more potential profit when the fines are paid into city coffers with a ticket approach than a county charge where the city gets nothing but the expenses. Even if the city keeps all other policies in place which minimizes the man hour savings, overall ticket revenue under decriminalization will go up. Given existing case loads for all other crimes, I don’t see any judges worrying about losing drug related cases from their dockets as hurting their job security, nor prison guards who will have just as many people in those beds when less “good time credit” is given to violent offenders, etc.