Texas' Largest Jail Hasn't Learned Much From Sandra Bland's Death

Poor and frightened people are still dying in this understaffed facility.
Inmates in the mental health unit at Harris County Jail in 2014.
Inmates in the mental health unit at Harris County Jail in 2014.
Eric Gay/Associated Press

Harris County Jail, which serves the Houston area, is one of the largest jails in the country. Like many other jails in America, it’s full of people who are locked up on minor charges and can’t afford to pay bail, it struggles with understaffing, and it’s plagued by lawsuits.

But here’s what makes Harris County Jail different: Inmates die there at a higher rate per capita than most other jails in the nation, according to a Huffington Post analysis of death data from July 13, 2015, to July 13, 2016.

The Harris County facility is about an hour from the jail where Sandra Bland was found hanging in July 2015. In the year after her death, at least 12 Harris County inmates died on the jail’s watch, a Huffington Post investigation found. (One of them suffered the fatal injury in custody, but was technically released by the time he died.) Most of the deaths were related to medical issues, as opposed to the results of assault or suicide.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, did not address HuffPost’s requests for comment on this story by deadline.

Nationwide, more than 800 people lost their lives in jail in the year HuffPost studied. Many of those deaths occurred in the first few days of incarceration. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, which counts these fatalities, keeps most of its data to itself. Publicly released reports do not reveal the number of deaths at each facility, only the number of deaths in each state. So until HuffPost’s investigation, it was difficult to identify which jails may warrant additional scrutiny.

As of April, the inmate population of Harris County Jail was more than 9,000, and the facility has suffered from overcrowding. The jail is also understaffed. Overtime pay for staff has skyrocketed in the last two years, according to the Houston Chronicle. The jailers must sometimes work double shifts multiple days a week, which has made employee retention challenging. About 40 percent of staff have reportedly worked at the jail for two years or less.

“It’s not even just lack of staffing, it’s the high turnover rate,” Harris County Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin told HuffPost.

The starting salary for Harris County detention officers is about $34,000 a year. “They don’t make it a career. They treat it as a steppingstone to other work, but it’s basically treated as an entry-level job. It makes it a very hectic and scary place both to work in and to be housed in,” Bunin added.

Adequate staffing is crucial to preventing jail deaths, because correctional officers are on the front lines watching inmates for signs of injury, illness or suicidal behavior and referring them for medical help.

“Whether you’re talking about jail deaths that result from violence or jail deaths that result from inmate suicide, these are things that can become a problem because of understaffing,” said Wallis Nader, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

On April 3, Patrick Brown was booked into the jail on allegations that he stole a guitar, a misdemeanor theft charge. His bail was set at $3,000, despite the fact that he had no violent criminal history, the Houston Press reported. Two days later, he was allegedly beaten to death by two other inmates, who were later charged with aggravated assault. In response to that case, the Harris County sheriff suggested that his staff is too stretched to watch the facility’s camera monitors at all times.

A lawsuit filed in April by the family of Patrick Green, another inmate who died last year, claims that guards ignored signs of the bacterial meningitis that killed him. Other inmates allegedly attempted to buzz for staff multiple times, then banged on the walls and held Green up to the glass to show how sick he was. When guards did finally show up, one “kicked Patrick four to five times in the right shoulder” before help was called, according to the lawsuit. (In a May court filing, Harris County acknowledged that Green died of meningitis, but denied the allegations.)

The county paid a $400,000 settlement last year to a mentally ill inmate who was left for weeks in a feces-clogged cell. After that lawsuit, more than two dozen employees were disciplined, including two who were charged with criminal conduct related to falsifying jail logs.

“You may be in there with people that are violent or mentally ill or just sick. ... You could lose your job if you miss it for a few days. You may have kids to take care of.”

- Alex Bunin, chief public defender for Harris County

The problems in the jail are exacerbated by the way the bail system works in Harris County. About 70 percent of the jail’s inmates are there because they cannot afford bail. Many individuals accused of low-level crimes await the resolution of their cases behind bars simply because they don’t have the money to purchase their freedom. The Houston Chronicle reported in December that 55 people had died while awaiting trial there since 2009, meaning that dozens of people who were still presumed innocent died in custody.

The county is currently facing a lawsuit filed on behalf of a 22-year-old mother who was jailed over an invalid driver’s license and kept incarcerated because she couldn’t afford the $2,500 bail. That lawsuit was filed by Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit that is challenging bail systems across the country.

In Harris County, magistrates setting bail for defendants rarely stray from a “bail schedule” that proposes certain amounts for various crimes. While each defendant is supposed to receive an individual assessment to determine his or her bail, that often doesn’t happen. Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman has said there is a “critical need” to address the bail practices in the county.

“You have two completely different justice systems,” Gerald Wheeler, former director of pretrial services for Harris County, told The Houston Chronicle. “One for the rich and one for the poor.”

Bunin, the chief public defender, said the system puts pressure on people to plead guilty to crimes just to get out of custody.

“You may be in there with people that are violent or mentally ill or just sick. If you’ve never been in that situation before, that would be very scary,” Bunin said. “If you’re a working person, you could lose your job if you miss it for a few days. You may have kids to take care of. You have so many worries about what is going on outside when you’re stuck in there.”

In the short term, at least, the county benefits from pressuring inmates into quick plea deals.

“The unspoken interest is that we have this very efficient system, and if you slow it down, dockets will get longer, it will be harder to process cases,” said Bunin. If more defendants declined to plead guilty, their cases would get “a longer look,” he added, and “maybe not move it so quickly.”

On a Friday evening in June, Christopher Hendricks went into the shower area of the medical detoxification unit at Harris County Jail and tried to kill himself. Hendricks had been booked four days earlier on a felony assault charge against a family member and held after he couldn’t post a $2,000 bond. Guards were able to restore his blood pressure, pulse and breathing, but Hendricks was later declared brain dead.

Jail experts largely agree that most jail suicides could be prevented if the proper procedures were in place, as HuffPost reported.

“We found out about him being in the hospital on Father’s Day,” said Tamara Moe, Hendricks’ sister. “They said they would discuss our options when we got there, so I knew it was not good.”

Told by doctors there was no chance his condition would improve, Hendricks’ family made the difficult decision to remove him from life support. They also agreed to donate his organs, as he had wished.

But first, his family said, representatives of the organ donation group told them that Harris County was blocking the procedure because Hendricks was still officially in custody. (Moe said that message never came directly from county officials.) Harris County told The Houston Press that the situation was resolved after lawyers for the family sent an emergency letter to county officials: Charges against the dying man were dropped, and his family was able to donate his organs.

Moe believes that Harris County wanted bail to be paid for her dying brother so that his death would not technically be in custody.

Harris County inmates made 186 suicide attempts in 2015, according to county officials. As of June this year, the jail’s inmates had already tried to kill themselves at least 130 times. And this is not a new problem. The Justice Department noted in 2009 that the facility had “a number of conditions that are dangerous for suicidal detainees.”

In one case two years ago, an inmate committed suicide as two guards ate pizza and studied an online training course, skipping the 30-minute required checks. The Houston Chronicle found 35 instances over a number of years in which detention officers skipped cell checks and in some cases covered themselves by faking records.

Several lawsuits filed against Harris County suggest that the county ignored warning signs that inmates would attempt suicide. Jacqueline Smith sued on behalf of her son, Danarian Hawkins, who tried to kill himself at least six times in Harris County Jail.

“A lot of guys say they will kill themselves all the time,” commented one jail guard, according to the lawsuit. “We didn’t think that [Hawkins] was serious.”

So they allowed Hawkins to keep a bedsheet in his cell. He was found dead on Feb. 5, 2014. He had tied the sheet to a smoke detector and hung himself.

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