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Harris County Jail Crisis In Houston, Texas Kills Dozens

This In-Depth Investigative Report Examines The Crisis At The Harris County Jail Analyzing The Causes, Inaction, And Coverup Of At Least Two Deaths.

Houston, Texas – The Harris County Jail is the third-largest jail in the U.S. and the largest jail in Texas. Located in Houston, it also confines the most people with mental illness in the state. Despite its complicated history, the public is largely unaware of the myriad issues at the jail. This report covers how the massive backlog of felony cases and pretrial detention contribute to the deaths of dozens **of detainees amid overcrowding, medical crises, and a lack of mental health services.

Multiple times between September and January, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) slapped the jail with notices of non-compliance. While Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez remains dismissive about what led to many deaths in the jail that he is responsible for, he and county leaders refuse to be held accountable. Gonzalez’s chief of detention resigned on January 11 (more on that below).

“We’re dealing with an intersection of many different issues that our society is grappling with, from mental illness to addiction. Many times people that come into a jail aren’t necessarily in the best of health. There’s underlying issues, there’s a lot of chronic illness. For example, we have over 100 individuals that are in their 60s right now.”

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to Houston Public Media (Jan. 2023)

An investigation by a local news outlet found 14 percent of incoming detainees wait in booking units much longer than the allowed 48 hours. The unit typically supplies only a plastic chair while long lines of detainees are processed. Currently, overcrowding at the jail is much higher than usual with an average of 10,000 people in county custody each day – a 12-year high.

In September, inspectors for TCJS highlighted 64 people (PDF) who spent more than the maximum 48 hours in booking holding cells. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office was given 30 days to submit a corrective plan of action to book detainees faster. County officials responded in September saying they plan to employ the use of telemedicine, additional health care staff, and take other steps to speed up medical screenings during the booking process.

“That has been part of their corrective plan of action and they are implementing those. They have requested a reinspection and we have documentation demonstrating that they have been putting in place those processes. They were comfortable in requesting a reinspection but they were issued a subsequent second order of non-compliance. They remain in non-compliance at this point in time.”

Brandon Wood, Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards

Because of overcrowding at the jail, Harris County recently signed a contract to move more than 600 people to a jail facility in Garza County in West Texas — 480 miles from Houston — the second contract of its kind in 2022. The county previously sent 597 detainees to a Louisiana jail in LaSalle Parish where one man, Billie Davis, died.

Detainees not housed in the county jail were not included in the TCJS reports.

“Detainees are ripped away from their families and their lawyers,” said Krish Gundu, Executive Director of Texas Jail Project about housing inmates hundreds of miles away. “We’re hearing about missed court dates due to transportation issues and lawyers struggling to meet with their clients via Zoom or in person.”

While overcrowding is a major issue, the high number of in-custody deaths at the jail isn’t being adequately addressed by local officials. Meanwhile, the lives of those who were released and later died in what appears to be a move to minimize the number of in-custody deaths are also cause for concern as those deaths are likely to be under-reported.

Data provided by the Civil Rights Corps shows 40 people have died either in jail, during apprehension, in the custody of the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, or housed at facilities outside the jail in 2022. Four people have died in the jail so far in 2023.

As police killings continue to rise across the country, Harris County and other municipalities will inevitably have to answer for in-custody deaths at the hands of police, jailers, and inmates due, not to a lack of funding, but to overcrowding, inadequate training, and a lack of proper security.

Bail Reform – Misdemeanor Death Sentence

Local media hasn’t focused on the notices of non-compliance and politicians have been fixated on pushing false narratives about out-of-control crime. They blame bail reform while ignoring or refusing to address jail overcrowding altogether. Failure to intently scrutinize the criminal justice system creates a real and present danger as more and more people die at the hands of that system.

In March, Damian Lopez was charged with a misdemeanor and detained after neither he nor his family could pay his $5,000 bail – a violation of the O’Donnell Consent Decree (which found that misdemeanor bail is unconstitutional). The decree is the first federal court-supervised remedy governing bail. It was only after Lopez was unconscious and on a ventilator that his family found out he was hospitalized. In what appears to be an attempt to ensure Lopez wouldn’t be counted as an in-custody death, he was granted a Personal Recognizance Bond (PR Bond) as he died.

A month later, Kristan Smith was arrested. Smith later died in May (PDF) while in custody after she couldn’t afford her bail – which wasn’t lowered to $5,000 until after she died. Smith was on disability and supported herself and her four children when she was detained. The jail’s incident report doesn’t provide any information except that she was in the hospital for eight days before she died.

“I really would like to see [the Harris County Jail] shut down,” said Deborah Smith, Kristan Smith’s mother. “I don’t think if given another opportunity they will be able to get it right and maintain. Shut it down.”

On August 30, Willie Fizer died (PDF). Fizer, who suffered from mental illness, died in the intake room of the jail, a day after his 30th birthday. Although the county is required by state law to produce a death report within 24 hours, information regarding his death was withheld for much longer.

On March 27, Matthew Ryan Shelton (PDF) died of diabetic ketoacidosis five days after turning himself into the Harris County Jail on a DWI charge. Shelton was granted a personal recognizance bond (PR Bond) and technically “released” in his Harris County DWI case. However, he was held in the jail due to his inability to pay a $10,000 secured bond relating to an out-of-county DWI charge. Shelton arrived at the Harris County Jail with the insulin and syringes he needed to treat his diabetes, yet the diagnosis suggests he never received his medication.

Also counted in the tally of Harris County deaths are those killed by Harris County Sheriff’s deputies. That includes two young men, Jeremiah Young and Dacorian Marshall, who were killed in a crash (PDF) in April after being pursued by Harris County Sheriff’s deputies for allegedly stealing catalytic converters, a misdemeanor crime.

It remains unclear how many people were released to avoid being counted as deaths occurring in the jail, a tactic that has become more common in recent years. The deaths kept off the books highlight a broader problem. The inhumane treatment of people suspected of a crime and presumed innocent until proven guilty is a typical byproduct of overcrowding and improper care.

While false narratives about crime are intentional and politically motivated by a handful of elected officials and influential wealthy local business owners, legislation at the state level coupled with the encouragement of certain judges in Texas’ largest county plays an outsized role in a jail that cannot properly care for detained individuals.

Violent crime in the Houston area is dropping and misdemeanor bail reform is working. In August 2022 during a presentation to the city council, Houston Police Chief Troy Finner informed the council of a 10% drop in crime in 2021. Yet, like the conditions at the jail, neither is adequately reported and widely ignored by local leaders.

“Robbery, down 7%. Sexual assault, down 28%. Grand total violent crime is down 10%. The numbers don’t lie. They tell the truth, and this is what we want to do,” Chief Finner said.

As of Aug. 29, 2022 – the most recent data provided by the county (PDF) – almost 1,500 people were being detained on bonds of $20,000 or less. Half of them were being detained on bonds of $10,000 or less, including 364 people whose bonds were $5,000 or less. There were 446 people in the jail charged only with non-violent theft or drug possession charges.

What’s Happening

In-custody deaths are the result of a system that is being flooded with pretrial detainees largely due to the decisions of a group of local judges and prosecutors who handle felony cases. In sharp contrast, actionable reforms by Harris County misdemeanor judges have reduced crime and incarceration. Officials responsible for felonies reject overwhelming evidence and pursue policies of greater pretrial detention, thus, creating the catastrophe that is occurring at the jail.

The Texas legislature passed a bail law in its last session known as Senate Bill 6 (SB-6). The law bears a substantial portion of the blame for the horrific conditions inside the state’s jails. Two provisions of the bill are having a significant impact on the jail population. It prohibits PR bonds for broad categories of people arrested. This mandates the pretrial detention of the poor and requires counties to generate a criminal history report for every person arrested.

The latter is a provision that some jurisdictions, including Harris County, interpret as prohibiting anyone from being released prior to a bail hearing even if they can pay their fines. The two provisions, combined with a historic backlog due to Hurricane Harvey followed by the COVID pandemic – along with the arrest and prosecution of low-level offenses by the Houston Police Department and District Attorney Kim Ogg – culminated into a whirlwind of issues escalating into the human rights nightmare in the Harris County Jail.

Yet, despite this, local leaders are portraying an image of an out-of-control crime problem to justify what is to be inevitably exposed from inside the jail.

“SB-6 was born of Governor Abbott’s Executive Order GA-13 which barred PR bonds for a broad range of charges. Not only did it deny PR bonds, but it also took away discretion from judges and disallowed PR bonds for people with any prior arrests or convictions no matter how old they are.”

Krish Gundu, Executive Director of Texas Jail Project

The notion that pretrial releases cause a rise in violence has been repeatedly debunked. Yet, politicians and pundits alike continue to present false narratives in order to win elections and secure billions in funding for police and systems of incarceration. Spikes in gun violence are easily and justifiably attributable to lawmakers who in the last two years allowed individuals to carry firearms without a license or a permit.

Mounting evidence shows cash bail reform helps keep crime down and reduces recidivism. For every story that is overblown about someone committing a crime while out on bail, there are thousands more that take the opportunity of pretrial release to continue with their lives, jobs, and family connections. Those refusing to believe bail reform works are driving unfounded narratives through local media based on clearly biased views.

But because of SB-6 and the policies of area judges, Harris County refuses to release arrestees prior to bail hearings. This means that everyone arrested in Harris County for any offense can be stuck in the processing center for days with no access to medications, showers, beds, or counsel while separated from their children and families.

“Generating criminal history reports has led to record numbers of people held in pretrial detention. The reports are being used to set bail hearings creating a delayed process. No one can be released without a bail hearing even if they can afford to pay their bail. People are better off fighting their charges from a place of freedom. If we want to maximize public safety, we must find a way to minimize cash bail. Instead of pretrial incarceration, we must build pretrial services such as text reminders and offering transportation services to help ensure people can make it to their court dates.”

Krish Gundu, Executive Director of Texas Jail Project

In April, Shannon Herklotz, Chief of Detention for the Sheriff’s Office, told local advocates the average amount of time it takes for someone to get a bail hearing quadrupled in the first four months of 2022. Since then, the problem has only gotten worse, leading to at least 29 deaths, and even more immediately after being released. These are issues that speak to broader system-wide problems despite funds being allocated to properly run the jail.

Herklots resigned on January 11, 2023. In a letter to Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, he cited staffing deficiencies and a “large felony case backlog which led to overcrowding and outsourcing.” In the letter, he references a “new direction” for the jail but does not feel he has a place in that vision. The new direction he is speaking of remains unclear.

There are currently just under 40,000 criminal cases pending in the District Courts.

Horrifying Conditions At Harris County Jail

Conditions at the jail are abysmally inhumane. People detained in the processing center are left without access to needed medications for as long as several days after they’re housed. These delays have for years been prevalent in jails across the country with predictable consequences that lead to medical and mental health crises. Many with severe mental health issues are often left in isolation cells at the processing center for days.

There are also increasing reports from inside the jail about violence among inmates and by guards. In one case, a 30-year-old with a documented history of severe mental health diagnoses was arrested for several misdemeanor charges amid a mental health crisis. His sister reported to Texas Jail Project that he was continually assaulted by guards.

“We don’t talk about the safety of people in jail,” said Gundu. “They’re not in the public so they typically don’t count in public safety discussions; we never talk about their security.”

Also says jail conditions need to be considered when we talk about safety. 800 assaults behind bars in Harris county jail per month.— Evan (@evan7257) September 24, 2022Assault statistics being discussed at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, Texas on September 24, 2022

A 56-year-old woman who asked to remain anonymous reported to Texas Jail Project that the jail was so overcrowded that people were sleeping on the floor and the jail failed to give her mental health medications.

She feared she would die if she wasn’t released from custody. In one incident, she says the jail gave her someone else’s medications by accident. She was eventually released when someone managed to pay a surety bond six weeks after her arrest.

Not A Lack Of Funding And Little-To-No Mental Health Services

The Harris County Commissioners Court approved budget increases for every law enforcement agency in Harris County since 2017. The budget for the fiscal year 2022 for all agencies was a whopping $1.3 billion – 65% of the county’s budget. Law enforcement in the county will see an increase to $1.4 billion in 2024. The county is paying an additional $39 million to house people in private jails in Louisiana and West Texas.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office operates the Harris County Jail and despite the incredible amount of funding, the jail fails to treat mental health accordingly. Many confuse the idea that since the jail is the largest mental health facility in the state it offers mental health services for detainees. However, nothing could be further from the truth. There is a lengthy waitlist of people not competent to stand trial awaiting evaluations.

“Sheriff’s departments don’t want to deal with people who have mental illness and rightly so. They’re not trained or equipped to care for them,” Gundu said.

In addition to the failure of providing adequate mental health services, the Harris County Jail also houses an incredible number of low-level offenders that can’t afford bail leading to an overcrowding problem – creating tensions that result in violence among detainees and jailers alike.

“In the coming legislative session, there will be a push to change the Texas Constitution,” Gundu warned. “Many legislators want to further expand pretrial detention.”

Overcrowding leads to increased stressors that exacerbate issues within jails. More detainees mean more staff are needed to properly operate a jail. Hiring more staff is a luxury not easily afforded due to the politically motivated whims of local and state elected officials as they refuse to acknowledge that their policies cause harm. Rather, county leaders continue to point the finger at each other.

“The inmate population is one of those conditions that in turn creates challenges for the county jail to operate. The higher your inmate population, if you don’t have adequate housing for them, that, in turn, can result in overcrowded conditions which elevate the stress level and temperament within that county jail.”

Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, Brandon Wood

Ignoring Solutions

In June 2020, independent consultants with the Arlington, VA-based Justice Management Institute (JMI) issued a report finding that the criminal justice system in Harris County was on the “brink of collapse” and that the growth in the jail population was “clearly an indication that your criminal justice system is quickly faltering,” said President of JMI, M. Elaine Borakove.

“The criminal cases that are piling up are getting older, and with each passing day the likelihood of the case being ‘winnable’ if taken to trial is decreasing, and the best possible outcome is probably a plea deal. This situation isn’t effective justice, this isn’t a fair way to treat victims, and this isn’t fair to the individuals whose lives are on hold or who are sitting in jail waiting for the court system to adjudicate their case.”

President of Justice Management Institute, M. Elaine Borakove (Letter PDF)

As predicted by JMI, the slowdown in the court system over the last three years helped to create the current backlog. As of August, over 15,000 pending felony cases (35%) were more than 360 days old. In July, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez suggested on Twitter that area judges consider releasing 1,000 people detained on $10,000 bond or less and the approximately 200 people who “are sitting in jail just waiting for a treatment center elsewhere.”

plenty of room/capacity in our state prisons, not so much in our local jails. I hope this moment can lead us to reimagine our local criminal justice system. Many things to consider. In no particular order: night/weekend dockets, 1000 defendants are in jail on $10k bond or 5/10— Ed Gonzalez (@SheriffEd_HCSO) July 20, 2022Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez suggests releasing defendants in jail on $10,000 bonds or less

JMI has also suggested dismissing non-violent felony cases older than nine months to alleviate some of the backlog in a more expeditious timeframe. In the report, JMI noted that widespread dismissal seems “unfathomable” **to some but points out that only 42% of cases disposed of in 2019 resulted in a conviction. According to the report, even when a person was convicted, “the most likely outcome was release back into the community on probation.”

Yet, despite the recommendations offered, District Attorney Kim Ogg has refused to adopt any of them – ignoring even the county’s top cop. Instead, Ogg sought and was awarded additional funding for prosecutors to review old cases. Meanwhile, her office is filing more cases than ever and opposes releasing detainees in virtually every case. In response to a request for comment, the Harris County District Attorney’s office argued they play no role in pretrial detention.

“Judges determine who is detained in jail pending trial and who is not,” said Joe Stinebaker, Communications Director for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office*.* “Reducing the court backlog and clearing dockets has been and will remain a top priority for this office.”

While the felony backlog in Harris County increased by more than 2,300 cases per year from 2010 to 2016, after Hurricane Harvey, the backlog continued to grow by an average of 7,632 cases per year. Yet, District Attorney Ogg’s office refuses to dismiss non-violent cases while felony judges refuse to hold bail hearings to consider releasing people on PR bonds. This culminates in the problems in the Harris County Jail that we continue to see today.

“Making sure you have sufficient staff and jailers available working each and every shift has been a continuing issue and concern. In order to provide a sufficient number of staff, a lot of counties, including Harris, have resorted to mandatory overtime and all sorts of approaches to try to provide enough officers on the floor to carry out functions necessary to operate a safe and secure jail.“

Brandon Wood, Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards

In December 2022 alone, a man who appears to have been beaten, Adael Gonzalez Garcia, was left in a coma after what jailers say were two separate incidents involving him falling and hitting his head while another man’s death, Evan Lee, was ruled a homicide after being hospitalized for four days. Jail officials say Lee participated in a game of “slap boxing” before his death while his custodial death report suggests that he complained of having “symptoms that he described as possible food poisoning” before he was hospitalized.

“The county jail is only one part of the criminal justice system and if the parts and pieces of that criminal justice system aren’t working as effectively and as efficiently as possible … major issues are probably going to occur in the county jail reflected by your inmate population. County jails don’t have a lot of say about who’s coming in the back door, who’s being brought to them by the jurisdictions that they serve, and they can only release people as they’re authorized to do so. The jail doesn’t have control over who’s coming in or who’s leaving.”

Brandon Wood, Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards

In 2023, conditions at the jail remain largely unchanged from last year.

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