Years of unconstitutional abuse at New York City’s jail on Rikers Island have generated national outcry and broad agreement that the facility must be shut down. A plan for this, albeit far from satisfactory, is now formally underway. But at Houston’s Harris County Jail, more deaths and arguably even worse conditions than at Rikers have barely registered nationally. There currently exists neither plans nor sufficient political pressure to put a stop to the systematic violence Houston’s most vulnerable residents are reportedly experiencing in the jail.
Today, the Harris County Jail detains more than 10,000 people––the highest number of people in more than a decade, presenting a stark contrast to an approximately 10 percent reduction since 2008 in the number of people incarcerated nationally. More than 80 percent of those inside the jail are detained pretrial. Nearly 80 percent of people admitted to the jail are recorded as likely to be suffering from a mental illness, according to the jail’s own data. Nearly 30 percent are on psychiatric medications. And over the last two years as the Covid-19 pandemic has torn through Texas’ most marginalized communities, the jail’s average daily population has increased by 24 percent.
As the population has surged, so too have the reported incidents of violence, medical neglect, abuse, and in-custody deaths. Between the summer months of 2019 and 2022, the number of officially recorded assaults in the jail has more than doubled and events involving use of force resulting in bodily injury have more than quadrupled.
We, a community activist and a researcher, have been working with a small group of full-time staff at Texas Jail Project to track the worsening crisis at the Harris County Jail. This non-profit advocacy organization, founded in 2006, provides de facto civilian oversight for incarcerated people, their families, and for officials and jail employees who, disturbed by what they have witnessed, choose to act as whistleblowers. Collectively, we support impacted individuals and families, and seek to inform both the public and lawmakers about civil rights violations occurring inside 240 Texas county jails, where more than 67 percent of the 72,612 people inside are jailed pretrial.
Texas is not exceptional in its failure to protect those inside its jails and to hold officials responsible for abuse accountable. As was underlined by a recent U.S. Senate oversight hearing and new reports issued both by the Senate and the Department of Justice that showed thousands of in-custody deaths have been left uncounted, the systems for monitoring carceral conditions and preventing abuse are grossly inadequate throughout the United States.
Still, 22 people are already officially reported to have died while in Harris County Jail custody so far this year––a devastating figure. The last time death numbers at the jail reached this level was in 2006, when 22 people died over the course of a full calendar year. Most of the individuals who have died this year were jailed because they couldn’t afford to pay cash bail, including some who remain officially uncounted because they were only released on personal bonds when their deaths became imminent. This is a commonly used tactic––in Texas and elsewhere—by which law enforcement agencies evade requirements for reporting deaths for which they may be responsible.
One person whose death is not included in the official toll at the jail this year was Damian Lopez. The 29-year-old died last March of COVID-19, shortly after he was charged with a misdemeanor and detained because he couldn’t pay the 10 percent of his $10,000 bail required. His detention was in apparent violation of a 2019 federal court order, which was issued after a U.S. district court deemed Harris County’s misdemeanor cash bail system unconstitutional and required the elimination of its misdemeanor bail schedule. Lopez’s family learned he had been hospitalized only after he was already unconscious and on a ventilator. Two days later, officials released Lopez from custody as he lay dying, which had the effect of removing his death from their books.
Of the officially recorded deaths, the details surrounding the first of this year are among the most gruesome. The custody death report submitted by the jail to the Office of the Attorney General regarding Simon Peter Douglas, who suffered from serious mental illness, reads as follows:
While inside the single cell, the decedent removed a piece of lining in his jail issued clothing and attempted to hang himself. Detention officers entered the cell and struggled to handcuff the decedent as he struggled with officers. The decedent was handcuffed and moved to a single cell padded room. While inside the padded room, the handcuffed decedent continually ran his head into the walls, door, and a metal grate on the floor of the cell. Detention staff entered the cell and removed him onto a stretcher.
Only at this point did staff transport Douglas to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Despite displaying signs of psychotic agitation from the time of arrest until his fatal injuries, there is no indication that Douglas was ever administered an emergency psychiatric medication while under the custodial responsibility of the jail. The media office at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, said they were unable to respond to specific questions about Douglas’ medical care—and other individual cases discussed below. “The Sheriff’s Office has taken many steps to ensure the health and safety of those entrusted into our custody, despite the challenges created by the pandemic and the backlog of cases pending in our criminal courts,” Harris County Sheriff’s Office chief of staff Jason Spencer wrote to Slate in response to a series of questions about Douglas’ death and other specific cases. The medical examiner recorded the cause of Douglas’ death as “suicide; died at the hospital; blunt force cephalocervical trauma.”
The following month, Matthew Shelton, a 28-year-old man with diabetes, also died at the jail. When he was arrested on March 22, according to his sworn financial affidavit, he was unemployed and surviving on $365 per month in government assistance. He was granted personal bonds in his Harris County cases, but he also had a warrant from Walker County with a $10,000 bond. Because he couldn’t pay the $10,000 required by Walker County, he was not released. While at the jail, he was not given the insulin he needed to survive. As a result, according to a custodial death report from the Texas attorney general’s office, five days after arriving at the jail, he was found dead.
Kristan Smith, who supported herself and her four children on government assistance when she was arrested on April 27, died in May under unclear circumstances. She was detained at the jail simply because she couldn’t afford her bail, which—after her death—was lowered from $30,000 to $5,000. The jail’s sparse incident report doesn’t provide any information about the circumstances leading to her death except that she had been in the hospital for eight days before she died. We have even less information about how Willie Fizer died on August 30. As of this month, no information has been provided about the manner or cause of death. All that we know is that he passed away in the intake room of the jail one day after his thirtieth birthday.
These deaths and many others are products of a cruel, dysfunctional-by-design system. Many people have the impression that this abuse serves public safety or that it is simply a consequence of a regrettable-but-intractable system of mass incarceration for which no one in particular bears responsibility. Neither claim is true.
What’s happening at Houston’s jail is a direct consequence of ongoing decisions made by a small group of local judges and prosecutors who handle felony cases. It’s also the result of a bill passed last year by the Texas state legislature.
The officials responsible for felony charges in Harris County have continued to use unnecessary, lengthy pretrial detention, eschewing reforms that have worked in other jurisdictions. This is forcing the jail to detain many people for whom there is no evidence that detention serves any public interest.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who blocked releases with an executive order signed at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and state legislators, who have supported legislation making it harder to earn release, are also to blame. In 2021, Texas passed a law known as SB 6, which has increased pretrial detention throughout the state. Two provisions of SB 6 are causing jail populations to skyrocket. First, the law requires a cash payment from people charged with certain categories of more severe offenses––and thus requires the pretrial detention of poor people charged with those crimes. Some of the charges that are disproportionately levied against people with mental illness—such as assault on a peace officer—are on the list of included offenses. In this way, SB6’s ban has functionally overturned the Sandra Bland Act, which had authorized magistrates to divert people with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities, regardless of charges faced and without cash payments. Now, partly as a result of SB 6, approximately 300 people in Harris County and 2,540 people statewide are stuck in jail while they await transfer to overwhelmed state psychiatric facilities, according to the Texas Joint Committee on Access and Forensic Services. The waiting list for transfer is now approximately two years long.
Second, SB 6 requires counties to generate a criminal history report for every person arrested. That provision is being interpreted to require review of every single person’s criminal history prior to release, which means that everyone is detained pending judicial review—even if they could pay and even if judges would prefer to release them immediately on unsecured bond. Requiring a criminal history review before release goes against decades of previous practice and is causing huge increased delays.
In Harris County, the time it took to get a bail hearing doubled after SB 6’s criminal history requirement went into effect in April. This means that people are waiting in the Harris County Jail’s processing center for days. When we reported this to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, their investigation confirmed that at least 64 people were found to have been waiting in the booking area for well more than 48 hours and one for 99 hours––a violation of the jail’s legal obligation to enter people into housing within 48 hours of arrival at the jail. Amid these conditions, at least two people have died while waiting in the booking area at the Harris County Jail since May.
These provisions of SB 6, combined with the crushing weight of an historic case backlog and the ongoing policy of District Attorney Kim Ogg to relentlessly prosecute a high number of cases that are dismissed by judges or result in time-served or probationary sentences, have created the human rights catastrophe now unfolding in Harris County. The district attorney’s office, through Misdemeanor Bureau Chief Nathan Beedle, disputed the characterization of Ogg’s prosecutorial decisions as aggressive, saying “It’s victims who decide to press charges, not the district attorney. It’s not up to us.”
The jail has been so full that it has been unable to hold all the people Houston Police and County Sheriff have been arresting and the district attorney has been charging. Shannon Herklotz, the jail’s Chief of Detentions, told the Houston Chronicle in July, “I just don’t have any available beds to put inmates that are coming in. So, the rate they’re coming in is exceeding the rate they’re going out. I’m just out of room.” This has led officials to transfer approximately 600 people to a for-profit jail five hours away in Louisiana. And a contract has now been signed to send hundreds more to another for-profit jail in Lubbock, Texas—nearly eight hours’ drive from Houston. At least one person, 30-year-old Billie Davis, has died after being transferred.
The financial costs of these excess detentions have been staggering, with more than 65 percent of the county’s budget now going to law enforcement, according to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
But even reallocating public funds away from punishment and towards violence prevention won’t solve the urgent crisis incarcerated people are facing at the Harris County Jail right now. To do that, the county must address the backlog of cases contributing to the crisis and stop the unnecessarily high volume of front-end flow into the facility.
Ogg is a major obstacle to addressing the backlog. She holds power to dismiss cases and also exercises considerable influence over judges’ refusals to hold bail hearings for people facing felony charges or to release people on personal bonds. Beedle, on behalf of Ogg’s office, argued that prosecution of low-level cases is necessary to prevent higher-level crimes because “you can’t tell me trespass wouldn’t have led to rape if the guy hadn’t been arrested.”
According our analysis of data provided by the county, as of August 29 this year, approximately 1,500 people at the jail were being detained on bonds of $20,000 or less. Half of them were being detained on bonds of no more than $10,000, including 364 people whose bonds were $5,000 or less. There were 446 people in the jail charged only with a non-violent theft or drug possession charge.
Ogg could release all these people today. And such proposals don’t belong to some sort of radical fringe. Almost 35 percent of pending felony cases (more than 41,000 cases) are more than 360 days old, and even the Harris County Sheriff, Ed Gonzalez, suggested earlier this year that steps be taken to release the 1,000 people detained on $10,000 bond or less.
Gonzalez, however, is not an innocent bystander. Since calling for releases, Gonzalez, who like most county sheriffs in the U.S. is an elected politician, has changed his tune and is now instead calling for more funds to build a bigger jail. Additionally, although Gonzalez has broad power to exercise discretion regarding who is arrested and admitted to the jail so as to stop contributing to the growing case backlog, he has failed to use it to protect vulnerable populations and to stop jailing people for out-of-county warrants that suggest no ongoing risk of violence to others.
Due in large part to Ogg and Gonzalez’s ongoing choices, the county’s case backlog is only growing worse. Between 2010 and 2016, it grew at a rate of 2,300 cases per year. After Hurricane Harvey disrupted hundreds of thousands of people’s lives in 2017, it has been growing even more rapidly at an average of 7,632 cases per year. Beedle, representing Ogg’s office, stated that any increase in pretrial detention is because a judge has determined that this is in the public interest and not because of Ogg’s decisions.
But an independent consultant, The Justice Management Institute, concluded in a June 2020 report that the only realistic way to address the growing backlog would be for Ogg to dismiss all non-violent felony cases older than nine months. The report observed that although widespread dismissal “may seem unfathomable,” only 42 percent of felony cases disposed in 2019 resulted in a conviction. The rest were dismissed (34 percent), deferred (23 percent), or acquitted (3 percent). And even when a person was convicted, “the most likely outcome was release back into the community on probation.”
This trend has continued since. For example, among theft cases filed in 2021, 55 percent were dismissed or acquitted, as were most cases for prostitution (82 percent), trespass (74 percent), cannabis possession (71 percent), all other drug cases (62 percent), and unlawful possession of a weapon (76 percent). In fact, as a result of her unusually aggressive prosecution choices, Ogg’s office is losing trials at an extraordinarily rate, including 7 of 12 cases in a single week this past summer.
Over the last several years, the proportion of misdemeanor charges resulting in a conviction has dropped off even more dramatically. In 2015, 61 percent of cases resulted in conviction. In 2019, when the new misdemeanor bail rule first went into effect and pretrial release rates shot up, the conviction rate dropped to 29 percent and then to 28 percent in 2020 and 2021. Beedle claimed that declining misdemeanor conviction rates are due to “the success of pretrial diversion programs.”
Although the Harris County Sheriff’s Office did not provide comment regarding specific cases, they did state that their death-in-custody rate––which is now higher than at any point since 2006—is below the national average and other Texas counties on a per capita basis. Of course, the issue is that the total population of people incarcerated in Harris County jails—and with it the number of people who have died in sheriff’s custody—have exploded for no good reason. The per capita data is beside the point when the topline numbers are so very high.
Although in-custody mistreatment is widespread across Texas jails, this is no excuse for allowing the deaths and other violence towards people incarcerated at the Harris County Jail to continue. The residents of Harris County should refuse to accept any further delay when people are dying from indefensible inaction inside public institutions operated in their name.