Monday, June 8, 2009


From the Houston Chronicle:

Poor access to health care and life-threatening conditions at the Harris County Jail violate inmates’ constitutional rights, federal investigators said Friday in a report on their ongoing probe of the downtown lockup that houses more than 11,000 people.

The Department of Justice initiated its investigation last year after the jail, which has failed four of its last six state inspections, came under scrutiny for inmates’ deaths, overcrowding and inadequate access to medical treatment. Investigators last summer toured the facilities and this week notified County Judge Ed Emmett of its findings.

“The (DOJ) found that the jail fails to provide detainees with adequate: (1) medical care; (2) mental health care; (3) protection from serious physical harm and (4) protection from life safety hazards,” Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar wrote in an e-mail to the Chronicle. Miyar would not detail the report’s recommendations and added that the investigation is open and ongoing. He said the Justice Department expects to work with Harris County to remedy any continuing problems.

If things are not corrected in a timely manner, the Justice Department could sue the county, but Miyar would not comment on that possibility, saying only that Harris County has been cooperative.

A spokesman for Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who oversees the jail, said many of the issues cited in the report already have been fixed.

“The guts of the report predate this administration,” sheriff’s spokesman Keir Murray said. “The language is troubling, but it is based on a review of conditions that happened almost a year ago. None of the policy changes that have happened since are reflected in the report.”

Both Justice and the Sheriff’s Office declined to release the report Friday, but Murray did elaborate on some of the findings. Investigators, he said, focused on problems with inmates’ inconsistent access to medical and mental health care, particularly for those with chronic problems. They also cited past incidents where jailers used force against inmates.

Last year, the sheriff’s office fired two detention officers for their actions after a confrontation with Clarence Freeman, an inmate who died several days after one of the officers forcibly restrained him.

Freeman told investigators the jailer had choked him until he nearly was unconscious. It was unclear Friday if Freeman’s death was one of the incidents federal investigators examined.

The report also focused on maintenance and sanitation issues, including problems with laundry facilities and grooming equipment. Grooming and shaving equipment were brought into compliance last year, Murray said.

Garcia has been attempting to take control of jail maintenance, which is handled by another county department, since the jail failed its annual state inspection in April.

Last month, Garcia traveled to Austin to negotiate with the state Commission on Jail Standards to keep the lockup operating despite its failed inspection. Commissioners revoked 230 so-called “variance beds” that allow the jail to increase its capacity, but let Garcia keep some 600 others.

The sheriff told the jail commission that broken intercoms, which contributed to the failure, should be replaced by this month, and that the jail’s 701 San Jacinto building should have a new security and communication system by next summer.

Garcia has said he will work with the Justice Department to fix the issues that have not yet been resolved.

“We are cooperating with DOJ,” Murray said. “Unfortunately, the DOJ report seems to be consistent with the overall management of the organization in the past. The sheriff is committed to changing that.”

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