A son lost to a Texas city jail

Jul 13th, 2014 | By | Category: Featured Articles, Galveston County, In The News

By St. John Barned-Smith, Houston Chronicle, July 12, 2015

Chad Silvis was sitting shirtless on the railing of the bridge connecting Kemah to Seabrook when the police arrived. The 26-year-old welder from Wisconsin had parked his Ford pick-up a few feet away. He held a pint of Jack in one hand, a cigarette in the other.

It was April 11, 2014. Silvis, who had moved to Texas for work, was tired. Of his job. Of being alone. Of being far from his family. He wanted to jump.

After he arrived, Kemah Police Sgt. James Melton gave him another smoke and got him talking. When Silvis calmed down and tried to shake his hand, Melton hauled him off the side of the bridge and handcuffed him.

Arrested just after midnight, Silvis was charged with public intoxication and placed in the Kemah City jail, held in part because of concerns he could hurt himself. Forty minutes later, officers found Silvis hanging in his cell from a noose he’d fashioned out of a blanket.

A year after his son’s death, 49-year-old Ron Converse sued the city for negligence in May, in a quest for answers. Converse believes the department failed to properly train officers and implement policies to protect Silvis, and wonders why, given the circumstances of his son’s arrest, Silvis wasn’t taken to a hospital instead of a jail.

But those answers may be elusive. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards oversees all county jails, but those operated by cities – like Kemah – are exempt from state oversight. Repeated attempts to change that during the last 40 years have gone nowhere.

State officials aren’t even sure how many municipal lockups operate across Texas, but estimate it to be 350. Lockups can range from jails like Kemah’s, which can hold up to 12 inmates, to facilities like Houston’s, that detain several hundred people.

The lack of regulation means city jailers don’t have to meet the specific minimum standards, such as training, that are required of county jailers. It also means that when an inmate dies in a municipal jail, the facilities aren’t required to report it to the jail commission, just to the Attorney General’s Office.

“We would only find out through the media,” said Adan Muñoz, director of the jail commission from 2006 to 2012. “All we could do was shrug our shoulders and say, ‘I wonder what happened.'”

Since 2005, there have been 126 deaths in city jails statewide, 45 of which were suicides, according to state records. In the last five years, at least two of the suicides took place in facilities operated by the Houston Police Department.

The jail commission dictates basic guidelines on how county jails are constructed and run, everything from how many jailers must be on staff, what medical care is available and how inmates are treated. County jails also have to meet standards governing how regularly inmates are checked on by staff and how they are treated if they are believed to be mentally ill or suicidal.

Kemah Police Chief Greg Rickard declined to discuss Silvis’ death, citing the pending lawsuit. Silvis’ arrest report shows medics evaluated Silvis when he was arrested, and jail staff contacted county mental health specialists, who advised holding him until he sobered up.

Norman Giles, a Houston lawyer representing Kemah, said city personnel did nothing wrong.

“The city didn’t do anything to cause Silvis to kill himself,” he said, arguing that Silvis “made his own decision to kill himself.”

Kemah employees followed proper procedures, he said, adding an internal investigation had cleared Melton of any wrongdoing.

“I’m not going to go through the details – which will end up getting fleshed out through discovery process – but there are procedures in place at the jail for dealing with people who may be in a mental health crisis,” he said, adding that he was confident Kemah would prevail in the lawsuit.

Austin attorney Scott Medlock said he’s heard of several cases like Silvis’, including one that took place in Zavala County in 2012, when a man killed himself in a Crystal City lock-up. The man, Daniel Zavala, was left in a jail cell despite warnings from relatives that he was suicidal, and with both his bedding and clothes, “both big no-nos when you have someone who is potentially suicidal,” Medlock said. State records show Zavala died in November 2012 after hanging himself with a ligature he’d made from his shoelaces.

Medlock wonders if Zavala’s death might have been prevented if the local jail where he died had been regulated by the state commission.

“A good thing about the Commission on Jail Standards is they can regulate what jails do, and [encourage] them to follow certain policies and to use forms – which can prevent suicide,” he said. “They’re helpful in identifying people who need extra monitoring. If you’re using something like that in these city jails, these people might not be dying.”

Though the jail commission does not have oversight powers over municipal facilities, it often receives complaints about them, said Brandon Wood, the commission’s director.

In recent weeks, for example, an inmate at the Trinity city jail in East Texas complained the facility had no blankets or mattresses. Another inmate, at the Kilgore city jail, complained of not being fed.

“City jails only operate as a short-term lock up. They might only consist of a cell or two – may not have a kitchen, laundry. It’s just going to be a pretty small operation,” Wood said. “Some are literally only a 4 foot by 8 foot cell with a secure door and a bench.”

Municipal jails usually only hold inmates up to 72 hours, until they have seen a judge and had their charges read and been committed to a county jail.

County jails hold people awaiting trial or inmates already convicted of misdemeanors and are serving out their sentence. That means county jails end up being far larger, self-contained structures, with everything inside a secure perimeter, like a kitchen, laundry, a visitation room and a commissary.

Gretchen Grigsby, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, said peace officers around the state receive a minimum of 16 hours of crisis intervention training, which includes topics like suicide detection and prevention. County jailers must also undergo a two-hour course on suicide prevention and screening. But no laws spell out specific regulations for minimum standards for people working in a municipal jail, she said.

That distinction worries jail experts and some industry veterans.

“City jails do not have mandated jailers hired to take care of the inmate – that’s, to me, the most dangerous issue, especially with someone who is suicidal, or drunk, or has mental health issues,” Muñoz said.

State lawmakers proposed additional regulation for municipal jails in 1979, 1981, 1983 and 1985 – all of which failed. Five years ago, the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee advocated that the jails be required to register with the jail commission, file annual reports about how many people were housed in the facilities and adopt best practices standards developed by the Texas Police Chief’s Association.

That effort came after a commission report found 66 people had died in custody in municipal jails from 2005 to 2010 – 25 by suicide.

The recommendations to expand the jail commission’s oversight – estimated to cost the state $390,000 a year – died after financial shortfalls pushed a more conservative Legislature to slash billions from the state budget.

In the five years since, another 61 people died in the facilities. Twenty were suicides.

“It’s a continuing disaster, it’s an unnecessary tragedy for a lot of families,” said Diana Claitor, director of the Texas Jail Project, a nonprofit which advocates for those incarcerated across the state. “Those numbers show how the problems continue and are not addressed by the jails, county governments and the state Legislature. People have blinders on and don’t seem to be willing to work on this issue of suicides in jails.”

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the longtime chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said it’s time to look at the issues surrounding city jails again.

“You have to remember that while prisons are for people who have been convicted, the jails are for people who have mostly not been convicted of a crime,” Whitmire said. “A lot of the people there may eventually have their charges dismissed or will get out on probation or not be convicted.”

City governments across Texas and lobbyists for local municipalities have been leery of more oversight, arguing the regulations would be overly costly or burdensome.

“Cities, especially small cities, have less resources than counties to meet strict state standards on jails,” Texas Municipal League spokesman Bennett Sandlin said in an email. “Having to meet statewide standards would discourage operation of such jails altogether.”

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Originally from Wisconsin, Silvis first trained as a carpenter, then learned to weld after the housing market crashed seven years ago, his father said.

“He was a hard working kid,” Converse said. “A top-notch welder.”

They traveled across the country working on refinery and tank projects, before Silvis started working with a crew in West Texas, then came to Houston in 2014 to build tanks at refineries.

Bobby Daniel, 38, first met Silvis in 2012, in Florida. They started hanging out while building tanks to store orange juice. The work could be grueling, but it paid well.

“He was always pretty upbeat,” Daniel said, remembering Silvis as a generous guy who loved to fish. “He was always smiling and happy.”

Converse, meanwhile, wants answers to the questions he still has about the night his son died.

He and his son talked practically every day. When he didn’t hear from Chad for several days, Converse, who also works as a welder, drove to Texas from a job in Mississippi looking for him.

When he finally spoke with Kemah police, an officer told him his son was in the hospital, then revealed he’d killed himself.

“Everything went blank from there,” he said. “It’s like my whole world fell apart.”

 

Mike Ward contributed to this report.

 

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