A Pattern of Assaults & Deaths in Harris County JailApr 1st, 2016 | By admin | Category: In The News, Pretrial Detention
Four inmates died after assaults or head trauma suffered in the Harris County Jail since Sheriff Ron Hickman took office in May 2015, prompting an inquiry from the U.S. Department of Justice about the latest death.
Justice Department attorneys have been monitoring conditions in the jail since 2008 and, despite reforms in staffing and procedures that have improved medical care in key areas, continue to focus on mental health treatment and the use of force against inmates by guards and other prisoners.
Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office was contacted by Justice Department attorneys following the death last month of Patrick Joseph Brown, a Katy man arrested for stealing a guitar who died after an alleged midnight beating by other inmates in a crowded jail cell.
Soard said the sheriff’s department did not notify the county attorney about the deaths of the other three inmates – Rodrin Hinton in March, and Robert Brooks and Jose Fierros in June 2015 – until receiving inquiries from the Houston Chronicle. The county attorney is now awaiting additional information on the three deaths, two of which remain under investigation, but they have all been reported by the sheriff’s office to the Justice Department, Soard said.
“Certainly when there’s an injury or death to an inmate, we are concerned, and on these particular items we’re talking to the sheriff’s department,” Soard said. “All I can say is it’s part of the ongoing … investigation that has been going on from 2008.”
Ralph Gonzales, media relations manager for the sheriff’s office, said the four deaths equate to “0.003 percent of the inmate population” in a jail with an annual population of 120,000, one of the largest county jails in America.
Gonzales said the deaths of Hinton and Fierros remain under investigation and the department would not discuss the circumstances. Gonzales said the department’s Office of Inspector General and the Harris County District Attorney’s office reviewed Brooks’ death and closed the investigations after determining no legal action was required. In Brown’s death, two inmates are facing charges of aggravated assault.
“Those incidents are statistically anomalous, not indicative of a trend,” he said.
Evidence of a ‘pattern’
Local civil rights activists and county officials expressed concern over inmate deaths that followed jailhouse fights or unexplained blunt-force trauma.
“There’s clearly evidence of some sort of pattern here of an inability to keep people safe in the jail, which then potentially exposes the county to liability,” said Amin Alehashem, staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project office in Houston. “Now they are on notice there are severe deficiencies in their ability to keep inmates safe, and they need to take appropriate measures now to make sure this does not continue to happen.”
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, an outspoken critic of the jail and a rigid bail system that he believes is unconstitutional, took strong exception to Gonzales’ description of the four deaths on Hickman’s watch as statistical anomalies.
“Any homicide is a serious matter, particularly when the person is being held by the government in a cell without actually having been convicted of a crime,” Ellis said. “These people aren’t statistics; they are lives that matter.”
Ellis and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, another critic of the bail system, have said nonviolent offenders – especially those arrested for misdemeanors – should not be jailed while awaiting a trial. Harris County judges release relatively few inmates on low-cost personal bonds.
Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, a former Houston police officer and county constable, questioned whether Hickman had used new personnel he has hired to adequately staff the jail.
“Absolutely, I’m concerned,” Radack said of the deaths. “Not only am I concerned about the people being protected outside the jail, I think the people inside the jail should be protected as well and resources allocated in a way to run an orderly jail.”
In the latest of the four inmate deaths, Brown, 46, had been in the jail for approximately 28 hours on a misdemeanor charge of allegedly stealing a guitar when he was assaulted and later died on April 5. Neither inmate who has been charged with aggravated assault in his death had yet been assessed for their risk to other inmates, according to jail records.
Jail staffers initially were unaware that Brown, one of 20 inmates in the crowded basement holding cell, had been assaulted and was lying on the floor. They were alerted by inmates that Brown needed medical attention. He died of a brain hemorrhage, according to court documents.
The alleged assailants were only identified after a homicide investigator reviewed surveillance video that captured them punching, hitting and kicking Brown. One of the inmates charged in the assault on Brown was allowed to post bond and leave the jail because investigators had not realized a crime had been committed and had not reviewed the surveillance video, the department confirmed.
Brown’s death is also under investigation by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
During a news conference after Brown’s death, Hickman said the jail was short “several hundred” staff members and that the Inmate Processing Center did not have enough staff to conduct both the periodic checks of jail cells required by state law and monitor surveillance cameras. Jailers are being forced to work mandatory overtime shifts due to the staff shortage, Hickman said.
Alex Bunin, executive director of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, an advocate for quicker screening and pretrial release of defendants, described Brown’s death as a tragedy “that should never happen.”
‘It doesn’t make sense’
Like Brown, Jose Fierros, 58, was also being held on a misdemeanor charge – unlawfully carrying a pocketknife. He died after only four days in custody from blunt-force head trauma, according to custodial death records. The manner of his death remains classified as “undetermined” by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, and the sheriff’s office has blocked release of his autopsy under an open records law exception for pending criminal investigations.
Magda Fuentes, 31, said Fierros, her uncle, was approached by Houston police officers on the morning of June 17, 2015. He’d been sitting in a park, reading a newspaper while waiting to be picked up by a friend for a construction job, she said. Fierros was arrested and held on $1,000 bond.
Fierros was a diabetic, but his family says he had no other serious health problems.
After his death, Fuentes told the Chronicle she called authorities repeatedly from her home in Austin, trying to find out what happened.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Fuentes said. “Why did he pass away? That’s what we want to know.”
State records show that Rodrin Hinton, 33, a Houston resident arrested on a domestic violence charge, died hours after allegedly getting into a fight in a cell with another inmate. When jailers arrived to his cell block at 4:43 p.m. March 24, the fight was over, but Hinton was having trouble breathing.
Sheriff’s department officials say Hinton refused medical attention and instead was locked in a holding cell, where he was found unresponsive on the cell floor 22 minutes later and CPR was begun, according to a state custodial death record filed by the department. Hinton was pronounced dead two hours later at a local hospital. His official cause of death has not been determined by the medical examiner.
“There is no way possible that any inmate is supposed to die on the watch of Harris County. They need to properly monitor these people,” said Candice Hinton, Hinton’s widow. “Basically, they should not let these inmates fight like that. They need to have a very quick response time. How long were they fighting for this to happen? That’s totally unacceptable, period!”
‘Wild, wild West’
Candice Hinton, who operates a Houston child-placement agency and is expecting Hinton’s second child, said the sheriff’s homicide investigator assigned to her husband’s death has only given her a “very vague” account of what happened.
For example, she does not know any of the details of the cell-block fight that proceeded his death, if surveillance cameras recorded the altercation, or why jail officials didn’t summon medical staff to assess her husband’s health since he was having trouble breathing.
Hinton was arrested after he allegedly assaulted his wife.
“I understand these people may commit crimes and things like that, but they’re still human beings, and you’re supposed to treat them firm and fair,” said Candice Hinton, who added she retained two local attorneys to review her husband’s death. “You don’t let them run around in there and have a Wild, Wild West going on in there – that’s not OK.”
Robert Brooks, 51, died in a local hospital June 12, 2015, after he was transported from the jail with “complications of blunt head trauma” following an assault by another inmate, according to an investigation by the medical examiner’s office. He had been charged with sexually assaulting a child.
His death after a cell-block fight will not result in criminal charges, according to the sheriff’s office.
A medical examiner’s investigation found that Brooks was hit by another inmate and then fell backward and hit his head. The cause of death was listed as undetermined because of evidence that Brooks had received injuries to his head in another altercation before entering the jail, the medical report noted.
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TEXAS JAIL PROJECT
For Immediate Release: April 1, 2016
Contact: Diana Claitor, executive director Texas Jail Project, (512) 983-3446 firstname.lastname@example.org or Rebecca Larsen, communications coordinator, (972) 533-8554 email@example.com
Austin, TX – Today, a new website, “Jailhouse Stories: Voices from Pretrial Detention in Texas,” is being released by Texas Jail Project. Collected over a two-year period, these powerful stories document a pattern of mistreatment and poor conditions experienced by those incarcerated in county jails while pretrial—innocent in the eyes of the law and awaiting their day in court.
In their own words, people across Texas describe the often-devastating impact of incarceration in local jails on any given day. The contributors come from some 34 Texas counties, revealing issues in both urban and rural facilities, with an emphasis on small to medium-sized jails.
In the average county jail in Texas, more than 60% of the people are not yet convicted. Problems include poor medical care, untreated mental illness, overuse of solitary for those with mental disorders, inhumane jail conditions, lack of care during pregnancy, overly long pretrial incarceration and the damage to families, livelihoods and communities.
In a video on the Jailhouse Stories site, the father of 18-year-old Victoria Gray speaks to the Senate Criminal Justice committee about his daughter’s suicide.
“Heard a lot about forms here, and my daughter’s intake form actually had the checkmark that said suicidal. Four days later she was able to leave that jail dead,” said John Gray III. “There was absolutely no doubt that Brazoria County [knew] my daughter was suicidal.”
“We believe that the power of Jailhouse Stories will challenge the complacency many have about the incarceration of people who, through lack of money or failures of the justice system, are needlessly held in jail while awaiting disposition of their cases,” says Diana Claitor, executive director of the nonprofit Texas Jail Project.
More accounts are being collected and anyone who wishes to tell their story about pretrial detention in a county jail are invited to write or use the Share-a-Story form on the website.
“Sharing my story might not make it more safe for myself, but I would like to make it safe for someone else,” says John Brown, a contributor to Jailhouse Stories who was jailed at Dallas County Jail for two and a half years while waiting for a trial.
For more information, to read the Jailhouse Stories, or to contribute your own, visit: http://jailhousestories.org/.
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