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Harris County disputes federal criticism of its jails

This is interesting.

Harris County officials today delivered a 300-page response to the U. S. attorney general’s findings that the Harris County Jail was unconstitutional, saying the report was largely based on anecdotal accounts from inmates and incomplete data.

County Attorney Vince Ryan said his staff will deliver a voluminous response to the 24-page report issued in June by the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division, which cited an “alarming” number of deaths in the jail when it investigated the facility last year.

“At no time has the jail not met constitutional standards,” said Ryan. “Our criminal justice facilities are doing a great job of taking care of problems of people in jail.”

Ryan noted that since the investigators’ visit, county commissioners have given the jail millions in stimulus funds to computerize inmates’ medical records. He also cited the recent creation of a county Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to explore methods to not only reduce jail overcrowding, but also streamline the operation of the county’s criminal courts. (Read the federal report on the jail here.)

You can read Ryan’s full response to the DOJ here (large PDF). Couple things to note: One, as blogged before, the June report was based on inspections made last year. Given that the jails passed a surprise state inspection in July after having flunked in April, it’s reasonable to assume that things have indeed been getting better over there. Ryan asserts in his cover letter that other branches of the DOJ such as the US Marshall Service and the National Institute of Corrections evaluated the Harris County jails differently, and much more favorably, than the Civil Rights division; he also specifically disputes several of the Civil Rights division’s findings. And finally, as Ryan mentions in his press release, reproduced below, the DOJ is contemplating a lawsuit against Harris County; they had given a 45-day deadline to get our house in order, which by my calculations works out to today. We’ll see if this is enough to get them to reconsider.

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, in a 500-page submittal to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, vigorously repudiated claims by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division that conditions in the Harris County Jail violate the constitutional rights of jail inmates.

“The Department of Justice is discussing suing the County; accordingly we have been investigating and considering its contentions very carefully,” Ryan said at a press conference this morning. “Based on a painstaking review of the facts and the law conducted by my office in cooperation with the sheriff’s office, we have produced a comprehensive response. I believe the Department of Justice allegations that the County violated the constitutional rights of its jail inmates are based on incomplete data.”

“For example, we looked very closely at the Justice Department claim that prisoners do not receive adequate suicide prevention. The facts show that there have been three prisoner suicides since 2001, so few that when the Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections staff received that data, the staff thought there was a mistake in the figures,” Ryan added.

Ryan’s response respectfully points out that the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s “findings” contradict the findings of the Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections and of the Department of Justice U. S. Marshal Service.

Finally, Ryan said, “It is my sincere opinion that what has happened here is that the Justice Department Civil Rights Division believed what the inmates told them and did not look at the files and facts as my office has done.”

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  1. […] County jail, as told by those who have just gotten out. The story is partly a response to the county’s assertions, as stated by County Attorney Vince Ryan, that the Department of Justice has it wrong about the […]

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