That’s the title of this Houston Press story about the experiences of those who have served time in the Harris 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 jail and that things are much better than they were last year when the DOJ did the inspection on which it based its scathing report of the jail’s conditions. I do believe things are better now than they were then, but the problems at the jail are longstanding and deep, and will take longer than the eight months that Sheriff Adrian Garcia has been in office to fix. He needs to keep showing progress, and he will be judged in three years’ time by how far things have come since he was first elected, but there’s only so much that can be done in the time he’s had. And let’s not forget that a big part of the fix for the jails must come from the District Attorney and the judiciary, to ensure that most of the nonviolent, awaiting trial inmates that author Randall Patterson writes about don’t get put in the jail in the first place. Having said that, the allegations about violent behavior from the guards are serious, and demand a more vigilant response from the Sheriff. Also, Sheriff Garcia could help his own cause by making it the policy of the Sheriff’s department to issue citations to low-level drug offenders like the guy caught with “0.01 grams of cocaine” instead of arresting them, as the Lege has granted law enforcement agencies the right to do. Fixing the jails will require a lot of effort from a lot of people, and everyone needs to do their part. Mark Bennett has more.
UPDATE: I received the following from Sheriff Garcia’s office, which was sent as a letter to the editor of the Press:
In reading Randall Patterson’s September 8 article “Jail Hell”, one would think he’s writing about a Soviet era gulag. The unsanitary conditions and brutal treatment of inmates he describes at the Harris County Jail would be outrageous if they existed. They do not.
By Mr. Patterson’s own admission, the allegations in his article were based on the selective comments “from a really small sample” of newly released inmates. Had Mr. Patterson bothered to contact the Sheriff’s Office for his story, we would have fully investigated these claims of mistreatment. He did not contact us.
And had Mr. Patterson requested to tour the jail facilities himself, he might have been surprised (or perhaps disappointed) to see that the jail is run in a very civilized and professional manner. The floors are clean, the meals are hot, and the staff is professional. Jail isn’t meant to be paradise but it certainly isn’t the “hell” described in Mr. Patterson’s article.
If the inmates allege such beastly and savage treatment why didn’t they file a formal grievance or complaint so that we can investigate their allegations? If the conditions are so inhumane and deplorable, why did the Harris County Jail recently pass a surprise state inspection just last month? Did the inspectors miss the alleged feces on the floor or did they just walk over them? Did they also fail to see so called fungus- and mold-covered cells, mildewed showers and the bloody faces of the beaten inmates or did they just look the other way? One has to wonder. Why would Adan Munoz, Jr., Executive Director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards in his letter of compliance to Sheriff Adrian Garcia write “This [certificate] attests, signifies and demonstrates your department’s dedication and professionalism in providing a safe, secure and sanitary facility”?
It’s no secret there are more inmates in the Harris County Jail than it was built to hold. That is why the county has entered into agreements with neighboring county jails to temporarily house some of our inmates.
The bottom line is the Harris County Jail is safe, sanitary and in compliance with the strictest of standards. And by the way, Mr. Patterson, your invitation to see the jail for yourself still stands.
Media Relations Manager
Harris County Sheriff’s Office
As noted before, sending inmates elsewhere is, or at least it had better be, a temporary fix. I do hope we keep our eye on the ball on this. I certainly intend to.