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Fewer inmate deaths

More good news for the Sheriff’s office.

The number of inmates who have died while in Harris County detention has plummeted during the last three years, a decline that Sheriff Adrian Garcia described as “deeply satisfying” but could not explain.

Three county prisoners died last year, down from 11 in 2010, and 16 in 2009, according to a Houston Chronicle review of custodial death records.

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Alan Bernstein, public affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, said Garcia has held the jail’s medical staff to high standards and noted that about 400,000 inmates were medically screened when they were jailed during the last three years.

“Each death is thoroughly investigated in accordance with Sheriff Garcia’s mission to make the agency as accountable and transparent to the public as possible,” Bernstein said. “But there is no identifiable cause or set of reasons for why the number of deaths has fallen steeply. The overwhelming majority of deaths were due to medical conditions that afflicted the inmates before they became inmates.”

Bernstein said only three of the 30 county inmate deaths from 2009 to 2011 took place inside a jail, including two inmates the county sent to Louisiana to reduce crowding. The rest of the inmates died after being transported in custody from jail to a hospital for treatment.

The decline in inmate deaths follows a June 2008 U.S. Justice Department report that accused Harris County of violating the constitutional rights of jail inmates, citing an “alarming” number of deaths of inmates in jail or after they were taken to hospitals.

See here and here for some background on that DOJ report. The feds threatened a lawsuit if things didn’t improve but have not followed through. One hopes that’s a “no news is good news” situation.

As for the numbers, while I have no doubt that this reflects the many improvements made at the jail since Sheriff Garcia took over from Tommy Thomas, I also suspect there’s a similarity to the homicide figures, in that this year represents a dip below the “normal” level. What you want to see is a downward trend. More importantly, you want to see that all reasonable steps are being taken to ensure that trend is downward, which over the last three years it has been. There’s more good press for the Sheriff at KUHF, as noted by Stace.

Meanwhile, the city recorded two deaths at its jail facilities, both suicides, and reiterated its desire to get out of the jail business. It’s still not clear to me what the “sobriety centers” that would replace the jails might look like, but one presumes that they will be better equipped to handle badly intoxicated people who could be a danger to themselves.

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