This sounds very bad, but there are some questions about how the numbers were determined.
Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, defending his staff against a federal study that found startling levels of sexual abuse at one of his jails, testified Wednesday that his sprawling corrections system was constantly working to better protect inmates.
Garcia was called to testify before the U.S. Department of Justice’s review panel on prison rape because one of the four buildings of the Harris County Jail was found in a DOJ-commissioned study to have one of the worst rates of sexual assault in the nation.
The study’s results, released in June, found the rate of sexual assault in the lockup at 1200 Baker St. was 7.6 percent, more than twice the national average, and the third-worst of 373 jails studied.
Garcia was sharply critical of the study in a written response to the panel, but he focused his testimony Wednesday on his department’s efforts to improve inmate protection.
He said, “I took exception to the results of your study. But … all such studies are opportunities” to evaluate and improve operations.
When panelist Gary Christensen asked Garcia to speak about his objections to the survey, the sheriff demurred, saying he’d rather discuss how he was working to improve the jail.
But in writing, he savaged the study, calling it “flawed and misleading.”
He said not enough inmates responded to meet the survey-takers’ own criteria, noting the response for 1200 Baker Street had to be “weighted” to provide “imagined feedback from non-respondents.”
He wrote that the Bureau of Justice Statistics admits it doesn’t know how to factor for false accusations by inmates in the anonymous survey, and pointed out that the survey’s rules do not permit follow-up investigations or substantiations.
The national average rate of inmate-on-inmate victimization is 1.6 percent. The average at 1200 Baker was found to be 6.2 percent. But the county’s other three facilities’ rates were 1 percent, 0.9 percent and 0.0 percent.
Garcia said bemusedly afterward, “We could be testifying at the next hearing” – which was on “low-incidence jail facilities.”
You can see the report here. I get that self-reporting by inmates about being assaulted may not be the most accurate method, but what other alternative methods are used for things like this? Sheriff Garcia is certainly correct that he has taken action on numerous fronts to deal with disciplinary issues with his staff. It’s also true that in recent years when the jail population was high and the number of guards was lower than it should have been due to budget constraints, there would have been less supervision of inmates, which might allow more assaults to happen. Things are better in that area now, but with the jail population being in large part determined by judges and the DA’s office, it’s always going to be a concern. I have only glanced at the report, and I have not seen the Sheriff’s written response to it – I’ve sent an email asking for a copy but have not yet received a response – so I don’t have much more to say at this point. Sheriff Garcia has done a lot to clean things up and improve discipline and inmate safety, but there will always be more to do. As he said, it’s an opportunity that I’m sure he will take. Grits has more.
UPDATE: Via email from Alan Bernstein, you can see Sheriff Garcia’s written testimony and written response here.