Texas Prisoners Still Dying in Houston Jails, Among Other Problems
by Gary Hunter
Clarence Freeman’s hot check turned out to be his death warrant after it resulted in his arrest and incarceration at the Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas, where he was fatally assaulted by a guard.
On New Years Day in 2008, Freeman worked a double shift passing out meal trays at the jail. For his efforts he was promised an extra tray for himself. When the extra tray wasn’t forthcoming, Freeman complained and said he wanted to file a grievance. In response, jail guard Nathan Hartfield escorted Freeman to an isolation cell so he could fill out a grievance form. Hartfield claimed that once at the cell, Freeman became aggressive, called him a racial epithet and struck him in the face. According to Hartfield, he had to physically subdue Freeman.
Freeman’s written account of the incident, given shortly before his death, described an entirely different scenario. Freeman insisted that Hartfield had choked him, without provocation, until he couldn’t breathe and lost control of his bodily functions.
“On the way to lockup, the officer put his hands around my neck to throw me to the ground. I never resisted,” Freeman wrote in his dying statement.
The fact that Freeman had urinated on himself during the altercation was verified in Hartfield’s report. Hartfield also admitted to using a choke hold, and stated he was not trained in applying such holds. Conveniently, there were no surveillance cameras in the area of the jail where the incident took place.
Another Harris County jail guard, Travis Vaughn, arrived on the scene in time to see both men on the floor. According to Vaughn, Freeman was on his stomach when he arrived.
Vaughn helped handcuff Freeman, and the two guards then escorted the injured prisoner to the jail’s clinic. Freeman complained of difficulty breathing, and medical staff sent him to the Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital.
Shortly after giving authorities his statement, Freeman developed a blood clot, lapsed into a coma and was placed on life support. On January 9, 2008, doctors declared him brain dead; the next day they pulled the plug. The county medical examiner ruled Freeman’s death a homicide resulting from respiratory failure due to compression of his neck.
In his original report, Hartfield stated that Freeman had become unruly when he didn’t receive an extra meal tray, and Sgt. Joyce Harris ordered him to escort Freeman to an isolation cell where he could file a grievance. Sgt. Harris verified Hartfield’s version of events.
However, investigators learned that Harris had been outside the jail talking on a cell phone at the time of the incident, and therefore had no idea what actually happened. Both guards eventually admitted that they had lied.
Hartfield and Harris were fired on July 10, 2008. Yet after nine months of investigation and in spite of the medical examiner’s homicide finding, a Harris County grand jury declined to indict either former guard in connection with Freeman’s death. Instead, Hartfield was only charged with lying to investigators.
Quanell X, a local Houston community activist, expressed outrage at the grand jury’s decision. “It’s a disgrace that the Harris County grand jury system once again has allowed murderers to go free. It is a proven fact that the life of an African-American male means nothing to the Harris County grand jury system. The jail has become a place to go to die.”
Freeman had been serving a two-year sentence at a state jail on a bad check charge. He was transferred to Harris County to testify in a murder trial, and was due to be released in September 2008.
His wife, Cherry Bradley-Freeman, suspects a cover-up. “He was not a dangerous villain. Him fighting a guard or hitting him in the face? I don’t believe it,” she said. “Somebody else in that jail besides Clarence and that guard knows what happened.”
The truth may never be revealed about the events that led to Freeman’s death. But one truth is inescapable: prisoners are dying in Houston jails – lots of them.
“A Place to Go to Die”
Between January 2001 and December 2006, more than 100 prisoner deaths were reported in Harris County jails. Most were pretrial detainees. [See: PLN, Sept. 2007, p.9]. Twenty-one prisoners died in 2008, and there have been nine deaths this year as of September 1. Other prisoners, including Johnell Patrick, died at the Houston Police Department’s city jail, which holds arrestees temporarily before they are moved to the Harris County jail system, which is operated by the sheriff’s department.
On June 9, 2007, Patrick died after he was left hogtied in a padded cell at the Houston city jail. Video footage showed Patrick face-down on the cell floor with his hands and legs cuffed behind his back. An autopsy found that Patrick’s death was accidental, due to cocaine and alcohol intoxication; it also revealed that he had fractured ribs, multiple blunt force injuries and subscalp hemorrhaging. The District Attorney’s office investigated but declined to refer the case to the grand jury.
Ram Chellaram, a medical specialist at the jail, was fired for failing to provide Patrick with adequate treatment. Chellaram countered that he was a scapegoat, and blamed officers who had violated protocol by hogtying Patrick.
Hogtying was banned by a number of law enforcement agencies in the 1990s after it was learned that the practice could cause positional asphyxia. It is common knowledge among corrections professionals that hogtying prisoners can be fatal, and the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice prohibits the practice. Police officials denied that Patrick had been hogtied, stating he was placed in “interlocking” restraints. Houston Police Department spokesman John Cannon would not – or could not – explain the difference between hogtying and interlocking restraints.
Another prisoner who died at the Houston city jail was apparently brutalized before he got there. On July 21, 2007, Pedro Gonzales, Jr. was found dead in a holding cell, the apparent victim of a severe beating. An autopsy found that Gonzales had multiple bruises and abrasions, eight broken ribs, a punctured lung, and was missing two front teeth. His family said his teeth were not missing before he was arrested. His death was ruled a homicide.
Gonzales had been arrested for public intoxication on July 18, 2008. He was released two days later and rearrested within two hours by Pasadena police officers Christopher S. Jones and Jason W. Buckaloo.
A 911 operator reported a police brutality call originating from the area where Jones and Buckaloo arrested Gonzales, but the report was never investigated. Both police officers claimed that Gonzales suffered his injuries when he tripped and fell on his way to the patrol car, but police officials later stated the officers had used “knee strikes” on Gonzales, who they said was resisting arrest. Jones and Buckaloo were charged with criminally negligent homicide but were acquitted at trial on June 2, 2008.
At the Harris County Jail, medical problems have proved fatal for a number of prisoners. On January 12, 2008, jail prisoner Margarita Saavedra, 44, died of sepsis resulting from a bacterial infection in her knee. Her family said she had complained about her knee for weeks but did not receive medical treatment. In August 2009, Saavedra’s family filed a lawsuit against Harris County officials, alleging medical malpractice and claiming that jail nurses had accused Margarita of faking her injury. See: Casarze v. Harris County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:09-cv-02786.
Other medical-related deaths at the Harris County Jail from 2007 to 2008 included a diabetic female prisoner who collapsed and died while waiting in the jail’s clinic, five days after seeking medical care; a prisoner with liver disease who died following a two-week delay in treatment, who had been housed in general population rather than the infirmary; and a psychotic prisoner who did not receive his prescribed medication and then died after being injected with a sedative by the jail’s medical personnel.
On June 20, 2009, Harris County jail prisoner Theresa Anthony, 29, died due to unknown causes. Sheriff’s officials would only say that jail staff responded to a medical call and that Anthony was transported to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead. An internal investigation and autopsy results are pending; Anthony was serving a two-and-a-half-week sentence for marijuana possession.
Town Hall Meetings and Investigations
In April 2008, Harris County jail guard Timothy Gough was charged with assaulting two prisoners. Michael Lagatta, who had been arrested for trespassing, accused Gough of taking him to a section of the jail with no surveillance cameras and beating him severely in the face. Lagatta was handcuffed at the time. Another prisoner raised similar allegations against Gough, who was freed on a $30,000 bond after being booked.
On February 24, 2009, Gough pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge; as part of a plea bargain, he agreed not to work in corrections again. He also will serve no jail time. “Mr. Gough should be serving [a] jail sentence for beating up an innocent man, a defenseless man,” Lagatta said in an interview. “That’s what should have happened.” Lagatta is pursuing a federal lawsuit against the county. See: Lagatta v. Harris County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:08-cv-03189.
Harris County is no stranger to litigation involving the sheriff’s department. County officials settled a multimillion-dollar civil rights suit on March 3, 2008 after sheriff’s deputies participating in a drug raid wrongfully arrested and brutalized Sean and Erik Ibarra. The Ibarra brothers were taking pictures of the raid at a nearby house, where deputies had forced several small children to remain on the front porch barefoot and in shorts in cold weather.
When the deputies realized they were being photographed, they stormed into the Ibarras’ home, drew their guns, confiscated the cameras, assaulted Sean Ibarra and arrested both brothers. The ensuing court battle resulted in a $1.7 million settlement plus $1.3 million in attorney fees, and cost then-Harris County District Attorney Charles “Chuck” Rosenthal, Jr. his job. [See: PLN, Oct. 2008, p.20].
As a result of such incidents, the public outcry over Houston’s out-of-control criminal justice system became so intense that it prompted U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to schedule a town hall meeting. On July 18, 2008, Rep. Lee, accompanied by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, Jr., state Senator Mario Gallegos, State Rep. Harold Dutton and City Councilman M.J. Khan, listened to about 200 Houston citizens tell horror stories about how they had been abused or their loved ones had been mistreated or even killed at the hands of sheriff’s deputies and jail guards.
Following the meeting, Rep. Conyers said, “I’ve been stunned. I’ve been shocked. I’ve been deeply moved by what I heard today.”
However, problems involving the sheriff’s department and jail should not have come as a surprise. The Harris County Jail has been under fire for years due to brutality, overcrowding and deficient medical care, and has failed several state inspections. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.30; Jan. 2006, p.1].
On March 7, 2008, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) notified Harris County officials that it would be investigating conditions at the jail. The investigation resulted in a June 4, 2009 report that acknowledged “In many ways, the Jail actually performs quite well.” However, the 24-page report also concluded that “certain conditions at the Jail violate the constitutional rights of detainees.” The DOJ said the “number of inmates deaths related to inadequate medical care ... is alarming,” and found the jail had failed to provide prisoners with adequate medical and mental health care, protection from serious physical harm, and protection from “life safety hazards.”
The report detailed a number of deficiencies in medical care by Harris County jail staff that resulted in prisoner deaths; the DOJ investigators also stated they had “serious concerns about the use of force at the Jail,” which was described as “flawed.” The report noted that jail officials did “not train staff that hogtying and choke holds are dangerous, prohibited practices.”
Additionally, the DOJ cited overcrowding problems at the jail and observed that the Texas Jail Commission had granted waivers to allow Harris County to house 2,000 more prisoners than the facility’s original design capacity. The county has had to send hundreds of jail detainees to Louisiana to relieve overcrowded conditions, at a cost of $9 million a year. [See: PLN, Oct. 2008, p.28].
Overcrowding has exacerbated a number of other problems at the jail, including access to medical care and the ability of staff to ensure prisoners’ safety. In the latter regard, the DOJ stated that “in one recent ten month period, the Jail reported over 3,000 fights and 17 reported sexual assaults.” At least 500 pretrial detainees at the jail have been incarcerated for over a year, which contributes to the overcrowding problem. The Harris County jail system holds over 11,000 prisoners.
In an unrelated investigation, Houston’s city jails were found to be deficient, too. In a May 26, 2009 report, a court-appointed inspector found “filthy” conditions at the city jails and recommended that Houston build new detention facilities “with all due speed.” After visiting one of the jails earlier this year, City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones called it “inhumane” and said prisoners were “being forced to live in subhuman conditions.”
Houston’s jails have been under a court-enforced consent decree resulting from a class-action suit filed in 1989, which requires quarterly inspections. The inspector, David Bogard, cited problems with the use of interlocking restraints on prisoners, an inadequate investigation into a prisoner’s death, delays before arrestees were arraigned, and delays in follow-up medical care.
“We’re doing the best we can,” said Houston Police Captain Doug Perry, who is in charge of the city’s jail division. Apparently, though, those best efforts have not been good enough.
Other Texas Jails Also Problematic
In all fairness, Houston does not have the only jails in Texas with serious shortcomings. In 2004, inspectors determined that the Dallas County Jail was dangerously short of smoke detectors and emergency ventilation systems. The facility had also failed every state inspection for years. [See: PLN, Nov. 2007, p.14]. So it was major news when jail officials finally began to install smoke detectors four years later, in June 2008.
It was only after a prisoner in a holding cell at the Nueces County Courthouse tampered with the plumbing and flooded a courtroom floor in May 2008 that state inspectors even realized prisoners were being held there. The following month, a female detainee tried to commit suicide in one of the holding cells. It had been decades since the cells were inspected, and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards admitted it “was not aware there were holding cells being utilized in the courthouse.”
In Montague County, the sheriff and ten guards were indicted on Feb. 27, 2009 following an FBI investigation into sexual misconduct and contraband smuggling at the county jail, which was compared to the rowdy fraternity in “Animal House.” [See: PLN, Sept. 2009, p.40; May 2009, p.1].
In June 2008, Rodney George Cole II, a guard at the Jefferson County Jail in Beaumont, was sentenced to one year on probation and a $4,000 fine for assaulting prisoner Joseph Christopher Roberts. A video caught Cole hitting Roberts four times in the face, injuring his mouth.
When Roberts spit blood onto some jail paperwork, another Jefferson County guard, Johnny Lynn Vickery, Jr., threw him against a wall and smeared the bloody papers across his head and face. Vickery received a $4,000 fine but no jail time or probation. At the time of the incident, Roberts was being held for unpaid parking tickets.
Adrienne Lemons, incarcerated at the Tarrant County Jail in Fort Worth, died on June 13, 2008 after being denied medication for an aggressive staph infection. Lemons had been diagnosed with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) while at the Dallas County Jail. She received four days’ worth of medication before she was transferred. When she arrived at Tarrant County, her paperwork indicated that she needed six more days of medication. She never received it.
When the pain from the MRSA infection became too much to bear, Lemons became suicidal. Jail staff placed her in segregation but did not check to see why she was in pain, which would have revealed her need for medical treatment. She died within hours after being taken to a local hospital.
The Tarrant County medical examiner determined that Lemons’ death was caused by a “rapid and catastrophic” infection from “flesh-eating” pneumonia and septic shock. Doctors responsible for medical care at the jail insisted that Lemons had never informed them she was on medication. They also agreed that she probably would have lived had she received the additional six days of antibiotics. Like Roberts, Lemons had been arrested for unpaid parking tickets.
“It is a tragic thing that my sister goes in for some traffic tickets and comes out dead,” said Lemons’ brother, Shannon Woodrome. “I can see an infection killing someone in the 1600s or the 1700s, but that shouldn’t happen today.”
The More Things Don’t Change
Harris County has made efforts to improve its jail system following the release of the DOJ’s report last June – though such efforts were likely motivated, at least in part, by a desire to avoid a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice. “We have been making, are making and will continue to make improvements to the way we operate at every level,” said Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.
The jail passed a surprise inspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards in late July 2009, after failing an April inspection due to overcrowding, malfunctioning intercoms and broken toilets. Harris County has also appointed a former district judge as its “jail czar” to act as a liaison between the jail and court systems.
Yet county officials remain in denial over the seriousness of the problems in their jails. On August 25, 2009, the County Attorney’s office released a 300-page rebuttal to the DOJ report, arguing that “At no time ... has the jail not met constitutional standards.” The County Attorney noted that million of dollars had been spent to computerize prisoners’ medical records since the DOJ’s inspection, and said “At the least, the jail system of the past and present meets minimal standards.”
County Judge Ed Emmett opined that the DOJ report was “fairly positive .... It has some episodic events but it does not show a pattern of problems.” Which is, of course, a very optimistic – and entirely incorrect – interpretation of the findings made by the DOJ, which said it could sue the county if improvements were not made.
Meanwhile, Harris County jail prisoners continue to die. On August 18, 2009, prisoner Daniel Aguirre, 20, fell into a coma and died after he was reportedly involved in several altercations with jail staff. His family has claimed he was “beat up by a jailer three times” and had his head slammed against a wall. An investigation is pending.
Year after year, PLN has reported on the abysmal conditions in Texas jails. Time and again there have been empty promises of change from local leaders. Yet the number of deaths and the extent of abuse in jails in the Lone Star State continue to increase. Each new administration inherits the apathy of its predecessor, and Texas citizens unfortunate enough to find themselves in jail continue to pay a high price – up to and including their lives.
Sources: Associated Press, Beaumont Enterprise, Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, www.houstonpress.com, www.kristv.com,KTRK-TV Houston, www.rawstory.com, http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com