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Houston Jail Has Highest Number of Deaths in Texas: 101

Between 2001 and 2006, 101 prisoners died while in custody at Houston's Harris County Jail, more than in any other Texas county. Dallas County's jail had 70 deaths over the same period.

The Harris County Jail has an average population of 9,000 prisoners, and has failed to meet minimal state standards for three years in a row. Burdened with the excessive incarceration of its citizens, the jail's substandard operation has led to tragic results for those in its care. The case of Calvin Mack illustrates one such tragedy.

Mack was a chronic addict who survived on the streets of Houston's Fifth Ward, or, as its residents call it, the Bloody Nickel. Mack was no newcomer to the jail, having been there at least four or five times before he was rearrested on May 30, 2005. Mack also had AIDS.

For unknown reasons Mack was stunned with a Taser during his most recent trip to the county lock-up. Usually this is a non-lethal event, but Mack suffered complications. Fellow prisoners watched in horror as Mack sat on the toilet and began to cough up blood and bleed profusely from his rectum.

Other prisoners called for help. What they got was an apathetic guard, Phillip G. Balthazar. "What do you want me to do, get a Band-Aid for his ass?" quipped Balthazar. Mack did not receive any medical attention until four hours later.

In the meantime he managed to drag himself into a shower where he suffered under the running water. "So everybody could see a wide little river of blood going down the drain, being washed out of the shower, for about an hour," said Clifford Olson, a prisoner who was in the same cell block as Mack.

Mack eventually began to have seizures for a full forty minutes before any help arrived. He was taken to LBJ hospital, where he died from a massive stroke resulting in respiratory distress.

Following an internal investigation, Balthazar was fired on August 3, 2005. An interview of 66 prisoners, many of whom passed polygraph tests, confirmed the deputy's negligence.

"It is clear that Deputy Balthazar was notified by numerous inmates that an inmate under his control was experiencing a medical emergency," an internal affairs report stated. "It [was] his duty to evaluate and report such a condition in a timely manner. It appears Deputy Balthazar chose not to do so.... This delay in effective intervention may have been a factor which contributed to catastrophic medical results for Mack."

Mack's death is indicative of only the most extreme form of neglect at the jail. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards found that overcrowding in Houston's jails resulted in unsanitary conditions; many prisoners were forced to sleep on the floor and next to toilets. Prisoners also reported that no immediate attempt was made to decontaminate either the toilet or the shower after Mack's death.

The Harris County Jail was medically quarantined 60 times between January 2001 and April 2005. Staph infections were the cause of at least two of those quarantines, and such infections have been a reoccurring and deadly problem.

An autopsy report concluded that jail prisoner Stacy Earl Matlock died in October 2001 from "Complications of cirrhosis of the liver" after he "developed multisystem organ failure secondary to a multi-resistant staph aureus bacteremia [staph]."

In July 2002, Roland Oliva died due to a bacterial infection of the blood.

But behind these and other prisoner deaths lies a more troubling question: How effective do state oversight officials really want to be? The Texas Commission on Jail Standards only concerns itself with certain compliance issues; it keeps no statistical data on in-custody deaths.

When David Whitlock died at the Harris County Jail after falling from his bunk, Nurse Debra Alston began to question the absence of medical equipment that could have saved his life. Specifically, she complained that the emergency crash cart used to treat Whitlock did not have an adult-sized breathing tube that might have prevented his death.

Alston was subsequently fired for "provoking disharmony," according to her supervisor.

If the high number of fatalities isn't disturbing enough, it should be understood that 70 percent of the 101 deaths that occurred at the jail were among prisoners who had not been convicted and were thus presumed innocent.

"They died innocent men and women," said Deric Muhammad of the Millions More Movement Ministry of Justice.

The group has asked the U.S. Justice Department to conduct a federal investigation of the Harris County Jail, and they have been joined by activists from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). "They are all human beings," noted LULAC member Mary Ramos, expressing concern for prisoners at the facility.

It's a shame that anyone has to be reminded of that fact.

It's also a shame that deaths at the Harris County Jail continue unabated. Eleven more jail prisoners have died in the first three months of 2007 -- five of whom were pre-trial detainees who had not been convicted.

At least one of those deaths involved allegations of insufficient medical care. Jail prisoner Kimberley Humphries died on Jan. 23, 2007 due to problems related to a serious infection. "She kept trying to get medical treatment, trying to get them to help," said her sister, Gloria.

But little help was forthcoming and Humphries became just another Harris County Jail death statistic.

Source: Houston Chronicle

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