Misconduct by employees in the Harris County jail system in Houston, Texas remains persistent and problematic.
A Houston Chronicle review of employee disciplinary actions from 2008 through 2010 found there was an average of 67 disciplinary cases annually, totaling more than 200 during the three-year period.
In 2011, 88 jail employees were disciplined, including seven who used excessive force against prisoners – an increase of 31% over the three-year average. From January to April 1, 2012, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia fired nine staff members.
Employees were punished for offenses such as having sex with prisoners, excessive use of force, mistakenly releasing prisoners, sleeping on the job, destroying prisoners’ mail and leaving an assigned post to play a game of dominos.
A June 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had criticized a “flawed” use of force policy at the jail and “systemic deficiencies” in employee training, which exposed prisoners to harm. DOJ investigators found a significant number of cases in which jail employees had used excessive force – including choke holds and hog-tying prisoners, both of which can cause death by suffocation. [See: PLN, Jan. 2010, p.14; Oct. 2009, p.1].
“It strikes to the fundamental problem the jail has, and that’s a lack of professionalism,” said Houston NAACP chapter head Fred Cooper. “The details of the complaints clearly show there’s a lack of discipline” and a “gross misappropriation of authority,” he stated.
One such incident occurred in May 2010 when Harris County jail guard Nikolaus Laliotitis, 34, pulled prisoner Herman Young, 68, who was terminally ill, off a gurney. He then punched him in the stomach and dragged him across the floor. Young died the next day. His death was listed as being due to natural causes, but his family wasn’t informed of the abuse by Laliotitis.
“They never told us nothing about it, and I was his next of kin,” said Young’s niece, Kim Young. “All they told me was that he took sick. I’m very shocked nobody ever told me.”
A Sheriff’s Office spokesman said prisoners’ families are only informed about incidents of violence at the jail if they result in a prisoner’s death, and apparently it wasn’t clear whether Laliotitis’ actions had caused Young’s death.
Laliotitis resigned, was later indicted and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor official oppression. He received a sentence of one day in jail plus a $1,000 fine. A jail sergeant who investigated the incident was suspended for three days without pay for failing to conduct a thorough investigation. Young’s family filed a wrongful death suit against the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in May 2012.
Another incident of employee misconduct involved jailer Martha L. Anderson, who was suspended for ten days after she made a cellblock of 24 women prisoners stand naked for half an hour during a strip search in July 2010, because none would admit to having left a used sanitary napkin in the shower. She made the prisoners show her their sanitary napkins during the search.
More recently, Sheriff Garcia announced in October 2012 that six jail employees had been fired, including a supervisor, while a deputy resigned and another supervisor retired in connection with a sex scandal involving “numerous” female prisoners. “This kind of conduct has always been wrong,” Garcia stated. “I will not hesitate to punish those few employees who break the law or egregiously violate the rules.” One of the fired deputies, Tony Richards, was indicted on a charge of improper sexual activity with a person in custody, arrested and released on $2,000 bond.
The investigation into sexual misconduct involving jail employees began after a female prisoner was found with a pair of contraband tennis shoes.
And on November 7, 2012, the Houston Chronicle reported that two Harris County deputies and a jailer had been terminated for failing to help a mentally-ill prisoner who was left bleeding in a cell.
Norman Ford Hicks, Sr., 72, died due to a heart attack on January 22, 2011. Six days earlier he had been punched in face by jail guard Christopher S. Pool, 25, after Hicks caused a disturbance and then defecated and urinated on the floor. The punch apparently broke Hicks’ nose and caused him to fall and hit his head on a bench. Pool was fired but not criminally charged; deputy Joseph P. Jameson and guard Christopher L. Taylor were also fired, for failing to provide aid to Hicks and failing to report the incident. All three are appealing their job terminations.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, www.mytexasdefenselawyer.com, www.houston.cbslocal.com
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