A wrongful death suit filed by the parents of a 30-year-old Bexar County, Texas jail prisoner who died of a methadone overdose while in solitary confinement at the lock-up settled in February 2015 for $200,000, and a guard responsible for conducting cell checks at the time of the prisoner’s death was fired and prosecuted.
Meanwhile, statistics compiled by Texas officials identified the Bexar County facility as the jail with the highest rate of prisoner suicides in the state.
The parents of Thomas Reed Taylor filed suit against the county after their son was moved to an isolation cell that contained no cameras or other monitoring devices – only a window in the door for guards to peer through. Taylor had been placed in isolation after allegedly becoming disruptive in a cell with other prisoners. He had surrendered to authorities on August 21, 2012 on misdemeanor warrants for drug possession and DWI.
At around 2:15 the following morning, six hours after Taylor was placed in isolation, a guard discovered his body on the floor of the cell, kneeling with his head against the floor and blood coming from his nose. Bexar County Sheriff Susan L. Pamerleau allowed Taylor’s sister, Tonie Taylor Grindle, to view the cell where her brother died.
“It was hard. Literally, his cell was just feet away from a medical unit,” Grindle said. “If he was screened, if the checks were done, medical would have jumped in. If they had been paying attention, I think they could have saved Tommy.”
The lawsuit alleged that guards failed to check Taylor’s record of previous incarceration at the jail, which indicated he had a history of mental illness, and should have referred him to the jail’s mental health staff. The suit also quoted an independent 2010 study of suicides at the Bexar County jail which found the lock-up’s intake screening practices were “inadequate and in need of immediate correction.”
“Regardless of the detainee’s behavior or answers given during intake screening, an immediate referral to mental health staff should always be initiated based on documentation reflecting possible mental illness and/or suicidal behavior during an inmate’s prior confinement within the Bexar County Jail System,” the report stated.
Authorities investigating Taylor’s death later determined that the guard responsible for keeping watch over him had falsified log book entries, by saying he had checked on Taylor when in fact he did not. Jail officials terminated guard Ernesto Flores in March 2013 and prosecutors subsequently charged him with tampering with a government record. According to court documents, Flores was sentenced to nine months of deferred adjudication.
Flores claimed that he was instructed by his superiors to falsify the log book; that the floor sergeant had told him, “Hey Flores, make sure the books are up to date.” The former guard maintained that that was an order for him to “pencil whip” the log book – to add entries showing cell checks were made that were never actually performed – which was exactly what he proceeded to do. Flores and other guards alleged that “pencil whipping” was common at the jail because there were too few guards to perform all the tasks assigned to them.
“They’re blaming it on me, but I just happened to be standing by the book when this Taylor guy died,” said Flores, who contended that he was too busy with other duties to do regular cell checks that night. “Sarge told me to pencil-whip it, so I did.”
“Sure. Ernesto pencil-whipped the books, but he didn’t really have a choice in the matter,” added former jailer Eustacio Diaz, who worked booking the night that Taylor died and agreed with Flores’ explanation that pencil whipping was a standard practice at the jail. “He was dealing with a broken system.”
Sheriff Pamerleau and her predecessor, Amadeo Ortiz, had long complained of understaffing at the facility, blaming the county commissioners for failing to provide sufficient funding to meet the minimum requirements of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. As a result guards were forced to work overtime shifts, sometimes three in a row.
“It was a self-perpetuating cycle,” said Diaz. “People get exhausted. When you’ve got a facility staffed like that, mistakes happen. People can die.”
According to news reports, 22 prisoners at the Bexar County jail committed suicide between 2009 and December 2015 – more than at any other jail in the state. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.50]. The most recent suicide at the facility occurred in November 2015, when a 33-year-old unidentified prisoner, who reportedly had been left alone for half an hour, was found dead in the infirmary. Four months earlier, Rodolfo Palafos, 54, who was booked on a charge of aggravated sexual assault of a child, used a bed sheet to hang himself at the jail. Palafos had not been on suicide watch at the time.
“You do what you can, and unfortunately, sometimes accidents like that still happen,” a sheriff’s spokesman said. “Using the tools and resources that were available, I don’t know that anybody could have predicted that this inmate was going to kill himself.”
In addition to the 22 suicides at the Bexar County jail from 2009 through 2015, there have been 24 other prisoner deaths during that time period due to natural causes and accidents, plus one homicide.
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