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Mentally Ill Texas Jail Prisoner Celled in Fetid Squalor for Months

Almost a year after a surprise inspection of the Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) resulted in the discovery of a mentally ill prisoner who had been locked in his solitary cell for months in fetid squalor, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia asked the U.S. Department Justice (DOJ) to investigate the incident. The request came after days of criticism over Garcia's handling of his department's investigation.

On October 10, 2013, the surprise inspection team found 24-year-old Terry Goodwin, a prisoner with a known history of mental illness, locked in an isolation cell with a note on the door telling guards never to open the door. He may have been there since June 5, 2013, when he was charged with assaulting a guard. Two weeks before the surprise inspection, Goodwin had been declared incompetent to stand trial on the assault charge.

The inspection team found Goodwin in a fetid cell with the toilet and shower drain clogged not only with his feces but also with toilet paper, apparently used to try to cover the waste, and orange rinds, possibly used in a futile attempt at covering up the stench. He was wearing a filthy, shredded orange jump suit. Strips of the uniform were hanging from the ceiling light, possibly indicating preparations for suicide. The insect-infested cell was covered in styrofoam food containers which the guards had pushed through the cell door's food slot without ever collecting the used containers or other refuse, much less cleaning the cell.

Anonymous whistleblowers at the jail told Houston's ABC Channel 13 that the cell may not have been opened in two months. They also said that many jail officials knew about the conditions in the cell. This included "at least three lieutenants, one captain, one major and two chief deputies," one of whom was the supervisor of jail operations, Fred Brown.

"The thought of that sickens me. It sickens me," said Goodwin's mother, Mashell Lambert. "What do you mean, 'Don't open the door?' I'm pissed. I'm just so pissed."

Goodwin's transfer to the isolation cell also coincided with Lambert being turned away from her thrice weekly attempts to visit her son which he previously had always allowed. 

"They would tell me he refused the visit," said Lambert. "I didn't believe it. Every time?"

"I never quit going, but I didn't see him," she said. "They'd tell me, 'He doesn't want to see you.'"

After the inspectors found him, Goodwin was sent to Rusk State Hospital and later declared competent to stand trial. He was convicted and sentenced to state prison where Lambert now visits him weekly. He has no recollection of ever being told that his mother was trying to visit him while he was in the isolation cell at the jail.

The TCJS has listed the 5,000-bed jail as "at risk," making it subject to further surprise compliance inspections. The DOJ had cited various safety issues and a lack of mental health care in a 2009 report on the jail. According to Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, a nonprofit organization which seeks to improve jail conditions, there have been multiple past complaints concerning the jail's treatment of young black men such as Goodwin. Hopefully, the DOJ's investigation will shed more light on the situation than Garcia's attempt to explain it away as an isolated incident that none of the supervisors were aware of.


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