Eleven Guards Fired after Death at Houston Jail
by Brian Dolinar
As other cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York have slowly begun to decarcerate their county jails, the Harris County Jail in Houston has resisted reform efforts. Over the years, Prison Legal News (PLN) has documented the persistent problems at the jail in Houston. The recent death of Jaquaree Simmons resulted in 11 guards being fired, and another six suspended. Despite the sheriff’s swift action, details of the man’s death suggest the widespread acceptance of abuses in the Lone Star State of Texas.
In October 2009, PLN ran a cover story about the Houston jail after the Department of Justice released an investigation concluding that “certain conditions at the Jail violate the constitutional rights of detainees.” From 2001 through June 2009, 142 prisoners died in Harris County’s jail—most were pretrial detainees. A new sheriff, Adrian Garcia, took over the jail in 2009 promising to do better, but an investigation by the Houston Chronicle showed that little progress was made. Between 2009 and 2015, 55 people died in the jail while awaiting trial.
Among them was Kenneth Christopher Lucas who died at the jail in 2014 while being restrained in an incident that was captured on video. An internal investigation cleared the officers. Five years later, the family settled for $2.5 million in a lawsuit against the county and seven jail officials [See: PLN, Mar. 2020, p.26].
On February 17, 2021, Jaquaree Simmons, 23 years old, died after he was beaten by guards in the Houston jail. The harrowing incident happened in the middle of a freezing winter storm that knocked out power at the jail.
Simmons’ abuses apparently happened out of view from the 1,490 security cameras in the 1.4 million-square-foot jail complex. The sheriff’s office conducted an investigation and released the following details.
On the morning of February 16, 2021, Simmons used his clothes to clog the toilet and cause flooding, a common act of protest practiced in jails and prisons, the reason for which was not revealed by the sheriff.
Guards responded by entering Simmons’ cell, beating him, and stripping him naked, none of which was formally documented as is required by the sheriff’s office.
At dinner time, a guard delivered a meal to Simmons in his cell, when Simmons threw a meal tray at the guard and “charged at him,” as was documented in a written report. The guard responded by punching Simmons in the face.
Later that night, several guards returned to Simmons’ cell to take him for a medical evaluation. They beat him another time, according to the sheriff’s investigation. “Again, detention officers used force against Simmons as they handcuffed him and escorted him out of the cell block. At this time, Simmons suffered multiple blows to his head.” None of the officers documented the use of force.
Simmons had cuts on his face. The storm had caused a power outage, so the nurse ordered an X-ray be taken once power was restored. Once the power was back on, X-rays were never done.
The subsequent investigation found that no hourly checks were done as required by the sheriff. By noon the next day, Simmons was found unresponsive in his cell. He was taken to a hospital where he was declared dead.
The following guards were fired: Garland Barrett, Patricia Brummett, Joshua Dixon, Alysheia Mallety, Israel Martinez, Eric Morales, Jacob Ramirez, Alfredo Rodriguez, Daniel Rodriguez, Dana Walker, and Chadwick Westmoreland.
The suspensions include: Antonio Barrera, suspended for 10 days and will serve 180 days probation; Benny Galindez, suspended for three days and will serve 90 days probation; Jeremy McFarland, suspended for five days and will serve 180 days probation; Alexandra Saucier, suspended for three days and will serve 90 days probation; Ralph Tamayo, suspended for five days and will serve 180 days probation; Rene Villaloboz, suspended for three days and is on probation for 90 days.
The Simmons family is being represented by Lee Merritt, well-known civil rights attorney who filed the civil suit against police for the death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. Merritt issued the following statement:
“The treatment of Jaquaree Simmons was both inhumane and unconstitutional. It reflects a bigger crisis in our criminal justice system when our most vulnerable commit a crime and are treated as second-class citizens instead of protected. The Simmons family is grateful for Sheriff Gonzalez’s action in holding the individuals responsible for Jaquaree Simmons death. Our office will work to make sure these individuals will be held accountable civilly and criminally and we will fight to address and reform the policies and practices that foster and environment of regular abuse.”