by Douglas Ankney
In 2022, at least 28 detainees died while awaiting trial in the custody of the Harris County Jail (HCJ) – the highest number of deaths at the Texas facility in nearly two decades. Already 11 more have died in HCJ custody from January 1 to July 13, 2023. This article briefly examines: (1) the history of the jail’s substandard conditions, (2) staff abuses of detainees – including charges of manslaughter – and scandals, (3) the current and continuing substandard conditions, (4) the identified causes of these conditions and (5) the proposed solutions to end the deadly crisis.
History of Substandard Conditions
HCJ consists of three individual jails: the “1200 Jail” located at 1200 Baker Street; the “701 Jail” located at 701 North San Jacinto; and the “1307 Jail” located at 1307 Baker Street. The HCJ system also is separate and distinct from two City of Houston jails. The three HCJ lockups may hold nearly 10,000 people at any given time, including those convicted and serving jail sentences for Class B and Class C misdemeanors and those awaiting trial on felony and misdemeanor charges. That’s enough beds to let the county’s entire population – all 4.7 million of them – spend a night in jail every 15 months or so.
HCJ is operated by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO). Founded in 1837 as the then-Harrisburg County Sheriff’s Office, HCSO has grown from a single man on horseback to nearly 4,600 employees and 200 reservists, making it the largest sheriff’s office in Texas and the third largest in the nation.
The substandard and unconstitutional conditions at HCJ have been documented at least as far back as 1972. A suit filed that year in federal court for the Southern District of Texas resulted in a Court approved “Consent Judgment by which defendants generally agreed to bring presently existing facilities and operations into compliance with federal and state standards.” The defendants therein agreed to submit a plan by May 1, 1975, detailing a planned $15,000,000 construction and renovation of facilities to bring HCJ into compliance with Amendments 1, 5, 6, 8, and 14 of the U.S. Constitution and with Texas Revised Civil Statutes Annotated, article 5115. See: Alberti v. Sheriff of Harris Cty., 406 F.Supp. 649 (S.D. Tex. 1975).
But 20 years later, the unconstitutional jail conditions still had not been corrected. In another ruling in the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the district court finding that defendant jail officials had acted with deliberate indifference to the rights of the incarcerated, also declining to consider Defendants’ objections to the remedies imposed against them – including a cap on the number of detainees confined at HCJ. See: Alberti v. Sheriff of Harris Cty., 978 F.2d 893 (5th Cir. 1995)
In 1999, another suit resulted in a settlement agreement with Plaintiff Rashad Gordon to settle claims brought under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. ch. 126, § 12101, et seq., as well as § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., and Texas Human Resources Code Section §121.0001 et seq. In that case, Harris County and HCJ agreed, inter alia, to provide auxiliary aids and services, including sign language interpreters – without charge – when necessary to ensure effective communications with deaf people within the criminal justice system. The County and HCJ also agreed to make TDD/TTY phones available to deaf detainees. They further agreed to make public postings announcing these aids were available. And HCJ agreed not to retaliate against detainees requesting these services or those complaining of dissatisfaction with these services. Finally, Harris County and HCJ agreed to pay $45,000 to Gordon and his attorneys from Advocacy, Incorporated and the NAD Law Center. See: Gordon v. State, USDC (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:98-0394 (1999).
Staff Abuses and Scandals
In 2010, during Adrian Garcia’s tenure as Sheriff of Harris County, Deputy George Wesley Ellington, 38, was arrested and indicted for two separate incidents. In one he allegedly received $500 for using his position as an HCSO Deputy to access confidential information from a secured law enforcement database. In the other he was accused of providing security and protection to a person he believed was possessing and transporting MDMA, the drug commonly known as “Ecstasy” or “Molly.”
After an investigation was conducted by HCSD and the FBI and Ellington was indicted, he pleaded guilty to extortion under color of official right. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison and two years of supervised release in August 2011. His wife, Tania Katrisse Ellington, 31, was also sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and a year of supervised release after pleading guilty to misprision of a felony for covering up her husband’s crimes. See: United States v. Ellington, USDC (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:10-cr-00706.
Also, during Garcia’s reign in 2014, Kenneth Christopher Lucas, 38, was arrested on a child-custody issue. When Lucas refused to hand over a piece of metal that he had used to break a smoke detector, jailers entered his cell. They were captured on videotape as they handcuffed Lucas and placed him face-down on a gurney. A guard then sat on him while a nurse was ordered to give him a sedative. Lucas repeatedly warned staff that he could not breathe and that he was “going to pass out.” They ignored his warnings, and Lucas died.
The ensuing lawsuit alleged Garcia failed to discourage deputies from using excessive force, citing a 2009 memorandum from the U.S. Department of Justice that expressed “serious concerns about use of force at the jail” and “a significant number of incidents where staff used inappropriate techniques,” including the “basic hogtie position” that was used on Lucas. The Lucas family’s lawsuit settled in 2019 for $2.5 million. [See: PLN, Mar. 2020, p.26.]
Garcia retired in the wake of yet another scandal, when mentally ill prisoner Terry Goodwin was left to languish for weeks in a cell filled with rubbish, feces and swarms of insects. The situation came to light only after whistleblowers contacted news media with photos of the squalid conditions. The Harris County Commissioners Court eventually awarded $400,000 to settle a civil suit filed on his behalf. [See: PLN, Apr. 2016, p.39.]
Dr. Michael Seale, director of HCJ’s health services, admitted at a press conference that his medical staff knew about the horrid condition of Goodwin’s cell. But no medical staffers were disciplined because “[t]hey followed policy and procedure.” However, six jailers were fired and 29 others were suspended over Goodwin’s conditions of confinement. Sergeants Ricky D. Pickens and John Figaroa were charged with tampering with a government document for signing off on cell checks indicating Goodwin was in good condition while he suffered in filth.
Garcia denied knowledge of the conditions inside Goodwin’s cell. The charges against Pickens and Figaroa were later dismissed due to expiration of the statute of limitations. After Sheriff Garcia stepped down to run for Houston mayor, his replacement – Sheriff Ron Hickman – began reversing some of Garcia’s reform-minded policies. For example, in February 2016, while jailhouse deaths in Texas were making front-page headline news, Hickman announced he was cutting the number of internal HCJ inspectors from 15 to 8.
Hickman also disbanded the group of internal affairs investigators who looked into charges against HCSO employees. According to James Pinkerton, criminal justice reporter for the Houston Chronicle, Hickman “felt like, in the past, there were too many low-level complaints sent directly to the internal affairs.” Hickman believed it was better to let sergeants handle the complaints.
Hickman’s decision seems to have been ill-advised. Shortly thereafter, on June 21, 2016, Charnesia Corley was pulled over by an HCSO deputy at 10:30 p.m., purportedly for running a stop sign. Claiming he smelled marijuana, the deputy handcuffed Corley, placed her inside his vehicle and then searched her car for nearly an hour. Unable to find any contraband, the deputy returned to his vehicle. Claiming he still smelled marijuana, he called for female deputies to perform a body-cavity search on Corley. When she refused to pull down her pants – because she was not wearing underwear – the deputy threw her to the ground and held her there while two female deputies forced her legs apart and probed her vagina. HCSO answered Corley’s complaint by stating “the deputies did everything as they should.”
But the Harris County District Attorney (HCDA) saw things differently. HCDA dismissed the charges against Corley and charged the deputies with official oppression. In Texas, a person must be in possession of at least four ounces of marijuana to be charged with a felony – an amount unlikely to be concealed in the vagina of a woman driving a vehicle.
As described by the Washington Post: “Corley was forced to the ground, stripped, and penetrated to search for evidence that at worst would have amounted to a misdemeanor. Which means that the Harris County Sheriff’s Department believes it’s perfectly acceptable to allow a stranger to forcibly probe a woman’s vagina in order to prevent her from possessing a personal-use quantity of marijuana.”
Corely sued HCSO, reportedly accepting a $183,000 payout in January 2018. But rather than discipline his deputies, Hickman publicly berated HCDA. He was stricter with deputies who probed vaginas recreationally, though. In 2016, he fired 14-year veteran Deputy Marc De Leon and Sergeant Craig Clopton. Both men admitted having sexual relationships with the surviving girlfriend of fellow Deputy Darren Goforth, who had been fatally shot in the back at a Houston-area gas station.
Hickman was defeated when voters chose Ed Gonzalez to be the 30th sheriff of Harris County in November 2016. Gonzalez is now in his second term heading HCSO, after voters reelected him in November 2020. But conditions at HCJ have arguably deteriorated under his watch.
For example, from 2001 through June 2009, 142 prisoners died in the HCJ – an average of just under 16 jail fatalities per year. Under Sheriff Garcia, the death toll at HCJ was 55 people between 2009 and 2015 – or an average of just over nine prisoners per year. Both those averages pale in comparison to the 28 deaths last year and 11 deaths already in 2023 – symptoms of deteriorating conditions inside HCJ.
The payout for suffocating Kenneth Lucas seems to have had little deterrent effect upon abusive staff under Gonzalez’s administration, either. In February 2021, then-23-year-old Jaquaree Simmons died after he used his clothing to clog the toilet and cause flooding in his cell – a common method of protest in jails and prisons, though Simmons’ reason for protest was not revealed by Gonzalez. Responding guards then beat him to death. Unbelievably, the incident happened out of view of all 1,490 security cameras installed at the jail.
HCSO reported, upon completion of its investigation, that when guards entered Simmons’ cell on February 16, 2021, they beat him and stripped him naked – none of which was formally documented, as required by HCSO policy. When a guard later delivered a dinner tray to the cell, Simmons threw the tray at the guard and “charged him,” the guard said – so he punched Simmons in the face. This incident, at least, was documented.
Later that night guards returned to Simmons’ cell, purportedly to take him for a medical evaluation. After Simmons was handcuffed, he “suffered multiple blows to his head,” but none of the guards documented this use of force. Simmons had cuts to his face, and the jail nurse ordered an X-ray taken. But that had to wait until power was restored after it was knocked out by a passing storm. When the lights came back on, no X-rays were taken. Nor were required hourly checks of Simmons performed. By noon the following day, Simmons was found unresponsive in his cell. He was taken to the hospital where he was declared dead.
In the aftermath, 11 guards were fired and six were suspended. [See: PLN, Nov. 2021, p.42.] But of those guards who were fired, only one has been charged with a crime. On February 7, 2023, Eric Morales was charged with second degree felony manslaughter in connection with Simmons’ death. “The indictment charges the 6-foot-5, 260-pound defendant detention officer for assaulting a 5-foot-4, 120-pound complainant by kneeing him in the head, striking his head against the floor, dropping the complainant on his head, resulting in his death,” officials read in court. Gonzalez stated he believed crimes were committed in the death of Simmons and more charges may be forthcoming. Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Clark echoed that statement, saying, “The message that’s being sent is that we prosecute regardless of which side of the bars you’re on. We’re seeking justice. If it occurred and it was a crime, we are going to investigate and pursue it to the fullest extent of the law.”
The first detainee to die in the custody of HCJ in 2023 was also beaten by guards. Apparently mentally ill, Jacoby Pillow was arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge in early January 2023. Pillow, 31, was interviewed for a mental health evaluation and was set to be released on a $100 personal bond when he allegedly assaulted a guard. According to HCSO, jail staff responded “with force” to restrain Pillow – and then charged him for the assault. Pillow was taken to his cell after a medical evaluation. The following morning, Pillow was found unresponsive in his cell and taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The Houston Police Department is leading the criminal investigation into the incident while HCSO is investigating whether all policies and procedures were followed. “The facts of this case are extremely alarming, and they point to a pattern and culture of inmate abuse that we have seen before in Harris County facilities,” said attorney Ben Crump, who was hired by Pillow’s family. “There is no legitimate excuse for this young man to have lost his life for an arrest on a misdemeanor charge right as he was about to get out on bail.”
In November 2022, detainee Adael Gonzalez Garcia was also savagely beaten by HCJ guards. The 48-year-old Garcia was booked into the jail on a diving-while-intoxicated (DWI) warrant. The following night, Garcia supposedly “fell from his top bunk” and “suffered an injury to his facial area.” After two days in the jail clinic, Garcia was being escorted to his cell when, according HCJ staff, he became “combative.” During the ensuing altercation with HCJ guards, Garcia suffered injuries to his head, neck and eye. The beating was so severe that, according to a subsequent lawsuit, Garcia was rushed to the hospital while comatose. Five days after the assault, the DWI warrant was dismissed. Garcia required brain surgery due to the head injury he suffered in the beating, and as of February 2023, he was recovering in a rehabilitation hospital learning to walk and talk properly. His suit against the county is pending in federal court. See: Garcia v. Harris Cty., USDC (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:23-cv-00542.
Current and Continued Substandard Conditions
It is apparent that HCJ lacks an adequate classification system when housing prisoners and detainees. Nineteen-year-old Fred Harris had an IQ of 62 when booked into HCJ in October 2021. The special-needs teen was placed in a cell with 25-year-old Michael Paul Ownby. Court documents reveal that the 240-pound Ownby attacked the 98-pound Harris with a sharpened eating utensil, stabbing Harris and kicking him in the head before smashing his head into the concrete. Guards made their way into the cell, removed the unresponsive Harris, and transported him to the Ben Taub hospital where he died two days later on October 29, 2021.
Harris’ mother, Dallas Garcia, had explained her son’s condition to HCJ staff. “When I first learned my son was in jail, I came down immediately and told them this was not a place for him,” she said. “I spoke with the deputy, we called the medical staff, and I didn’t leave until I got some answers. When I left, they said my son would be OK and that they would handle this. We are here now, a couple of days later and this wasn’t handled.”
Harris had never been in trouble previously and was arrested on a charge of aggravated assault after showing a knife to someone who was frightened by it. Ownby, on the other hand, was known for his violence: Just two days before attacking Harris, Ownby was charged with aggravated assault on a public servant after attacking a jail guard. He has now been charged with Harris’ murder. Garcia has filed suit on behalf of her son’s estate against the county and HCSO, blaming staffing shortages at HCJ for his death. See: Garcia v. Harris Cty., USDC (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:22-cv-03093.
In March 2022, Matthew Shelton reported to HCJ on an old DWI charge. Unable to post a $10,000 bond, he was jailed. As a diabetic, he had with him a supply of insulin he needed to stay alive. But after two days, Shelton reported to his family that no one at HCJ was permitting him to access his insulin. Cold, frightened, and alone, Shelton told his family he was trying to manage his diabetes by discarding the bread from the sandwiches he was served. His frantic mother repeatedly phoned the jail but reached no one. Three days later, 28-year-old Shelton was found dead in his cell after slipping into a diabetic coma. In April 2023, documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle revealed a 28-minute gap after he was first discovered before a second jail guard arrived and called for help.
Thirty-eight-year-old Kristan Smith, a mother and diabetic, suffered a similar fate. She was booked into HCJ in April 2022 on an assault charge. Unable to make a $30,000 bail, she was then found unresponsive in her cell. After eight days in the hospital, she died on May 28, 2022.
According to a March 2023 report by Texas Monthly, “Inmates have often been stuck at the jail’s processing center, the initial point of entry, for days longer than the 48 hours allowed under state law. Until they are processed – at which point medical histories are taken and individuals are photographed, fingerprinted, and officially entered into the correctional system – access to medication and medical care is typically denied, changes of clothes aren’t provided, and there are no showers and barely enough toilets.”
Near the end of 2022, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) sent a notice of noncompliance to Harris County and HCSO, demanding improvements in conditions at HCJ and prompting a state investigation. Gonzalez responded by submitting a list of corrective measures designed to cure the deficiencies.
But after a weeklong inspection by TCJS in February 2023, HCJ was found still in noncompliance. In March 2023, Gonzalez admitted that HCJ had been noncompliant with TCJS for 14 of the last 20 years. TCJS’s preliminary report revealed, among other things, that HCJ staff was not timely performing visual checks of detainees in their cells; detainees were not receiving their medications on time; and people booked into the jail were forced to wait too long before being assigned to a cell.
TCJS reviewed 60 detainee files at random, observing that “two inmates were not attended by medical staff within 48 hours, as required by the facility’s operation plan.” While on the surface that may seem benign, it could be life-threatening for those with pre-existing medical conditions – a group overrepresented in jail populations, for whom it can prove fatal if their medications are disrupted. Additionally, people are often booked while addicted to drugs or alcohol, meaning preparations need to be made to handle symptoms of withdrawal. One of the 60 detainees “was not seen by dental for 38 days.” Another had to wait over a month to get treatment for a bullet lodged in his neck. Gonzalez responded to the TCJS report by stating the HCSO would draft another corrective action plan within 30 days.
Sheriff Gonzalez blamed the record number of deaths at HCJ on an ever-increasing prisoner population and a persistent court backlog, as well as insufficient staff. According to Gonzalez, over the past year HCJ’s daily prisoner population steadily increased and as of January 2023, hovered at its maximum capacity of 10,000. Close to another 1,000 detainees are outsourced to be confined at other facilities in the region on any given day.
“I think that the impacts of a slow and at times inefficient court system has [sic] really placed a huge burden on the jail,” said Gonzalez. “As a sheriff, I have no control over who gets booked or released out of the jail, that’s out of my hands. We only manage the facility.” Harris County’s district court dashboard reported a total of 39,522 active criminal cases pending in November 2022. At the time, the county had a backlog of more than 100,000 cases in its criminal and civil court. Gonzalez said the backlog began with the closing of the courts after Hurricane Harvey and continued to grow amid the closings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But according to Texas Monthly, the closings of the courts were not the only reason for the backlog. HCJ’s prisoner population grew 24% from July 2020 thru July 2022, in part, because the state made it harder for people to be released on bail. After U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal ruled that Harris County’s requirement that arrestees post cash bail unconstitutionally discriminated against the indigent, a consent decree was entered in 2019, requiring major reforms to the County’s bail program. Harris County then discontinued its cash bail requirement in misdemeanor cases.
But conservative backlash from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), Sen. Ted Cruz (R), Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, and others fed a false narrative that violent crime had increased because arrestees were being released without posting cash bail. Independent monitors have found no evidence to support the claim that ending cash bail correlates with the surge in crime. But Abbott deemed Harris County’s bail reform an “emergency,” prompting the state legislature to pass Senate Bill (SB) 6. That law strips judges of bail discretion and requires cash bail from everyone charged with certain crimes, including misdemeanor assaults. SB 6 also requires that a criminal history report (CHR) be issued for every person arrested. Judges and magistrates say the required CHRs create enormous delays in scheduling bail hearings. In Harris County, since HB 6 took effect, the average time awaiting a bail hearing is six months – far exceeding the national average of 30 days.
Oftentimes, a person spends more time detained at HCJ awaiting trial than the length of time to which he or she is ultimately sentenced. For example, an unhoused person identified as E.A. was given a $20,000 bond after being charged with robbery – he allegedly stole a soda and pushed the shop owner with his hand in the process. E.A., unable to pay the bond, spent 147 days in pretrial detention, pled guilty when he finally had his day in court, and was sentenced to 100 days in jail. Since he had already been in HCJ for a period longer than his sentence, he was immediately released.
When asked who was at fault for the shortage of staff at HCJ, Gonzalez answered, “It’s no one’s fault but it’s everyone’s fault.” The beginnings of an insufficient number of employees at HCJ might perhaps be traced back to Hickman’s decision to cut staff. But another lawsuit suggests that management troubles are also to blame.
In September 2021, employees of HCJ filed a class-action suit in federal court. The plaintiffs – jail supervisors, deputies, detention officers, medical officers and civilian personnel working at HCJ – complained they were working extreme hours and mandatory overtime, putting themselves and HCJ detainees at risk and violating requirements set by TCJS. The plaintiffs identified themselves as John and Jane Doe out of fear of retaliation. According to their lawsuit, whenever employees complained about conditions, their pleas were ignored. At that time, the average daily population of HCJ was around 9,000 detainees, who were overseen by about 2,500 employees. The lawsuit alleged that at least 500 additional employees were needed. See: Doe 1 v. Harris Cty., USDC (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:21-cv-03036.
Gonzalez admitted in March 2023 that “jail staffing is down 150 detention officers.” And in January 2023, he told Houston Matters that he was working with the Commissioners Court to get more money to fund 700 additional positions.
Besides filling those vacant 150 guard positions or adding 700 additional positions at HCJ, the County and HCSO plan to outsource detention of more prisoners to reduce the jail’s population. As of March 2023, Harris County had spent $9 million to house detainees in Louisiana and planned to spend as much as $26 million to confine them in facilities located in North Texas.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced in February 2023 that county commissioners had approved $645,000 to expand HCJ’s program for mentally ill prisoners who are deemed temporarily unfit to stand trial. While this applied to only about 2% of HCJ’s population, the goal was to meet the prisoners’ needs quicker and decrease the court backlog.
But Justice Management Group, an independent consultant group based in Arlington, Virginia, concluded that to significantly decrease HCJ’s population, the district attorney’s office needed to dismiss all nonviolent felony cases that were older than nine months. The authors of that report explained that while that solution might “seem unfathomable,” the fact was that only around 40% of all felony cases – violent and nonviolent – resulted in a conviction, and the majority of those convicted are released back into the community through probation.
In August 2022, there were 446 detainees inside HCJ facing charges no more severe than nonviolent felony theft or drug possession. Over one-third of pending felony cases in the county – about 41,000 – were then more than a year old.
Elizabeth Rossi, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit out of Washington, D.C., devoted to criminal justice reform, echoed the conclusions of Justice Management Group. “You cannot hire or staff your way out of this,” Rossi said, pointing out that 60% of the county’s expenditures were for public safety whereas the national average was between 25% and 40%. Rossi recommended reforms to the bail and pretrial systems, saying “Relieving the backlog is going to come from arresting less people and dismissing cases.”
Another solution offered is Harris Health System’s (HHS) implementation of changes to healthcare at HCJ. After taking over healthcare services at the jails in 2022, HHS Vice President Michael Hill said HCJ staff are now ensuring that nurses have the escorts they need to timely provide medication to inmates. Hill said, “We work very closely with the sheriff on this process. It’s a very complicated process, and it requires both of us to come to the table and make some changes within our processes.”
“We need to do a better [job] of the delivery of medications, and we need to do a better job of taking care of chronic illness and sick call visits,” Hill added.
With ongoing substandard conditions and allegations of staff abuse or neglect of those confined at HCJ dating back 50 years or longer, perhaps there are no easy solutions. But a few things may be said with certainty.
It is certain that incarcerated people at HCJ will not receive adequate medical care as long as those charged with providing it are left undisciplined after observing a mentally ill man languish for weeks in a cell filled with insects, garbage and feces – and doing nothing to assist him. Or as long as those providers are unable or unwilling to timely provide medication, shrugging off distribution of medication as a “very complicated process.”
And it is equally certain that incarcerated people won’t be protected from physical assaults by staff as long as only one of the 17 guards involved in the unlawful killing of detainee – and only one – is charged with a crime. This is made all the more certain by the fact that from all the cases in the history of HCJ where an incarcerated person has died after guards used force, only one guard stands charged with a crime.
Eleven Jail Deaths in First 200 Days of 2023
After Jacoby Pillow’s death on January 3, 2023, there were ten more in just over six months, according to statistics maintained by the office of the state Attorney General (AG).
Oscar Villazana, 49, suffered a “medical emergency” on July 13, 2023, and was rushed to a hospital where he died three days later. He was booked into HCJ on assault and family violence charges on October 3, 2022. HCSO blamed his death on a pre-existing medical condition.
Ramon Thomas, 30, was found unresponsive in his cell on July 1, 2023, and was taken to an HCJ clinic, where he died of an unspecified “medical emergency.” He had been held since April 19, 2023, on two charges of criminal trespassing and making a terroristic threat.
Ray Anthony Rattler, 56, died on June 17, 2023, three days after he was transferred from HCJ in an “Altered Mental Status,” the AG said. He had been booked into the jail on suspicion of Aggravated Robbery with a Deadly Weapon on May 22, 2023.
Eric Ray Cano, 40, was pronounced dead on June 16, 2023, at a hospital where he’d been transferred from HCJ to treat cirrhosis of the liver on May 27, 2023. He had been at the jail since July 27, 2022, after a judge quadrupled his bail to $1 million on a murder charge stemming from a fatal fistfight with an acquaintance in 2020. His trial had been set for August 2023.
Lawrence Gutierrez, 49, was not technically in HCJ custody when he died on June 6, 2023, having been released on his way to the hospital where he died of unspecified causes. It was unclear when or why HCJ ended up holding Gutierrez, who was diabetic, but a judge had found no probable cause to hold him and ordered him released the day before he died.
Robert Andrew Terry, 32, died on May 16, 2023, at a hospital where he’d been transferred from HCJ. He had been booked three days before on “retaliation charges,” the AG said. After pressing an intercom button, Terry fell to the floor and crawled toward a dayroom while gripping his stomach. Fellow detainees reported it took 90 minutes before guards and medical staff responded, Taking him to a clinic where he became unresponsive and died.
Fabian Cortez, 41, apparently committed suicide on March 21, 2023, in a HCJ bathroom where he’d taken a break during booking. When fellow detainees noted he’d been gone a long time, a guard went looking for Cortez and found him unresponsive in the bathroom with his jacket drawstring tied around his neck. He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Kevin Leon Smith, Jr., 23, died on January 31, 2023, at a hospital where he’d been transported after suffering what fellow detainees called a medical emergency that left him unresponsive in his cell at HCJ. He was arrested by Houston Police and booked into the jail on July 1, 2022, on a felony warrant for Continuous Sexual Abuse of a Child.
Rajdeep Singh Bains, 41, was pronounced dead at a hospital on January 9, 2023, after neurological testing failed to detect any brain activity. He had been transferred from HCJ five days earlier in an “Altered Mental Status,” the AG said. Bains, whose history included many medical problems, was booked into the jail on December 3, 2022, on a family violence charge.
Gary Wayne Smith, 59, was found unresponsive in his cell at HCJ and taken to a hospital where he died on January 10, 2023. The uncle of Kevin Leon Smith, Jr. (see above), he had been “transported to outside hospitals numerous times for his medical ailments,” the AG said, in the month since he was booked into the jail for a parole violation on December 6, 2022.
Additional sources: Houston Chronicle, Houston Public Media, KPRC, KTRK, KXAS, New York Times, Texas Standard, Texas Monthly, Texas Tribune, Washington Post
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