The Harris County Jail (“Jail”) houses more than 9,000 inmates and is the third largest jail in the country. We have previously stated the human shortcomings of this facility. In particular, we have discussed the prospect of those dying from suicide, disease or homicide in the facility because Harris County because they cannot afford the bail arbitrarily set by the infamous Harris County Bail Schedule.
So it came as no surprise to us when the Huffington Post published the horrific results of its recent detailed investigation into the operations of the Jail. The HuffPost opened its piece with an observation we have repeatedly made here: that the Jail is “full of people who are locked up on minor offenses and can’t afford to pay bail …”
Inmates Die at Higher Rates in Harris County
What makes the Jail unique among all the dirty, violence-plagued inner city jails is that “inmates die there at a higher rate per capita than other jails in the nation,” the HuffPost investigation revealed.
In fact, since Sandra Bland was found hanging in a cell in the Waller County Jail—about an hour’s drive from the Harris County—in July 2015, 12 inmates have died in the Harris County Jail—most of which were the result of medical issues the Jail’s medical delivery system could not, or would not, respond to.
More Than 800 People Die in County, Local Jails Each Year
There are roughly 3,200 local and county jails in this country, and the HuffPost investigation found that more than 800 people died in them last year alone—most within the “first few days of incarceration.”
Most of these jails, especially those located in the nation’s 25 largest cities, are dens of violence, brutality, gangs, drugs, and rapes. They are ruled by the most hardened, violent gangs or drug lords. It is their turf, and they are the dominant predators over this human landscape. Non-violent, minor offenders—especially those with medical or mental health problems—are easy prey in the Jail’s continuous daily struggle for dominance. The worst beasts in the human kingdom can be found in American jails and prisons, especially in the jails because the prey is weaker and more susceptible to submission.
Little Concern for Jail Inmates
And, not surprisingly, many sheriffs who are the keepers of jail facilities are not overly concerned about these deplorable human conditions. They are faced with perpetual understaffing and a high turnover rates that allow little empathy for the plight of the inmates they house. They have to pay excessive overtime on a regular basis just to keep their facilities staffed so they can house the poor and disadvantaged.
“It’s not even a lack of staffing, it’s the high turnover rate,” Harris County Chief Public Defender told HuffPost.
Jail staff make just $34,000 a year, and since most jail deputies do not plan to make supervising inmates a career choice, many are amendable to the financial benefits of corruption. They can make as much, or more, money smuggling drugs and cell phones into the Jail than they can through direct deposit paychecks.
Man Charged with Misdemeanor Theft Beaten to Death
The HuffPost investigation described what kind of real time situations such staffing problems can produce:
“On April 3, Patrick Brown was booked into the jail on allegations that he stole a guitar, a misdemeanor theft charge. His bail was set at $3,000, despite the fact that he had no violent criminal history, the Houston Press reported. Two days later, he was allegedly beaten to death by two other inmates, who were later charged with aggravated assault. In response to that case, the Harris County sheriff suggested that his staff is too strained to watch the facility’s camera monitors all the time.
“A lawsuit filed in April by the family of Patrick Green, another inmate who died last year, claims that guards ignored signs of the bacterial meningitis that killed him. Other inmates allegedly attempted to buzz for staff multiple times, then banged on the walls and held Green up to the glass to show how sick he was. When guards did finally show up, one ‘kicked Patrick four to five times in the right shoulder’ before help was called, according to the lawsuit …”
Guards Don’t Care
Ill-trained, underpaid, and corrupt staffing stretched too thin indeed share some of the blame for the repetitive human tragedies that too frequently occur in the Jail. But it is the patently unfair Harris County bail schedule, which was established and is maintained by judges who are receptive to campaign contributions made by the bail industry, that bears the most responsibility for the deplorable conditions in the Jail.
70% of Harris County Inmates in Jail Cannot Afford Bail
As has been widely reported, including in the HuffPost piece, 70 percent of the Jail’s inmates are there because they cannot afford to make bail. The bail schedule is specifically designed to set high bail. The bail bond industry is not worried about the 70 percent who cannot make bail; their money is made off the 30 percent who can afford to pay bail bondsmen the 10 percent security necessary to make their bail.
And just how deep does bail industry corruption go?
A 2011 Grits For Breakfast post pointed out that former Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel did not collect “hundreds of thousands of dollars in court costs since taking office in January because, critics say, it would hurt business for bail bondsmen who contributed to his campaign.”
Judges Protect Bondsmen
And another 2011 Grits for Breakfast post found that judges and district attorneys across the state routinely support the practice of giving bail bondsmen a break when their clients fail to appear in court.
In 2012, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) found this problem to be systemic nationwide, saying:
“Courts seldom actually make bondsmen pay forfeitures—that is, the full bail amount if the person they’ve bonded fails to appear in court. Forfeiture rules are written, with the help of the industry’s political power, to give the bail bond agent nearly endless opportunities to avoid paying forfeitures and make the process labor intensive and complex for the courts. This environment has led to millions in forfeitures owed to jurisdictions throughout the country, further reducing the insurance companies’ financial risk and increasing profits for them and bondsmen.”
US One of Only Two Countries that Allow for Profit Bail Bonding
JPI reports the United States is one of only two countries that allow “for-profit bail bonding.”
Calling for an end to this unfair and profit-driven bail system, JPI said the presence of bail bondsmen “in the system distorts judicial decision-making and leads to people being needlessly held behind bars while awaiting their day in court. For profit bail bonding costs taxpayers through increased jail and other justice expenses. In addition, it impacts people from low income communities – generally the loved ones of the accused person – who must pay nonrefundable fees for the bond regardless of case outcome and who, through contracts with the bondsmen, bear the real monetary risk of paying the full bail amount in the event of a court no-show.”
JPI pointed out that the bail industry is backed by “multibillion dollar insurance giants” who control the pretrial judicial system “through political influence.”
And how does this influence work?
Let’s look first at the fact, according to JPI, that there are 15,000 bail bond agents working in the United States who annually write bonds totally $14 billion.
For Profit Bail Bonding Banned in Kentucky and Illinois
The insurance giants who underwrite this industry use “campaign contributions, lobbying and their affiliation with groups like ALEX (American Legislative Exchange Committee)” to protect the bail industry’s “profit margin by limiting regulation and financial risk, while working to defund and hamper Pretrial Services Agencies. As criminal justice professionals, Pretrial Services can make more informed release decision based on risk to public safety, while providing supervision and services that allow people to remain in the community while awaiting their day in court. All jurisdictions should follow the lead of states like Kentucky and Illinois that have banned for-profit bail, and move towards fairer, more effective pretrial justice systems that use risk, rather than money, to decide whether to deny a person their liberty while awaiting trial.”
The Harris County bail schedule is set up to subsidize this corrupt industry. And it apparently does not matter to Harris County judges that 70 percent of the poorest, most vulnerable offenders are paying the price, either through loss of life or physical abuse in the Jail, so this unjust system can continue to profit off human suffering.
Defense Lawyers Stand Up
Texas needs to follow the lead of Kentucky and Illinois by banning for-profit bail systems that serve no other purpose than to corrupt our justice system. In the meantime, defense lawyers must step up and demand personal recognizance bond for their clients and be prepared to filed writs to force courts to hear the claims of individuals who are still presumed innocent but remain incarcerated for no reason other than they cannot afford bail.