There are more than 3,000 county jails in the United States. They house more than 650,000 inmates on any given day. Roughly 70 percent of these inmates are pretrial detainees in jail pending trial because they do not have the financial resources to post cash bail.
These jails are bastions where, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, pretrial detainees and convicted inmates are, daily, “beaten, stabbed, raped, and killed in facilities run by corrupt officials who abuse their power and authority. People who need medical care, help managing their disabilities, mental health and addiction treatment, and suicide prevention are denied care, ignored, punished, and placed in solitary confinement.”
The three largest jail systems in the U.S. are: the Los Angeles County Jail, with nearly 20,000 detainees/inmates on a daily basis (the largest jail system in the world); New York City’s Rikers Island, with nearly 15,000 detainees/inmates; and the Harris County Jail with more than 10,000 detainees/inmates.
Each of the jail systems is plagued, and has been for years, with frequent inmate deaths, physical injuries, and suicides; deplorable lack of health care delivery systems, often exacerbated by deliberate indifference to the medical needs of the mentally ill or suicidal inmates; overcrowding; the unnecessary use of excessive force against inmates, particularly those with mental health issues interpreted as disciplinary problems; preventable suicides; prevalence of illicit drugs and cell phones; predatory sexual violence among inmates; and sexual abuse of inmates by jail staff.
Each of the three largest jail systems is no stranger to civil rights lawsuits brought against them by inmates, their families, the ACLU, and local advocacy groups. This past June, the Los Angeles County Jail system reached an “agreement” with the ACLU to correct a litany of “barbaric” conditions in that system.
Addressing the agreement’s ramifications, ACLU National Prison Project Deputy Director Corene Kendrick said, “This is a watershed moment for the ACLU’s jail and prison decarceration movement. “This is the first time in the country a jurisdiction that we or other advocates have sued agreed that the cornerstone to addressing abysmal jail conditions and overcrowding is to reduce the number of people coming to jail in the first place and to create alternatives to incarceration. A person cannot get well in a jail cell.”
And this past April, New York City officials agreed to shell out $53 million to settle a class action lawsuit by more than 4,000 inmates who were held in harsh solitary confinement conditions from 2018 to 2022 pending their trials.
Eric Hecker, the attorney representing the class, said, “no human being should be subjected to such highly isolated confinement, and certainly not without a hearing to challenge that placement. The compensation from the settlement cannot undo the substantial psychological harm these conditions have caused, but we hope it will provide some relief to the class.”
The Harris County Jail system is also no stranger to lawsuits. The system has been sued more than 50 times by inmates and their families—many of those lawsuits filed under the watch of current Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales, who is ultimately responsible for running a safe, humane facility.
Gonzales’ operation of the jail, which has historically had a reputation as one of the worst in the nation, has frequently been the target of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for refusing to comply with state laws governing jail standards. The Commission has deemed the sheriff’s office noncompliant with multiple state safety codes in the past year. Regulators have reprimanded the agency for failing to comply with state standards regarding medical care, monitoring of incarcerated people, processing of detainees and minimum staffing.”
Of particular concern and criticism by the Commission are the 28 inmates who perished last year and the eleven (five of whom had mental illness) who have died so far this year in what some call a “place of torment and punishment.”
Ed Gonzales’ Sheriff’s Office now faces a civil rights lawsuit similar to the ones filed against the Los Angeles and New York City jail systems.
The Texas Tribune reported on August 7, 2023, that famed civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump has joined forces with local attorney Paul Grinke to file a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of 13 formerly incarcerated Harris County Jail inmates and the families of nine inmates who died in the jail. The case, according to the
Tribune accuses the Sheriff of neglecting his duty to keep inmates in his custody safe.
One of the inmates who died in Harris County Jail was beaten to death by a fellow prisoner in March 2022. Another of the inmates who died was, according to the family of the victim, beaten to death by jail guards. The FBI is currently investigating that death.
Crump, who gained international fame representing George Floyd’s family, said, “If we learned anything from the trial involving the killing of George Floyd, we learned that when citizens are in your custody, they are in your care. And so, how many more citizens are going to die in the care of the Harris County Jail before something is done?”
That is a question every Houstonian deserves an answer to, and it is not enough for the Sheriff to issue a statement in the wake of the lawsuit saying:” We hold every life in our jail as precious. I want every family that has had a loved one in the jail to know they have my sincere sympathy and my pledge to continue striving to make our jail even safer.”
This is a complex problem. Gonzales has repeatedly sought increased funding for the jail and supported the pretrial release of nonviolent detainees, both of which might have given him the tools necessary to run a better facility. State leaders, however, have opposed all efforts to alleviate the problem, halted pretrial release of non-violent offenders, and have focused instead on packing jails and prisons beyond capacity. The tension between the reality of unnecessarily housing a growing nonviolent population in underfunded jails versus the political fear mongering and manufactured reality of tough on crime politicians has pushed jails accross the state to a near breaking point.
We should expect those held in the Harris County Jail and in jails and prisons across the country to be treated humanely and professionally. This is a responsiblity of elected officials at the federal, state and local levels. There must be increased funding and mandated standards for all institutions that detain human beings, including those accused or convicted of crimes. Alternatives to detention and incarceration should be used to remove nonviolent people from these facilities. People who suffer from mental illness and drug addiiction should recieve treatement not incarceration. Poor detainees should not suffer incarceration, while those with resources for cash bond are released. Reforms like these would reduce the strain on an overburdened system while allowing humane treatment and rehabilitation.