Death and Taxes at the Harris County Jail

Wealth rather than culpability often determines outcomes in the criminal incarceration industry (and if you don’t think it is an industry, you’re not paying attention- and I encourage you to read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness).

Recently, an acquaintance of mine, the same age as me, was found dead in the Harris County Jail. Vincent Young died in February 2017, after allegedly hanging himself with a bedsheet. He was a father of nine, was no stranger to the criminal justice system in Harris County, and had bruises and a busted lip at the time of death. Vincent knew the system. He had a history of being represented by one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Harris County. He had more than one criminal case dismissed against him in the past, and knew that while you may not be able to beat the ride, you can beat the rap.

A 2015 article showed that over a ten year period, approximately 200 people have died in Harris County Jail. Vincent is now another human life lost to this taxpayer-funded institution: a man who was constitutionally presumed innocent, and who had previously shown his willingness to show up to court dates and did not constitute a flight risk.

Despite numbers like these and the knowledge of how sour and squalid the conditions are at the Harris County Jail, there are still people arguing with a straight face that the reason poor people stay in jail is because they want to be there. How any human, let alone a lawyer, could argue in a court of law that people want to be in jail is beyond comprehension and defies human decency.

Alec Karakatsanis and his legal team at Civil Rights Corps, along with other counsel, began a hearing yesterday afternoon in Federal Court in Houston on their bail challenge lawsuit against Harris County.

Mr. Karakatsanis, the award-winning director and founder of Civil Rights Corps, is an advocate dedicated to “ensuring that the legal system protects the important principles of human and civil rights, equality and fairness.” Civil Rights Corps, and people like Mr. Karakatsanis, are tirelessly fighting against human caging and the inhumane bail-bond system, which is the modern disguise for debtor’s prison.

This epidemic of mass incarceration of the poor is not unique to Harris County.

Kalief Browder was 16 years old when he was detained on suspicion of stealing a backpack. He spent three long years waiting in jail for trial because he couldn’t afford bond but didn’t want to plead guilty, he wanted to stand on his rights. He spent two years in solitary confinement, suffering various beatings by inmates and guards. His family reported that his mental health condition deteriorated as a result of his incarceration. Two days after being released from jail, a free and innocent man, he hung himself. He held out because he was innocent. He remained captive, beaten, and mentally deteriorating because he was poor. And in the end he paid the ultimate price for his poverty.

As a criminal defense attorney, I frequently have to file motions, writs, and request hearings to reduce or eliminate bond or onerous bond conditions (such as expensive ankle monitoring systems, no-contact with a client’s own children, or a client being unable to return to their own home while on bond). In counties contiguous to Harris County, I have been appointed to represent a client days after they have already been jailed, and a bond amount has somehow been determined without any kind of defense counsel present. No one was there to argue for her bond amount (or against it), no one was there to say she wasn’t a danger to the community, or that she wasn’t a flight risk. No one.  Just a prosecutor telling a judge what to do.

On a non-violent misdemeanor offense a client may have already served several days in jail by the time I get the case because they are too poor to post the arbitrary and often oppressive bond, so they end up serving more days in jail waiting for their court date than they would eventually be sentenced to if they were found guilty. It is no wonder there are so many guilty pleas. In a system which prides itself on justice, this is appalling.

The lawsuit against Harris County brought to light many frightening allegations that criminal defense attorneys (and criminal defendants) have known for a long time. The Plaintiffs in this lawsuit are fighting to end the arbitrary and indiscriminate detention of the poor, but also to end the ridiculous waste of taxpayer funds that the current bail bond system represents.  Jailing people who represent little to no public risk and will likely show up to their scheduled future court dates is a colossal waste of funds and effort.

Thousands of video recordings show that hearing officers don’t let arrestees even speak, and then often punish them by setting higher bonds if they do. Hearing Officers even argued that they don’t allow arrestees to speak because they don’t want them to incriminate themselves, since they have no legal representation present. Finally and recently, under intense pressure and scrutiny, Harris County voted to fund defense counsel at these hearings- but it took a lot of money and time to get anyone to pay attention.

It should not escape notice that Kim Ogg, Harris County’s new District Attorney, has spoken out in favor of bail reform, and has supported the efforts of this groundbreaking lawsuit.

As the hearing continues, all citizens should be concerned. With so many Harris County residents being arrested and unconstitutionally jailed, all of our communities suffer. We might not be able to immediately stop the deaths in our jail, but we can support the fight to end the oppression.

The Federal Courthouse is located at 515 Rusk Ave, Houston, TX 77002.


About Victoria Erfesoglou

Victoria Erfesoglou is licensed to practice law in California and Texas. She practices criminal defense in Harris and contiguous counties. She is a proud graduate of Gideon's Promise and Harris County's FACT Program. Victoria is extremely please to serve as the Assistant Director of the Texas DNA Mixture Review Project. She is deeply committed to indigent defense and fighting the systemic failures of the criminal justice system. She has certification in the Greek language and degrees in Psychology and Philosophy.

Twitter: @VErfesoglou