Jailers Abuse Inmates: Should We Even Care?

This week the Houston Chronicle reported on the Harris County jail in an articles aptly titled Jailhouse Jeopardy. Sadly, that jeopardy is related not to being tried twice for the same offense but instead is jeopardy to life and limb while inside the jail.

Image Credit: Houston Chronicle; Jailhouse jeopardy: Guards often brutalize and neglect inmates in Harris County Jail, records show; James Pinkerton and Anita Hassan; October 3, 2015The Harris County jail, run by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, houses individuals accused of crimes and those serving sentences. Interestingly, at any given time 60-80% of those housed in the jail, have NOT been convicted of a crime but are simply waiting for their day in court. Many Harris County officials acknowledge the jail is the largest de facto mental health facility in the county.

Whether accused of a crime or convicted of a crime, our locally jailed community faces threats, inhumane treatment, and physical and mental abuse at the hands of those assigned to protect them. Sure, inmate-on-inmate abuse happens, but in Harris County, it is more often jail staff who brutalize inmates and attempt to cover up wrongdoing. More tragically, the deputies and staff working in the jail are more likely to get away with it.

As the Chronicle has uncovered, jailers are unlikely to face criminal charges even in cases clearly documented as excessive use of force. They are unlikely to be fired. They are even unlikely to be disciplined.

In 2009, the Justice Department concluded its yearlong investigation of the jail and determined that inmates’ constitutional protections had been violated through excessive force and poor medical treatment and care. Since then little has changed.

More than 120 times jailers have been disciplined for abuse of authority and misuse of force. At least 15 of those inmates abused were handcuffed during their assaults. In 84 instances, supervisors failed to file required reports or lied and falsified the reports. And these are just 120 examples that were documented. With supervisors failing to file reports, many instances go unreported and not investigated. As Senator Rodney Ellis, remarked, “It’s thugs guarding thugs over there.”

The examples are varied and horrific. One jailer opened the door to a cell to allow another inmate to enter and attack a fellow inmate. Some jailers stormed a cell and beat and choked an inmate because the inmate used a mirror to cast a reflection. Some jailers ignored medical needs and left an inmate to die. Many fail to report uses of force or lie to cover it up.

Why does it matter? Aren’t we just talking about criminals anyway?

It matters because violence breeds violence. It matters because these are people, human beings, who deserve basic necessities and safety while incarcerated. It matters because we are better than this.

How we treat our poor and our incarcerated sets the tone for what we as a society are willing to tolerate in the treatment of all our citizens. Do we really want to foster violence and mistreatment? Do we want to keep paying out tax dollars for damages in civil suits for failing to protect them? Abuse and neglect are expensive and can be managed better.

It’s time to demand more of our public officials. It’s time to restore integrity in our system. It starts with all levels. Treat people with respect. Sadly, one day it may your loved one in that unfortunate situation awaiting to make bond and being abused while the paperwork is processed.

Related Reasonable Doubt Clip: Harris County Jails

About JoAnne Musick

JoAnne Musick is a criminal, juvenile and family lawyer and is board certified in both criminal and juvenile law. She is a two-time past president of HCCLA (the only president to serve two terms) and is active in many legal organizations including TCDLA. JoAnne is also a regular contributor at Fault Lines, HCCLA, and her own blog. Catch up with her on social media @joannemusick.