By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Each of the 38 complaints eventually was ruled by the commission to be unfounded. The commission based each of its decisions on an assessment of an inmate claim provided to the commission by the sheriff's office. Often, the review by the sheriff's office included interviews with deputies and jail staff only -- no inmates. Each written response by the commission's executive director to the complaining inmate including form-letter language stating, "After reviewing the allegations with the staff of the Harris County jail, it was determined that no violation of standards was noted."
Critics like longtime inmate advocate and gadfly Ray Hill contend that the care provided to inmates borders on the inhumane. In 1993 Hill was part of a watchdog group called the Harris County Jail Citizens Medical Advisory, which accused the county of withholding medical treatment from inmates.
Attorney James Randall Smith represented an HIV-positive client six years ago who did not receive any HIV medication while he was held at Harris County Jail. Smith says he filed an order with Judge Mike McSpadden to force the county to treat the client. The treatment? Giving him a whole bunch of aspirin, Smith says. He is thankful that his client committed a federal crime, he says, because then he was moved into federal custody, where he had access to better care.
"I mean, honest to God, if any doctor treats their clients on the outside the way inmates are treated by doctors in prison or jail, there would be such a huge outcry, it would be all over the front page of every newspaper So long as we're dealing with criminals, it's perfectly all right to mistreat them."
Troy Cimini was arrested on July 14 and sent up from booking without any shoes. By the time he wrote to the Press more than a month later, he still was walking barefoot despite filing repeated requests. This was not his only concern that went unanswered.
"It's been a week since I wrote a request saying I am going to commit suicide, and they still haven't done anything," he wrote in a letter. "I know animals can't be treated this bad, why should we?"
Some inmates who are acutely ill live on a medical floor for observation. The Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County also operates a floor within the jail for severely mentally ill patients. All other inmates must fill out request forms for help, which should arrive in 24 hours, according to both Seale and jail spokesperson Lt. Robert Van Pelt. (However, the "Inmate Health Services Plan" submitted by the county to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards says requests should be handled in 48 hours.)
In case of a medical emergency, inmates should notify the floor deputy, who should in turn alert medical staff, according to Van Pelt and Seale. However, inmates say deputies frequently ignore their requests for help.
Van Pelt says all deputies and jailers attend a three-week jail school as mandated by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Education and Standards, which includes training on identifying procedures for prompt and efficient care. Raul Carvajal, head of the HIV counseling program, says he and his counselors visit the school about every six months to conduct an HIV education workshop.
Guards should alert medical staff to every inmate who asks for help, and not decide for themselves if someone looks sick enough, Seale says. "We ask them to not really make that decision, to not make a medical decision and to call the nurse, but that is a challenge."
Edward Harrison, president of the National Committee on Correctional Health Care, says if security fails to alert medical personnel, that constitutes a "big violation" of their standards -- even if security suspects an inmate is faking an illness.
"It's not their call," he says.
Shook (who was twice refused clinic visits) and five other inmates say they tried to get help for two dying AIDS patients who lived in their cell block. Both had dementia, symptomatic of the final stages of AIDS, and would talk to themselves and behave irrationally. One of them could not control his bowel movements and would relieve himself all over the cell block several times a week. Childlike, he once hid the feces under a bed. Another time he covered it up with newspaper. Deputies called him Shitty, Shook says.
Despite repeated requests by cellmates to move the men to medical or MHMRA, the men sometimes were taken out of the cell block but always returned after several days.
Inmates also complain that they were rarely provided with proper supplies to clean up the incontinent inmate's mess. They bought bleach on the black market from floor workers by trading $2.50 worth of commissary soup for a soda bottle half-filled with beach. The shower was mold-infested and the floors filthy. Jerry Schwartz once went to the medical floor for an eye infection and says he was left for three hours in a cell with feces and dried blood on the floor. When he pointed this out, he says, nothing was done.
In a written statement, Van Pelt says Harris County adheres to jail standards for cleanliness. "We pride ourselves in the cleanliness of our facilities and are constantly vigilant in maintaining a clean, healthful and sanitary environment in which our inmate population live, and our staff work in."