Jail Hell

Inmates emerging from the Harris County Jail tell remarkably similar stories of horrible conditions inside.

Jarret spent five days in the holding cells, sleeping with a foot on his shoulder and someone else's foot on his back and awakened every now and then by someone coming through, "kicking people in the head, saying, 'Man, get the fuck up!'" At last, he was processed into the jail at 1200 Baker, where the crowding wasn't so bad, where the meals came on schedule. "They had actual water fountains you can drink out of," and he got his own mattress, his own blanket. "Everything," he said. "Thought I was in paradise."

But only a very few would describe the main jail as paradise. Other inmates complained of the mildewed showers there, the flaking paint, of dirty laundry, of an overwhelmed clinic. Just one was disconcerted by the availability of drugs at 701 San Jacinto. "They got high every day in my dorm," said the man, who, fearing for his life, wouldn't give his name. By far the greatest complaint the prisoners had, however — and they had it from intake through the main buildings — regarded the people who ran the jail. The inmates couldn't help but perceive a general lack of concern for their welfare.

They noticed it through the many acts of omission, as when, during intake, Charlotte Lavan informed the guard that she was both anemic and pregnant, and the guard replied, "We don't give a fuck!" And left her to her fate.

But the inmates mainly felt the disregard as they were being beaten. Justice Department officials were not the only ones with "serious concerns about the use of force at the Jail," as the June report stated. The guards will "beat your ass," said Wade. "They beat my ass."

He told of an earlier arrest on a drunk-and-disorderly charge, and of being handcuffed to a table at a precinct station, "mouthing off" to the cop, when the cop started hitting him in the face. Wade's nose was broken. There was "blood everywhere," and in that condition, he arrived at the jail, where three "big old boys" dragged him into a room in the receiving area, sat him down and resumed beating him in the head. "They kept telling me, 'Put your face up, pussy,'" Wade remembered, and when he wouldn't lift his face to the blows, "that's when one big old cop kicked me in the chest with his boot."

Another man, jailed for the fourth time on drug charges — "Roy Lee Colbert. I am not afraid" — recalled being led out of court once and finding himself alone in an anteroom with four of his jailers. "Get on your fucking knees," said one, and, dropping obediently, Colbert says he was hit once with a fist, "hard force," in the rib cage. Eventually he understood that he had violated the stricture to sit perfectly still while in court, by stretching his arms.

Shemika explained that "you can't really question the guards about anything. It's just, 'You do as we tell you.'" But a lot of inmates had mental problems, she went on, "so if they were screaming or something, the guards would come in and handle them rough." Jarret said there was a man in his holding cell who was picking food off the floor, storing it in his shoe and eating it. "The guards were like, 'What're you doing — are you retarded?' And the dude was standing there like, you can tell he's retarded. They asked him what his name was, and as soon as he said he didn't know how to spell his name, they just started slapping him to the ground."

There were other stories — of a prisoner being slapped in the face for trying to explain he wasn't making noise; of a female prisoner being thrown into the wall, kicked upon the floor and pinned there for stepping out of line; of another female prisoner being tossed head-first into the concrete for looking suspicious during a strip search.

What most of the stories had in common was some effort to conceal the violence, at least from other prisoners. Before the inmate was slapped in the face, the guard, according to 18-year-old Salvador Santillan, shouted, "Everyone turn your head! Face toward the left!" And as the other inmate was knocked down for stepping out of line, another guard, according to Rodney, told everyone else to face forward: "All you motherfuckers look forward!"

Wade said prisoners are often dragged out of the holding cells, "but you know they're getting their ass beat, because you hear screams, and then you don't hear nothing." Colbert said, "They'll try to hit you in the body where it won't leave a mark." And if perchance the guards do mark you, Colbert was not the only prisoner to say, they'll tell your family you've lost visiting privileges and put you in solitary until you heal.

The guards seemed unconcerned with whether their colleagues saw them use violence. The feds, in their inspection, found that the guards aren't required to report the use of force and that such incidents are hardly investigated.

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