Jail Hell

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

Twice this summer, on mornings in June and August, I stood at the corner of Commerce and San Jacinto as the inmates came shuffling out of the Harris County Jail, tired and dirty, squinting into the light. There was Charlotte Lavan, a 24-year-old black woman accused of passing worthless checks: "My family needed groceries," she said. "I ain't fixing to lie on that. I did it, and I'd do it again." There was 22-year-old Eddie Garza, emerging from 11 days for possession of .01 grams of cocaine: "They got it out of my nose," he said. And there was Wade, who like others here preferred not to give his last name. He was a 43-year-old father of five kids, a construction worker who said, "Damn traffic tickets so high, how the hell are you supposed to be able to pay? I can't pay, so I sit it out."

When I asked Wade how he liked the accommodations, he lit a cigarette he'd borrowed and said, "Ain't worth a shit, to be honest." When I remarked that jails are like that, Wade, among others, clarified that no, he was an educated man on these matters — a veteran of jails in North Dakota, Montana, California — and Harris County's was without doubt the worst jail he'd known. "It's way overcrowded in there," he said, "and unorganized as hell."

This was essentially the conclusion recently reached by the U.S. Department of Justice. Following a year-long investigation, DOJ officials reported in June that the jail is crowded, unsanitary and dangerous, and that inmates risk death from the unsanitary conditions, a lack of medical care and guard violence.

The Justice Department expressed hope that the county would work to resolve these issues, but Sheriff Adrian Garcia, whose office runs the jail, instead denied virtually all of the Department of Justice's findings. The jail, he insisted, was "safe, sanitary and in compliance with the strictest of standards."

The formal response in August from County Attorney Vince Ryan only backed the sheriff up. In 300 pages, Ryan told the feds that "our criminal justice facilities are doing a great job." "What has happened here," he explained, "is that the Justice Department Civil Rights Division believed what the inmates told them and did not look at the files and facts as my office has done."

Ryan seemed to believe that the Department of Justice would soon acknowledge its own naiveté and ineptitude and let the matter drop, but I wasn't so sure. Not wanting to wait for the resolution of the lawsuit the feds have promised, I set out to discover what really goes on behind the walls.

The sheriff and the county attorney dismiss the accounts of prisoners as "anecdotal evidence" — lies, it seems — but such evidence is otherwise known as the statements of victims and witnesses. Everyone I spoke to outside the jail had been imprisoned on nonviolent charges, and like most in the jail, the majority had not yet faced trial. They were to be presumed innocent. And if they all lied to me, I can only say that it must have been the work of a vast conspiracy of brilliant minds, which has never been my conception of jail.
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The intake process at the Harris County Jail is "horrible, horrible," said Frank George Smith Jr., who was jailed for possession. "One of the officials actually told us, 'We are understaffed, so it's going to be pretty slow,'" said Laurence, a computer technician sitting out traffic tickets. "It's like we were all cattle stuffed into this one big room," said Melissa Miller, 39, who was picked up on an old warrant for a bounced check. 

"It's chaos in there, sir," said a Hispanic man who was charged with burglary of a habitation and wished to be called Rodney. "Dirt like this gutter's all over the floor — and feces, another man's shit, on the floor." Charlotte Lavan spoke of the gnats flying around. "It's filthy," she said. "It's horrible!" The first holding cell wasn't air-conditioned, said Wade. "You got bums in there," he said, "people who pissed in their pants, throwed up on theirselves. People who ain't got no pants."

"They kept putting people in there," Wade went on. "Shit, they could see there were too many people in there as it was." "They kept adding people," said Laurence. "It didn't make sense." "Of course, everyone was sweating, so it didn't take long for there to be a smell." Shemika, a homemaker charged with child abandonment, remembered that "the door said 'Capacity 22,' but must have been 50 or 60 there." People were standing shoulder to shoulder, said Jarret, a 20-year-old mixed martial arts fighter charged with possession. "The guards were talking about how overcrowded it was." There was nothing to do but count. "I stopped counting after 150." Todd, a 21-year-old West University man jailed for possession, said, "You really couldn't sit down." Everyone's "packed in like sardines," said Wade. "I stood for six hours."

As for meals, "that whole food thing is hit or miss," said Shemika. "When they did feed you, it was a bologna sandwich — and I'm Muslim." Frank George Smith Jr. said he was there three and a half days and got just two sandwiches. No one was given anything to drink. There was only the fountain, which was suspended just above the toilet. The toilet was "like a fucking rain forest," Jarret said, "fungus and mold in there like this thick." People were lying on the floor around it; someone was always sitting on it. Jarret managed not to use the toilet for two and a half days — "man, you just take the stomach pains," he said — but he had to drink. "You practically got to put your face in shit to drink," he said. And Smith said, "you see that tan truck there? The water looked about like that."

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.

Garcia has pledged to improve the jail, but also he has said, "The jail environment was never supposed to be a picnic." So Jarret has heard the guards shout, "Y'all going to act like animals, we're going to treat you like animals!" And Colbert was told, "You don't like jail, don't come here."

"Everything every time is just the same," said Wade. And what use was it really to complain? "It's your word against theirs," he said. "Who's going to believe you?"

No one, it seems, but the Department of Justice.

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