Late last month, Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman raised eyebrows when, at the end of a presentation to commissioners court, he announced he was shuffling around some very critical staff: He'd lowered the number jail compliance inspectors and disbanded a team of “proactive” investigators dedicated to rooting out the type of misconduct that once plagued the facility (they'd still be "reactive" internal investigators, he later clarified).
It was incredibly awkward timing.
Hickman’s announcement came on the heels of a six-part (so far, at least) investigative series by the Houston Chronicle examining what it has called a pattern of jailer misconduct, brutality against inmates and lax medical care that has persisted amid years of attempted reforms, including federal intervention, at the state’s largest county lockup. Hickman, who was appointed as sheriff by county commissioners last year and is fighting to keep his post this election cycle, fired back against the daily Thursday afternoon, with his office sending out what Hickman called “the Op-Ed the Houston Chronicle Refused to Publish.”
“Readers would be led to believe that the stories rendered by certain Houston Chronicle reporters are representative of the Harris County Jail’s current management or conditions,” Hickman said in his lengthy statement. “At issue is not the factual inaccuracies of the series entitled ‘Jailhouse Jeopardy’(of which there are many), but rather the manner, context and timing in which these reports have been delivered to the general public.”
The Chron's series came during a year of heightened mainstream media attention to police violence and deaths in police custody. Among the main conclusions by reporters James Pinkerton and Anita Hassan, who wrote the most critical stories in the series:
- Since 2009, “Harris County jailers were disciplined more than 120 times for misconduct involving abuse of authority or misuse of force, including beating, kicking and choking inmates. At least 15 were handcuffed at the time. In 84 of those 120 cases, jailers or supervisors failed to file required reports, lied or falsified documents. … Most jailers disciplined for abuse of authority or unnecessary force received only short suspensions. Since 2010, 33 of those jailers were fired for use of excessive force, unprofessional conduct, neglect of duties and lying or falsifying reports.”
- Three fourths of the 75 inmates who have died in the Harris County jail since 2009 were awaiting adjudication – meaning they hadn’t yet been convicted of a crime. Eight of those were too ill to even attend their initial bail hearings. The Chron cited “19 cases in which inmates died of illnesses that were either treatable or preventable, or in which delays in care, or staff misconduct, could have played a role in their deaths.”
While Hickman faults the paper for “factual inaccuracies…of which there are many,” most of his office’s complaints appear to boil down to a difference of interpretation.
Among the “factual inaccuracies,” according to sheriff’s spokesman Ryan Sullivan, was the headline attached to one of the articles: “Harris County Jail considered ‘unsafe and unhealthy’ for inmates, public.” Sullivan pointed to an unannounced state inspection that the jail passed with flying colors in December, saying in an email that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards is “the agency responsible for determining if a jail is unsafe or unhealthy.” (The Chron’s headline clearly comes from Democratic Houston state Sen. John Whitmire, who’s quoted in the story calling the jail “unsafe and unhealthy”…hence the quotes in the headline.)
Another headline Sullivan took issue with was this one: “Guards often brutalize and neglect inmates in Harris County Jail, records show.” As Sullivan put it in an email: “Chronicle cites 120 incidents of use of force violations (not brutality) between 2009-2015 as ‘often.’ That’s 0.01% of the inmate population during the same time period.”
The major factual error alleged by Hickman’s office involves the distressing account of what happened to Ahmed Elsweisy, who, after being arrested on a DWI charge last September, faced “every diabetic’s worst nightmare.” The inmate claims jail guards ignored him when he begged for insulin. As the Chron reported:
His pleas were ignored until it was almost too late. Jail staff made Elsweisy wait about 30 hours, giving him insulin only after he passed out in a cell and became violently ill a dozen times, he said. Finally, with Elsweisy vomiting and on the verge of a life-threatening coma, the jail had him taken to Ben Taub General Hospital, medical records show.
There, in the emergency room, doctors found his high blood glucose levels had resulted in diabetic ketoacidosis, a complication that can lead to coma and death.
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“Inmate Ahmed Elsweisy’s story is not supported by the medical record,” Sullivan claims. “The Sheriff’s Office has sent the Chronicle HIPPA Patient Release forms for their subjects to fill out which would allow us to release medical information – they have not done so despite our urging.” (We’ve asked the reporter on the story for an explanation and will update if/when we hear back.)
For whatever reason, none of that was included in Hickman’s riposte to the damning series. The main message in the statement he sent out Thursday: Don’t blame me, I just got here. In Hickman's words:
…Little attention is drawn to the dates of the incidents or years in between, which occurred under a previous administration.
This is chief amongst the dangerous deceptions at play. By chronicling the transgressions of the past in today’s paper, the staff at the Chronicle defrauds the public by context and time. Events dating as far back as 2009 cannot and should not be discussed in the context of present tense. The Chronicle has done so, with no disclaimer, dropping the failure of the past administration at my feet.
Evidently anything that happened before Hickman was appointed sheriff in May 2015 is ancient history and irrelevant to both the jail’s current operations and the challenges the next Harris County sheriff will face. Perhaps that's why, as the Atlantic put it recently, the Harris County lockup remains "impervious to reform."