Courts

Sheriff Gonzalez Insists Jail Is Not "Broken," Discusses Sexual Assault on Female Deputy

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez
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Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez
Faced with both an inspection from the state that found the Harris County Jail out of compliance with standards and the sexual attack on a female deputy by an inmate this week, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez at a Wednesday morning press conference argued for more staffing, while saying that he doesn't yet know if there's a direct correlation between the attack and an employee force stretched too thin.

Gonzalez began by recounting the Monday attack in which "an inmate brutally assaulted one of our sergeants." The sheriff disclosed few personal details about the 60-year-old woman other than to say the longtime county employee was working alone in an administrative office when about 2 p.m. that day the inmate left a Bible Study meeting early and detoured to her location where he assaulted her.

Although Johnson was placed in the "maximum" category denoting the level of charges against him, Gonzalez said he didn't know if in Johnson's case this meant he should be accompanied wherever he moved on the floor. "Most jails do allow some level of open movement," Gonzalez said.  Williams was in jail on charges of sexual assault and attempted sexual assault.

The sheriff addressed the attack — saying two charges of aggravated sexual assault have been filed against 27-year-old Jeremiah Williams in the case — and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards non-compliance report, while stressing that one was not related to the other. His office had launched an internal investigation into both the criminal attack as well as to identify if any jail operation standards were breeched.

"We have, in my opinion, we have a bad actor that took advantage of an opening, saw perhaps a gap in the system and manipulated that to his advantage and committed a very serious and heinous crime."

In response to a complaint to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the state undertook a surprise  inspection in Harris County, Gonzalez said. The ensuing report faulted the Harris County jail in three areas: Cleanliness and sanitation, observational rounds and general staffing, Gonzalez said. He explained that while they make rounds every 30 to 60 minutes, depending on the type of prisoner, sometimes jailers are called away such as when a fight breaks out.

While the jail meets minimal standards for staffing (1 jailer for every 48 inmates), Gonzalez called for an additional 550 to 700 jail personnel that would enable them to better cover unforeseen events and would also alleviate at least some of the overtime hours that jailers are often forced to work now. The combination of a lot of hours and relatively low pay has historically resulted in a lot of turnover among jail personnel. In the past year there have been more than 1,200 attacks on jail personnel by inmates, he said.

Harris County operates the third largest jail in the nation and largest in Texas. Describing it as "a city within a city," Gonzalez said the job has only been made more difficult during the pandemic because of the ripple effect it had on court proceedings.

"We’re seeing probably the highest number of serious offenders that we've ever had at least in recent years." — Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

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"We’re seeing probably the highest number of serious offenders that we've ever had at least in recent years," Gonzalez said. "We have a total of 8,800 individuals right now that are either medium or high maximum classification. Of those 6,200 are going to be maximum classification. What does that means is that we're talking about serious offenders who probably have some type of assaultive history."

Saying "county jails were never meant for long term stays," Gonzalez explained that the affects of COVID-19 have resulted in a backlog of court cases and general slowdown in the state prison system taking on transfers from local jails. The average stay at the Harris County Jail is 200 days, he said, and making the length of stay more egregious, he added:  "70 percent of our population is pretrial. They haven’t been convicted of anything."

There have been 21 deaths in the jail in 2021, of which nine were due to illness, Gonzalez said, with one reported suicide. One of those deaths was that of 19-year-old Fred Harris who was allegedly beaten to death on October 29 by his cellmate Michael Paul Ownby, 25, who has been charged with murder.

The jail has no control over how the courts or the state handles charges and criminal defendants in terms of moving along cases, Gonzalez said. "All we do is house people." Because of the number of prisoners and the staffing needs, he said, he is again thinking of transferring some inmates to out of state facilities, since the ones in state are fairly full up.

He said his department was working with the state to address the cleanliness and other issues, adding that there have been many improvements in jail operations in recent years. In response to a question he said "I do not believe the jail is broken per se."