Courtney Richardson, incarcerated in the Harris County Jail on charges of vehicular manslaughter, thought he was going crazy, and in many ways, he was. His eyes were so red from lack of sleep that it looked like he had been on drugs. He told the jail’s mental health staff he had been tempted with thoughts of suicide — the nightmares would stop then — and so he was placed in solitary confinement for more than a month, stripped of his clothes and given only a protective suicide blanket. He hated it there but, still, was fearful of leaving his cell, scared he would run into the guard he says sexually assaulted him on March 7.
The letter he soon wrote to his mother — one of the few people he told beyond the attorneys and medical personnel — was filled with desperation, written in all capitals and addressed on the envelope to “Tammy Emergency.”
“Dear Mama,” he begins, “Please help me I was sexually assaulted on the 7th by a officer while they was beating me because I wouldn’t put my hand behind my back. … Mama I think they are going to try to retaliate against me because I told and I don’t want to go to sleep because I can’t watch my back. Please I know I did a lot of wrong but I need some help please. Please help me.”
The details of what her 24-year-old son wrote still haunt Tammy Battles, and she admits that she, too, began losing it.
“It's hard to scare this little boy—this young man, I mean," Battles said. "And for him to say he's scared, please get me out, that jumped off the page at me. It sent me to a different world."
The Houston Press obtained permission from Richardson to share his story publicly only after various letters and phone calls and Richardson’s careful consideration. According to Richardson’s account of what happened that night, jail guards entered his pod to speak with a fellow inmate, whom Richardson said he had actually known from childhood and had gone to school with growing up. Richardson concedes that the inmate provoked one of the guards, starting a physical altercation with him — but when the guards continued beating the inmate even after guards put him in an arm restraint, that’s when Richardson decided to intervene.
“I said to the officer, 'You don't have to beat him up while he's got handcuffs on, man!'” Richardson told the Press. “Then they approached me, and they were like, ‘Put your hands behind your back and submit to a hand restraint.'”
Richardson says he refused to comply, fearing that if he submitted to the restraint he, too, would be brutally beaten.
And so, he says, he was.
Richardson said he was slammed to the ground, punched in the face repeatedly and told to stop resisting, yet “I wasn't resisting—I was in the fetal position trying to cover my head and my face,” he said. When Richardson still would not submit to the hand restraint, one guard “put his hand inside my underwear and forced his fingers inside of my rectum,” in order to get Richardson to finally submit to the restraint, he wrote us in a letter.
Richardson was taken to the jail medical clinic immediately afterward, where he told the jail nurse what happened to him. He was then immediately taken to Ben Taub Hospital for a rape kit—the results of which the Houston Press does not have access to given it is an ongoing investigation and Richardson’s court-appointed attorney, Cynthia Cline, who is defending him on the vehicular manslaughter charges, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Richardson was transferred to the jail’s mental health ward after confiding in nurses and counselors about his suicidal thoughts and his nightmares, though nothing, neither anti-depressants nor counseling, seemed to help.
“I feel dirty and violated. No matter how many times I shower I don’t feel clean,” he wrote to us. “Sometimes I want to kill myself so it can all go away…. I can’t stop dreaming about it so I stay up so I don’t have to. …I’m scared that nothing will be done about it and I’m scared that something will happen to me if something is done about it.”
Something was already being done, though, shortly after his rape kit, when Richardson said representatives from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Special Victims Unit interviewed him. Prosecutors began investigating evidence of the alleged assault soon after, though according to the DA’s office Civil Rights Division Chief Julian Ramirez, the DA’s office recused itself from the case last week after realizing that one of the witnesses, a jail guard, was related to someone who works at the DA’s office. Mark Hochglaube, a private attorney, was appointed as special prosecutor to continue the investigation. He declined to comment on Richardson's case at this time.
Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Amin Alehashem, who plans to possibly look into Richardson’s case, said that an incident like this one “should never be counted as an isolated incident or a one-off event.” According to a review of all Prison Rape Elimination Act records the jail is required to keep, inmates have complained of being sexually abused by jail staff 51 times since 2013, but only three complaints have been upheld after investigation. Another 40 inmates have complained of sexual harassment by jail staff in that time period, though only four complaints were upheld.
It is impossible to know why so few of inmates’ allegations are upheld, whether it be lack of evidence or witnesses or false accusations; the Press has requested to review all 91 of these PREA complaints and investigations at the Harris County jail, though that records request is pending approval from the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
A review of detention officer use-of-force disciplinary records, however, gave a glimpse of how difficult it is for an inmate’s outcry to be taken seriously: On one occasion, a guard slammed an inmate’s head against his metal bunk while he was shackled and handcuffed after the inmate cursed him for not giving him a blanket, an injury requiring nine staples in his head. The guard’s supervisor had written in a report that the inmate, Robert Van Horn, “tripped and fell,” and so Van Horn’s complaint was considered unfounded — not once, but twice, after Van Horn complained a second time. Finally after Van Horn’s third attempt was his complaint more thoroughly investigated and finally substantiated.
“It’s troubling,” Alehashem said of the lack of upheld complaints. “As an attorney, sometimes these cases can be very difficult to prove. But I think sometimes what could make it worse is that, within the jail, we’ve heard of conspiracy among the guards when they protect one another and vouch for one another. It’s a tough veil to penetrate, because sometimes the victim is someone in the jail, and is just inherently not going to be taken as seriously. There’s definitely a power dynamic at play, and as far as that goes, it can unfortunately lead to things like sexual assault.”
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.
Richardson’s trial for vehicular manslaughter is next week, and he faces five to 99 years or life in prison, or a 30-year plea deal if accepted. The night of the accident alone is a nightmare for Richardson, who last year lost control of his Chevy Blazer while speeding in a suburban neighborhood and accidentally hit a child. He said that as police arrived on scene, he sat with the child’s mother, crying for what he had done.
At the time, Richardson had just gotten out of prison not even two years prior and had planned to turn his life around. In high school he had gotten in with a rough crowd and was convicted of engaging in organized criminal activity when he was just 17. He was sent to prison for five years, where his mother says he straightened out. He was released and found work where he could, doing piercings at a tattoo shop, and even had a son with his girlfriend at the time. They had just celebrated the baby’s first birthday when Richardson got into the accident.
“I was doing what I said I was gonna do. I was gonna change,” Richardson said. “I wasn't gonna smoke or drink. I was living up to that, until this happened. ...It’s like things just kept happening back to back to back.”
And then March 7 came.
In Battles’s new apartment, bare and without any furniture, she apologizes frequently, unable to hold herself together as she talks about her son. She is distraught over a voicemail Cline left for her last month, informing her that it doesn’t look like the DA’s office believes Richardson. She says she has considered suicide herself, only kept strong knowing that six of her other children, all younger than Richardson, rely on her.
At one point she answers the phone—a Harris County mental health counselor is on the other line, just checking in on her. She started seeing the counselor earlier this year, because after Richardson told her what had happened to him, she walked out on her job as a home-health caregiver after 20 years. She left her children with their father for 20 days, unable to function herself. She finally started working again, making minimum wage at Popeye’s. She admits she isn’t herself anymore.
“I feel for that family — that’s her child gone,” Battles said through tears. “If my son killed someone he should be punished. But that doesn't mean he should be raped in jail. I almost wish my son could switch places with that child, rather than sit in jail and be terrified of what they’re going to do to him next.”
Richardson said he finally decided to share his story after wondering if perhaps it might help other inmates in the jail like him, who may have experienced something similarly horrific. He said he began to fear that if he said nothing it would continue to happen to other inmates, and that guards would be left unaccountable.
He, for one, believes that nothing happened to the guard in his nightmares.
The last time Richardson went to court, he saw the guard on his way there. The guard was performing a shakedown on another inmate, and looked up just as Richardson passed him.
“He just smiled at me,” Richardson said.