In the decade between 2005 and 2015, 199 people died in the custody of the Harris County Sheriff's Office —and of those who died in the county jail, about 85 percent had not yet been convicted of a crime.
That's according to a new database developed by University of Texas postdoctoral fellow Amanda Woog, documenting nearly 7,000 in-custody deaths in Texas. Using all reports that local law enforcement and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice are required to send to the state attorney general whenever a prisoner dies, Woog's database gives the public access to basic details on every police custody death in that time period. The data covers everything from officer-involved shootings (called “justifiable homicide” here) to jail suicides to cancer deaths in prison.
“I was struck by the number of people who died prior to conviction," Woog said. "I figured we'd see a lot of prison deaths, because we have a large incarcerated population. But it was around 1,900 people statewide who haven't yet been convicted of a crime, and that really stood out to me."
Woog also traced deaths by race. In Harris County, nearly half of all people who died in sheriff's office custody were black, which is consistent with the fact that about half of the inmate population is black, despite making up only 18 percent of the Harris County adult population. Those who died were mostly in their 40s and 50s (100 of 199). And the majority died of natural causes or illnesses (123 of the 199). Twenty-six committed suicide (six were cases in which police were called to the scene), and 22 were killed by sheriff's deputies.
Almost all of those cases are officer-involved shootings, like the time an off-duty deputy working security at Wal-Mart shot to death a mother of two who was driving away after shoplifting, or the time a deputy shot a mentally unstable man who thought the world was ending and people were trying to clone him, and paramedics called deputies for help. (In that case, we should note, one deputy actually sued the family because he suffered "superficial wounds" during the incident.)
But the only “justifiable homicide” that was not a shooting was the time an inmate died after an “altercation” with a guard. He was cuffed, sent to the jail medical clinic and then returned to his cell — then died at the hospital two hours later, after reporting “difficulty breathing.” According to news reports after the feds investigated the Harris County jail in 2008, two guards put the inmate, Clarence Freeman, in a choke hold while escorting him to an isolation cell, where Freeman intended to file a grievance after jailers denied him his extra food for doing extra work.
The sheriff's office said he had respiratory problems. Doctors found a blood clot. We should also note that the case of Kenneth Lucas—a father detained after spending too much time on a supervised visit with his children, who was stifled and suffocated to death by jailers over what they thought was a handmade smoke-detector weapon—is listed as an "other homicide."
After the Department of Justice completed its investigation of the jail in 2009, it found that conditions of the jail and treatment of inmates in many instances were unconstitutional and that use of force was often left unchecked. A new sheriff, Adrian Garcia, took office that year, promising reform. But after a fall 2015 Houston Chronicle investigation of jail conditions concluded, it appeared that problems remained: The newspaper found 55 people died in the jail awaiting trial, from 2009 to 2015.
Sheriff Ron Hickman, who was appointed to the post in May 2015 after Garcia stepped down to run for mayor, took issue with the investigation, primarily arguing that the majority of incidents investigated by the Chronicle occurred before he took office.
Still, Woog's data shows the sheriff's office saw more in-custody deaths last year — 27 — than in any other year since 2005. Of course, it's impossible to speculate why that may be, or whether jail conditions or treatment and surveillance of inmates had any role. Woog noted that, actually, 2015 was the worst year for in-custody deaths as a whole in Texas; she said research indicated an increase in in-custody deaths and police interaction with civilians across the board since 2005 as well. But again, the factors driving this increase remain unclear.
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Asked about the high number of in-custody deaths in 2015, sheriff's office spokesman Ryan Sullivan said without examining the data closely it would be hard to tell, but he suggested that Harris County's drastic population increase could be a large contributing factor. According to county data, the county's population has grown 30 percent since 2000.
Otherwise, Sullivan said, "I can't account for why more criminals are pulling guns on officers on the street. ...If we look inside the detention center, no policy would ever prevent someone from dying from a natural illness. Inmates arrive here at a lot of various levels of medical condition. A lot of people have weakened immune systems, and they're therefore more susceptible to contracting diseases like MRSA.”
That's similar to the case of Patrick Green, who died in the jail after contracting bacterial meningitis, a treatable disease that may be fatal if left untreated. Sullivan couldn't comment on the case because of pending litigation, but Green's lawyers contend the jail could have prevented his death, and argue that since no other inmates at the time contracted bacterial meningitis, Green contracted the disease due to unsanitary jail conditions, an issue also explored in the Chron investigation.
There have so far been six reported in-custody deaths at the Harris County jail in 2016. Christopher Hendricks committed suicide, dying later at the hospital after his family's painful confusion over whether an inmate in custody could donate organs. Lakeshia Dibbles died in jail not long after being released from the hospital — she hit her head on concrete while running from deputies after stealing baby formula from Wal-Mart. And Patrick Brown died after two inmates stomped and beat him to death in a holding cell less than two days after entering the jail. He was accused of stealing a guitar, and had not yet been convicted.