Last September the Texas Commission on Jail Standards got an anonymous tip about the squalid conditions a mentally ill inmate at the Harris County jail had been forced to endure. Photographs an unidentified whistleblower eventually provided to KTRK showed Goodwin had been trapped inside a bug-infested cell with mounds of trash and feces clogging the sink, toilet and shower drain. Orange peel was scattered around the toilet bowl, perhaps in a futile attempt to mask the stench. Goodwin hadn't been outside his cell for weeks.
While a jail compliance team pulled Goodwin from his cell in October 2013, it wasn't until KTRK broke the story last fall that Sheriff Adrian Garcia knew anything about the incident. He looked rattled in a press conference his office called the day after the story aired, repeatedly telling reporters he was "damn mad" about what had happened on his watch. It remains unclear why Garcia was never told about the incident.
Yesterday the Harris County District Attorney's Office announced that a grand jury has indicted two jail sergeants for falsifying records, a felony, while Goodwin sat in his foul jail cell. If convicted, Ricky Pickens-Wilson and John Figaroa could face up to ten years in prison. While the DA's investigation sheds some new light on what happened to Goodwin at the Harris County lockup, there's still much we don't know.
Goodwin was booked into the Harris County jail in March 2013 after being arrested for possessing a small amount of pot. While his marijuana charge was dismissed, it appears Goodwin was kept in jail because his arrest triggered a probation violation on a five-year-old burglary charge. On June 3, 2013, records show Goodwin punched a detention officer in the face and was charged with assaulting a public servant.
It's unclear exactly how long Goodwin was isolated in his cell. A spokesman at the DA's office told us that, just by counting the number of styrofoam food containers shown in photos of the cell, Goodwin must have been in his cell for "several weeks."
Two weeks before he was pulled out of his cell, court records show that Goodwin was declared incompetent to stand trial on his assault charge and ordered into psychiatric treatment (publicly-available records do not state a diagnosis). Twenty days after he was found in his fetid cell, Goodwin was sent to the Rusk State Hospital for a 120-day commitment. After he was declared competent to stand trial last year, Goodwin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.
We asked Julian Ramirez, a prosecutor with the DA's civil rights division who's handling the case against the two indicted detention officers, whether jailers had simply retaliated against Goodwin because he'd assaulted one of their own.
Here's what he told us: Violating the rights of a person in custody was one of the possible charges grand jurors considered, but that carries an awfully high burden to get an indictment. "That would require evidence that Mr. Goodwin's rights or privileges were intentionally deprived by someone knowing that doing so was unlawful. ... So you get to the question of what was the intent for not going into his (Goodwin's) cell?" Ramirez says.
So far, the excuse some supervisors have given for keeping Goodwin in his cell is that he was volatile and had already punched a jailer, Ramirez says. "One of the justifications given by some supervisors is that they did not want to cause a use-of-force incident, and because Goodwin was combative at times they chose to simply not go in the cell."
We still don't know why nothing happened with Goodwin's case for nearly a year. Ramirez says it was HSCO's jail compliance team that found Goodwin in his cell back in October 2013. "They reported what they discovered to their supervisors, and then other supervisors acted to get the cell cleaned up," Ramirez told us. Whether that triggered an internal sheriff's office investigation, or whatever happened with that investigation if indeed one was undertaken, is anyone's guess at this point. (Check out the dizzying explanation we got last year from an HSCO spokeswoman
, who has yet to answer any of the specific questions we asked Wednesday morning.)
And it's still unclear why, if jail officials already knew about the incident, Sheriff Garcia didn't find out about it until a whistleblower took it to the media and the state commission on jail standards. If it was a lapse in communication, it wouldn't be the first time.
Ultimately, Figaroa and Pickens-Wilson were indicted because, according to prosecutors, they fudged the books, signing off on forms stating Goodwin's cell had been searched when it hadn't been. But if Goodwin was in his cell for weeks on end, certainly more than two jail sergeants were witness to his treatment.
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At this time, Ramirez tells us, nobody else at the jail is facing criminal charges. "If someone saw some unsanitary conditions and did nothing about it, that in and of itself would not constitute a criminal offense."
We've asked HSCO whether any disciplinary action has been taken or considered against anyone else at the office; why it took "several weeks" for anyone inside the jail to discover the conditions; and why an inmate with a mental illness severe enough to be declared incompetent by a judge was isolated in a feces- and trash-covered cell for weeks on end instead of in another section of the jail for mentally ill offenders.
We'll update if we ever hear back.
-- Update 4/8/15 at 7:30 p.m.: It appears the line out of HCSO hasn't changed much since last September. That is, Garcia's team is still investigating why he didn't know about his department's initial investigation into the Goodwin incident (the one supposedly undertaken by the jail's compliance team after it discovered Goodwin in his cell) and it's investigating why that team didn't have any answers after a year of investigating...
As to why Goodwin wasn't placed in a mental health unit, HCSO spokeswoman Christina Garza told us in an email, "Not all inmates with a diagnosed mental health condition are placed in our mental health unit. With nearly a third of our jail population having some degree of mental health illness, many of those inmates are treated for their condition but housed in general population." As to the rest of our questions, she cited the ongoing internal investigation into the matter.