Harris County Jail Crisis Demands System Change, Sheriff Says

Harris County Jail Crisis Demands System Change, Sheriff Says
Harris County Jail Crisis Demands System Change, Sheriff Says

In the course of reporting for an investigation into the death of Bryan Johnson at the Harris County Jail last year, the Houston Chronicle sat down for an hour with Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to discuss the problems facing the overcrowded lockup, where more than 30 people have died since the start of 2022. During the interview in early February, Gonzalez acknowledged dangerous conditions for inmates and staff, but claimed that his staff has been left in the bag for a number of “social ills,” including broken criminal justice, economic and health institutions, and said that nothing less than systemic overhaul could solve the problems in the prison. He also outlined some of the steps his office has taken to improve conditions.

Houston Chronicle: Before we get into the general issues of the prison, I wanted to ask if there is anything you would like to say about Bryan Johnson’s individual case? His mother contacted me after his death and said he had been beaten by guards and his requests for medical treatment were ignored.

Ed Gonzalez: Well, first of all, I think it’s always important for me to just say that we always offer our condolences to all family members who have lost a loved one while in our custody, and that’s something I consider a solemn promise for me. And you know, one of the reasons that I first really pursued becoming a sheriff is that I wanted the opportunity and the challenge of really tackling and ending the over-incarceration of people on a macro level. It is something that I am personally very passionate about.

I can’t talk specifically about this case… but when we get reports, we want to investigate them.

Chronicle: Several people who died in prison last year had pre-existing or undiagnosed conditions. Does more need to be done if things are still slipping through the cracks? What prevents people from receiving the care they need?

González: If someone comes in with medication or if there’s some type of treatment plan that’s shared with our staff, I expect that person to have access to their medication, and why that doesn’t happen is beyond me. It is our responsibility to ensure that we try to identify why it may have happened and ensure that it does not happen again.

We have taken steps. We always seek continuous improvement.

Chronicle: Have you identified or implemented any of these types of improvements?

González: One of the things we did in the last couple of years was we transitioned to Epic, the technology platform that the hospitals and the vast majority of medical professionals use, so it can be an ongoing record story. In the development phase, we also have an operating report so that we can all see calculations in the form of medical treatment and how we are doing operationally, as a dashboard that we can all use. We have been aggressive in hiring medical personnel.

Chronicle: Deaths have risen in each of the last three years. Why haven’t we seen improvement?

González: Improvement, as in the expectation that no one will ever die? For the context, if we look at the cases, when someone comes in the door it is not the case that things stand still. It’s still disease, there’s still a lot of different issues around it, and when the average length of stay is unsustainable and people are incarcerated longer, the outcomes are usually not very good.

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You’re dealing with addiction and mental illness and assaultive behavior and a lot of things, so you’re trying to make sure you’re avoiding things like any kind of lethal use of force in prison, or trying to reduce and limit suicide. If you look at the suicide rate in recent years, it hasn’t been an extremely high number (about 9 percent of deaths in the Harris County Jail since 2005 have been suicides, compared to about 22 percent of deaths in county jails across Texas, according to Texas Justice Initiative.)

I don’t decide who goes to jail or gets out. We have to accept them as they are, regardless of their health. But is it worrying that people are dying? Certainly, I don’t want anyone to ever die, but what could we have done to prevent any of these? We are always going to try to do everything we can, including if we could make the wheels of justice move faster so that people are not stuck in prison for long periods of time. If we could get the state to be able to take more people who are on the waiting list for mental health, make sure that medical protocols are strictly followed and make sure that the staff are not subjected to assaultive behavior.

You know, we are creating a new women’s center that has been in the works since last year. We also have a very successful veterans program that we have been able to really develop with a holistic approach. None of us are happy with any deaths that occur, and we’re going to continue to leave no stone unturned to try to find any approaches or best practices that are out there to reduce the number of deaths.

Chronicle: Is there anything your office can do in the short term to help deal with this crisis?

Gonzalez: I’m concerned with drug addiction on a macro level because I think there may be an element of that either pre-arrest or with contraband that might come into our facility. So we try to make sure that we reduce contraband.

The prison environment is simply not conducive to improving one’s health, which is why we meet regularly with our medical provider and mental health provider to continue to review their protocols as well. We continue to increase training for all employees because we do not want a situation where there is assaultive behavior and it leads to the use of force that becomes lethal. So if we could lower those and make sure we continue to hold the line on suicide, we’re trying to tackle this from different angles and see the best way to reduce deaths overall.

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A broken, inefficient, slow system benefits no one, including victims. People deserve their day in court and if cases are fully prosecuted we should hold people accountable and they should go on to the state prison system, but people just get stuck here.

Chronicle: What do you say to critics who, despite all that, say it’s still the sheriff’s office’s responsibility to keep people safe once they’re in jail?

González: I’m not saying in any way that we don’t have a responsibility, but what do they want us to do? At the end of the day, some say no one should be imprisoned, but is that a practical solution? I am probably one of the few who has testified on behalf of changing our antiquated bail system. How many others have stood up and advocated for it? If they now say they think things should be improved operationally, fine, I get it. It is certainly within my area of ​​responsibility and I take responsibility for the safety of all who come into my custody, including my staff. But with some cases, I don’t know how we can prevent every death from happening.

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