Aug 8, 2023 - News

Families sue Harris County over jail conditions

Photo of a woman in green holing hands with a man in the air, as others join with raised fists above their head.

Ben Crump says, "Justice for Ramon Thomas" — who would have turned 31 on the day of the press conference — while holding the hand of Thomas' mother, Dianne Bailey Rijsenburg. Photo: Shafaq Patel/Axios

Harris County is being sued by the families of those who died and detainees who were injured in the custody of Harris County Jail while awaiting trial.

Driving the news: Civil rights attorney Ben Crump and local lawyer Paul Grinke announced Monday that they are representing 22 families and individuals in a federal lawsuit that alleges that the county and the sheriff's office have deliberately neglected their custodial responsibility to keep people safe in the jail.

  • "We allege and we will prove that there is an ongoing, unchecked, unhinged, pervasive pattern, practice and culture of assault, death and failure to provide care," Grinke said in the press conference.

Context: At least 10 people have died in the custody of the county jail this year. This follows a record-setting year for the number of in-custody deaths in 2022, when at least 28 detainees died.

  • The lawsuit addresses incidents starting in August 2021.

The latest: The Harris County Jail remains out of compliance with minimum safety standards, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards said Thursday.

  • Rep. Ron Reynolds announced that the county will be subjected to additional on-site inspections and submit a monthly progress report after failing to adequately address compliance failures identified in September 2022.

Details: Of the 22 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, nine are families who had someone die in the jail, including the family of Jacoby Pillow, whose death the FBI is investigating after jail staff reportedly "used force" on him.

  • One more family will be joining the lawsuit, according to the attorneys.
  • Several of the families still don't know what happened to their loved ones. Grinke tells Axios that they will now be able to subpoena documents to uncover more details.
  • The lawsuit claims jail officers have assaulted the detainees, neglected medical issues and failed to stop violent attacks. Grinke notes that he's heard reports of correctional officers "watching it happen, sometimes even laughing."

What they're saying: "How many more citizens are gonna die in the care of Harris County Jail before something is done? How many more?" Crump says.

  • "These individuals have the presumption of innocence — they went in as detainees in the custody and care of the Harris County Jail," and now they're dead, Reynolds says. "Nothing's gonna bring these people back, but these families, they deserve justice, they deserve accountability."
  • "No one waiting for their day in court deserves the death penalty. And the zero transparency from the agencies makes it worse. For our loved ones to be totally taken away from us isn't humane. It is unjustifiable," says Jacilet Griffin-Lee, the mother of Evan Ermayne Lee.
  • "We still do not know [William Curtis Barrett's] cause of death. Instead of him receiving the medical attention that he needs because he's suffering from mental health, he was tossed into jail with no care," says Annette James, Barrett's sister.
  • "Jacoby mattered. All these lives here matter. We want justice for each and every one. Somebody has to be held accountable because there can't be another Jacoby. This keeps happening over and over. The statistics don't lie," says Octevia Wagner, Pillow's older sister.

Between the lines: ​​Crump also represents the families of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Tyre Nichols and several other victims of police brutality. He recently represented the family of Henrietta Lacks in the HeLa cell settlement.

  • The lawsuit comes after Crump and Grinke called for the Department of Justice to investigate the Harris County Jail conditions in February, bringing the crisis to national attention.

The other side: Shortly after the press conference, the sheriff's office released a statement celebrating the low number of deaths this year despite the longer-than-average stay for a person awaiting trial.

  • "The Harris County Jail mortality rate so far in 2023 is lower than the overall Texas state jail mortality rate, and lower than the combined death rate of Texas' five largest urban jails," per the statement.

Of note: The Harris County Attorney's Office declined to comment Monday.


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