Harris County jails are not known for their cleanliness, safety, or quick processing time. Reports from these centers feature sexual assault, overcrowded conditions (referred to by inmates as “the tanks”), hot oven-like temperatures in the summer, and even death. Here are just a few of the sordid but true facts about the condition of Houston’s – specifically Harris County’s – jail system.

Overcrowding

Harris County jail is known for its overcrowding. The jails became so overcrowded one summer that the sheriff told the Houston Police Department to stop sending in more inmates, since the jail was so full it couldn’t handle any more. “No room at the inn” as the phrase used. Booking slowed down to a grind and the delay was more than jail personnel could handle. Overcrowding was such an issue that Sheriff Ron Hickman has asked himself for bail reform and diversion programs in jail that could keep pre-trial defendants out of his jail and back on the streets. Equal Justice Under Law sued Harris County’s bail schedule to stop the incarceration of the poor who can’t pay bail.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is also sadly rampant in Harris County jails. According to the Department of Justice’s review on prison rape, the federal agency found that Harris County Jail had a shocking assault rate of 7.6 percent – more than double the nation’s average. That makes Houston’s Harris County Jail third in the United States for assault instances.

The study found that female inmates also had multiple sexual relations in laundry rooms with the jailers in return for favors granted to them. Inmate abuse was rampant as well. Inmate-on-inmate assault is also third place. The number one and two spots are Ripley County Jail in Indiana and Philadelphia City Riverside Correctional Facility. 

Sweltering Hot Conditions

Jails in Houston often do not install air conditioners in cells, and cell blocks in the summer must endure heat in the three-digit number. Larry Gene McCollum died of heatstroke while incarcerated in Harris County. His body temperature was 109 degrees after the guards discovered him. Geriatric, or senior inmates, experience conditions the hardest. A lawsuit in 2014 found that just 29 out of 104 state prisons and jails in Texas even have air-conditioning in dorms or cells. Houston, with some of its worst heat and humidity, heats up to oven-like conditions. 

Untimely Prisoner Death

The worst result of these conditions is death in prison. For Clarence Freeman, his arrest turned into a death warrant after he showed up at Harris County Jail in Houston and was assaulted by a guard. The assault was lethal, and Clarence Freeman passed away. Between 2001-2006, over 100 deaths occurred in Harris County jails. 21 alone died in 2008. Suicides also occur in Harris County jails – with two inmates committing suicide in one month in 2018. One mentally ill inmate wasn’t checked on for 45 minutes before her death, leading the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to post Harris County jail as failing the standard. 

Delayed inmate transfers, sweltering conditions, sexual assault and inmate-on-inmate assault, and death – it’s no wonder Houston jails are notorious for their conditions. State legislatures are aware of these conditions, but anyone seeking federal aide or an overhaul of Houston jails should contact their state senator or house representative right away.

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