Harris Co. jail subject of investigation

March 7, 2008 3:30:07 PM PST
We learned Friday that the U.S. Justice Department is investigating possible civil rights violations within the Harris County Jail system. The Department of Justice sent a letter Friday to announce there would be an investigation into the Harris County jail. It reads, in part, "We are obliged to determine whether there are systemic violations of the Constitution of the United States in the conditions at HCJ."

It goes on to say, "Our investigation will focus on protection of inmates from harm, environmental conditions and inmate medical and mental health care." [READ THE LETTER]

Those are the same conditions that have been of some concern in the community. Last year, a group known as the Houston Ministers against Crime was raising them.

"We saw men laying on the floor next to the commode, beds right beneath the commodes, and they were just about walking all over each other and guys had sores," said Reverend James Nash with Ministers Against Crime. "We know people are supposed to be punished, but not in inhumane conditions such as in that jailhouse."

"The federal government is going to go in and investigate and then make a public report on what is going on in that jail," added Rev Robert Jefferson with Ministers Against Crime. "That is good news."

This is not to be confused with overcrowding at the Harris County Jail. That's something that's overseen by the Texas State Commission on Jail Standards. For years, the Harris County Jail has been operating on a variance of the state. This Department of Justice investigation is something different.

The head of the Harris County Jail told us such investigations are routine. However, we have information that the Department of Justice doesn't investigate on one or two complaints, that there has to be a pattern and several cases.

The Harris County Sheriff's Department responded to the investigation with the statement below:

    The Harris County Sheriff's Office received notice today that the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) will conduct an investigation of the Harris County Jail system. In their announcement, the DOJ made no allegations against the Harris County Sheriff's Office, and they expressed their belief that Harris and other Counties want to operate their jails in a manner consistent with the Constitution. The DOJ indicated that their investigation will focus on the "efforts the County has undertaken to ensure compliance with federal law," and that they will make recommendations when appropriate on improvements that can be made.

    Sheriff Tommy Thomas asserted that, as always, n the Department of Justice officials, and all Federal Authorities, for that matter, will enjoy the full cooperation of and access to the Harris County Sheriff's Office. In addition, the Sheriff's Office welcomes any recommendations DOJ may make regarding ways in which our operations can be improved.

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