Feds taking close look at Harris County Jail

July 8, 2008 2:40:21 PM PDT
The Harris County Sheriff's Office says Department of Justice inspectors are here in Houston. They have started looking at facilities and operations, a probe that many say is long overdue. The department is looking into alleged civil rights violations against inmates. One hundred and ten inmates have died in custody in the past six years. Some of those deaths resulted in lawsuits, but the jail chief says the county has been vindicated in court in each case.

According to a letter sent to county officials in March, inspectors are looking to see whether there are "systemic violations of the Constitution of the United States in the Harris County Jail."

Inspectors will spend the next five days inside the jail looking at various areas, including the mental health and medical units. While the group "Ministers against Crime" says such a probe is a good start, some question the legitimacy of such an investigation.

"I'm always suspicious of the Justice Department because the Justice Department is not made up of a mixture," said Dr. Floyd Nathaniel Williams, Sr. with the group.

Dr. Williams is calling for more African-Americans to be involved in this probe, though when pushed on the issue, he couldn't tell us whether he actually knew the racial makeup of those investigating.

Neither the Justice Department nor the Harris County Sheriff's Office would talk specifically about the investigation. The sheriff's office says it is cooperating with the DOJ investigation.

Harris County has the largest jail system in the state with three main facilities that hold more than 10,000 inmates.

Department of Justice investigators will be scrutinizing the jail operation and facilities in person through Saturday. There's no word yet on how quickly any violations might need to be addressed.

The investigation into conditions at the county jail is just one of several reported problems involving the Harris County Sheriff's Office. Sheriff Tommy Thomas and his office are being sued by five people claiming civil rights violations. They include the Ibarra brothers, who were spied on by a secret surveillance squad as they were in the process of suing the department. Just last week, Sheriff Thomas suspended Chief Deputy Mike Smith for five days for forwarding two anti-Muslim emails that were exposed by 13 Undercover.

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