New information in Harris Co. jail probe

HOUSTON The Department of Justice released its report a couple of months ago. It followed an inspection conducted at the Harris County Jail last summer. The inspection was prompted by a number of inmate deaths in recent years.

The county attorney acknowledges there is room for improvement at the jail, but says he and Sheriff Adrian Garcia rejected the Department of Justice claims that conditions there were ever unconstitutional.

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan and Sheriff Adrian Garcia say that since the last inspection by federal agents, there have been a number of changes at the jail, all of them listed in a response to the Department of Justice.

In June, the DOJ issued a list of findings to the county, claiming the conditions at the jail violated the inmates' civil rights. Among those findings were insufficient medical care, failure to prevent suicides, poor sanitation, overcrowding and a lack of protection from excessive force.

As part of a plan to address those alleged violations, Sheriff Garcia has ordered a review of all inmate deaths in the last 18 months. There were 24 in 2008, and there have been nine so far this year, including the death of 20-year-old Daniel Aguirre who was allegedly beaten to death by jailers and died a week ago.

The Department of Justice found the number of inmate deaths to be alarming, and threatened to sue Harris County if the issues remained unresolved. Sheriff Garcia says any such lawsuit would be without merit.

"They talked about an alarming rate," said Sheriff Garcia. "We disagree with what the basis of that rate is. But look, anytime someone dies, if it's one person in 20 years, you want to be concerned and that is attitude that I am bringing to the Harris County sheriff's office."

Garcia says the jail has already implemented measures to improve conditions. They include a new electronic medical records system, the hiring of 250 new officers, relocation of lower risk inmates to reduce overcrowding and videotaping of the extraction of inmates from cells to observe how they are handled.

Ryan admitted the jail at one time deserved a D-minus for a grade, but says it now deserves an A-plus. He says he doesn't feel the Department of Justice will sue the county once it reviews the changes that have been made. Those changes are being presented to commissioners court today.

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