13 Investigates: Decade-high inmate deaths just one concern at Harris Co. jail

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Thursday, November 17, 2022
13 Investigates: Advocates on edge over decade-high jail deaths
As Harris County Jail population rises, we investigate what lead to a woman giving birth alone in jail and another dying of a diabetes complication.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The last time Sarah Borchgrevink talked to her brother, she said he called from jail and told her he was worried about not getting insulin for his diabetes.

"He begged on the phone for socks because he was so cold. He begged for lip balm because he wasn't receiving enough water and his mouth was starting a split. The details he told me on the phone were very inhumane and it haunts me, even six months later, to know that he was suffering," Borchgrevink told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg.

On March 27, five days after arriving at the Harris County Jail, Borchgrevink's brother, Matthew Shelton, 28, died of diabetic ketoacidosis.

Borchgrevink said Shelton successfully managed his diabetes for years, including during periods of homelessness. Despite that, he died in jail of complications directly related to diabetes.

"Something happened when he stepped foot in the jail and for his blood sugar to be what it was, and for it to happen in such a short amount of time - there was an erroneous error that can never be rectified," Borchgrevink said.

Five weeks before publishing this story, 13 Investigates asked the Harris County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the jail, about Shelton's death.

On Monday, just days before our story aired, the sheriff's office referred those questions to Harris Health System, which it says "assumed responsibility for jail healthcare on March 1, 2022."

The Harris County jail population is the highest it has been in years, exceeding 10,000 inmates for the first time since 2012. State records show inmate deaths at the jail are also the highest they've been in a decade.

Advocates call the conditions inside the jail "dehumanizing" and tell 13 Investigates they're concerned about a public health crisis impacting pregnant and mentally ill inmates, and causing others to die of preventable diseases.

"The culture of systemic neglect has been allowed to fester and exacerbate over the years. We're seeing increasingly long delays in wait time for access to medical care, but we're also seeing explicit negligence, so a refusal to answer emergency calls put in by folks in distress, in crisis, shortly before they're hospitalized," Gabriela Barahona, a program associate with Texas Jail Project, said. "While most people might think that the jail is a provider of public safety, right now it is an immediate and acute threat to our public safety as a community."

13 Investigates found 22 Harris County jail inmates, including one who was outsourced to a jail in Louisiana, died this year, as of November 15. Another three individuals, who never set foot in the jail, died in the sheriff's office's custody.

The Harris County Sheriff's Office hasn't said who, if anyone, is being held accountable for these deaths and allegations of medical neglect.

13 Investigates also requested information on employees who have been disciplined or placed on leave related to in-custody deaths. More than a month later, a sheriff's spokesperson told us, "we don't have this number readily available."

At least nine of the inmates who died this year were described as being "unresponsive" when they were found, according to custodial death reports that the sheriff's office submitted to the state.

There's no detail in those cases on how the inmate got that way or if mandatory once-an-hour checks were being made.

The jail said most deaths are due to "natural causes."

Even though there are more jail deaths this year than previous years in Harris County, the jail population is also the highest it has been, and the sheriff's office says the rate of deaths is below the national average.

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"For every person who has died, there is a family left in the wake with nothing but just grief and sadness and there's no closure," Borchgrevink said.

Two of this year's inmate deaths were suicides and a third death on November 15 is a suspected suicide, according to custodial death reports submitted by the county to the state. In one case, the sheriff's office reported an inmate was moved to a single cell padded room after a suicide attempt, but still died Feb. 10 after banging his "head into the walls, door and a metal grate on the floor of the cell."

'Jail should be somewhere that they're helped, not hurt'

13 Investigates found health and public safety concerns go beyond inmates dying under the jail's supervision.

We spoke with a female inmate who was pregnant with twins when she was booked in May for a new family violence charge while on community supervision for a previous charge.

By the time that inmate, who asked that we only identify her by her initials M.S., was released months later, the new charge against her was dismissed and both of her babies had died.

"Two grandbabies that I could be getting ready to enjoy and now all I have is an ultrasound picture," her mom said.

She said doctors at the jail told her daughter she miscarried one of the twins. She said a month later, the pregnant woman received medical care for an unrelated issue and learned the second baby was also dead.

"All of this happened to her only for her case to be dismissed," Barahona said. "I want community members to think of the cost we inflicted on her life, on her family's life, for a charge that would later be dismissed and it's a really important reminder that the majority of people in Harris County Jail have not been convicted of a crime, and they're legally innocent and may often go on to be acquitted or have their case dismissed."

M.S.' mom said before she went into jail, her daughter was confident and outgoing. Now, she said M.S. is no longer high-spirited, doesn't want to communicate with anybody, and likes to be alone.

"When someone goes to jail, there's a reason behind that. They've already got things going on in their life, or they're dealing with problems. The jail should be somewhere that they're helped, not hurt and harmed and abused, and only God knows what else is done to them," M.S.' mom said. "If you're going to have a job like that, then you need to go in with a heart. Someone that is willing to do the job and have patience and understanding to help that person, not hurt them and make them come out feeling less than they were, or more angry and violent or whatever they went in for, make it worse for them."

We asked for details about M.S.' case through an open records request, but the sheriff's office is asking the state to withhold those records, citing the information includes "protected health information."

In a statement a spokesperson for the jail told us, "The Sheriff's Office has taken many steps to ensure the health and safety of those entrusted into our custody, despite the challenges created by the pandemic and the backlog of cases pending in our criminal courts. These measures include the move to bring in Harris Health to oversee and manage the delivery of healthcare in the jail, which took effect on March 1, 2022."

In a statement, Dr. Reggie Egins, chief medical officer for Correctional Health at Harris Health System, told 13 Investigates, "All individuals in custody are assessed at intake, related to their specific medical status when screened by the nursing staff. We strive to provide the highest quality of healthcare to all individuals in custody. Due to federal privacy laws, we cannot provide any information related to a specific detainee's care and treatment."

'Violence is contagious'

Unlike prison, people in jail have only been arrested - not convicted - of alleged crimes.

County jail data shows 10,001 people in Harris County jails as of Wednesday, with an additional 890 inmates outsourced to facilities in Louisiana and West Texas due to overcrowding and a shortage of beds. The average length of stay for inmates is 193 days, according to Harris County data. Nearly 80 percent of inmates have been identified as having some sort of mental health issue and 30% of inmates are on psychotropic medicines.

SEE ALSO: Harris County inmates wait too long to get into jail, fix costs you millions

In a statement, a sheriff's office spokesperson said, "the primary driver behind our rising jail population is a backlog of pending cases in Harris County criminal courts."

The backlog started growing after Hurricane Harvey caused damage for the courthouse in 2017.

"The situation was exacerbated by the pandemic, which initially shut down Harris County courts before judges gradually resumed hearings and trials. At the same time, the proportion of people in our jail who are charged with serious violent felonies is the highest it's been in recent memory," the sheriff's office said in a statement. "Today, the jail population includes 768 people charged with murder or capital murder. This is more than double the number of people in jail on such charges in 2018."

Half of the inmates currently in jail were booked for alleged violent crimes, according to county data.

Still, nearly 500 inmates were listed in the jail's overall population total on Wednesday as being booked on misdemeanor charges, which are considered lesser crimes with less severe punishment. Even though those inmates may be included in the jail's population, and held for hours, individuals facing misdemeanor charges are released on personal recognizance (PR) bond after seeing a magistrate judge. The PR bond requires no upfront payment and is a promise that the inmate will return to court on their own accord.

Barahona says Senate Bill 6, which was signed into law last year, is also contributing to the backlog because it eliminates personal recognizance bonds for violent offenders, and now requires them to pay a percent of their bail upfront to get out of jail. The law also requires judges to take a suspect's criminal history into consideration before setting bond, which advocates say adds to the delay in inmates bonding out.

Barahona said the jail needs to focus more on rehabilitating and providing public health for inmates than it focuses on punishment, especially for those inmates facing lower-level or non-violent crimes. She believes one solution is depopulating the jail.

"I understand that might be an uncomfortable answer for some folks to hear, but I would remind them that for decades we have known that pretrial detention - so jailing somebody before they're convicted - actually has the opposite effect of intended. It can ripple and cause more crime and harm in our community because of the overwhelming destabilizing impacts of incarceration," she said.

Ultimately, Barahona said the jail is a part of the community so it is important that the leaders in charge of it make sure whatever happens in the jail doesn't debilitate or set inmates back on their individual journeys toward recovery.

"Harris County and the State of Texas have made the decision to confine an individual and with that comes the responsibility of their care and their custody," she said. "Whether community members might feel comfortable with it or not, Harris County Jail is in our community, and what happens inside affects all of us. Violence is contagious and so too are the public health crises that are exacerbated inside."

'Accountability ping pong'

In August, 13 Investigates found 14% of people arrested in Harris County waited 48 hours or more before getting booked, causing a delay in the first step of an already backlogged criminal justice system.

The inmates were left to sit and sleep in chairs in the intake room for days until they were booked. State rules governing Texas jails require new inmates to be booked into a housing unit within two days.

In August, an inmate suffered from a medical emergency while seated in the intake area and was pronounced dead later that night, according to a custodial death report the county submitted to the state.

Less than two weeks after our investigation into the housing and booking delays, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards issued a "notice of non-compliance" to the Harris County Jail.

The notice cites one case where an inmate was booked on a criminal mischief charge for allegedly breaking a neighbor's plant. That inmate was kept waiting for 99 hours, which is four days, in mid-August before her case was dismissed.

RELATED: No more waiting! Harris Co. Jail ordered to book inmates in faster

The sheriff's office said in early September that, "Harris County's backlog of pending criminal cases has swelled since 2017, when Hurricane Harvey caused major structural damage to the courthouse building. The backlog continued to grow during the pandemic, as public health concerns prevented courts from conducting in-person hearings and trials at their usual pace."

When it comes to medical care for inmates, the jail said, "the introduction of telemedicine, additional health care staff, and other steps are also being taken to expedite medical and mental health screenings during the booking process."

But, when we asked about specific cases, the sheriff's office provided few details, referring our questions to Harris Health, and advocates say that's part of the problem.

"The regulators play a really important role in monitoring conditions, but their job can only go so far. It is a multifaceted picture and I think the concern for the regular community member is that every institution and every agency can play accountability ping pong," Barahona said. "One can say, 'Oh, well, I can't control who comes into the jail.' The other agency can say, 'Well, I can't control how they're treated inside' and that leaves us, as community members, with a lot of questions and with little answers."

Little information released after jail deaths

In Texas, law enforcement agencies are required to report in-custody deaths to the Texas Attorney General's office within 30 days, including a summary of how the death occurred. The reports are published online and typically range anywhere from a few sentences to a few paragraphs.

"They are bare bones and they really flatten the humanity and leave out many critical details that give a full picture of what's happening," Barahona said.

In Shelton's case, she pointed out that the sheriff's office's report did not include any information about the symptoms he may have experienced alone in his cell, leading up to him being found "unresponsive" by a detention officer who was conducting rounds.

The sheriff's report for Shelton also said it "could not be determined" if he had a "pre-existing medical condition."

Borchgrevink shared a photo of the belongings Shelton had with him when he arrived at the jail. The pictures show Shelton had the insulin and needles needed to treat his diabetes. But based on his high insulin levels, Borchgrevink doesn't believe he received it, and she doesn't understand why.

"Human lives matter and nobody should ever be in jail and die from something that's completely preventable," she said. "Matthew didn't serve weeks or years or time in jail. Matthew was there for a very short amount of time. He was there for a very concise window and for something so atrocious and erroneous to happen in a short amount of time, it's terrifying because it makes you wonder what happens to other inmates? What happens to the people who are there for six months? What happens to the people who perhaps don't have a family that they can call with their commissary money?"

13 Investigates requested documents that would provide more information on what happened leading up to Shelton's death, but the sheriff's office asked the Texas Attorney General if it could withhold them, citing an "open and ongoing criminal investigations" and saying the release of information "would interfere with the detection, investigation or prosecution of crime."

When we asked about Shelton's case, the Harris County District Attorney's Office told us, "in the interest of fairness to all parties, we don't comment or confirm that there's an investigation."

The only thing the sheriff's office released in Shelton's case, and other jail deaths we asked about, was a copy of the custodial death reports that are already available online.

"I would also highlight that there's no custodial death report for the babies that died in Harris County Jail despite living in a pro-life state and in a county where we're making significant investments in maternal health," Barahona said. "I think it's a shame that we're not given public facing records or reports on the Attorney General's office or in the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) about pregnancy loss."

There are currently 50 pregnant inmates at the Harris County Jail, and 434 pregnant inmates at jails across the state, according to TCJS.

One female inmate, who was arrested for possession of a controlled substance less than 1 gram, gave birth in her Harris County Jail cell alone in October 2021. Advocates claim the inmate called for help repeatedly from her jail cell, but none came.

The sheriff's office said jail staff was unaware she was in labor.

TCJS says inmates are supposed to be checked by jail staff once every 60 minutes.

The jail says the inmate received medical care "within minutes" of giving birth.

Advocates at Texas Jail Project say the severely mentally ill inmate "was charged with either biting her umbilical cord or harming her baby, who is alive and well. It is impossible to know which is true given that the jail shrouds such incidents in secrecy."

13 Investigates requested details regarding care for that pregnant inmate, as well as the inmate whose unborn twins died in jail, but the sheriff's office did not release that information, citing a concern for medical privacy.

'Full of questions'

It's been seven months since Shelton died of a preventable condition days after being booked into the Harris County Jail.

Borchgrevink knows Shelton made poor choices that lead to bouts of homelessness after their parents divorced when he was 16 years old.

But, she said her unconditional love for her brother allowed her to be a stable support system for him no matter how difficult it became. She knew deep down, he was a "kind, warm and a very gentle old soul."

"Matthew was one of the most resilient people I've ever met in my entire life and despite the circumstances, Matthew was somebody who always said, 'I can learn from others. What good can I put into the world?' Borchgrevink said. "Because I am four years older than him, I always felt very protective of him and the need to step in and take care of him when he was in crisis in order to offer support so that he could continue bettering himself."

Just steps outside the Harris County jail, staff at Texas Jail Project meet with inmates who have just been released to provide re-entry support, like transit cards, as well as conducting exit interviews to learn more about their experience inside the jail.

"In those exit interviews, they're telling us that they are spending days without access to water, hygiene. They're watching people faint. They're watching people beg for help," Barahona said. "They're leaving much worse than they entered."

In 22 cases so far this year, inmates - like Shelton - didn't leave jail custody alive.

"He also promised that he would call me every single day and to have no contact for Matthew whatsoever, it leads me to believe that - I don't believe Harris County knows the exact time and date when he died," Borchgrevink said. "I believe he was very cold. I believe that he was mismanaged. I believe it was the weekend and that something very dark and very, very, very sad happened."

Borchgrevink said her brother planned on serving a short sentence and looked forward to starting a new job and moving into a new apartment last month.

That never happened.

Now, Borchgrevink said she's left to put together the pieces of what happened in his final days alive.

"For something like this to end him, it has broken my soul in a way that I didn't know that you could feel," she said. "Like you would think that you would feel empty. You're not empty. You're full of questions. You're full of wonders. You're full of fear of what happened when he stepped foot in that jail? What happened? Why did he die the way he died? How does somebody go into a jail for three days who's perfectly healthy and die from something that could easily been avoided?"

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