Sheriff Ed Gonzalez sits down with 13 investigates to answer concerns of Harris Co. jail conditions

Pooja Lodhia Image
Wednesday, March 8, 2023
Sheriff Ed Gonzalez addresses jail conditions and record deaths
A record 27 people died in the custody of the Harris County Jail last year, and in January, four more died at the jail. There were no deaths at the jail in February.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- 13 Investigates has been pushing for answers for months from Sheriff Ed Gonzalez after a record number of in-custody Harris County deaths on his watch.

"People need to have trust in their criminal justice system - that it works. That it's effective. That it is timely. And we're not always seeing that. That's reflective of everyone to some extent. And it's no one's fault, but it's everyone's fault," Gonzalez, the jail's top administrator, told ABC13.

A record 27 people died in the custody of the Harris County Jail last year, and in January, four more died at the jail. There were no deaths at the jail in February.

Two Harris County jail deaths are currently under investigation by the FBI.

And at least one death triggered a noncompliance notice for the jail for not providing insulin and blood pressure medication.

RELATED: Harris Co. Jail's reported continued non-compliance comes after 4 inmates died in January alone

The sheriff has not released video to the public of in-custody deaths at the jail.

"These are under investigation by outside agencies. If it was our investigation, then we control the cadence of that investigation and different steps that may go on the investigation," Gonzalez said. "They're being reviewed."

"My son said, 'Mama, get me out of here. I'm going to die in here,' and for this to happen? It's insane," Jacilet Griffin, whose son Evan Lee died in jail custody in 2022, said previously.

"I'm frustrated with that transition to Harris Health," Gonzalez said. "I want to make sure that it gets corrected and it becomes better. If not, we're going to have to consider other options."

Harris Health, which took over healthcare for the jail almost exactly a year ago, announced changes at the start of the month, like creating a new unit for patients who need ongoing medical care and changing the criteria for those who are sent to jail, so more inmates go to local hospitals for immediate treatment.

In a statement, Correctional Health Services MD, Chief Medical Officer Otis R. Egins said, "We share the frustration with the sheriff. The jail is overpopulated, making it a very challenging environment in which to maintain effective care processes. Additionally, the infrastructure in the jail is not adequate to address the healthcare needs of the jail population. While we are not satisfied with the progress made to date, there are some notable achievements that have steadily improved the care from prior to the transition that occurred March 1, 2022."

There are currently nearly 10,000 inmates at the Harris County Jail.

RELATED: 13 Investigates why a program to reduce jail backlog isn't being used

And, while there were no jail deaths in February, it's clear, overcrowding is creating a dangerous situation.

"There's also an overarching feeling that there's no more accountability for those that may commit crimes. And so, instead of long waits in a county jail, that were never intended to be for long waiting times, we want people to move through the system," Gonzalez said.

Inmates now spend an average of about six months at the Harris County Jail just waiting for trial.

Nationally, the average time in county jail hovers around 30 days.

And if you think dismissing cases is easy, consider that more than 800 inmates at the Harris County Jail have been charged with murder or capital murder.

"It's the first time in our history that we've ever had so many individuals at a maximum level," Gonzalez said. "It's not realistic of a jail-type operation. We should be more balanced in our maximum, medium, and lower classification levels. And so, that's a tremendous challenge. It's also not the best-paid profession."

The county is already spending millions of dollars to send about a thousand inmates to other county jails.

It's a program the sheriff says he'd like to end but can't due to staffing.

SEE ALSO: Harris Co. DA supports but questions plan for new courts to alleviate jail overcrowding

The jail currently has 150 openings for detention officers and 100 for deputies.

The money has been allocated, and the positions approved, but 8% of jail positions are unfilled.

"We understand we're a big county. We're always going to have a high population, but if we could get it to a more manageable number from tens of thousands that we're at - even 8,500, we could catch our breath a little bit more," Gonzalez said.

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