Low jail staffing didn't play role in beating of teen inmate with special needs, sheriff says

ByCourtney Carpenter KTRK logo
Thursday, November 4, 2021
Family of teen inmate beaten in Harris Co. jail wants justice
The 19-year-old died from having his head bashed and being kicked and stabbed, court records say. A friend is now speaking out about the dangers of the jail.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Multiple ongoing investigations indicated low jail staffing did not play a role in Sunday's deadly beating of a 19-year-old inmate by his cell mate, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said Thursday.

The video above is from a previous story.

Fred Harris had his head bashed on the concrete floor, and court records also say he was kicked and stabbed by 25-year-old Michael Ownby.

The incident comes the month after some Harris County Jail employees filed a federal lawsuit against the county for unsafe jail conditions, short staffing and inadequate jail funding.

Gonzalez tweeted the following statement:

"I am deeply grieved by the murder of Fred Harris at the hands of another person held in our jail. His family has my sincere sympathy and commitment that we will work with prosecutors to hold his killer accountable. While Mr. Harris' death is the subject of multiple ongoing independent investigations, every indication at this point is that staffing levels in the jail played no role in this crime. It is true that our teammates working in the jail need more resources. I will continue working with Commissioners Court to address working conditions in a
jail that remains seriously overcrowded."

Amy Mendez, a mother of four children who said she took in Harris in March, said he was a Stafford High School graduate and had special needs.

SEE MORE: Teen inmate with special needs killed by cell mate in Harris County jail, family says

Dallas Garcia, Harris' mom, said she went to the sheriff's office earlier this month as soon as she found out Harris was in jail. She said she presented them with documentation of his intellectual disability.

He was booked into the county jail on Oct. 11 on charges of aggravated assault.

"I came down immediately and told them, 'This is not a place for him. He will never understand,' so I spoke with the deputy, we called the medical staff, and I didn't leave until I got some answers," Garcia explained. "And when I left, they said my son would be OK."

Randall Kallinen, the family's attorney, says 98-pound Harris should have been placed in a cell alone or certainly not with someone more than twice his size with a history of violence.

"Instead, he was put in with a 240-pound individual proven to be extremely violent, and who had manufactured a knife in the jail," said Kallinen.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Kallinen said more funding and more staff are needed at the jail, and called on Harris County officials for change.

"We are here today to say, 'Commissioners Court, you need to get that staff,'" said Kallinen.

The Texas Rangers have been called in to help with the investigation, which is ongoing.

A Harris County Sheriff's Office spokesperson explained they are in the process of interviewing staff and inmates, and that internal affairs and the Office of the Inspector General are working to determine if policies and procedures were followed.