Lawsuit claims staffing shortage at Harris County Jail led to 19-year-old's murder

Monday, September 12, 2022
Lawsuit claims staffing shortage at Harris County jail led to 19-year-old's murder
The family of 19-year-old Fred Harris, who was killed in the Harris County Jail, alleges that a staffing shortage led to the disabled man's murder.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Harris County officials knew 19-year-old Fred Harris was intellectually disabled and not only did nothing to accommodate him, but placed him in a jail cell with a particularly violent inmate more than twice his size, a new lawsuit alleges.

That inmate, Michael Ownby, faces murder charges after police say he stabbed and beat Harris to death in their jail cell on Oct. 29, 2021.

The lawsuit, filed by Harris' mother Dallas Garcia, against Harris County and the Harris County Sheriff's Office, alleges Harris died because the jail was not properly staffed.

"Nobody should have ever gone through what Fred went through," Debra Pruitt, Harris' grandmother, said. "Fred was beat, he was murdered. He was taken advantage of by a system that could not employ people to protect those who they put in here."

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

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.

"This jail wasn't given enough money for the very basics of care that inmates should have," Randall Kallinen, the family's attorney, said. "What we found out is, due to understaffing and for convenience, they put Fred, who was 98 pounds and with special needs, with a 240-pound individual."

Kallinen, in his filings, alleges that jail staff put Ownby and Harris in the same holding cell without appropriate oversight, while adding that Harris "did not instigate any fight" before Ownby beat him to death.

Harris graduated from Stafford High School without any disciplinary issues and had never been convicted of a crime, according to the lawsuit. He had also never been arrested before October 2021 when he "exhibited a knife" and was booked on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. No one was injured in that incident.

"Based upon the facts," the lawsuit said, "it is unlikely Fred would ever have been convicted."

The lawsuit cites statements by county officials and politicians, a federal lawsuit filed by jail employees, and a Texas Workforce Commission report as evidence that the jail was severely understaffed at the time of Harris' death.

"I feel like something has to change, and if it has to be through this, let it be so," Harris' mother said. "There's desperate change that should happen, and what happened to my son just shouldn't have happened."

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

Harris County officials said they cannot comment because both the sheriff's internal investigation and the Texas Rangers investigation are open and ongoing.

Last year, after Harris' death, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez wrote in a tweet: "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."

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