Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Group suing for jail access
Houston - A watchdog agency asked a federal judge Monday to allow surprise inspections of the crowded Harris County Jail because of concerns that prisoners are not receiving adequate mental health care.
After being rebuffed by county officials, Advocacy Inc. filed a lawsuit asking U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison to issue a preliminary injunction giving unhindered access to the jail.
Advocacy Inc., authorized by Congress to enforce federal laws ensuring proper care for the disabled in Texas, sought access to the jail in August after receiving 32 complaints of improper mental health care for disabled prisoners in nine months, according to the lawsuit.
The county and Sheriff Tommy Thomas are named as defendants.
Advocacy officials also are concerned about severe crowding in the jail, said Beth Mitchell, the group's senior attorney.
"If there is overcrowding in the jail, the likelihood that staff can provide adequate care diminishes," Mitchell said. "It does seem like people are going without adequate mental health care and it seems like that might be due to overcrowding."
The lawsuit cites three prisoners' complaints that they were denied their psychiatric medication.
In one case, jail staffers are accused of waiting six weeks to administer medication, even after being ordered to do so by a state district judge.
"There probably are a lot more people in jail that can't contact us or don't know how to contact us," Mitchell said.
The lawsuit alleges that jail officials denied an Advocacy request for access on Aug. 16, telling the group it needed to have an "access agreement" on file. Advocacy sometimes enters into such agreements because they clarify its powers, Mitchell said, but they are not required.
Advocacy attorneys say they were referred to the county attorney's office, which requested more information. They provided it and waited two weeks, then sent an e-mail, but had not received a response as of Monday, the lawsuit states.
Assistant County Attorney John Barnhill said Monday that his office had not received notice of the lawsuit. Jim Faulkner, special assistant to the sheriff, did not return calls seeking comment.
According to the lawsuit, Advocacy contacted the office of County Judge Robert Eckels and was told Sept. 8 that medical staffers at the jail believed Advocacy's concerns were valid, but that signed consent forms were needed for Eckels' office to investigate the complaints.
"I wasn't going to wait around and allow inmates to be injured or deprived of adequate medical care because we can't get in," Mitchell said.
"Hopefully, maybe by doing this, the Harris County sheriff and Harris County (officials) will hear and see that it's clear and unambiguous that we are entitled to the access," she said.
The lawsuit states that several federal laws protecting the disabled give Advocacy authority for unhindered and unescorted access to jails and prisons.
Mitchell said the lawyers at the federally funded, nonprofit agency are not government or contract employees, and thus are shielded from political influence.
The Houston Chronicle reported in July that, for the second year in a row, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards had decertified the Harris County Jail — the largest by population in the state.
According to a June report by the commission, inmates were packed into cramped quarters, risking disease and violence, with almost 1,300 of the more than 9,000 inmates sleeping on mattresses on the floor while large sections of the jail remained empty because of inadequate staffing.
The Houston Chronicle reported in June that county officials took little or no action after being warned almost two years ago — in a report commissioned by the county — of a looming explosion in the jail population.
Two veteran jailers, independently of each other, described the jail system as ripe for violence.
Speaking to the newspaper on condition of anonymity, they charged that Sheriff's Department officials sometimes hid inmates from state inspectors in "a game of musical inmates."
Mitchell said Advocacy, Inc. inspections would be unannounced.
"They can't put on a dog and pony show forever," she said.
A local mental-health official attributes much of the crowding to a failure to deal with mental-health issues in Texas.
"The (local) mental-health system is, de facto, the Harris County Jail," said Betsy Schwartz, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston. "And the Harris County Jail obviously doesn't have the mental-health resources to be able to serve that high volume of people."
According to Schwartz, a May 2005 study revealed that 24 percent of the county jail population had been treated for mental-health issues in 2004.
"And that doesn't begin to show people in the jail who were from other parts of the state that may have been part of other mental-health systems," she said. "It's very much an under-reported number."
The average figure for jail populations nationwide is 16 percent, Schwartz said.
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