As I write this post, there is rage in my heart; the type of burning rage that can only be created by a horrific act that just breaks your heart, when pure evil triumphs and causes decent people to hang their head and cry. Yesterday, a Harris County Jail inmate managed to enter an administrative office and violently beat and sexually assault a HCSO Sergeant. This dedicated, veteran public servant came to work to do a difficult job that few people appreciate and even fewer are willing to actually do (work inside a jail). Her reward was to be savagely attacked by one of the thousands of violent criminals housed in the county jail. The acts committed by this monster, if fully reported, would bring you to tears. Imagine if the sergeant left bloody on the floor was your mother, daughter, sister, or yourself, then tell me what you would do to prevent this from ever happening again. I would like to say this was a rare act of violence in the jail, but that wouldn't be the truth. Over recent years, there have been murders and numerous aggravated assaults, sexual assaults, and other violent crimes committed inside the county jail (see links below). This latest, vicious attack against one of our own MUST be a wake-up call for fundamental change inside the Harris County Jail. If not now, during one of our darkest hours, then when will we act?
While Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez uses the term "teammate" often, the reality is the HCSO isn't the cohesive "team" or "family" that it used to be, nor is it even close to what our jail employees deserve. On September 20, 2021, the Harris County Deputies Organization filed a federal class-action lawsuit against County Judge Hidalgo, County Commissioners, and Sheriff Gonzalez over the staffing shortage and dangerous conditions inside the Harris County Jail. For years, our jail staff have been placed in harm's way, short-handed and exposed, yet they always managed to rise to the challenge. Still, even the best employee will tire and eventually burn out. With the proper commitment and necessary resources from Commissioners Court, our jail staffing shortage could finally be addressed with a large-scale, targeted hiring process and an incentivized employee retention program. Those actions, combined with an organizational restructuring, reallocation of existing staff to core functions, an updated jail staffing plan, staff cross-training, a reduction in internal bureaucracy (including H.R. functions; employee transfer policy), and the elimination of ineffective and wasteful jail programs would help stabilize our core jail workforce, help the HCSO operate within its approved budget, and enable long-term success. I urge Commissioners Court members and Sheriff Gonzalez to work together to finally resolve the staffing shortage inside the county jail.
While the staffing shortage must be addressed, correcting the internal safety and security issues may also require changing the underlying employee culture inside the jail. I have heard some jail staff are currently reluctant to confront inmates because (1) they don't have adequate assistance in the event the inmate becomes violent, (2) staff fear the inmate will file a false complaint and drag them through a lengthy IAD investigation (or get them fired), and/or (3) staff are concerned their supervisors may not support them (too short-staffed to do cell searches, search and escort the inmates, etc.). If this is true, many of our jail staff may be performing their duties like a substitute teacher (no job ownership), with relatively few officers being proactive, assertive, or taking command over their assigned duty areas. If our detention staff feel hamstrung and overwhelmed, violent inmates are able to thrive in the cellblocks, holding cells, hallways, and other areas throughout the jail. Again, if true, this dysfunctional culture would explain some of the inmate violence and contraband problems currently being experienced inside the county jail. To remedy this situation, as staffing levels improve, jail supervisors must visibly support their staff through hands-on leadership, assistance, training, resources, etc. while also ensuring that all subordinates are proactively supervising their inmates, taking corrective actions, and properly performing their duties.
In addition to the above, I strongly recommend that HCSO Jail Commanders consider increasing the use of Administrative Separation cells to lockdown violent inmates housed in the jail. I know some inmate rights activists, sitting in their safe offices, strongly discourage the use of Administrative Separation cells but, frankly, their input just enables more violence. With a HCSO Sergeant beaten and raped in the jail, I suggest the HCSO Commanders conduct a review of all the in-custody inmate jail disciplinary records, identify the most violent inmates, and lock them down in Administrative Separation cells for the safety of our staff and all the other inmates housed in the jail (in accordance with TCJS Rule 271.1). I know the greater use of Administrative Separation could result in more suicide attempts. Still, if these known violent inmates are going to hurt someone, I'd much rather it be themselves rather than another innocent person. The HCSO must be vigilant and proactive in order to prevent future violent assaults.
The above are my initial thoughts on the tragic incident. I'm sure everyone at the HCSO also feels the rage, gritting our teeth even as our eyes water up. I also feel a tremendous amount of grief for our injured and traumatized sergeant. I'm sure Sheriff Gonzalez and everyone on the Command Staff will offer her all the support and assistance possible to help her recovery. Still, this is something that she will have to live with for the rest of her life. Thankfully, she still has a life. This could have been even worse. Think about that for a minute...
For more information, please click on the media links below:
UPDATE 12/8/21: Sheriff Ed Gonzalez answered questions today about the above incident and the jail - see media links below:
UPDATE 12/15/21: Yesterday, two more HCSO detention officers were attacked and seriously injured by an inmate inside the Harris County Jail (see media links below). While the serious problems inside the HCJ didn't develop overnight, it is clear that the surge in violence began this year. According to HCSO jail statistics, "Records show there were 9,116 assaults on inmates, assaults on staff or fights in the five years from 2016 through 2020. This year alone, that number jumped to 9,928. That is 100 more assaults than in the previous five years combined." Given this surge, I'm very surprised the HCSO didn't sound the alarm and request additional personnel, resources, and urgent inmate out-sourcing prior to now. For more information, please see the links below.
UPDATE 12/16/21: It is worth noting that, when the Harris County Deputies Organization filed its federal lawsuit over the staffing shortage and dangerous conditions inside the county jail, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo responded by claiming the lawsuit was "political" and said the timing coincided with her reelection campaign. To put it mildly, I was disappointed in her self-centered response. Now that conditions inside the county jail have become very public, I hope Judge Hidalgo will be more supportive of our HCSO employees. For more information, please see the links below.
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