death behind bars

215 jails failed at least one inspection from 2010-2020. This cycle of non-compliance contributed to thousands of deaths over the years, your Friday long read from The Texas Observer

We go to The Texas Observer for this week's long read by Michael Barajas and Sophie Novack. Read the whole story, “Locked Up and Left to Die.” We include key excerpts below to convince you it’s worth your time!

The call that changed everything

Armando Carrillo had been waiting outside the Nueces County Jail for hours when he heard sirens approaching in the middle of the night on March 5, 2018. He had visited the jail earlier that day to see his youngest son, Danny, 27, who had been incarcerated for three weeks on a probation violation. Danny had sounded increasingly paranoid on the phone leading up to the visit and started crying and cowering when officers escorted him out of his cell. “You could tell he was losing his mind. I’ve never seen him like that,” Armando says. Pacing outside the jail later that night, Armando desperately called attorneys and bail bondsmen to help him get his son out. His stomach dropped when he saw an ambulance pull up to the box-like building lined with razor wire around 2 a.m. He thought of his son’s rambling last words hours before: “He was telling me, ‘I know I’m going to get killed.’” 

Jail staff and people incarcerated with Danny said he seemed fine when he entered the lockup but eventually started spiraling—sobbing day and night, hallucinating, and babbling incoherently about threats against his family. Danny, who had been diagnosed with mental health and substance use disorders, had struggled in recent years—losing a sister and bouncing between lockup and halfway houses. His mother, who recently had brain surgery, had joined Armando to visit Danny that day but was detained by officers who uncovered an old theft charge when they screened her to enter. Guards said Danny became “belligerent” when she was taken away, then later swung at them when they stormed his cell to move him, striking one officer in the temple and another in the nose. Three guards then tackled Danny and pinned him to the floor, while a fourth stuck his knee into Danny’s back and a fifth shocked him with a stun gun. Nurses who arrived to check on him about 10 minutes later found him bloodied, without a pulse.

Hours later, officials released his mom. Danny, they said, was dead.

Underscored

As part of a months-long investigation, the Texas Observer reviewed more than 400 Rangers investigations into jail deaths over the past decade. The records show that state police regularly document jail conditions that can lead to preventable deaths, such as jail staff ignoring people with deteriorating health, taking hours to respond to emergencies, violently restraining detainees in the middle of mental health crises, denying treatment for chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease, providing Tylenol for liver failure, and mocking people who are moaning in pain. These documents, together with jail inspection reports, state data, court filings, and medical records, show how Texas’ patchwork regulatory system repeatedly fails to ensure safe conditions behind bars. Records from TCJS show that more than three dozen jails, including the one in Nueces County, routinely fail to meet minimum standards in state inspections and in some cases have cycled out of compliance for decades—yet rarely face consequences. 

The Observer identified dozens of cases in which the Rangers documented allegations of mistreatment including medical neglect, denial of medication, and abuse by jail staff. In at least 37 of the deaths reviewed by the Observer, the Rangers recorded evidence of jail staff actively dismissing signs of serious deterioration or cries for help. A man who later died of sepsis was accused of faking his pain and “just whining” by a jailer. In another instance, a nurse quipped that a man dying from a brain bleed was “just acting” and “should get an Oscar.” 

Bottom Line

Current Nueces County officials declined interviews or didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment for this story, including Sheriff J.C. Hooper. Former Nueces County Sheriff Jim Kaelin, who ran the jail for 12 years until November 2018, told the Observer he didn’t remember Danny’s death, one of three at the jail that year, saying, “That name doesn’t even ring a bell.”

“It’s OK to die anywhere in the United States, there would probably not be much of an investigation, unless you died in a jail,” Kaelin says. “If you die in a jail, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of scrutiny over that death, as if somebody did something, was negligent in the causing of that death.”  

The Carrillo family sued the county and the jailers involved in Danny’s death, none of whom admitted guilt in a settlement agreement earlier this year. According to county records, it was the largest settlement following a death at the jail in at least a decade: $300,000, just over half of which went to the family after paying for attorneys fees. Months later, Armando still hasn’t touched the money. “It makes me feel like it’s blood money. I don’t know what to do with it,” he says. “If I could bring my son back, I’d give them back three times what they gave me.” 

Read the whole article here.


Resources: State policy changesNewsBureau of Prisons updatesState court changesPrison holistic self care and protection. Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook.

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