Jaquaree Simmons was a toddler when Tropical Storm Allison hit the Houston area with torrential rains in June 2001. Among the many buildings flooded during the storm was the brand new Harris County Criminal Justice Center, d worth $100 million; the flood forced it to close for nearly a year, delaying trials and lengthening the time defendants languished in the county jail awaiting the disposition of their cases. Neither young Jaquaree nor the adults around him could have known that this event would play a part in creating the appalling conditions that existed in the prison on February 17, 2021, when Simmons was found dead in his cell.

He was 23, a mental patient, the victim of multiple blows to the head he suffered during a historic freeze that left the prison intermittently without power. Authorities ruled his death a homicide.

In May 2021, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez fired 11 employees and suspended six others after an internal investigation into Simmons’ death found they used excessive force, made false statements to investigators and violated other rules. A Houston Police Department criminal investigation is ongoing; no charges have been filed and Simmons’ mother, Larhonda Biggles, remains distressed. “I’m in a place right now where I want answers,” she recently told Chronicle reporter Alejandro Serrano.

It is of course imperative that those responsible for Simmons’ death be brought to justice as soon as possible; with so many people involved, it may be difficult for investigators to determine who did what. But the larger challenge is how to prevent future tragedies like this, and answering that question requires looking at what got us here.

The path that connects a flood long ago to the death of Jaquaree Simmons is littered with disasters – some man-made, others caused by nature. After Allison, then-County Judge Robert Eckels vowed to take steps to prevent future flooding of the Justice Center: “We don’t want to see a repeat of this type of impact on our facilities,” did he declare.
promising a thorough examination

It didn’t quite work. Court activity halted again for five days in 2015 during the Memorial Day flood, and the justice center closed for a year after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Damage forced criminal cases to be moved to the Civil Courthouse and other county buildings ill-suited to criminals. trials. The pandemic has compounded the delays; inmates crowded the prison like angry cattle waiting to be released from their enclosure. On July 19, county commissioners approved a $25 million contract to send inmates to the Giles Dalby Correctional Facility in Post, a small town near Lubbock. It is 475 miles from Houston. Expect uncrowded visitation rooms.

But there’s more at work here than relentless rain and a stubborn virus. Prison is a choke point for many failures in society. Texas’ grossly inadequate care for the mentally ill, documented in a 2021 investigative series by Alex Stuckey of the Chronicle, has turned prisons — Harris County’s in particular — into major mental health centers. The prison is understaffed with poorly paid employees, many of whom lack the training and perhaps the temperament to deal with the behavior of mentally ill inmates such as Simmons. (An investigation found he clogged his toilet and threw a meal tray at an officer in the days before his death.) According to a complaint by the MPs’ union, prison staff soiled their clothes or urinated in garbage cans because they couldn’t help but take bathroom breaks. And the most recent evidence of dysfunction comes from a review by prison guards, reported by the Chronicle’s Nicole Hensley, which found that dozens of prisoners had been held in the reservation area far longer than the maximum of 48. hours imposed by the state.

Sometimes when a problem escalates, it is more useful to tackle it at the root. A year ago, the county health department announced an effort to enforce public health strategies to address the causes of crime. The
Holistic Support Response Team
focuses on sending unarmed first responders trained in behavioral health, rather than police, to emergencies involving homeless people or people in mental health crisis. The program, which began in March this year, diverted 486 calls from law enforcement and connected more than 300 vulnerable people to services in its first few months, according to the department’s website. A related program uses community outreach specialists to “interrupt violence and reduce tensions” that could lead to gun violence, according to the website. It says this initiative averted five cases of violence and developed 317 “meaningful connections in the community to build relationships with high-risk participants to reduce violence.”

County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who proposed the public health initiative, believes it has the potential to reduce the prison population by referring more people to addiction or mental health services. He wants to increase funding for these programs, currently limited to two neighborhoods, beyond the $11 million allocated so far. “We hope we can catch (a potential crisis) before it escalates, getting them the help they need before they go to jail,” Ellis told the editorial board.

While it’s too early to judge the success of these programs, they deserve at least enough funding to test them on a larger scale. Simmons’ death is not an isolated event. The death of a 19-year-old inmate and the rape of a 60-year-old guard, allegedly by an inmate, were blamed in part on understaffing. But recruiting people for dangerous jobs isn’t easy in a market where better paying, less stressful positions abound. The fundamental problem is that too many people – most not convicted of a crime and many in need of special care – are crammed into the facility. County officials should act with a sense of urgency to address this issue through a public health response, and also by clearing courthouse backlogs so that dangerous and violent repeat offenders are tried and served their sentences. in a state prison rather than the Harris County Jail. . We might suggest that paying millions to ship detainees hundreds of miles is “putting a band-aid on the problem”, but that would be an insult to band-aids.


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