Death Count in Texas Jail Prompts an FBI Investigation

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According to The Texas Tribune, Jacoby Pillow died at Harris County Jail in January, and three additional inmates have died since. When added to the record-high number of in-custody deaths in the jail in 2022, it highlights what appears to be a serious problem in the system. The FBI has responded by opening civil rights investigations into two deaths.

If you are facing a criminal charge of any kind in the State of Texas, your rights may be in danger. Do not wait to discuss your case with an experienced Killeen criminal defense attorney.

The FBI Opens Its Investigation

On February 13, the FBI tweeted the following: “The FBI has open investigations into allegations of federal civil rights violations surrounding the deaths of Jaquaree Simmons and Jacoby Pillow in the Harris County Jail. These investigations will be fair, thorough, and impartial, and will proceed independently of any state investigations involving incidents at the jail.”

The two men mentioned died almost two years apart in Harris County Jail. The investigation is in response to a request from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which is responsible for operating the downtown Houston jail in question.

There are many questions about the deaths of these two men – and about all the deaths generally – but there are not many answers.

The Two Deaths

The two deaths being investigated involve men in their early twenties who were in good physical health and who were incarcerated for relatively minor charges.

Jaquaree Simmons

Simmons was a twenty-three-year-old man who suffered from mental health concerns and was arrested in February 2021 for a felon with a weapons charge. He was found dead in his cell a week after incarceration, and the Harris County medical examiner ultimately ruled his death a homicide.

The investigation performed by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office determined the following information about Simmons’ death:

  • The staff employed excessive force.

  • The staff failed to intervene on Simmons’ behalf and failed to document the event appropriately.

  • The staff made false claims about the event to investigators.

As a result, the sheriff’s office suspended six detention officers and fired eleven others. One of the detention officers at the heart of the case was charged with manslaughter by a grand jury this year. The man is alleged to have taken all the following actions against the Simmons:

  • Kneeing Simmons in the head

  • Striking Simmons’ head against a door

  • Dropping Simmons on his head

Current reports share that Simmons’ mother is encouraged by the development of the FBI investigation – sharing her belief that the manslaughter charge does not come close to being satisfactory. The distraught mother also believes that more of the detention officers should face criminal charges instead of mere firings and suspensions.

She stated, “I feel like I owe that to him to get that justice for him because he laid there and died by himself alone. As a mom, that’s horrible.”

Jacoby Pillow

Jacoby Pillow’s death in early January marked Harris County Jail’s first of the year. Pillow was initially arrested for a misdemeanor trespassing charge and was slated for release on a $100 bond a mere day or two later.

During his stay, however, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office claims that he assaulted an officer at the jail, requiring the staff to employ force to restrain him. Although the sheriff’s office maintains that Pillow was not returned to his cell until after he had been examined by medical personnel, he was found dead in his bed the next morning.

Separate investigations have been opened into Pillow’s death by both the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

An Attorney for Pillow’s Family Speaks Out

An attorney representing Pillow’s family had this to say about the death: “The facts of this case are extremely alarming, and they point to a pattern and culture of inmate abuse that we have seen before in Harris County facilities. There is no legitimate excuse for this young man to have lost his life for an arrest on a misdemeanor charge right as he was about to get out on bail.”

The attorney went on to encourage the Department of Justice to investigate all of the jail’s deaths.

An Ugly Pattern Emerges

Since Pillow’s death in early January, three more inmates have died in the Harris County Jail – immediately following a year with a record 27 in-custody deaths. A Harris County judge has acknowledged that the system has challenges and announced an initiative to address overcrowding, but advocates say that such efforts do not rise to the necessary level.

2023: Off to a Bad Start

According to ABC 13 Investigates, four inmates died in Harris County Jail in January 2023 alone. While 2022 hit a record high for deaths in the Houston jail, 2023 is on track to break this dire record.

The Harris County Jail also currently houses more inmates than ever before – with more than 10,000 in the facility and additional inmates spilling out into facilities elsewhere. The jail remains under state scrutiny for its failure to comply with the following legal standards:

  • Booking inmates within 48 hours

  • Providing inmates with life-saving medication

In other words, the Harris County Jail has a lot of work to do and a lot of questions to answer.

Kevin Smith’s Death

Another man who died under Harris County Jail’s care in January of 2023 was Kevin Smith, who was facing a sexual abuse charge filed in July 2022. However, according to his mother, his case was repeatedly reset.

Smith, who had a two-year-old daughter, was due back in court later in the week for a bond hearing when he suffered what has been described as an “apparent medical emergency” at the jail.

Smith was seen by medical staff in the jail clinic at about 10:40 AM, taken by ambulance to the hospital, and pronounced dead at 11:25 AM. No obvious physical injuries were detected, and Smith’s mother confirmed that he had no prior medical conditions.

Smith’s mother was not informed about her son’s death by the Harris County Jail. Instead, she was informed by another inmate, who was concerned about letting her know what was happening inside the jail.

Smith’s mother relayed that the inmate who contacted her thought her son looked as if he had died before leaving the jail. It was later confirmed that the young man’s death occurred while he was in Harris County Jail’s custody.

All jail deaths in the State of Texas must be investigated by an outside agency. For this reason, Smith’s death is being investigated by the Houston Police Department.

Incarceration Rates in Texas

According to Prison Policy Initiative, Texas incarcerates people at a rate of 840 per 100,000, which translates to the highest rate of any democracy on the planet. Consider all the following grim statistics:

  • Currently, 251,000 Texans are locked up in various types of facilities, including local jails, federal prisons, state prisons, youth facilities, and involuntary commitment facilities.

  • Because people tend to move through local jails relatively quickly, the numbers do not adequately reflect what is actually happening. In fact, at least 505,000 separate people are booked into local jails throughout Texas yearly, and some cycle back through.

  • Both the jail incarceration rate and the prison incarceration rate in Texas have risen precipitously over the past 40 years.

  • Texas’s incarceration rates are high not only compared to the rest of the country but also compared to the rest of the world.

Juvenile Correctional Facilities in Texas

Adult correctional facilities in Texas are not the only ones that inspire serious concerns. In fact, juvenile facilities are also receiving attention from the federal government. In late 2021 – according to The New York Times – the Justice Department began investigations into Texas’s juvenile correctional facilities in relation to allegations of the following issues:

  • Physical violence

  • Various forms of mistreatment

  • Sexual abuse

  • The overuse of isolation

  • The overuse of chemicals, such as pepper spray

The head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department shares that the “prison conditions inside of institutions where young people are detained is a priority issue” for them. She went on to say that “no child who was sent to a Texas facility for treatment and rehabilitation should be subjected to violence and abuse, nor denied basic services.”

Opening the Case

The Justice Department opened its investigations into Texas’s juvenile correctional facilities based on information that reveals instances of brutal violence, sexual abuse, negligent treatment of the mentally ill, and other serious concerns. This information comes from all of the following sources:

  • News reports

  • Public records

  • Social media accounts

  • Conversations with those involved with local prison systems

This most recent investigation was precipitated by eleven staff members at Texas juvenile facilities who were charged with sexually abusing the children in their care. Other allegations include staff members sharing pornography with children and paying them – in both cash and drugs – to assault other youths in the facilities.

Reports of Abuse

The head of the Civil Rights Division shared that they also received credible reports related to staff members employing excessive force in the course of their jobs, including the following displays of force:

  • Body slamming the children

  • Kicking the children

  • Choking the children to the point of unconsciousness

From here, the reports become even more graphic and disturbing. There are also concerns related to gang activity, inadequate mental health care, and serious and ongoing understaffing.

The Investigation’s Focus

The Justice Department’s investigation will determine whether the state’s youth facilities engage in a pattern or practice of physical or sexual abuse and whether there is a pattern or practice of harm caused by excesses related to isolation, use of chemical restraints like pepper spray, or inadequate mental health services. If violations are identified, reforms can be mandated.

Full Cooperation

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department is responsible for one of the country’s largest youth correctional networks, and it has voiced its full cooperation with the Justice Department’s investigation.

According to the executive director of the Texas Department, “We all share the same goals for the youth in our care: providing for their safety, their effective rehabilitation, and the best chance for them to lead productive, fulfilling lives.”

A Broader View of the Problem

The acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, Chad E. Meacham, shares a broader view of the problem by clarifying that the children who enter the Texas criminal justice system are already traumatized by the time of their arrival. Consider the following statistics shared about minors in a girls’ complex in Meacham’s district:

  • About 86 percent are already survivors of domestic violence, parental substance abuse, or mental illness.

  • More than 90 percent are considered more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

  • About 63 percent are placed on immediate suicide watch.

Meacham explained, “We cannot expect them to thrive once they get out if they emerge from confinement after they’ve been traumatized by sexual abuse, excessive force, or incessant isolation.”

Consult with an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney Today

If you or someone you love is facing a criminal charge of any kind, do not wait to seek the professional legal guidance you need – your rights and your future can hang in the balance.

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