UPDATED: The Huge (or Nonexistent) Sex Abuse Problem at the Harris County Jail
Updated with a response from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
A new study of sexual violence in U.S. correctional facilities supports earlier findings that Harris County has a serious problem with inmate sexual abuse. Can Sheriff Adrian Garcia fix it without admitting it exists?
Last July, Dateline Houston reported on a related Justice Department study that quantified sexual violence by directly surveying inmates about their experiences. The Harris County Jail came out looking pretty bad by that method. At the largest of the jail’s four locations, the reported rate of sexual mistreatment was twice the national average. Harris had the third highest rate of the more than 350 jails surveyed.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office took exception to the study, calling it “flawed and misleading” in a letter to the Justice Department. The main objection was that the allegations were unofficial, unverifiable and anonymous. But a new study aggregating official allegations of sexual abuse doesn’t look much better.
In each year addressed—2009 through 2011—Harris County had by far the most allegations of “nonconsensual sexual acts” by inmates of any jail in the state. That’s perhaps to be expected since Harris County has Texas’ largest jail by far. But over the three years, it also had more official allegations than all of Texas’s other public local jails combined. This is despite housing about half as many inmates as the sum of all other such jails.
Earlier this month, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia was called to testify at a Justice Department hearing on the first study’s results. It didn’t go great. The Houston Chronicle reported, “After several minutes of reading an opening statement describing the jail system he commands…Garcia was cut off by a panelist and urged to get to the point of the sexual assault statistics.”
In short, he didn’t. His testimony could be summarized as, “There isn’t a problem because there shouldn’t be a problem.” The jail is designed for direct observation by guards. It has extensive surveillance cameras and more will soon be installed at a cost of $800,000 or more. Inmates are evaluated upon intake for whether they need special protection or pose a threat to others and housed appropriately. There is a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse and allegations are taken seriously. Staffers watch a video, sign a form and take training about preventing and handling sexual abuse. Posters and flyers inform inmates of the zero-tolerance policy and a toll-free phone line to report abuse. More guards have been hired and security rounds made more frequent. A committee has been established. The jail passes regular inspections and evaluations.
Many of these safeguards have been instituted since 2011, when the reporting period for the studies ended, so they may well be working but stats wouldn’t show it yet. And whether or not the jail’s abuse rate has dropped in the last two years, all these efforts are unquestionably to the good. They show the sheriff’s office is serious about preventing abuse.
One might even say it’s doing all it can—except for one thing. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office refuses to admit it has a problem with sexual assault. In November, Sheriff Garcia responded to a letter from the Justice Department asking for an explanation of the study’s findings. The first question was, “What are the factors that lead to the high incidence of sexual victimization at the HCJ during the time of the BJS report?” Garcia called that a “false premise” and responded, “There was and is no high incidence of sexual victimization in the Harris County Jail facilities.”
Garcia’s objections to the study vary in their ability to hold water. He rightly observes that the question lumps all four jail locations into one question although three had sexual abuse rates lower than the national average. But his point carries the seed of its own illegitimacy. First and foremost Garcia finds the anonymous reports unreliable. Fair enough. But another Harris County Jail location housing almost as many prisoners reports a rate of 0.9 percent, versus the worst facility’s 6.3 percent. Why would inmates at one jail, taking the same anonymous survey, falsely report abuse seven times more often? Is it likelier that there are seven times more liars in one spot than another or that one jail has a problem and the other three don’t?
Garcia also notes that the (“flawed and misleading”) survey finds higher rates of victimization among women, inmates with mental illness and non-heterosexual inmates, which the high-rate facility houses most of. So which is it? Are the higher rates non-existent, a product of false reporting and bad statistics, or is the rate legitimate and caused by a concentration of more-victimized groups?
The frustration in Garcia’s letter is palpable. His answer to this first, contentious question concludes with a paragraph describing how his office tried to investigate the findings and “without access to all of the underlying data” was simply “unable.”
But “we cannot tell if there’s a problem” is very different from “there is definitively no problem.” The first indicates concern and a willingness to try, which the rest of the county’s preventative measures suggest is Garcia’s true position. But the latter is his official stance. Having to preserve it may, tragically, keep the county from fixing what the best information available says is broken.
From Alan Bernstein, Director of Public Affairs for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office:
“The Harris County Sheriff’s Office appreciates the chance to provide information and perspective for this article. Better late than never.
Sexual victimization of inmates in America’s jails and prisons continues, much to the frustration of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies undertaking sophisticated, aggressive, progressive and inventive ways to stop it. The traits of those efforts reflect every aspect of Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s reform administration, as shown in other Texas Observer articles.
The fact that such alleged incidents are relatively infrequent – coming from 1.6 percent of all U.S. inmates, if one of the studies referred to in the article are to be believed – is of no comfort. Although not mentioned by Texas Observer, the key point of the other study cited is that U.S. prison and jail commanders have been able to substantiate only 10 percent of inmate sexual victimization allegations, meaning the other 90 percent unfortunately lacked conclusive evidence, were the subject of shoddy investigations or were false.
As Texas Observer well knows, an allegation is not proof of guilt. Just ask Michael Morton. However the studies and the TO article confuse allegations with proven incidents of sexual victimization (which the study says ranges from forced sex acts to uninvited touching of an inmate’s clothed thigh).
Recent news media reporting on sexual victimization claims in the Harris County Jail, by far the state’s most populous, stems from a 2011 anonymous survey of less than a tenth of the 9,000 or so inmates. At three connected jail buildings that hold the majority of inmates, the allegation rate was below the national average. At one connected jail building, called 1200 Baker St., the allegation rate was 6.3 percent. The study says it was designed to get a 65 percent response rate from inmates, but at that building, the threshold was not reached. This is one of many reasons why the study is deeply flawed; by its own admission, it forfeited statistical reliability and also was unable to determine the frequency of false claims.
Also, that building houses the jail system’s inmates with acute mental illness. In fact the statistician who worked on the 2011 study tells us that two-thirds of the surveyed inmates in the so-called “high” rate building had “psychological stress disorders.” We don’t know how that was determined, and we would never allege that people with mental illness fabricate allegations more often than anyone else. But in his testimony in Washington, Sheriff Garcia described the day-old case of an inmate outcry of sexual victimization and in the process showed how many claims are elusive.
Texas Observer claims the sheriff never got around to such a discussion. Oh well! The case involved a man housed in the mental health unit. Deputies interviewed him as part of the full investigation they conduct on every such allegation. He said he awoke and found his trousers pulled down; he believed he had been sexually assaulted; and did not know by whom, or how, or where or how often. No doubt that is the kind of claim that led to one of four jail buildings having a so-called “high” rate of allegations (not assaults).
As for which prisons and jails rank among the worst, the study points out that about 20 agencies refused to cooperate with the 2011 anonymous survey. One was in Texas. One was the New Orleans Parish Jail. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office allowed the surveyors access to inmates, and Sheriff Garcia accepted the invitation to testify in Washington, because of his commitment to transparency and accountability in the cause of restoring the public’s faith in the operations of the jail.
In sum, Sheriff’s Garcia’s statements still stand: The biggest jail system in Texas does not have a “high rate” of sexual victimization of inmates, but that does not excuse us from trying to eradicate any such incident. All Harris County jail inmates , including the two-thirds who are awaiting trial and therefore have not been found guilty, deserve respectful treatment. We are striving to be a national leader in how we deal with sexual abuse and allegations thereof.”