A 49-year-old man this weekend became the 10th person to die in the custody of the Harris County Jail this year — and a Houston Landing analysis found that half of those individuals previously had been identified by officials as mentally ill.

Oscar Villazana was charged with felonious assault in October after striking a family member. 

He still was awaiting trial Thursday when he was taken to the hospital for a “medical emergency” related to a preexisting medical condition, according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail.

He died Sunday night.

Deadly Detention

Court documents do not show that Villazana had ever been flagged as mentally ill by law enforcement, jail or court personnel. But a review of court documents and custodial death reports by the Landing shows that half the people who died in the Harris County Jail this year had mental health concerns. 

It’s a pattern that’s been documented by the Landing’s “Deadly Detention” series, which found that nearly half of the 119 people who died of unnatural causes over the past decade in the custody of jails in the eight counties that make up the Houston area had been identified as mentally ill. Yet many of the inmates hadn’t received desperately needed care.

A day after the story was published in February, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo cited the investigation in awarding $645,000 toward more than doubling the number of people whose competency can be restored through the Harris County Jail’s competency restoration program.

The judge’s office has not provided the Landing with an update on this program despite more than a week of requests. 

“Jails are not the ideal environment for treating people with serious mental illness issues,” said Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office. “However, we find that many people suffering from severe mental illness eventually find themselves in jail because the state of Texas simply doesn’t devote adequate resources to address the mental health crisis that our nation is experiencing.”

Spencer said the sheriff’s office partners with the Harris Center for Mental Health to provide mental health services for people in the jail. But more needs to be done to keep people with mental illnesses out of jail and get them the help they need.

“We urge policymakers at all levels to consider more significant investments in providing mental health services for people before they are in the throes of a mental health crisis that culminates in their arrest,” Spencer said.

Among the five individuals who died this year and were identified as mentally ill were:

  • Robert Terry, a 32 year old charged with retaliation, pressed the intercom button in his cell in May before falling to the floor and crawling into the dayroom grabbing his stomach. He died at the hospital. Mental health evaluations were repeatedly ordered by the courts in previous cases and he was even assigned a mental health public defender in one case.
  • Ray Rattler, a 56 year old who was incarcerated for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, was taken to the hospital in June for “altered mental status” and died three days later. In previous cases, the courts repeatedly ordered his mental health be evaluated. 
  • Ramon Thomas, 30, was found unresponsive in his jail cell on July 1 after experiencing “an apparent medical emergency.” He had been referred by the courts for mental health treatment and his family told ABC13 that he was bipolar and schizophrenic. 

Mentally ill Texans dying in jail isn’t a problem limited to the greater Houston area. Across the state, the Landing found that the number of people flagged as mentally ill who died of unnatural causes in the custody of Texas jails in 2022 had increased nearly 1,200 percent since 2012, from three deaths to 38 last year. 

Officials say that more money needs to be directed toward community mental health programs so that people can be helped before they reach crisis — and that more data needs to be collected about who is cycling through the criminal justice and mental health systems so that funding can be directed appropriately.

The Texas Rangers are investigating Villazana’s death along with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Internal Affairs Division “to ensure that all applicable policies and procedures were followed,” according to a news release from the sheriff’s office.

An autopsy will be conducted.

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Alex Stuckey is an investigative reporter for the Houston Landing. She is a 2017 Pulitzer Prize and 2022 Livingston Award winner. In 2022, she received the Charles E. Green Award for Star Reporter of the...