The families of nine people who died in the Harris County Jail joined with 13 formerly incarcerated people Monday in suing Harris County, alleging the Sheriff’s Office repeatedly violated constitutional rights by creating a “place of torment and punishment.”

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump joined local lawyer Paul Grinke in filing the federal lawsuit, which follows dozens of deaths and injuries at the jail in the past few years. The lawsuit ranks among the highest-profile civil actions to date against Harris County related to its oversight of the jail, which is run by the Sheriff’s Office.

Crump and Grinke allege that the Sheriff’s Office has deliberately neglected its duty to keep incarcerated people safe in the jail. In their lawsuit, the lawyers allege jail staffers have neglected medical issues preceding deaths, assaulted incarcerated people and failed to stop violent attacks.

“We’ve all experienced the same loss, and we’re all seeking the same thing. We’re all seeking justice,” said Jacilet Griffin-Lee, whose son Evan died in March 2022 after he was beaten by another detainee and didn’t receive sufficient medical care, according to the lawsuit. Sheriff’s officials have said Evan Lee’s injuries were sustained while playing a “slap boxing” game.

The Sheriff’s Office has been under scrutiny from state regulators and local advocates amid complaints of overcrowding and unsafe conditions. Prior to Monday’s filing, at least 51 lawsuits had been lodged in county and federal court over the past decade by people formerly incarcerated in the Harris County Jail and their loved ones, according to a Houston Landing investigation earlier this year.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has not filed a response to the latest lawsuit and did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

In a message to the community Monday afternoon, sheriff’s officials said the agency has made progress on jail safety, adding that “solutions aren’t simple.” They noted a pledge to start outfitting jail guards with body-worn cameras, raise guard salaries and increase screening to stop contraband from entering the facility.

Members of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards listen to public comments, most of which came from Harris and Tarrant county residents, during a meeting Thursday in Austin. (Evan L’Roy for Houston Landing)

“We hold every life in our jail as precious. I want every family that has lost a loved one in the jail to know they have my sincere sympathy and my pledge to continue striving to make our jail even safer,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in the message.

Strength in numbers

At a press conference Monday, family members suing Harris County packed the stage behind Crump, who has represented the families of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin and numerous other people affected by high-profile cases of law enforcement abuses. Many carried posters, pictures and demands for justice for those who had been harmed or died while in jail custody.

One by one, the relatives told stories about their family members. Octevia Wagner, the sister of Jacoby Pillow, hugged a basketball displaying pictures of her brother at various stages of his life and handwritten memories of him. 

Lawyers for Wagner allege jail guards beat Pillow to death while he was held in pretrial detention following a trespassing arrest. The FBI is investigating Pillow’s death, a review of which Gonzalez has voiced support.

“I wish people would stop being negative and judging these families and these young men and women that passed away, and realize that this is someone’s mother, someone’s father, someone’s brother, someone’s son,” Wagner said.

 “They’re human, and it’s easy to judge unless you’ve been in those shoes.”

At least five of the 11 people who have died in Harris County Jail custody this year were previously identified as mentally ill. Dianne Bailey-Rijsenburg, the mother of Ramon Thomas, condemned the incarceration of people with mental health issues. 

Thomas had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder before he died in custody in early July at the age of 30. A cause of death has not been announced, but lawyers allege that he died after jailers failed to provide lifesaving measures during a medical emergency.

“Mental health (care). In jail. How could that be?” Bailey-Rijsenburg said. “No. It doesn’t work. It does not go together.”

Regulators still reviewing

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has deemed the Sheriff’s Office non-compliant with multiple state safety codes in the past year. Regulators have reprimanded the agency for failing to comply with state standards regarding medical care, monitoring of incarcerated people, processing of detainees and minimum staffing.

TCJS officials warned Sheriff’s Office leaders last week that they face “escalated” enforcement after failing to reach full compliance nearly a year after first coming under scrutiny. Sheriff’s officials told the TCJS last week that they believe most of the issues identified by regulators have been addressed.

Crump has taken up the causes of several Harris County families suing police agencies in the region, including Pamela Turner, Eric Cantu, Jalen Randle and victims of the Astroworld tragedy. 

“If we learned anything from the trial involving the killing of George Floyd, we learned that when citizens are in your custody, they are in your care,” said Crump. “And so, how many more citizens are going to die in the care of Harris County Jail before something is done?”

Correction, Aug. 7, 3:15 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the number of identified lawsuits filed in the past decade in relation to the Harris County Jail.

Update, Aug. 7, 9:15 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comments from the plaintiffs, their lawyer and sheriff’s officials.

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Eileen Grench covers public safety for the Houston Landing, where two of her primary areas of focus will be the Houston Police Department and Harris County Sheriff’s Office. She is returning to local...