AUSTIN – It’s been 323 days since Jacilet Griffin-Lee’s son, Evan, died in the custody of the Harris County Jail, but her ears still ring at night with the sounds of Evan’s last words.
“Momma, get me out of here!” he pleaded.
Evan Lee told her he thought he was going to die in the jail. He had been actively receiving psychiatric services when he was arrested in December 2021. In March 2022, he wasn’t feeling well and went to the Harris County Jail clinic, where a medical provider determined he was suffering from an altered mental state after “possible head trauma or ingestion of an unknown substance.”
He died a few days later at 31 years old. The autopsy results have not yet been publicly released.
“Evan was not given proper care or medication for any of his medical needs,” Griffin-Lee told the members of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards at a meeting Wednesday morning in Austin. “I still don’t know what happened to my son.”
Evan was one of 27 people who died in the custody of the Harris County Jail in 2022 — the jail’s deadliest year on record over the past 17 years. Three more have already died in 2023.
Griffin-Lee on Wednesday joined several other family members whose loved ones died in the Harris County Jail in urging the commission, which is the regulatory body that oversees county and privately operated municipal jails, to do something — anything — to improve the conditions at the jail.
About 70 people attended the commission’s meeting, which came just hours after the Houston Landing published an investigation that revealed 46 percent – or 52 – of the 114 people who died of unnatural causes in the custody of Houston-area jails over the past decade had exhibited mental health concerns that were documented by court, jail or law enforcement personnel.
At the Harris County Jail, nearly 60 percent of the 61 people who died of unnatural causes in jail custody were flagged as mentally ill during that same timeframe. Evan Lee was not included in this count because his cause of death still had not been determined by the time of publication. Lee, however, had been identified as mentally ill multiple times by the Harris County Court system and had previously been found incompetent to stand trial.
Statewide, at least 33 percent — or 178 — of the more than 540 individuals who died of unnatural causes in jail custody over the past decade had been flagged as potentially mentally ill at least once since the 1980s.
Citing the Landing’s investigation, Krish Gundu, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, told the commission “it’s pretty clear there is an emergency crisis in the jails.”
Experts like Gundu say funding for community mental health programs needs to be bolstered in order to get people help before they are in crisis and enter the criminal justice system.
“We need to be investing in front-end solutions, such as pre-arrest diversion,” Gundu told commission members. “If you care about public safety, invest in public health.”
One of the parents, Deborah Smith, held two posters high in front of the commission members Wednesday, raising her voice so that the packed committee meeting could hear.
“This is what I gave to Harris County,” Smith said, showing the poster of her daughter, Kristan Smith, smiling next to a blue car.
“And this is what I got back,” Deborah said, flashing the second poster of Kristan, 38, hooked up to a ventilator in a hospital bed.
Kristan was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in April 2022. She was found unresponsive in her jail cell a month later. The autopsy results still are pending, but Deborah said her daughter was severely diabetic and wasn’t getting the care she needed in the jail.
“We need help!” Deborah said. “We need an on-site medical facility. Something is wrong!”
Kristan left behind a 7-year-old son with asthma. Her mom had to stop working to care for her grandson.
It was never supposed to be this way.
“You took his mom,” Deborah said at a news conference after the meeting. “You took my daughter. You took my support. You took the neighbor that would give you her last.”
Dr. Carolyn Clay Pickens, a reverend who serves as social justice advocate and staff minister of Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, called on the commission to recognize the human rights of those incarcerated in Harris County Jail.
“I am speaking on behalf of those (who) cannot cry out from the graves,” Pickens said. “Must there be more graves before we can listen?”