Two possible overdose deaths at the Harris County Jail sparked an investigation that led to the arrest last week of a Houston defense lawyer who is accused of passing drug-laced paperwork to inmates.
In a complaint filed by the Harris County District Attorney’s office on Saturday, attorney Ronald Lewis, 77, was accused of smuggling a type of synthetic marijuana into the crowded facility. Investigators also alleged at a news conference Monday that Lewis was paid to deliver over a hundred pieces of paper laced with synthetic marijuana and ecstasy.
“We are not cynical or naive enough to think that this one arrest will solve our jail drug problem,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said Monday. “Anyone coming into our jail, whether it be one of our contractors, our own staff, everyone is subject to more intense scrutiny.”
Lewis passed letters to over a dozen inmates since July, receiving up to five hundred dollars per letter, sheriff’s officials alleged at the press conference. While court filings state that two deaths at the jail were linked to the letters, county officials with both the sheriff and district attorney’s offices noted they have not yet proven a direct link to any specific jail death.
Sheriff’s officials said that they are awaiting the official autopsy results in the deaths they believe may have been due to an overdose, but did not confirm the names of the people who died.
Seventeen people have died this year in the jail, and at least five of those who died were flagged as mentally ill, according to a Houston Landing investigation.
Lewis declined to comment on the case when reached by phone.
The charges follow a series of crackdowns on paper in the jail, including, most recently, nailing shut slots through which lawyers can pass documents during visitation.
Sheriff’s deputies also looked through legal documents of other defense attorneys in order to check for contraband, according to reporting by the Houston Chronicle.
Earlier this year, Harris County officials decided to shut down the jail’s traditional mail system in favor of electronic communications, a decision made possible through a new contract with jail communications company Securus.
At the time, officials cited the dangers of such drug-soaked letters as well as fires at the facility, but the decision ignited new concerns by advocates about the consequences of limiting meaningful communication for people who have not yet been convicted of a crime.
Alex Bunin, Harris County’s chief public defender, said that the latest crackdown is just one more thing on top of many years of frustration when going to see clients.
“I can’t tell them that they have no reason to worry about it, but … you can’t just shut the whole thing down,” he said. Bunin later suggested asking what’s being done to stop drugs from getting in through employees and others entering the facility.
“It seems like that’s a much more serious and probably prevalent issue,” Bunin said.
Gonzalez acknowledged on Monday that personnel and contractors were other potential entry points for contraband, and said that the changes in processes were part of a larger review of protocols at the jail.
Lewis, who was released this weekend after paying $7,500 bond for each of the two charges, is a family and criminal defense attorney, according to the state bar association. He is a graduate of Texas Southern University’s law school and has been a licensed attorney in the state since 1982.
In 2003 and 2010, Lewis was accused of cocaine possession, for which he received community supervision, according to court records.
Sheriff Gonzalez said his office doesn’t think the practice of lawyers bringing in such contraband is “necessarily widespread,” and noted that everyone can be held accountable for their actions.
“It doesn’t matter who they are,” said Gonzalez on Monday. “We’re going to make sure we investigate it fully and hold them accountable.”