The parents of a man who died in the Harris County Jail in 2021 allege that Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s repeated refusal to adhere to state requirements regarding inmate monitoring directly resulted in their son’s death at age 33.
Rowena and Rory Ward, Sr. filed a lawsuit Monday night against the county, almost two years to the day that their son, Rory, was found unresponsive in his jail cell.
“Instead of getting Rory medical care, jailers in the Harris County Jail left Rory alone in a single cell unmonitored while he languished from his severe injuries,” the lawsuit states. “This was due to a practice of guards failing to monitor inmates causing a delay in timely medical care and consequently inmate death.”
Ward was the subject of Houston Landing’s first investigation, which found that about 46 percent of the 114 individuals who died of unnatural causes in the custody of Houston area jails between 2012 and 2022 had been flagged as potentially mentally ill by court, jail or law enforcement personnel.
Ward, who was charged with assaulting a police officer, was punched six times in the head by a fellow inmate on May 8, 2021. Three days later, he was found slumped over in his cell. He didn’t survive.
That three day span, where the Wards allege Rory was left unattended despite his injuries, is at the heart of the family’s lawsuit.
“Had Rory been monitored, jail staff would have seen signs indicating that Rory needed medical attention from May 8, 2021, when he was placed in his cell (to) May 11, 2021, when he was discovered unresponsive,” court documents state.
On two occasions prior to Rory’s assault, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards – the regulatory body that oversees county and privately operated municipal jails – cited the state’s largest jail for failing to conduct face-to-face observations of inmates according to the minimum standard requirement of no less than once every 60 minutes or at least every 30 minutes for inmates who are assaultive or potentially suicidal or mentally ill.
It happened three more times after Rory’s death, a pattern the lawsuit alleges has led to more than just one death. In fact, the Wards cite 17 deaths at the jail that they say were the result of officers repeated failure to monitor inmates appropriately.
“The unnecessary refusal to enact remedial measures at the Harris County Jail for the known issue of failure to conduct face-to-face observations of inmates resulted in Rory’s undue suffering and preventable death,” the lawsuit says.
In a statement, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said that it cannot comment on the lawsuit because of pending litigation. Gonzalez took office in 2017.
Court records show that at least 34 lawsuits have been filed in county and federal court over the past decade by Harris County inmates and their loved ones. Ten cases were related to deaths at the jail. At least seven of the lawsuits were settled out of court.
Among the cases:
■ Fred Harris, a 19 year old with an IQ of 62, died in 2021 after allegedly being beaten by his jail cellmate who was half a foot taller and 140 pounds heavier than the 5-foot 8-inch, 98-pound teenager. In a lawsuit, his mother, Dallas Garcia, alleges that officials failed to provide protection, medical treatment and safe housing in the jail, as well as failing to accommodate his disability. The case is still ongoing.
■ Vincent Young, 32, hung himself in a jail infirmary cell in 2017, after telling guards that he had mental health concerns, a lawsuit filed by his family says. His family has filed suit, saying Harris County was deliberately indifferent and negligent in regards to Young’s medical and mental health needs. The case is still ongoing.
■ Jerome Bartee was taken to the Harris County Jail’s medical clinic for a toothache in 2016 and was allegedly pushed into a door by an employee. He reacted verbally, at which point two employees allegedly beat him for several minutes. The lawsuit says that Bartee was deprived of his right to be free from excessive use of force and that officials were “deliberately indifferent to protecting Bartee from harm.” Bartee received a $600,000 settlement from the county.
Settlement agreement amounts weren’t publicly available in court documents, but the Landing was able to determine that the county has paid at least $3.5 million in three settlements to inmates and their families since 2012, two of which were the result of lawsuits. The other — a $400,000 settlement paid in 2015 to Terry Goodwin, a mentally ill inmate who was left in a jail cell for weeks amongst trash, feces and insects — was settled without taking legal action.
Jason Spencer, a spokesman with the sheriff’s office, said that the lingering effects of both Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the COVID-19 pandemic created an “unprecedented” backlog of felony cases in the criminal courts, meaning that there is not enough space to properly monitor, supervise and care for inmates.
The sheriff’s office also has struggled to remain maintain staffing levels because of a “super-competitive hiring market”
“The crisis in the Harris County Jail is the most visible symptom of a larger criminal justice system that is overloaded and ill equipped to consistently provide timely justice to victims and defendants,” Spencer said.
To address these problems, Spencer said the jail is providing an annual longevity bonus to staffers, has contracted with Harris Health System to provide medical services and the Harris Center is expanding its footprint in the jail.
He added that an assessment of jail facilities is underway, which will provide recommendations on how to convert the jail system into one that can accommodate programming that will make communities safer and address the problems that lead to incarceration.
The Landing requested settlement agreements related to the jail from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, but those records were not made available by the time of publication.
The Harris County Jail has become a dangerous place to end up. For years, it has struggled with overcrowding and has run afoul of requirements set by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, such as failing to ensure that medical professionals review prescription medications for inmates.
In 2022, 27 people died in jail custody — one of whom was housed in a Louisiana jail at the time — the jail’s deadliest year on record over the past 17 years. Five more have already died in 2023.
The FBI in February opened civil rights investigations into two deaths at the jail in recent years – Jaquaree Simmons and Jacoby Pillow.
Detention officers were accused of assaulting Simmons, 23, multiple times in 2021 and he was found dead a week after his arrest. His death was ruled a homicide and his mother has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit.
Pillow, 31, took a swing at an officer at the jail in January, fighting the officer as he was being handcuffed, and he was forcefully restrained. Though medical staff determined that Pillow was OK after the incident, he was found unresponsive and pronounced dead at the hospital. His cause of death has not yet been determined.
Family members grieving the loss of their loved ones who died in the Harris County Jail went to Austin earlier this year to testify in front of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the regulatory body that oversees county and privately operated municipal jails.
They begged commission members to do something — anything — to improve the conditions at the jail.
“I am speaking on behalf of those (who) cannot cry out from the graves,” Dr. Carolyn Clay Pickens, a reverend who serves as social justice advocate and staff minister of Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, said at the meeting in February. “Must there be more graves before we can listen?”
Critics say conditions at the jail have gotten so bad in recent years that a group of current and former employees in 2021 filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the county, members of the county commissioners court and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, alleging that the county has intentionally refused to adequately staff and fund the jail, despite knowing of the “blatantly dangerous conditions” created because of it. The case was dismissed in November by U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen, but the employees have since appealed.