When Jacilet Griffin-Lee’s son Evan died from head trauma last year while in custody of the Harris County Jail, she wondered if other families with incarcerated loved ones shared her pain. 

Griffin-Lee soon learned she was not alone. 

“When this happened to Evan, I wanted to know if anybody else experienced this,” she said. “Now we have a caravan of about 22 families that have experienced the same story.”

Members of that caravan gathered Saturday morning on the campus of Texas Southern University to show their support for Griffin-Lee, protest deaths at the Harris County Jail and call for radical change at the downtown facility. 

About 25 people filed into a small courtroom at the school’s Earl Carl Institute for Legal & Social Policy, including family and friends of individuals who died at the Harris County Jail, as well as supportive community members. It was the latest effort to bring attention to conditions at the jail run by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which faces scrutiny from state regulators and a lawsuit brought this week related to nearly two dozen deaths and injuries. 

Sheriff’s officials said earlier this week that they are making progress on the safety and health care fronts at the jail. The agency has reported 11 deaths of people in jail custody this year, on pace for a decline from the 28 reported last year and 21 in 2021.

The event, titled “From Custody to Casket,” featured speakers ranging from Griffin-Lee, to state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, to a Harris County Public Defender’s Office investigator.

Deborah Smith, whose daughter Kristan died at the jail in May 2022 due to complications from diabetes, emphasized the importance of telling her story. Smith said her appearances in local media have encouraged other families to contact her about abuses their loved ones suffered. 

“It’s a mother’s pain,” she said. “That’s what motivates me. We have to say something.” 

Deborah Smith, the mother of Kristan Smith, attends the “From Custody to Casket” event Saturday at Texas Southern University in Houston, Kristan Smith died in 2022 due to complications from diabetes while in the Harris County Jail’s custody. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

Griffin-Lee exhorted the families and other community members “to connect and continue our fight” for change in the jail, so that “none of our loved ones have been gone in vain.” The group discussed several changes they want to see related to the jail, including new leadership and the transfer of incarcerated people to jails in compliance with state standards.

“This has been going on for over 20 years,” said Sarah Guidry, executive director of the Earl Carl Institute. “Do we need to think about something more radical?”

Earlier this week, Griffin-Lee joined the relatives of eight other people who died in jail custody and 13 formerly and currently incarcerated people in suing Harris County, alleging constitutional rights violations. The plaintiffs outlined multiple cases of inmates being assaulted in jail and allegations of jail staff neglecting medical needs before deaths.

Lawyers for Griffin-Lee allege that jail employees failed to get her son timely medical care after he was beaten by another inmate. Sheriff’s officials have said Evan Lee’s head injuries resulted from his participation in a “slap boxing” game.

At least 52 lawsuits have been filed in local and federal courts in the past 10 years over jail conditions, according to a Houston Landing review of such cases. 

In a message to the community Monday afternoon, hours after the latest lawsuit was filed, sheriff’s officials said the agency has made progress on jail safety but “solutions aren’t simple.” Recent efforts to improve safety include outfitting jail guards with body-worn cameras, boosting guard salaries and adding more screening to limit contraband entering the jail, they said.

“We hold every life in our jail as precious,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in the message. “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.”

The jail remains non-compliant with state safety standards, resulting in “escalated and enhanced enforcement,” the Texas Commission on Jail Standards said last week. The TCJS first cited the jail in September 2022.

Community members and speakers Saturday were skeptical that change is imminent, leading to calls for moving people incarcerated at the jail to other facilities.

“If they do not take care of the inmates there, if they cannot keep them alive, shut them down,” Smith said. “I’d really like to see Harris County (Jail) closed down.”

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Clare Amari covers public safety for the Houston Landing. Clare previously worked as an investigative reporter for The Greenville News in South Carolina, where she reported on police use of force, gender-based...