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Several Stories This Week Reflect the Problems in Texas’ Criminal Justice System

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Texas’ criminal justice system hasn’t had the best PR week. First, the potential human rights violations caused by the overheated Texas prisons made international news—as reported on by the University of Texas Law School’s Human Rights Clinic, after lawsuits filed in the past year alleged the same. Then, a lawsuit was filed against the Hidalgo County sheriff’s department alleging that jail staff canceled the prescription of a prisoner suffering from high blood pressure, who the suit claims died of hypertension shortly after. An editorial that ran Wednesday night in the Dallas Morning News went on to highlight the bizarre case of Jerry Hartfield, who has been incarcerated since 1977 despite the fact that his conviction was overturned 33 years ago—and who was denied a petition for release last week. Add to that last week’s news about the eighteen months that the young man who peed on the Alamo is going to spend in a broken State Jail system, and you have a week that could be going better. 

The overheating in Texas prison facilities is a major story because the details of it are gruesome: in addition to at least fourteen deaths since 2007, the extreme heat—reported to be as high as 150 degrees—affects both inmates and prison staff. As the Guardian reports

The report said that 92 correctional officers suffered heat-related injuries or illnesses in 2012. “We’re placing these employees at great risk by working in these type of conditions without any climate control,” said Lance Lowry, a correctional officer and president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union branch in Huntsville, where Texas’s state prison system has its headquarters.

Lowry said that some officers have passed out or vomited. “We’ve had numerous members report getting extremely ill at work from extreme heat. A lot of these officers are in prisons wearing stab-resistant vests which hold a lot of heat,” he told the Guardian, adding that the conditions harmed productivity and safety.

“There’s definitely a problem among inmates who are on psychiatric medications. A lot of those medications are heat-reactive, and what we’ve seen is inmates during hot times will stop taking these medications that normally keep them calm. Once they stop taking these medications they become more aggressive towards staff,” he said.

Lowry thinks that in the long run it would be cheaper to install air conditioning than to keep paying for medical treatment made necessary by the heat.

The Dallas Morning News sought a comment from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice about the report, and it’s not exactly a bulletproof defense: 

In a statement emailed to The Dallas Morning News, TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark maintains that the “well being of staff and offenders is a top priority for the agency, and we remain committed to making sure that both are safe during the extreme heat. TDCJ takes precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses such as providing water and ice to staff and offenders in work and housing areas, restricting offender activity during the hottest parts of the day, and training staff to identify those with heat related illnesses and refer them to medical staff for treatment.”

But Clark says TDCJ can’t do much more than that – because anything above and beyond would cost too much.

“Although a detailed cost analysis has not been done, retrofitting facilities with air conditioning would be extremely expensive,” he says. “It should be noted that medical, psychiatric, and geriatric units are air-conditioned.”

The paper also mentions the fact that TDCJ provides climate-controlled facilities for the hogs that it keeps, which is a bad look for an agency whose main argument is that air-conditioning prisoners and jail staff would be too expensive. Obviously those costs aren’t comparable, but when you have fourteen dead prisoners, nearly one hundred officers suffering heat-related injuries in one calendar year, and lawsuits in which both the staff and the prisoners support one another, “TDCJ cares more about pigs than people” is not a headline you really need to see. 

The problems in Texas this week aren’t strictly at a state level, though. They range from North Texas down to South Texas—and in South Texas, the story of a prisoner who died after his prescription for a blood pressure medication was canceled is now the subject of a lawsuit. From The Monitor

About two weeks after he arrived, on June 10, 2013, jail medical staff told Labude that his blood pressure was stable and he would no longer get the medication.

Labude made a written request that afternoon and the next day for the medicine but did not receive it, the lawsuit states.

Three days later, a corrections officer found Labude in his cell, sweaty, nauseated and suffering from stomach pains. An hour later a nurse employed by the jail called an ambulance to transport Labude to Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.

He “died of hypertension leaving his wife and two daughters” the morning of June 15, the lawsuit states.

It’s unclear from the Monitor’s report why Labude—who was on a five-year drug sentence—wasn’t able to receive the medication after putting in the written request, but the comments from a representative of the embattled Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office gave what could charitably be called an uninspiring answer: 

If one of the doctors recommends a treatment and an inmate makes written requests for a different course of action — like the lawsuit says Labude did — the information goes to the nursing staff, who contact the doctor.

Whether that request is expedited to the doctor depends on the case, Garcia said.

“The doctor may be in that day or they may be in the next day. If it’s an emergency, then the nursing staff calls the doctor,” Garcia said.

“The doctor might have been off that day” isn’t a reassuring answer to why a person who is at the mercy of the county was denied a medication that was previously determined to be necessary, which he formally requested he receive, and which—based on the fact that he died shortly after he was taken off of the drug—seems to have been important to his health. 

Neither of those stories is as strange as the story of Jerry Hartfield, though, who was convicted in 1977 of murdering Eunice Job Lowe. Hartfield—who has an IQ in the fifties—was sentenced to death, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction three years later. What happened to Lowe, no doubt, was horrible, but Hartfield isn’t convicted of the murder, which makes the 33 years he’s spent in prison since it occurred seem strange. 

When Hartfield’s conviction was overturned, he should have received a new trial—but according to an editorial arguing his case in the Dallas Morning News, neither Hartfield’s attorneys nor the state actually sought that trial. Hartfield wasn’t entirely forgotten: then-Governor Mark White commuted his sentence to life in prison, which is an odd thing to do when someone isn’t convicted of the crime and thus has no sentence to commute (a finding that the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed upon last year). After decades in limbo, new attorneys for Hartfield sought his release—and last week, a state judge denied that petition, calling instead for that new trial 33 years after it should have been ordered. That’s something the paper finds baffling: 

Hartfield’s appellate lawyer now argues — and who could disagree? — that his right to a speedy trial has been grossly violated, he suffered prolonged incarceration and he should be freed. The district attorney’s contemptible response: Hartfield “failed to proffer any evidence he wanted a speedy trial during this period.” Please. The lapses are nauseating enough without that nonsense.

Different attorneys are now preparing for a new trial, despite skepticism that a fair trial is possible. Key evidence is missing, including the murder weapon, and witnesses have died.

Suggesting that a man with an IQ in the fifties should have been able to assert his right to a new trial while the state failed to properly handle his case places a burden on Hartfield that it’s hard to believe he’s capable of meeting, regardless of how the new trial, whenever it occurs, actually goes. 

All of these stories represent a fairly broad example of the ways that the system in Texas—from the county jails in the border to TDCJ to even the Governor’s office of decades ago—are failing on some pretty big levels. When we talk about criminal justice reform, a week like this is a reminder of why it’s necessary. 

(Image via Flickr.)

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