A national spotlight has been focused on the Harris County Jail as the overcrowded facility continues to struggle with violence, death and drug smuggling.
Over the course of 2023, officials poured millions of dollars into the county’s jail system to address a list of challenges within the troubled facility. However, according to jail reform advocates, the county’s investments may have allowed a culture of abuse to remain unchecked within the Harris County Jail.
‘A place of torment and punishment’
On New Year’s Day, Jacoby Pillow was booked into the Harris County Jail after being charged with trespassing — a misdemeanor offense. He was set to be released two days later on a $100 personal bond, but police say that never happened because Pillow allegedly assaulted a detention officer.
After an altercation with jail staff, Pillow was brought back to his cell, where he was later found unresponsive. He died in a nearby hospital later that same day.
Pillow was the first person to reportedly die while in custody at the Harris County Jail this year. In the months that followed, the death toll gradually grew.
A month later, the FBI announced they had opened an investigation into Pillow’s death, along with the 2021 death of Jaquaree Simmons, who was allegedly beaten by several detention officers — one of whom was charged with manslaughter.
The brutality that’s been reported in the jail is detailed in several lawsuits, including a federal suit filed in August on behalf of people who’ve had family members booked into the jail, along with several formerly incarcerated people. The lawsuit accuses officials of failing to provide adequate medical care while perpetuating a culture of abuse and violence within the jail, allowing the troubled facility to “become a place of torment and punishment.”
“This pattern does not end with simply those who lost their lives but extends to each of those individuals who have suffered needless and numerous beatings, lack of medical attention, and whose cries for help were silenced by their captors,” the lawsuit read. “These individuals deserve humanity, and they deserve life.”
As of Tuesday, at least 19 people have died while in custody so far this year. This comes after a record-number of in-custody deaths in 2022, when at least 27 people lost their lives — the highest number in nearly two decades, according to county records and data from the Texas Justice Initiative.