For most of the decade, deaths among inmates booked into the Harris County Jail hovered between the mid-teens and low twenties each year. Sheriff's Office spokesperson Christina Garza says last year, eleven inmates died while in custody.
"All but one of these deaths were due to natural causes, or to terminal illnesses, or other serious health issues. We did have one suicide."
Last year's inmate death total of 11 was down from 16 in 2009, and 21 deaths in 2008. Before Sheriff Adrian Garcia took over in 2009, the Department of Justice said the Harris County inmate death rate was "alarming". The Sheriff's Office denies the DOJ's claim of substandard medical care. But spokesperson Christina Garza says Sherriff Garcia did make some important changes to bring down the number of deaths.
"We now employ our own doctors, versus having them work as part of a contract. So these doctors now report directly and are accountable to Sheriff Garcia, as well as our medical administrator. So I think we've improved accountability. We take these cases very seriously, and this makes sure all inmates get the appropriate care they need while housed at the jail."
Each year, the Harris County Jail books about 140,000 inmates. Garza says a significant number of them arrive already sick, and usually addicted to either drugs or alcohol, which complicates treating them.