Criminal Justice

2 people die at Harris County Jail, marking highest number of deaths in the past decade

The jail has seen at least 21 deaths this year as the facility’s population continues to hover around 10,000 people — dangerously close to the facility’s total capacity.

Harris County Jail
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
The Harris County Jail in downtown Houston on April 12, 2021.

Two people died in Harris County Jail over the weekend, bringing the total number of deaths this year to at least 21 — the highest amount of in-custody deaths over the past decade.

Bryan Johnson, 34, was arrested June 9 and charged with being a felon in possession of a weapon and evading arrest. According to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Johnson was brought to Ben Taub Hospital on Saturday after complaining of chest pain and collapsing — he was pronounced dead later that day.

Victoria Simon, 42, was arrested Sept. 29 for drug possession in Fort Bend County. Police say she was found unresponsive Sunday morning and was later pronounced dead in the jail’s clinic.

Autopsies are being conducted by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, according to the Sheriff’s Office. The Houston Police Department is investigating Johnson’s death and the Texas Rangers are investigating Simon’s.

Advocates say the growing number of deaths stems from continuous overcrowding at the jail, which has created uninhabitable conditions for people inside the facility.

Since early July, the jail’s population has continued to hover around 10,000 people — dangerously close to the facility’s total capacity. As of Tuesday, there were 9,988 people in the jail, according to Harris County jail dashboard.

According to Krishnaveni Gundu, the executive director of the Texas Jail Project, the facility’s bloated population is resulting in a lack of access to timely medical care for those waiting to be booked.

“They don’t have access to medication, they don’t have access to medical care,” she said. “Overpopulation and delays in the booking (process) are directly causing some of these deaths.”

In early September, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards had sent a notice of non-compliance to Harris County and the Sheriff’s Office after 64 people remained in holding cells at the jail for longer than 48 hours — which is prohibited by the state.

In response, the Sheriff’s Office provided a list of corrective measures, such as outsourcing more inmates to other facilities and expediting booking time for those with medical issues.

TCJS Executive Director Bryan Wood said the county will need to “continuously stay on top of (the jail’s) inmate population,” especially as the number of incarcerated people steadily increases along with the county’s overall population.

Gundu said she believes the overcrowding issue can be alleviated by releasing more people facing low-level charges and by tackling the issue of over-incarceration.

“This is absolutely a self-inflicted crisis,” she said. “We made very specific policy choices to get to this place today and we can make very specific policy choices to dig ourselves out of this hole.”