Criminal Justice

70-year-old dies at Harris County Jail; 2022 now has highest number of in-custody deaths in past decade

The jail has seen at least 23 deaths this year as the facility’s daily population continues to hover around 10,000 people.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
People detained inside the Harris County Jail, on July 25, 2019.

Another person has died while in custody at Harris County Jail — surpassing the highest number of in-custody deaths in a single year in more than a decade.

According to a custodial death report from the Attorney General’s Office, Robert Horn, 70, was brought into the Harris County Joint Processing Center on Oct 24 at 6:40 p.m. Less than two days later — Oct. 26 at 2:37 a.m. — Horn was pronounced dead at St. Joseph Hospital after suffering from “a medical emergency while sitting in a chair.”

Horn’s attorney, Sara Smitherman with the Public Defenders Office, continued to file court records in the days that followed, including Request for Discovery on Oct. 31. The case was eventually dismissed on Nov. 1.

According to Krishnaveni Gundu, the executive director of the Texas Jail Project, this suggests a concerning lapse in communication between the jail and those representing defendants.

“The attorney didn’t know he died. No one knew he died,” Gundu said. “Something needs to be done about this process, where the jail is now actively keeping a lid on these deaths.”

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, did not respond to a request for comment. Smitherman was not available when asked for a request for comment.

Horn’s death comes just weeks after three others died while in custody — Bryan Johnson, 34, Victoria Simon, 42, and Alan Kerber, 34 — bringing the total number of in-custody deaths this year to at least 23.

Jail reform advocates like Elizabeth Rossi, the director of strategic initiatives at Civil Rights Corps, say the increased number of in-custody deaths is due to the facility’s bloated population, which has continued to hover around 10,000 people — dangerously close to the facility’s maximum capacity. As of Monday, there were 10,067 people in the jail, according to the Harris County Jail dashboard.

Rossi said the increased number of deaths has been exacerbated by overincarceration and the passing of Senate Bill 6, which bans cashless bail for felony defendants and mandates the creation of a public safety report for every person brought into the jail.

Rossi added that she believes the Harris County District Attorney’s Office could alleviate the problem by dismissing more cases to reduce the county’s backed up criminal justice system.

“Cases need to be dismissed, bail hearings need to be held,” Rossi said. “No one should be in the jail unless the the government can prove that it’s absolutely necessary to detain them.”

Read the full custodial death report below:

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