Criminal Justice

A man died at the Harris County Jail due to complications from a terminal illness, HCSO says

At least 14 people have died while in custody at the Harris County Jail this year.

Harris County Jail
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Harris County Jail in downtown Houston. Taken on Dec. 8, 2022.

A man died due to complications related to a terminal illness while in custody at the Harris County Jail, according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. His passing marks the 14th reported in-custody death this year.

Authorities say 65-year-old Kenneth McZeal, who had been in the jail since June 2021, was brought to a local hospital and admitted for a “medical ailment” on Oct. 1. According to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, McZeal was pronounced dead at around 1:40 a.m. on Sunday.

According to the sheriff’s office, McZeal had “no obvious physical injuries” at the time of his death.

The sheriff’s office says McZeal’s death is being investigated by the Texas Rangers and his cause of death will be determined by an autopsy conducted by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences.

McZeal is the 14th person to reportedly die while in custody at the Harris County Jail this year. This comes after at least 27 people died while in custody at the Harris County Jail last year — the highest number in nearly two decades, according to county records and data from Texas Justice Initiative.

Last month, county officials approved a 12% salary increase for detention officers working inside the jail in an effort to reduce turnover and understaffing within the overcrowded facility. As of Monday, there were 9,633 people in the jail and 1,355 people were being outsourced to other facilities. In comparison, more than 200 job vacancies in the Harris County Jail continue to linger, according to Jason Spencer, chief of staff at the sheriff's office.

"The jail's been experiencing critical-level staffing shortages for the last couple of years that have made it very difficult, if not impossible, for us to meet state minimum staffing requirements at the jail," Spencer said last month. "We're optimistic that we'll be able to get closer to being fully staffed in the jail."