Eric Taylor

Eric Taylor

 

Before dying of a methamphetamine overdose early on Aug. 1, 2017, La Salle County prisoner James Dean Davis, aka “Country,” moaned and yelled for most of the night. Sweat dripped off him in a chilly holding cell, as vomit ran red, like Kool-Aid, on the floor. 

“He kept saying he needed help and didn't want to die,” Davis' cellmate later told a Texas Rangers investigator.

But jailers ignored Davis, surmising he was withdrawing from meth, after his arrest the day before on a theft warrant. One jailer even mimicked and mocked the wailing coming from Davis' cell.

"It's freaking annoying," he said, as another jailer laughed. "Like, shut up!"

Later that day, another La Salle County jailer falsified observation log entries, failing to check on Davis, 42, at prescribed 30-minute intervals.

The jailer's excuse was that all of the staff falsify logs. Her sergeant even told her to do it, she said, if she couldn't make her rounds on time.  

An autopsy ruled Davis' death "accidental, but like most of Texas' annual 100-plus in-custody deaths, it stemmed from a lethal mix of negligence, incompetence, and indifference.

Neglect in custody

Davis' death was one of nearly 200 in-custody deaths statewide in 2017 and 2018 that were investigated by the Texas Rangers. Twenty-five reports on those investigations, obtained through the Freedom-of-Information Act, were randomly selected and reviewed by the Herald-Press this month. This year's deaths remain under investigation.

The reports showed at least 15 of the 25 deaths in Texas county jails -- more than half -- involved neglect and misconduct, including the 2018 death of Anderson County prisoner Rhonda Newsome, 50, of Palestine.

The real figure, however is almost certainly higher. Another eight of the 25 reports, almost one-third, provided too little information to determine the role negligence played in the death.

Falsified observation logs, the most common failure found in the Herald-Press review, were cited in nearly half of the investigations. Dying prisoners weren't checked or observed for hours. In one death, Texas Rangers found 21 discrepancies between observation logs and digital video camera records.

Equally troubling, the Texas Rangers and Texas Commission on Jail Standards, rarely held jailers accountable, even though falsifying observation logs is a felony. 

The reports by the Texas Rangers also uncovered excessive force, inadequate monitoring, ignored calls for help, delays in medical attention, and failure to recognize and treat mental illness and suicide risks.

Suicides accounted for seven, or nearly a third, of the 25 deaths – near the statewide average. Victims ranged in age from 17 to 67. Five of them, or 20 percent, were women, a little higher than the state average. 

Excessive force contributed to one death: In 2017, Kelli Leanne Page, 46, died of asphyxiation while jailers restrained her. Two Coryell County jailers held Page, face down, while applying force to her upper back and buttocks, until Page became unresponsive. One jailer hit her head with his fist.

Practically all of the victims were pre-trial detainees, without convictions, who could not make bail. Their charges were mostly minor, such as criminal trespass, petty theft, public intoxication, or drug possession. These allegations became, in effect, death sentences.

On March 17, 2017, for example, police arrested Mary Ann Flanagan, 47, of Harrison County, for stealing underwear from a local Walmart. The next day, she hanged herself in a holding cell with a grey blanket knotted around her neck. 

Flanagan's husband filed a $2-million wrongful death lawsuit last year, alleging deputies failed to check on Flanagan.

In Tyler County, on Nov. 13, 2017, prisoner Amie Coon, 41, hanged herself with a television cable. The day before, local police arrested Coon for drug possession.

During intake, Coon told a magistrate she would kill herself; the magistrate's report said Coon was just blowing off steam. 

Mentally ill and suicidal patients rarely got the help they needed, investigations by Texas Rangers show. 

Eric Taylor, 24, is a tragic case-in-point. Despite a severe mental illness, Taylor was locked down 24 hours a day, without physical contact, in the Travis County Jail.

On March 31, 2018, the day he died, Taylor lapped up water from the toilet and spat it out. He stared at the ceiling, walking in circles with his tongue out.

Taylor told a jailer his psychotropic medications were triggering bad side effects, but jailers dismissed his behavior as a stunt to get their attention. They didn't know a jail nurse had given Taylor the wrong medications earlier that day.

Taylor died at about 5:20 p.m. “Natural causes,” the autopsy concluded.

The sordid deaths of these prisoners were not news. Their lives, and the mistakes and blunders that ended them, were quickly forgotten.

A tough job

With 57 deaths in the first half of 2019, Texas is on track for a record 114 in-custody deaths this year, a 16 percent increase from 98 last year.

Commendable mental health jail reforms under the Sandra Bland Act of 2017 can't work without oversight and enforcement. Staff shortages and low pay force counties to use untrained jailers. More than 3,000 Texas jailers – 14 percent of the total – work under a temporary license.

County jails hold large numbers of mentally ill and addicted people they're not equipped, or staffed, to handle. Moreover, many people enter jail diseased or in poor health. In the wake of an opioid and methamphetamine epidemic in Texas, some experience the horrific agony of withdrawal in a holding cell during intake.

Larger, overriding social problems, however, don't excuse indifference, cruelty, excessive force, gross incompetence, or violations of state laws.

Counties are responsible for maintaining constitutional standards in their jails, protecting taxpayers from liability, and ensuring the health and safety of prisoners, whose lives are solely dependent on the care of their keepers.

Counties and local jails too often fail to meet those mandates. When they do, the responsibility for oversight and accountability falls squarely on the broad shoulders of state government.

(Editor's note: A summary of the 25 investigations, “Neglect in custody,” is listed online at www.palestineherald.com)

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