Melissa Phillip / AP Photo

Texas jail allegedly kept mentally ill inmate in fetid cell for weeks

Harris County Jail officials have called for Department of Justice help with inquiry, Sen. Rodney Ellis told Al Jazeera

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has been asked to intervene in a Texas sheriff's investigation over allegations that a county jail inmate was locked in a cell for weeks amid piles of excrement, rotting trash and swarms of insects.

"The Harris County Sheriff is calling for the DOJ to come in and I hope it’s for a comprehensive review and not just an isolated investigation," Texas State Sen. Rodney Ellis told Al Jazeera on Thursday in regards to the ongoing probe. 

Twenty-four year old Terry Goodwin, incarcerated on a marijuana charge and reportedly in need of mental health care, was alleged to have been locked in a filth-ridden solitary confinement cell for as long as two month. He was only discovered when inspectors made a surprise visit on Oct. 10, 2013, local news channel ABC-13 reported.

“His sink, toilet, and shower drain were clogged, not just with feces, but with toilet paper in an apparent attempt by Goodwin to cover his own waste and with orange rinds, perhaps in a futile effort to mask the smell,” whistleblowers told ABC-13. “Food in Styrofoam containers was pushed in by guards through a slit in the door and the refuse was never collected,” the news channel added.

A sign attached to the exterior door of Goodwin’s cell instructed jail guard to keep it closed, the unnamed whistleblowers disclosed.

“The thought of that sickens me. It sickens me,” Mashell Lambert, Goodwin’s mother, told local news. “What do you mean, ‘don’t open the door?’ I’m pissed. I’m just so pissed.”

If the investigation finds it to be true, the sign raises question about how many staff members were aware of Goodwin’s situation. The whistleblowers allege that many jail officials knew about Goodwin’s imprisonment and his cell’s fetid condition.

Catalyst for reform

Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project — a nonprofit organization that aims to improve conditions in jails, said there had been a pattern of complaints in past years especially concerning young black men. Goodwin is black.

The DOJ has previously investigated Harris County Jail, and released findings in 2009 which cited various safety issues and a lack of mental health care. Despite the investigation, Watson said she "still can't help but be puzzled by the mistreatment of this obviously mentally ill young man."

"Nothing explains the sign on the door. How did they get away with that?" she added.

Sen. Ellis, who met with Goodwin's mother on Thursday, said she wants justice for her son and to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else's child. Ellis said he hopes the incident can be a "catalyst for long-awaited reforms" in the jail. "I believe this incident is just another example of systemic constitutional issues surrounding medical care, mental health care and sanitation at the Harris County Jail," said Ellis.

A criminal investigation was launched by Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia weeks ago, nearly a year after compliance inspectors found Goodwin on an unannounced visit to the jail. He was wearing a filthy, shredded jail uniform, ABC-13 reported. Furthermore, it appeared he had cut rope-like strips from his orange uniform and hung them from the ceiling light — possible evidence that he was contemplating suicide.

Brandon Wood, executive director of The Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS), the agency responsible for all county jails in the state, said Harris County Jail had launched an internal affairs investigation following the incident.

“Right now the facility is under investigation,” Wood said. “And we’ve listed the facility as ‘at risk’ and it is subject to further compliance (investigations) which would indicate unannounced inspections.”

Systemic problems

TJCS’ inspections, separate from the compliance team that discovered Goodwin's condition, had occurred in April 2013, before the incident occurred, and in March 2014, after the incident was reported, Wood said. The agency had also recently carried out an unannounced inspection of all segregation, or solitary confinement, cells.

Matt Simpson, a policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas told Al Jazeera that while the incident is alarming, it is likely the result of overcrowding — an issue the ACLU has been warning officials about for years. He added that Garcia had made some reforms to alleviate the overcrowding.

“This kind of incident is an extreme example of the exact concerns we continue to have with a jail that size,” Simpson said. “With such a large population some of the staff could be violating the constitutional rights of folks in there.”

Goodwin’s reported mental health issues and the fact that he was being held in solitary confinement were also of concern, Simpson said. On June 5, 2013, subsequent to his initial arrest, Goodwin was charged with assault of a prison guard, according to records obtained by ABC-13. In March, he was sentenced to three years in state prison for that crime.

Simpson said he believed Goodwin had been sent to solitary after attempting to physically assault a prison guard, but added that throwing someone in need of mental health care in solitary for bad behavior is not the correct response.

“Texas needs to look at this in a more systematic way. It seems fair to say there are a lot of folks with mental health issues in solitary confinement largely because it is so difficult to handle them,” Simpson said. 

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