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Are Conditions in Houston's Jail Worse Then NYC's Rikers Island?

Years of unconstitutional abuse at New York City’s jail on Rikers Island have generated national outcry and broad agreement that the facility must be shut down. A plan is under way. At Houston’s Harris County Jail, more deaths and arguably even worse conditions than at Rikers have barely registered nationally. There are neither plans nor sufficient political pressure to stop the systematic violence Houston’s most vulnerable residents are reportedly experiencing in the jail, Slate reports. Today, the Harris County Jail detains more than 10,000 people––the highest number in more than a decade, presenting a stark contrast to a ten percent reduction since 2008 in the number incarcerated nationally. More than eighty percent of those inside the jail are awaiting disposition of their cases. Nearly eighty percent of people admitted to the jail are recorded as likely to be suffering from a mental illness.

Nearly thirty percent are on psychiatric medications. Over the last two years as the COVID-19 pandemic has torn through Texas’ most marginalized communities, the jail’s average daily population has increased by twenty four percent. As the population has surged, so too have the reported incidents of violence, medical neglect, abuse, and in-custody deaths. Between the summer months of 2019 and 2022, the number of officially recorded assaults in the jail has more than doubled and events involving use of force resulting in bodily injury have more than quadrupled. Texas is not exceptional in its failure to protect those inside its jails and to hold accountable the officials responsible for abuse. A recent U.S. Senate oversight hearing and new reports issued by the Senate and the Department of Justice showed thousands of in-custody deaths have been left uncounted.


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