Sadistic Harris County Jailers. And the Streisand Effect.

It started with a couple of sentences on Houston criminal-defense firm Stradley Chernoff & Alford’s website:

The jail personnel, especially in Harris County, seem to take a perverse pleasure in making the jail visit as unpleasant as possible. Their actions sometimes border on the sadistic, and the client who is finally released on bail, fatigued, dehydrated and humiliated, vows never to go back.

Pretty innocuous, I’d say, and in a place where few people would have read it and fewer would have given it any thought.

But Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s in-house flack, Alan Bernstein, got a burr under his saddle and rattled off an indignant letter to “Legal Assistant” at the firm:

So I hope you will live up to your principles by deleting from said web site this inflammatory and highly dubious statement: “The jail personnel, especially in Harris County, seem to take a perverse pleasure in making the jail visit as unpleasant as possible. Their actions sometimes border on the sadistic, and the client who is finally released on bail, fatigued, dehydrated and humiliated, vows never to go back.”

I’ve got to admit, there are some crafty “weasel words” in there. It says that jail personnel in Harris County “seem to” take a perverse pleasure in making the jail visit as unpleasant as possible. But the damage of an unproven allegation has been done regardless.

He went on to ask for “specific evidence” of those allegations, and concluded:

Sheriff Adrian Garcia and staff strive to provide the public with a safe (for inmates, staff, visitors and others) environment that complies with and often surpasses all regulations and accreditation standards. No one guarantees a fun experience there, but we do take allegations seriously, unfounded or not, as should be obvious by this letter.

In the meantime I look forward to your responses.

“Seem to” in this case are not “weasel words”; “seem to” is hedging, to avoid the inevitable argument that Bernstein would otherwise be making: you couldn’t possibly know what gives jail personnel pleasure.

Harris County jail personnel engage in conduct that would lead a reasonable person to believe that they take a perverse pleasure in making jail visits as unpleasant as possible. Whether they in fact take such a pleasure may be known only to them and their psychiatrists, but if it acts like a sadist, it probably is one.

If you were the Harris County Sheriff and you took allegations of corrections misconduct seriously, you wouldn’t respond to allegations of abuse by having your PR guy write a letter to “Legal Assistant” exhorting him to “delet[e] from said web site this inflammatory and highly dubious statement”; instead, you would do so by having your internal-affairs division contact the lawyers and ask if there are specific inmates who would like to file complaints against jail personnel.  The fact of Bernstein’s letter puts the lie to Bernstein’s words.

Every criminal-defense lawyer hears stories from diverse clients about conduct—abuse and neglect—by jailers. These stories, from diverse clients with no connection to each other, are plausible and consistent. The anecdotal evidence that jailers take perverse pleasure in making their charges miserable is overwhelming.

Often when we hear these stories, it’s from the middle-class folks who never imagined that they would wind up in jail, and so hadn’t given much thought to it. (Stradley Chernoff & Alford’s web page on which Bernstein chose to shine his Streisandian spotlight was for the firm’s potential DWI clients, who are generally affluent first offenders; the offending statement’s will ring true with their audience, which is good marketing for the firm.) Those who are more likely to land in jail have friends and family who have gone to jail, have heard the stories, are not surprised, and don’t bother reporting the abuse they witnessed in the Harris County Jail to their criminal-defense lawyers.

In his letter to the firm Bernstein offers, “If you have [specific evidence], please provide it to me and I will relay it to jail commanders for corrective action.”

What planet does Bernstein live on? The offer to relay evidence to supervisors is like an offer to whitewash abuse. The chain of command in a police department does not root out misconduct. That’s why internal-affairs divisions exist.

These clients who are surprised at abuse and neglect by jailers ask whether they should report it. “Not worth the trouble” is usually the answer. We take it as a given that abuse occurs, that jailers—like cops everywhere—will lie and tamper with evidence to cover for each other, and that the Sheriff’s Office isn’t really interested in stopping abuse.

One advantage that the jailers have over cops on the street is that they can be pretty sure that inmates don’t have video cameras. Our clients’ observations, which would be the “specific evidence” that Bernstein requests, aren’t worth a cup of warm spit when wrongdoers and their buddies in blue (or in white) will cover for each other and jail commanders will bend over backwards to protect them.

I submit that Bernstein knows this full well, and that his offer to relay specific evidence to jail commanders for corrective action is duplicitous. (I have not entirely discounted the possibility that Bernstein is deliberately sabotaging his employer by sending his letter to a law firm that he knows damn well is more likely to publish it than cave in. If that’s the only way that he can think of to bring attention to jail abuses, I’m happy to help.)

Steph Stradley asks, “doesn’t the Sheriff’s Department have better things to spend their money on than scouring the web to find unhappy words about them and send long, whiney letters?” I know it’s a rhetorical question, but I’ll answer it anyway. Sure it does: it could spend its P.R. money investigating conditions in its jails.

That Sheriff Garcia is more interested in trying to stifle criticism than in investigating abuse helps explain why abuse persists.

22 responses to “Sadistic Harris County Jailers. And the Streisand Effect.”

  1. I have known Alan Bernstein for a many years. Most know he is a former newspaper reporter. While I understand all the questions raised here, I
    Always have always found Alan to be honest. On one occasion last year when I had a problem at the jail, I called Allen and he promised to look into the matter. He kept his word which came as no suprise to me.

    Robb Fickman

  2. In defending Alan Bernstein, I am in no way defending the Jail. That there is a long sordid history of institutionalized abuse within the jail is undeniable. Where does one even begin? Historically inmates have faced all conceivable abuse including but not limited to:
    – denial of medical treatment;
    – denial of medication;
    – physical abuse of prisoners;
    – verbal abuse of prisoners;
    – denial of library access;
    – overcrowding compliments of the judiciary;
    – purposeful delay in bringing prisoners to meet with counsel;
    – inadequate visitation facilities;
    – the ” Johnny Klevenhagen” Cement Stump seats
    – rude and unprofessional behavior toward counsel & family;
    – virtual impossibility to actually get through by phone to the jail;

    In my 28 years, I have seen or experienced all of the above. Things sometimes get better, but typically it’s pretty random. By that I mean, one jerk in the picket booth can make a clients life miserable.
    Reporting misconduct to superior officers seems useless. Reporting misconduct to IAD seems useless. Reporting misconduct to the DAs office which No Bills almost all cases involving law enforcement misconduct seems useless. Reporting same to the Feds who rarely do squat about civil rights violations also seems useless.

    I am not aware of any good remedy short of a Ruiz style suit to change these chronically abusive jails & prisons.

    Robb Fickman

    • I am very sorry to hear about how your jail is operated. About half of those booked at our jail are members of the general population that made a mistake. They are not held very long but they can hear and see what is happening in the jail and some of them will complain if they don’t like what they see.

      I assume you also have general population folks in your jail and I wonder what they have observed.

      • John, here are a couple of samples:

        “I spent the night in a holding pen for non-citizens that was overcrowded, and had nothing but narrow stone ledges along the walls where people were sitting trying to sleep. By the time I got in, there was only space left on the floor. I spent the night on bare cement, wearing just shorts and a teeshirt. This was in January, I had been arrested mid morning when the weather was quite pleasant but that night in the cell the temperatures where in the low forties. No food, no water, nothing for a very long and cold 12 hours. You wouldn’t treat a dog this way.”

        “I witnessed multiple beatings of inmates by jailors, mostly the mentally ill where the ‘mental health’ specialties worked. And almost all of them were built like NFL defensive ends.”

        • Has there been a complaint to the FBI about civil rights violations? I live in Iowa and I am wondering if I should complain to my members of congress about what is going on in Harris County.

    • Robb, how do you rectify Bernstein’s letter with the truth? Is Bernstein ignorant of jail abuse and the futility of reporting it to supervisors, or is his offer to relay complaints to jail commanders duplicitous?

  3. Seems like just a bunch of excuses to me. Attorneys make a bunch of unfounded allegations on order to grab clients and make a buck. Bernstein asks that some evidence for the unfounded allegations be provided so that corrective action can be taken. In the absence of any substantive, objective evidence he asks that the allegations not be made. Perfectly reasonable.

    Then the duplicitous, disingenuous fools argue that Bernstein must know that it would do no good to provide such evidence because it would not ever be acted upon in an appropriate manner.

    Notice that Bernstein made no claims about what does or doesn’t go on. He simply asked that potentially damaging, unfounded allegations be backed up. Any of you would insist on the same if your reputations or the reputation of an entity for which you were responsible were at stake. You know you would!

    So here’s where that leaves us. The arguments of the fools amount to saying that it’s fine for the lawyer-sharks to say anything they want because we just know it’s true. Further their argument amounts to saying that the abuses we “know” to be true can’t really ever effectively be addressed through channels because the entire system is corrupt. That’s a cop out.

    • Karen, here’s what the Department of Justice concluded after its last investigation.

      In part:

      We have serious concerns about the use of force at the Jail. The Jail’s use of force policy is flawed in several regards. First, neither written policy nor training provide staff with clear guidance on prohibited use of force practices. For example, Harris County Jail does not train staff that hogtying and choke holds are dangerous, prohibited practices. Indeed, we
      found a significant number of incidents where staff used inappropriate force techniques, often without subsequent documented investigation or correction by supervisors.

      That was what they found when the jailers were on their best behavior because they knew the DOJ was there.

      In fact, Bernstein did make a claim about what does or doesn’t go on in the jail, but it was subtle enough that I’m not surprised you missed it: “I hope you will live up to your principles by deleting from said web site this inflammatory and highly dubious statement.” True statements, even if not adequately footnoted, are not subject to retraction. Only after asking for a retraction did Bernstein ask that the statement be backed up.

      The statement is not at all dubious. When numerous ordinary citizens independently report the same experiences of the jail (experiences that find scientific support in the Stanford Prison Experiment), the people to whom the reports are made can have some confidence that the reports are true. That the sheriff’s flack, who before getting his government job was a reporter covering the criminal-justice system, has not heard similar reports is unlikely.

      You make a good point about the context in which SC&A made the statement: things published for marketing purposes are entitled to less credence than things published without pecuniary motives. On the other hand, this particular statement wouldn’t do SC&A any good if it didn’t ring true with the firm’s potential clients—middle-class first offenders, recently released from jail.

      Cops protect each other; this is not a controversial statement. Police departments have internal-affairs divisions because supervisors can’t be relied upon not to protect their subordinates. The DOJ itself has said that supervisors in the Harris County Jail aren’t doing their job.

      The solution to the problem may be for the FBI to send a couple of undercover agents in as inmates without anyone in the Harris County Sheriff’s Office knowing about it. Nobody who understands the system is holding his breath waiting for that investigation.
      Stradley, Fickman, Newman, and even Bernstein understand the system very well. You keep using the word “fools”; I do not think it means what you think it means.

  4. Mr. B., I learned about your piece on H.C. via Simple Justice where I asked fellow reader/commenter (Mr. Bunin) if he happens to know if are they still deploying Goon Squads at 2:00 AM to throw the infamous Ajax Parties? In all of ‘your’ years of experience, have you ever heard about these ass-holes?…
    [Remainder of comment cut and pasted from here.]

  5. It’s a jail folks. Its not a place for nice law abiding people. The jailers are so restricted they can’t fart without permission. Nobody likes a dirty cop or jaier. Especially others in this profession. What gets me, you don’t tell a doctor, plumber, news reporter or attorney how to do there job. But everone wants to tell a cop or jailer how to do it. Not even a clue about how or what the job is. Maybe you folks should go to work for the sheriff office and not only show everone how its done. But make the changes you think that are needed. I bet you might find very hard working professional people that are tired of the long unforgiving days, and tired of the BS crap from liberal bleeding heart, hug a thug criminal defense attorneys.

    • Assuming that everyone in jail belongs there probably makes it easier for the sadists to abuse their charges, and for the good, hardworking, professional jailers to cover for the sadists.

      And yet lots of nice law-abiding people wind up in jail as inmates, because witnesses lie and cops and prosecutors make mistakes.

      Or were you talking about the jailers not being “nice law abiding people”?

      The difference between a doctor or a plumber and a cop or a jailer is that cops and jailers are what we call “public servants.” So, like it or not, they get to listen to us, their employers, telling them how to do their jobs, “BS crap” or not. Is this a problem?

      • Mr. Bennett

        Do you really believe the cops just lie to put someone in jail? Do you really believe that nice law-abiding people wind up in jail?

        Let me educate you my friend. The system is so slanted, because of crooked attorneys. That more criminals go free to committee more crimes against good people……… Than the good law-abiding citizen getting placed into jail for something they didn’t do…

        Do honest people get caught up and placed into the system… Yes they do every now and then. But, the majority of these folks are nothing more than convicts. They should be put in jail and jail should not be a nice happy place for them. Right now jail is more like a hotel.

        Like I said, don’t sit at home and tell the cops and jailers how to do their job…. Go get you a job as one and then tell them how its done… I bet you would have a different thought process after the first time you were shot at punched in the mouth. Or the first time you had blood, urine or POO tossed on you. Yep! I bet those cops and jailers deserved to be assaulted. Again, go get you a job and show us how its done…

        • Tim,

          You’re clueless, and I’d be interested in hearing where your idea that you know something about the criminal-justice system comes from.

          Sometimes cops lie to put people in jail (most often because the cops have used excessive force and need a charge to justify it), but mostly when innocent people wind up in jail it’s because witnesses lie or are mistaken.

          “Crooked” attorneys? Bullshit. There are some crooked criminal-defense lawyers, but they’re taking advantage of their clients and making it easier for the government—the sort of crookedness of which you might approve. The rest of us—the scrupulously honest majority—are enforcing the Constitution by making the government prove its case. If you don’t like it, there are plenty of countries that don’t have the equivalent of the Sixth Amendment, nor the Fifth, Fourth, Third, Second, and First.

          If there’s someone testifying falsely in the criminal courthouse, odds are that he’s wearing a badge. Most cops will, once they have made an arrest, do whatever is necessary to justify it. They even have a word for it: testilying. The end, in their view as in yours, justifies the means.

          More criminals go free than law-abiding folks go to jail because that’s the way the system was designed to work. It was created by people who thought that it was better for many (factually) guilty people to go free than for one (factually) innocent person to be punished. The means justifies the end.

          Those same folks thought that treating people like they were innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in court was a good idea. That necessarily means treating arrestees (most people in jail are not “convicts,” clueless) humanely.

          You think that people in jail deserve whatever they get, and that I don’t have the right to tell the people who work for me how to do their jobs. I get it; there’s no point in repeating yourself. You’re quite simply wrong.

          It’s not okay to treat someone sadistically because he’s had the bad luck to be arrested for something he didn’t do. Not as far as I’m concerned. Not if he’s your brother or son any more than if he’s mine.

  6. Well, maybe people should not being breaking the law and getting thrown in jail! Real simple, do not break the law.

    Jail is not suppose to be a nice or pleasant place to go. The lesson is, once you have been to jail, you should never go back!

    I tell you what, the next time someones robs you, rapes you, or assaults you, just do not call the police. That way you do not have to oirry about how the animals are treated in jail…

    • Edward, if they are “animals,” then anything goes, right? It sounds like you’re not contesting that some jailers are sadists, but justifying their sadism. See my response to Tim Diver.

      The chances that someone will rob me, rape me, or assault me are very small. Why? Because I don’t count on the police keeping me and my family safe. If someone does rob me, rape me, or assault me, then I will have failed (as will the police, though I’m betting they will).

      • Yes… but I sure bet you call them for help and hope they show up.. Maybe we should just open the door of the jail up and let them all go free… Again Mr. Bennett. I don’t think you know what you are talking about….

        Have you ever worked in a jail? Have you been a police officer? Have you ever been to jail? If no to any of these questions… Then how do you know that these folks are telling you the truth…. You want to believe a convict over a cop or jailer…. You don’t sound very smart to me…

        Well good luck to you Mr. Bennett..

        • I certainly would call the cops, because it’s harder to justify the shooting otherwise. But when seconds count, the police are there in minutes.

          I have never worked in a jail, been a police officer, or been to jail. Neither have you, or you wouldn’t call arrestees “convicts” or say that Harris County Jail is “like a hotel.”

          So neither of us has direct knowledge of what happens there.

          Why do I believe my clients are telling the truth about conditions in the jail? Because when multiple unconnected, credible people who have never been in trouble before tell the same stories, the stories are probably true.

  7. A simple response to many of these allegations for the public is “You get what you pay for”. The standards have decreased over the years and employing part time employees is a band aid solution to the countless problems occurring. I have stated since the day Mr. Bernstein was hired, he is referred to as the spinmaster in our world, he is a waste of taxpayers money and merely a part of the reelection machine Adrian has hired on the county dime.

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