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.
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