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Attorneys, activists hope indictment in Texas jail death prompts change

Officials say overcrowding and understaffing have created dangerous conditions; last year, the jail’s population exceeded its capacity

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Last year, 27 people died inside the Harris County Jail of causes including illness, alcohol and drug intoxication and homicide.

Photo/Harris County Sheriff’s Office

By Juan A. Lozano
Associated Press

HOUSTON — Attorneys and community activists said Tuesday they hope the indictment of a former Texas sheriff’s office detention officer in the death of an inmate will prompt changes in the state’s largest county jail, which has been under scrutiny amid overcrowding and a slew of recent deaths.

Eric Morales, 28, faces a charge of manslaughter in the death of Jaquaree Simmons. The 23-year-old Houston man was found unconscious in his cell at the Harris County Jail in 2021 and was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Medical examiners later ruled the death a homicide from injuries to his head.

Court records did not list an attorney for Morales who could speak on his behalf. He remained jailed Tuesday on a $100,000 bond after being indicted last week.

Prosecutors said this was the first time a detention officer at the jail in Houston had been charged in connection with an in-custody death.

Community activists and civil rights organizations say overcrowding and understaffing at the lockup have created dangerous conditions for inmates.

Last year 27 people died inside the facility, the most since 2006, according to the Texas Justice Initiative nonprofit, of causes including illness, alcohol and drug intoxication and homicide.

Last year, the jail’s population exceeded its capacity of 10,000. Activists say the overcrowding has prompted delays in medical care and timely processing of inmates. Officials have blamed the crowding in part on a court backlog caused by damage from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and later the pandemic. On Monday, there were 9,970 inmates at the jail.

Lee Merritt, an attorney representing Simmons’ family, called Morales’ indictment a “major milestone.”

“I’m hoping a dam will now break so we can address some of the instances of brutality and violence” in jails and prisons, Merritt said.

Prosecutor Kimberly Clark of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement Monday that county residents expect detention officers to treat inmates fairly and humanely.

“Harris County will prosecute those who break the law inside the jail, regardless of which side of the bars they are on,” Clark said.

In a statement Monday, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said it “immediately conducted a thorough internal investigation that revealed significant policy violations” after Simmons’ death. It added that nearly 1,200 detention officers have since undergone additional training on how to safely defuse critical incidents and prevent misconduct.

Morales was one of 11 employees with the sheriff’s office who were fired after Simmons’ death. Six others were suspended.

On Feb. 10, 2021, Simmons was booked into the jail on a charge of a felon in possession of a firearm.

Prosecutors allege that Morales hit Simmons three different times on Feb. 16, 2021, kneeing him in the head and hitting his head against a door and a wall.

Investigators say Simmons was never brought to a jail clinic for follow-up X-rays. He was found unresponsive in his cell on Feb. 17.

Simmons’ mother has filed a wrongful death suit in Houston federal court against Morales, other detention officers and the sheriff’s office.

Morales is the only person charged.

Merritt said he would be disappointed if charges are not filed against other detention officers.

During a news conference Tuesday outside the sheriff’s office, community activist Quanell X called for adequate staffing at the jail and for an outside agency to investigate the recent deaths.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “Too many young men are dying in this jail.”