Friday, September 25, 2009

Houston, You've Got a Problem. (But I Still Love You.)

Looking out my open hotel room window, the humidly familiar subtropical night broke in to subdue the air conditioning. Below, the mighty Southwest Freeway pulsed nocturnally in red, white and yellow laser streaks, cutting a glittering glass-canyon swath, and I passed into a reverie of bygone Bayou City days.

Houston. The best and worst of you still courses the expressways of my mind. As a child, I nursed upon the teat of your oil-boom bosom, running in aimless middle-class kid packs, alongside the progeny of economic refugees who picked up sticks for the boomtown wages and get-rich opportunities of Houston's signature Laissez-faire entreprenuerial euphoria.

In the '70s and '80s, apartment families moved out into new suburban tract houses faster than Earl Campbell could bust through a hole and eject rolling, crumpled defenders out from under his mud-flap thigh pads. Love Ya Blue. These were fast and heady times, when Houston's population zoomed up from being the 7th-largest American city to the fourth-largest, where it still stands today and continues its boundless big-bang business expansion.

Houston's mushrooming suburbs, however, had no charms to soothe the restless dreams of my youth. Doubtless, no American city would have. The ensuing rebellion of my teens and early 20s had its consequences. Fueled on booze, drugs and adrenalized disenchantment, I zig-zagged the Bayou City's vast muddy underbelly as a young man and got caught up more than once. I was introduced to the city's infamous law-enforcement chokehold.

Growing up, you heard plenty of stories about Houston police and the processions of nightstick-bludgeoned, bloated bodies floating belly-up in the swampy backwaters of Buffalo Bayou. From Jose Campos Torres and the Moody Park Riots to routinely fatal "street justice" beatings and the throwdown-gun murder of Randy Webster (made into a 1981 TV movie), word on the street was that if you got on the wrong side of the Houston Police Department, you might have to worry more about going to the morgue than going to jail. Texas Monthly - a perennial winner of National Magazine Awards and one of my faves - covered this very well in the September 1977 article, Support Your Local Police - Or Else, by the excellent journalist Tom Curtis (whom I had the honor of interning with as a reformed delinquent and college journalism major in 1990).

What I discovered in the late '80s was that if you survived being taken down, hog-tied and trounced like a handcuffed pinata by HPD, then you had the absolute hellhole of the Harris County Jail and its maniacally violent sheriff's department deputies to contend with.

How bad was it? The third-largest jail in America was (and, by all accounts, still is) a lockup in which the greatest threat of bodily harm comes not from other inmates, but from the deeply ingrained, institutional brutality of the guards. Inmate gang fights and race wars? Forgedda'bout it. As I saw for myself in 1988-89, it was the guards who could kill you.

If you so much as inadvertently met eyes with one of these jackbooted goons, they'd sucker punch you and slam you up against a wall, triggering a beserker feeding frenzy in which other nearby guards would drop everything and race up to get in on the action. I saw moaning inmates dragged across the floor into nearby beatdown rooms, where gangs of deputies would run inside with rubber gloves to pummel them into lifeless pulps. (The gloves caused less visible bruising and cuts.) The inmates' cries of pain and pleas for mercy, and the sickening meat thuds of fists and boots striking flesh and bone, would echo and reverberate throughout the jail's extremely overcrowded inmate pods. (A 24-man pod would be overflowing with 100-plus men, with flimsy mattresses and refuse covering every square inch of the filthy floor.)

A bitter bile of anger would rise up as I witnessed the deputy beatdowns, their shrill laughter and taunts punctuating the outrage. Once, while working as a jail trustee, I witnessed two deputies throw a decrepit old man down a flight of stairs. I have no idea if the poor guy lived through the experience, but word on the block was that as the man was being gurnied into the emergency room, the guards told hospital staff he had a "seizure" and accidentally tumbled down the stairs.

"If you don't like jail, don't come here," was the popular refrain of the deputies, as if inflicting terrible pain and humiliation on inmates - frequently jailed on non-violent charges - was some kind of justifiable deterrent. This dumb philosophy, of course, continues to display its effectiveness with America's world-leading prison population, which is the ultimate role model of how to achieve rampant recidivism rates. (Alas, so many jobs and so many billions in criminal justice profiteering relies on the awe-inspiring rehabilitative failure of the U.S. Law Enforcement Industrial Complex.)

So you can imagine the cold slap of resentful recollection when, during my recent Houston visit, I picked up a copy of the Houston Press and read the very same words highlighted above, as quoted in the Sept. 10 article, Jail Hell, by staff reporter Randall Patterson. Mr. Patterson, who waited outside the jail and interviewed numerous released inmates about their experiences inside, presented eyewitness accounts that clearly indicate that nothing has changed at the abominable Harris County Jail in the 20 years since my experiences there. This, in spite of many media exposes and five-plus years of investigative intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice.

From Mr. Patterson's Houston Press report:

The inmates couldn't help but perceive a general lack of concern for their welfare.

They noticed it through the many acts of omission, as when, during intake, Charlotte Lavan informed the guard that she was both anemic and pregnant, and the guard replied, "We don't give a fuck!" And left her to her fate.

But the inmates mainly felt the disregard as they were being beaten. Justice Department officials were not the only ones with "serious concerns about the use of force at the Jail," as the June report stated. The guards will "beat your ass," said Wade. "They beat my ass."

He told of an earlier arrest on a drunk-and-disorderly charge, and of being handcuffed to a table at a precinct station, "mouthing off" to the cop, when the cop started hitting him in the face. Wade's nose was broken. There was "blood everywhere," and in that condition, he arrived at the jail, where three "big old boys" dragged him into a room in the receiving area, sat him down and resumed beating him in the head. "They kept telling me, 'Put your face up, pussy,'" Wade remembered, and when he wouldn't lift his face to the blows, "that's when one big old cop kicked me in the chest with his boot."

Another man, jailed for the fourth time on drug charges — "Roy Lee Colbert. I am not afraid" — recalled being led out of court once and finding himself alone in an anteroom with four of his jailers. "Get on your fucking knees," said one, and, dropping obediently, Colbert says he was hit once with a fist, "hard force," in the rib cage. Eventually he understood that he had violated the stricture to sit perfectly still while in court, by stretching his arms.

There were other stories — of a prisoner being slapped in the face for trying to explain he wasn't making noise; of a female prisoner being thrown into the wall, kicked upon the floor and pinned there for stepping out of line; of another female prisoner being tossed head-first into the concrete for looking suspicious during a strip search.

What most of the stories had in common was some effort to conceal the violence, at least from other prisoners. Before the inmate was slapped in the face, the guard, according to 18-year-old Salvador Santillan, shouted, "Everyone turn your head! Face toward the left!" And as the other inmate was knocked down for stepping out of line, another guard, according to Rodney, told everyone else to face forward: "All you motherfuckers look forward!"

Wade said prisoners are often dragged out of the holding cells, "but you know they're getting their ass beat, because you hear screams, and then you don't hear nothing." Colbert said, "They'll try to hit you in the body where it won't leave a mark." And if perchance the guards do mark you, Colbert was not the only prisoner to say, they'll tell your family you've lost visiting privileges and put you in solitary until you heal.

And Colbert was told, "You don't like jail, don't come here."

In 1990, after receiving treatment and getting involved in 12-step programs, I began a three-term stint as editor-in-chief of my college newspaper. I was on my way to a journalism career in which I would work as an award-winning reporter and editor at three of the Lone Star State's biggest daily newspapers.

It was during my reformed stage as young Houston reporter that I first fell in love with my hometown. I moved into a duplex in the incomparable Montrose - a resplendently eclectic, sprawling neighborhood rich in art, culture and eccentricity. It's hard to describe the countless layers of coolness in Montrose, a harmonious conglomeration of fine art galleries, museums and street "pop art," speckled with coffee shops, ethnic eateries and sidewalk cafes, junk shops, tattoo parlors, tarot readers, and vintage clothing boutiques. A pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, filled with the lush greenery of old-growth oaks and blossoming botanical shubberies, Montrose encapsulates a charming variety of clashing architectural styles and structures, from kitschy retro diners and stucco mansions to gingerbread houses, gentrified contemporary town homes and rows of brightly painted, hardwood-floored duplexes.

Montrose is also one of nation's largest gay and lesbian communities. As any urban development expert knows, gays frequently lead the charge of gentrification, and Houston's vibrant gay community was undoubtedly the pioneering force of Montrose. Today, my favorite neighborhood of all time is a peacefully co-existing mishmash of hippies and hipsters, bohemians and goths, affluent professionals and starving artists, and immigrant families speaking dozens of languages from dozens of countries of origin.

But hey, that's just one cool neighborhood in the enormous, 581-square-mile expanse of Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city and far and away more cosmopolitan, artistically colorful and culturally diverse than Dallas, which is perhaps the most pretentiously vapid, plastic metropolis in the world. (Gotta give props to Fort Worth, though - great town.)

Houston is mighty, a veritable global powerhouse. The "Energy Capital of the World" label, while true, is really a distraction to everything else, which is far too much to list in one day. Suffice it to say, the Houston economy is high-tech, diversified and internationally influential. Houston is ranked as the No. 2 city for Fortune 500 headquarters, and it currently has more Fortune 100 fastest-growing companies (16) than any U.S. state except for California, which has only two more. The Houston MSA’s Gross Area Product (GAP) in 2007 was $416.6 billion — slightly larger than the GDPs of Belgium, Malaysia, Venezuela and Sweden.

Personally, I have never travelled the streets of any city where you can hear more different languages being spoken by international visitors, except for New York. Much like the Big Apple, this is a city where you stroll along and listen to a group of suits walking next to you speaking in German, while behind you is a woman on her cell phone having a conversation in Chinese. Only New York has more than Houston's 88 foreign consulates.

And Houston's populace is one of the most racially integrated and harmonious to be found in any city of its size. I've often said that Houston is the friendliest big city in the world. This city gave me the priceless pleasure of getting along swimmingly with everybody, regardless of race, creed, sexual preference or political persuasion. It's the melting pot, done right.

The arts? Once again, only New York has more theater seats than the Houston Theater District. Houston is one of only five cities in the world with permanent professional resident companies in all of the major performing arts disciplines of opera, music, ballet and theater.

We could go on forever here. "Houston," the first word uttered by the first human to set foot on the moon, speaking to NASA mission control at Johnson Space Center. The Houston Bay Area - one of the nation's largest boating communities. Houston, home of the Texas Medical Center , the world's largest and finest medical center that treats some 5 million patients each year from all over the world.

And, to get back to the bad and the ugly ... Houston, one of America's most historically brutal law enforcement strongholds. It's the undisputed "death penalty capital of the world," whose former handlebar-moustached district attorney, John B. Holmes, Jr., once remarked on the phenomenon of city cops firing dozens of slugs into unarmed suspects, saying, "The analogy I use, is that if it is okay to kill a guy dead, it is okay to kill him dead, dead, dead."

Mr. Holmes, who I interviewed once as a reporter with the Houston Chronicle in the early '90s, was a real card. Every other word out of his mouth was a profanity. His office was a ridiculous theater of taxidermy, the antlers of slain deer and antelopes and various Wild West conversation pieces enhancing, in my view, the silly stage character of someone who should have never come close to having the government-sanctioned power to kill humans.

A lot of Houston reporters really thought good 'ol Johnny Holmes was aces - the guy cussed like a sailor and colorfully spoke his mind, unlike the evasive, PR-polished gobbledy gook of other city politicians. (Funny how his profanities and crudities never made it in print; he had the Chronicle's reporters tied around his big death-row trigger finger.) But he was shrewd, ambitious and committed. Fueled by the "get tough on crime" political hysteria of the time, Mr. Holmes built one of the most well-oiled and powerful prosecutorial machines our nation has ever seen, doubling his office's staff to 230 hard-nosed prosecutors and operating a $32 million annual budget.

During his 21-year tenure as DA, from 1979 to 2000, Mr. Holmes' hang-'em-high "justice" machine sent untold thousands to populate Texas' exploding prison system - with over 200 of them dispatched to the state's internationally notorious Death Row. Since 1982, the Lone Star State has executed 420 men and three women by lethal injection. Running a distant second is Virginia with 103.
Legendary Houston defense attorney, Richard "Racehorse" Haynes, once said of Mr. Holmes: "Johnny is a west-of-the-Pecos kind of guy. He is not a Renaissance man. His theory is, 'Let's kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out."

Hey, slice it anyway you like. But if this rapacious pursuit of state-sanctioned executions doesn't make a richly revealing statement about the violent psyche of Houston's law enforcement institutions ... well ... pardon me if I just keep on dreamin'.

In addition, it was always abundantly clear to me that any charges or inquiries that had likely come across Mr. Holmes' desk regarding suspicious inmate deaths at Harris County Jail somehow never saw the light of day. The 24/7 routine of brutality and neglect at the jail was never addressed, to my knowledge, in any kind of prosecutorial way. The civil courts have historically been, and continue to be, the only real recourse for the many familes whose loved ones have mysteriously died in Harris County Jail.

Consider the findings regarding the "unnecessary force" used by Harris County Jail deputies in the U.S. Department of Justice report, released only a few months ago in June 2009:

These and other similar incidents suggest that staff use hazardous restraint and force techniques without appropriate guidance or sanction. In some cases, medical records confirm that detainees may have suffered notable injuries, such as lacerations to the scalp or eye. Notably, when force was investigated by supervisors, it appears that the supervisors often determined that staff’s use of force was appropriate without obtaining statements.

Jail policy does not clearly require the individual using force to file a use of force report; nor does Jail policy provide for routine, systematic collection of witness statements. When supervisors review use of force incidents, they do not have ready access to important evidence. Instead, they appear to rely excessively on officer statements to determine what happened during an incident.
If you ask me, these guys have been literally getting away with murder for decades. Courthouse digging will turn up scads of wrongful death suits against Harris County concerning inmates who were checked in alive and checked out in a body bag. According to a Houston Chronicle investigation, at least 101 inmates died while in custody there between 2001 and 2007.

And here's the kicker: a large percentage of these folks, unable to afford bail and down on their luck, are being held on petty, non-violent charges as they await trial for a year or longer, with the presumption of innocence. From last month's excellent Chronicle report by Lise Olsen:

More than half of the 11,500 inmates crammed into the Harris County Jail have not yet been found guilty of a crime but await their day in court confined with convicted criminals in conditions that repeatedly flunk state and federal safety inspections.
The most common accusation against them: possession of a crack pipe or minuscule amount of drugs. Though the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial, at least 500 county inmates have been locked up for more than a year as they wait to be judged, according to an analysis of inmate data by the Houston Chronicle.

About 1,200 have been jailed six months or more though many face only minor felony charges, such as bouncing checks, credit card fraud, trespassing or even civil violations. In fact, around 200 inmates, theoretically innocent until proven guilty, appear to already have served more than the minimum sentence for the crime they allegedly committed, based on the newspaper's analysis of inmate data provided by the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
As detailed last month in this Houston Press report, the latest wrongful death suit comes from the family of a 44-year-old woman who died in custody last year. The suit alleges that jail staff ignored the woman's severe leg pain for three days and taunted her until she died. Nice.

In addition to the atrocity of Harris County Jail, it always seemed clear to me that county prosecutors have greased the grand jury skids for Houston cops who have been caught beating and shooting unarmed citizens. The list of inexplicable no-bills in these cases is astonishing, but typical of most American cities. More often than not, bad cops beat the rap.

Let's hope this doesn't happen with the case of poor Robbie Tolan, who was wrongfully accosted by cops this past New Year's Eve on bogus suspicians that he stole his own car, then shot in front his horrified parents while lying on his back in his own driveway. The shooting officer, Sgt. Jeff Cotton, was recently charged with aggravated assault, but that's a long way from a jury finding he did anything improper.

Houston, you've got a problem. And you've had it for a very long time. I tend to think that nothing short of a complete federal takeover of Harris County Jail can root out the long-entrenched, institutional barbarism of the county jailers. But that will probably never happen - the locals usually con and outsmart interlopers.

In 1977, the discovery of Jose Campos Torres' bloated and bludgeoned corpse in Buffalo Bayou capped a terrible period of escalating revelations and scandals about the Houston Police Department's notorious brutality. Exasperated, then-Mayor Fred Hofheinz lamented, "There is something loose in this city that is an illness."

Flash forward to 2009: Has anything really changed?

Hey, we haven't even touched the tip of the iceberg, here. Did I mention the HPD crime lab, which has performed thousands of shoddy and utterly unreliable tests that have produced tons of tainted evidence used in convictions, including scientifically unsound DNA tests? DNA Super Lawyer Barry Scheck said Harris County is the worst place in the world for a crime lab scandal: "We already know that they couldn't do DNA testing properly. Now we have a scandal that calls into question many thousands more cases. And this jurisdiction has produced more executions than any other county in America.''

It should also be noted that a 2007 Houston Chronicle investigation of HPD's first 900 taser incidents revealed that no crime was being committed in 350 of those cases. As you know, tasers or "stun guns" are meant to be an alternative to deadly force. (Although many Americans have died from the shock, anyway.)

The Chronicle analysis showed that HPD officers still "shot, wounded and killed as many people as before the widespread deployment of tasers." Moreover, Houston cops used their stun guns frequently in situations that did not warrant violent force, such as "traffic stops, disturbances and nuisance complaints, and reports of suspicious people."

Typical. Used to be that the folks in Houston's most impoverished minority neighborhoods received the brutal brunt of the city's legion of crooked officers, but I think it's much less about race today and much more about the generational, genetically ingrained violence of the city's law enforcement agencies and the plain power-tripping arrogance of being above the law because you are the law.

That's too bad for the good cops and decent jailers in Houston whose commitment to serve, protect and treat citizens humanely is obscured by the goon squads. But it's mostly too bad for the good people of Houston, one of the greatest cities on Earth, still choked with corrupt cowboy cops in an antiquated and unconstitutionally abusive law-enforcement death grip.

And it's more than a little disturbing to me, obviously.

When I closed my hotel room window, I walked across the room to turn up the air conditioning and decided I might try to hit an old Montrose lunch spot the next day for lunch. Then I considered driving out to see my old neighborhoods and check out my childhood homes and hangouts. Nope. Not enough time.

So I may be coming back to see you again soon, Houston.

I just had the lucid realization that in spite of those ugly memories and lingering resentments, I'll always be proud to call myself a Houstonian.
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