Like all teenagers, Fred Harris longed for freedom. At 18, he was small: 5 feet tall, 98 pounds. He also acted much younger than his age, which meant other kids bullied him. His mother, Dallas Garcia, told The Appeal and Type Investigations, “[He] didn’t understand, like, just extremely how different he was.”

Harris loved to dance. “Music was his No. 1 passion,” his mother said. In one home video, Harris wears an oversized Christmas sweater and dances quietly in the kitchen. He looks calm and happy. “He was real fun-loving,” Garcia said.

Still, Harris’s behavior could be a challenge. As he got older, he would frequently run away to stay with friends. His mother thought the best thing would be to wait it out and rebuild their relationship by encouraging him to come home voluntarily. 

Garcia had been over-protective of Harris his whole life. From the time he was a toddler, it was clear to her that he had special needs. She assumed she’d be taking care of him well into adulthood. “I wasn’t prepared to let him go,” she said.

At some point, however, Garcia felt that she had to let Harris make his own decisions. He was a legal adult, and his habit of running away seemed like a typical teenage phase. “I just felt like he would develop a little bit later,” she said.

She also struggled to access the mental health services she thought her son needed, and he did not always take his medication consistently. 

On the afternoon of Oct. 10, 2021, Harris walked down the middle of a busy avenue in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston. According to a charging document, he was holding a knife. Garcia said that she didn’t think her son owned a knife and that she couldn’t believe he intended to hurt anyone. Onlookers called the police, who arrested Harris. 

According to charging documents, Harris had “unlawfully, intentionally and knowingly threaten[ed] [one of the bystanders] with imminent bodily injury by using and exhibiting a deadly weapon, namely, a knife,” which in Texas is a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. 

Court documents indicate that Harris’s defense attorney and the judge thought the teen was probably not competent for trial. He was placed in a medical unit in the Harris County Jail in downtown Houston. 

Like anyone else arrested for a felony, Harris was entitled to post cash bail, which would let him leave the jail after paying a sum of money as collateral to guarantee that he’d return to court. On Oct. 11, the prosecutor assigned to Harris’s case, Assistant District Attorney Lucas Bay, requested $75,000 for bail, an unusually high number for the offense. To justify his request, Bay wrote only, “Defendant committed the instant offense using a deadly weapon: a knife.” 

On Oct. 12, Magistrate Diane Olivera set the bail at $20,000. In denying Bay’s request for higher bail, she noted that Harris had “no convictions, no crimes of violence, no injuries to anyone.” Harris signed his name “Fred” in awkward print letters on court documents. 

When Garcia learned that her son was in jail, she was initially relieved just to know that he was somewhere safe. She did, however, have lingering doubts. She called the Harris County Sheriff’s Office about her concerns. “‘He needs his medication. And he’s special needs.… He probably does not understand what’s happening here,’” she recalls telling an officer. “I was afraid. I was so afraid. I was so afraid. I called. I called again.”

Harris spent most of October in the mental health wing of the jail, which holds many people awaiting competency hearings or being treated for severe mental illness. On Oct. 29, according to the sheriff’s office, deputies placed Harris in a holding cell with a 25-year-old man named Michael Paul Ownby, who had recently admitted to attacking a guard and was awaiting trial on domestic violence charges. Ownby was more than twice Harris’s size.

According to eyewitness accounts, incident reports, and a lawsuit Harris’s family later filed against the jail, less than an hour after they were placed in the cell together, Ownby smashed Harris’s head into the concrete floor, kicked him in the head, and used a sharpened utensil to stab him repeatedly. Harris, unconscious and severely brain damaged, was sent to Ben Taub Hospital.

Garcia didn’t learn of the attack until two days later, on Halloween, when she got a call from the jail chaplain. The chaplain told her that Harris had been in a “fight” and was in the hospital. “I was immediately upset…. I thought it was a prank,” she said.

Garcia went to the hospital to see her son. She says it was immediately clear that this was no ordinary fight. “Injured wasn’t even the word for it,” she said. “It was like he had no bones in his face standing.” 

According to Garcia, she got into a heated argument with the guards assigned to watch Harris when they told her that she needed to “pull the plug” if she wanted there to be an investigation. “We had people from the sheriff’s office threatening to take him off life support, that he was still a ward of the state,” she said. Jason Spencer, a spokesperson from the sheriff’s office, said that they assigned a chaplain to be a liaison to the family and that “deputies may have been present to ensure the preservation of evidence before the autopsy.”

That night, Garcia signed off on donating her son’s organs, including his heart, and ended his life. 

“My son is dead,” Garcia said in an interview. “So it doesn’t get any worse than that.”

Fred Harris was “real fun-loving,” his mother recalled. Image: Courtesy of Dallas Garcia

Fred Harris was killed in one of the deadliest jails in Texas. Since the start of 2021, more than 50 people have died in the Harris County Jail: 21 in 2021, 28 in 2022, and four so far this year. These numbers are the highest the jail has seen in more than a decade. (Spencer admitted that “we had a record number of deaths in the jail in 2022,” but pointed out that the jail was “in no way an outlier” when compared to facilities across the country.)

Like Fred Harris, a disproportionate number of those who died in Harris County Jail custody were killed in homicides. According to data from the Texas Justice Initiative, less than 3 percent of all jail deaths in the state of Texas between 2005 and February 2023 were homicides; in Harris County, the number was 6 percent. That’s 19 people, 15 of whom were Latinx or Black. Of course, these numbers all rely on published information, which may not include all in-custody homicides.

Advocates, elected officials, incarcerated people, and jail employees agree that the root cause of the violence at the Harris County Jail is overcrowding. The current population of almost 10,000 has overwhelmed the jail, causing Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to house hundreds of people in other facilities, including a private prison run by LaSalle Corrections in Louisiana and a prison in West Texas, at the cost of at least $25 million.

The population of the Harris County Jail has been steadily increasing for the past few years, with about 115 more people arriving per week since 2020, even though Harris County has been the site of substantive pretrial reform. Like Fred Harris, the vast majority are held pretrial and face felony charges. 

Despite a civil lawsuit challenging conditions at the facility and ongoing supervision by a court monitor, the jail remains at a crisis point, leading to both the high death rate and countless other assaults, denials of medical care, and instances of general neglect. In September 2022, the Texas Jails Commission sent the facility a notice of noncompliance for holding people in cells for more than 48 hours at a time, in violation of state law. 

Since Harris’s death, the situation has continued to worsen in the jail. “Conditions in the jail are horrific: people are dying, pregnant women are being abused, access to counsel is delayed, and people with serious illnesses are not getting medication,” said Elizabeth Rossi, the director of strategic initiatives at Civil Rights Corps. “All of this violence and harm is being caused by local and state policymakers—the DA, the judges, and the legislature.” 

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez holds a press conference with Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, Thursday, June 8, 2017 in Houston. Image: Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle via AP

According to advocates, the jail’s population has swelled to its current size largely because Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg  refuses to dismiss thin cases and continues to push for high bond amounts, as the prosecutor did in Fred Harris’s case. Meanwhile, media panic around bail reform and crime has created a political climate hostile to releasing people from jail. 

Ogg’s office declined to respond to questions for this story, but wrote in a statement that “the District Attorney’s Office shares the concerns of the sheriff and other county stakeholders that there’s an urgent need to address the [jail conditions] with proper funding and resources allocated by the Commissioners Court. This would alleviate crowding and help ensure the safety of the staff and inmates housed there.”)

Last July, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez argued for policy changes to relieve pressure on the jail. In particular, he pointed to the backlog of cases awaiting judgment and noted that around 1,000 people in the jail were being held on a bond of $10,000 or less. “We need our jail space dedicated to the most serious, chronic offenders, those not likely to appear in court,” he tweeted. 

Nevertheless, the DA’s office has plowed ahead with charging and incarcerating a high number of felony arrestees, even as crime rates stay relatively flat. 

Ogg’s office often files motions arguing for high bail amounts. According to the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, the average amount for a felony bail in the county grew from $18,554 in 2017 to nearly $30,000 in 2022. (A spokesperson for the DA’s office noted that while prosecutors suggest bond amounts, “it is judges who set bail.”) The DA’s office is also filing more felonies, even though violent crime rates have ebbed. Between 2020 and 2021, felony filings in the state of Texas grew by 2 percent, but in Harris County they increased by 25 percent, according to the Texas State Office of Court Administration’s latest annual report.

Advocates argue that many more felony cases need to be dismissed. Harris County leaders, Rossi said, “can and should fix [the situation] by releasing thousands of people, dismissing old cases, and stopping the arrest and prosecution of meritless cases.” 

There have been many suggestions for how to lower the jail population, but Ogg has ignored them. In 2020, an independent consultant hired by the county recommended that all nonviolent felony cases older than nine months should be dismissed. The consultant’s report noted that while such mass dismissals “may seem unfathomable,” less than half of all cases from 2019 resulted in a conviction. This trend has continued; Ogg’s conviction rate has plummeted, and many of the cases her office files end up being dismissed by the courts.

According to Jay Jenkins, the Harris County Project Attorney at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, “This increase in felony cases filed and dismissed is likely driving the increase in the pretrial population at the already dangerous Harris County Jail at a time city officials are reporting a reduction in violent crime.”

It’s clear that dismissing weak cases and allowing more people to await trial from home would ease the jail crisis. But these seemingly simple solutions have become politically toxic. 

Harris County was a pioneer in the national movement to challenge money bail practices a few years ago. A consent decree eliminated cash bail for most low-level offenses in the county in 2019. At the time, city leaders and local media hailed the change as a historic moment and a model for other cities. More recently, however, “tough on crime” politicians across the country have turned “bail reform” into a bogeyman blamed for a purported rise in crime. In New York, for example, the Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin campaigned on the alleged harms of bail reform and promised to roll back changes to the bail system. (He narrowly lost, but his opponent, Gov. Kathy Hochul, has called on the state legislature to repeal key provisions of New York’s  landmark 2019 bail reform legislation.) 

Though data from Harris County shows that changes to the misdemeanor bail system did not increase recidivism, that hasn’t stopped people like Andy Kahan, director of victim services at Houston Crime Stoppers, from arguing that bail reform creates a slippery slope.

Kahan has said that his group supports misdemeanor bail reform, but he also claims, without evidence, that some judges are engaging in “discretionary felony bond reform,” meaning they are releasing too many people pretrial in felony cases, despite the fact that there has been no felony bail reform

Houston’s local media has also taken to highlighting gruesome crimes committed by people out on bail. In a content analysis of local news coverage, the Texas Center for Justice and Equity found that, after the 2019 consent decree, more than 60 percent of media stories about bail engaged in “cherry-picking and sensationalizing stories about defendants who are arrested while out on bond … [thus constructing] a distorted narrative of dangerous releasees.”

The local Fox News affiliate even produces a regular segment devoted to highlighting these cases while also promoting Crime Stoppers. Taking its inspiration from shows like America’s Most Wanted, each episode of “Breaking Bond” breathlessly covers a horrific crime, usually homicide, allegedly committed by a person awaiting trial for another crime. In his appearances on the segments, Kahan has repeatedly elided the difference between being arrested for a crime and being found guilty, blaming “bond reform” for, for example, a January 2021 incident in which a man allegedly shot two sheriff’s deputies.

Last year, Crime Stoppers gave an award to the “Breaking Bond” series. The Harris County Commissioners Court then passed a resolution congratulating Fox 26 for receiving the Crime Stoppers award. 

Kahan, meanwhile, was recently appointed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to the Crime Victims’ Institute Advisory Council, which is tasked with “conducting in-depth analysis of the impact of crime on victims, close relatives of deceased victims, guardians of victims, and society.”

Ogg, who won the DA’s race in 2016 after campaigning on a reform-minded platform, was previously the executive director of Crime Stoppers. She has stridently supported the organization’s attacks on bail reform and has lobbied local and state officials for higher bail amounts and more incarceration.

In 2019, Ogg gave a press conference with Crime Stoppers and then-Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo in which she accused district court judges of “granting bonds in cases that historically we didn’t see them—capital murder, aggravated robberies.” 

The DA’s office has only gotten more aggressive in the past few years. Last spring, 14 Harris County assistant district attorneys ran for judicial office in the county, as part of what one ADA, in December 2020, called a “reckoning.” Ten Democratic judges lost their primary in that election, including Greg Glass, a judge who had lowered the bond for a 30-year-old man accused of shooting a Houston police officer in September 2021. Ogg’s office has consistently denied that she played any role in urging prosecutors to run for judgeships. Crime Stoppers has also contributed to local elections, causing officials in Harris County to call for an audit of the nonprofit’s finances based on its partisan political activity.

Though the political climate in Harris County has tipped in favor of more incarceration, the crisis in the jail remains solvable, advocates argue. “We made specific policy choices to get here,” Krishnaveni Gundu, the co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project, said. “We can make specific policy choices to get out.”

The Harris County Jail as seen in August 2019. Image: Patrick Feller/Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

As the jail’s population grows, Gonzalez has proposed addressing the problem by building a new jail. Spencer, the spokesperson from the sheriff’s office, added, “We need a placement facility designed to accommodate rehabilitative programs and create a more humane environment.” 

It’s a familiar proposition—one the county has already tried in failed attempts to  fix violence in the past. In fact, the present facility was built as the result of a 1975 lawsuit over jail conditions. 

At this point, even the people who work at the jail agree that the facility is not safe. In December 2021, just two months after Fred Harris was killed, a female sergeant was raped in her office by a prisoner. The alleged assailant was wandering the hallways without an escort. 

A Harris County Sheriff’s Office employee who has worked for the HCSO for nine years, and asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation, said in an interview that she was not surprised when she learned about the assault. “We knew this was going to happen,” she said, adding, “I know many employees who’ve been stalked. Many.”

Deputies and the deputy union have argued the problem is that the jail doesn’t have enough staff to handle its growing population. In September 2021, a month before Fred Harris was killed, a group of employees at the jail anonymously filed a 200-page class action lawsuit against the county commissioners and the sheriff, arguing that the county and its officials were “violating all Plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment equal protection and due process rights to be free from state created or increased danger.” The complaint also said people incarcerated at the jail were not receiving adequate medical or mental health care because of overcrowding, and some people with mental health needs were not placed in the proper facility because there was no room. (The lawsuit was dismissed for lack of a claim.)

According to the HCSO employee who spoke anonymously, the jail’s problems are largely a result of the culture at the facility. “We’re grossly understaffed because everybody’s leaving. Because it’s so horrible,” she said. “It’s not about staffing. It’s about retention.” 

She said that most people booked into the jail are jumped soon after they enter and extorted for their possessions and money. One man, she said, was assaulted by his cellmates; he emerged with a broken pelvis and blind in one eye. She had heard that a woman had given birth alone in her cell and had to bite off the umbilical cord. The deputy on duty was wearing earphones and didn’t hear her cries. “We go into this abyss every day, and nobody knows this is happening,” she said.

Official data obtained by reporter Keri Blakinger shows that there have been more than 5,000 documented assaults on incarcerated people and staff at the Harris County Jail between October 2021 and October 2022. (Spencer said the HCSO is seeking an increase in pay for employees and considering “other moves that might facilitate recruiting and retention.”)

However, jail staff are also participating in the violence. In February 2021, a group of around a dozen deputies killed 23-year-old Jaquaree Simmons, who had been arrested for allegedly possessing a firearm illegally. 

After his arrest, guards placed Simmons in an isolated cell, per the jail’s COVID-19 quarantine policy at the time. Frustrated, he plugged up the toilet with his clothing and flooded the cell. Deputies responded by taking his clothes and leaving him in the cell naked. In a report filed with the Attorney General’s office at the time, deputies claimed that at some point Simmons had tried to hit a deputy with a meal tray, causing a fight that ended with a deputy punching Simmons. He was then left unsupervised and found dead the next day. None of this was captured on video. 

Simmons’s mother, Larhonda Biggles, learned about her son’s death when the chaplain from the Harris County Jail called her on her cell phone. She remembers the chaplain explaining that her son had been found unresponsive and was taken to the hospital. Then, the chaplain began saying something that started, “Unfortunately…” and Biggles, suspecting the worst, threw the phone on the floor and ran out of the room. Biggles said her daughter picked up the phone and continued talking. “And then I heard my daughter’s scream,” she said. “Her screaming so loud. It’s just me on the stairs. So, I turned around and ran back upstairs, open the door. And she was on the floor, hollering and screaming.” Following the assault the night before, her son had died that morning; the news of his death was already circulating on social media.

Biggles says no one told her what had really happened for months, but she was suspicious at the time. 

In May 2021, Gonzalez held a press conference announcing that he had fired 11 deputies and suspended six for “very serious policy violations” in Simmons’s death. These deputies had “betrayed my trust and the trust of our community,” he said. (The HCSO was unable to comment on any pending investigations.)

It took nearly two more years for the DA’s office to announce that it would bring charges—but only against one officer, for involuntary manslaughter.

Concerns about “public safety” consistently ignore the safety of people who are held in or work at the jail. They are subject to conditions that appear to have gotten substantially worse in the past two years as Harris County politicians, criminal-system officials, and the media have sought to muddy the waters about the connection between pretrial detention and crime rates.

State-level politics have reflected this dynamic. Just a few years ago, Texas was seen as a leader in bipartisan decarceration. Republican leaders argued that pretrial detention should be used less often because of the high financial cost. Right-leaning organizations like the Texas Public Policy Foundation argued against wealth-based detention.

Now, however, the tide has turned, and efforts to change the pretrial system are largely aimed at making it harder for people to get out of jail. In September 2022, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 6—also known as the Damon Allen Act—which limits the operations of community bail funds, prohibits PR bonds for people charged with certain crimes, and requires judges to have a full criminal history before setting bail. The law was named after a state trooper who was killed by someone out on a $15,000 bond (though the provisions in SB 6 would not have prevented this death). The bill still allows defendants to pay a bail bond company in order to secure their release from jail before trial, causing critics to argue that the bill limits judicial discretion while strengthening the bail bond industry. Ogg supported the bill and testified in favor of Senate Bill 21, which was similar to the legislation Abbott signed. 

According to Civil Rights Corps and other advocates, SB 6 has only increased delays in case resolutions, leading to overcrowding in the Joint Processing Center, which is supposed to hold people temporarily just after arrest. 

On Oct. 26, a 70-year-old man died less than 48 hours after his arrest while in joint processing. The official cause of death was heart failure, but advocates question whether his medical conditions were ignored by staff. In January 2023, a 31-year-old man named Jacoby Pillow died when, according to news reports, deputies “used force to restrain” him. Later that same month, a 23-year-old man suffered “a medical emergency” and died while in custody. 

Some of the people who died in the Harris County Jail in 2022 could have been released with no threat to public safety, according to data from the Texas Jail Project. One man who died in the jail in the last week of June 2022 had already been released on a PR bond in November 2021, following an arrest for charges related to drug possession. He was re-arrested when police found him intoxicated and he asked for help. He subsequently died in the hospital from what the police say was an overdose.

On Nov. 13, about two weeks after Fred died, Dallas Garcia released balloons into the air in a celebration of her son’s life. She recently filed a lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, arguing that her son died because the jail lacked sufficient staffing to protect him. “I’m just really confused at how the system failed him so miserably,” she said. “There’s no excuse for anyone’s actions. And all of this was preventable, on so many different levels.”