After Hurricane Harvey rendered the CJC unusable (yet again), one of the biggest challenges facing the Harris County Criminal Justice System was determining how to get incarcerated inmates their day in court. There were rules and regulations that had to be followed. Locations had to be secure and there had to be adequate personnel to guard the inmates. The Civil Courthouse was fine for defendants who were out on bond, but it was not equipped to handle inmates. There are no holdover cells attached to a civil courtroom.
Ultimately, it was decided that the vast majority of the "in custody" cases would have to be held at the actual jail. The female felony jail docket is held daily on the 4th floor of the Harris County Jail located at 1200 Baker Street. The misdemeanor jail docket is held across the street in "Little Baker." The felony dockets for incarcerated males are held in the basement of the Harris County Jail located at 701 N. San Jacinto. While the female and misdemeanor dockets are generally pretty safe occasions, the felony male dockets are a completely different story.
The felony male dockets are a disaster waiting to happen, and lawyers who practice there got a small taste of that danger this morning.
To understand what happened today, one must understand the layout of the basement of 701 N. San Jacinto, as well as the procedures followed for each docket. Each weekday, the 22 District Courts, as well as the Reintegration Court, take turns having a jail docket for male inmates with charges pending out of the respective courts. Two courts will hold a docket in the morning and two will hold a docket in the afternoon. Based on the normal cycle, this allows each court to have a jail docket every six business days.
In the basement, there are essentially four rooms used by the lawyers and court personnel. Two of those rooms function as actual courtrooms, where lawyers can approach the judge, and defendants can be brought for pleas (or any other matter requiring judicial attention). The third room, held in 701's infamous law library, is where prosecutors bring their files and meet with the defense attorneys. This place can look like Grand Central Station during a busy docket.
|Attorney Vic Wisner, exercising in the Law Library.|
The fourth room is where attorneys and their clients meet to discuss cases, and that's where things get dangerous.
The attorney-client meeting room holds roughly around thirty male inmates. It is actually a converted "pod" with two tables placed inside of it so that inmates can do paperwork, if need be. Around the perimeter of the room are plastic chairs for the inmates to sit in while they wait to talk to their attorneys. The room is extremely overcrowded.
None of the inmates in the room are secured by handcuffs or leg restraints. Although they are all told to sit down and wait for their attorneys to come speak with them, there are no physical restraints on them. There is nothing there that would prevent them from getting up and walking across the room.
There is nothing there to prevent them from fighting with each other.
There is nothing there to prevent them from attacking one of the lawyers who enters the room.
The deputies who are in charge of securing the inmates, sit in chairs outside of the meeting room. In short, it is a windowless room with one door for an entryway. It is filled to capacity with inmates charged with felonies ranging from theft to drugs to sexual assault to murder. And every day, civilian attorneys wade into this room, filled with inmates, with the hope that none of the inmates feel like attacking anyone.
The potential for something terrible happening is tremendous. It only continues to operate under the optimistic belief that each and every one of the inmates will follow all of the rules and not lose their temper.
But, here's one thing you quickly realize when you become a defense attorney -- you often find yourself being the messenger of very bad news. Whether it is telling the client what the evidence is against him or just conveying the plea bargain offer from the prosecutor, defense attorneys have the unpleasant duty of upsetting their clients on a daily basis. The vast majority of those clients take the news in stride and understand that is how the System works.
Others don't. Some will become quite angry over the news they receive. Some will lose their minds simply over the length of a reset.
Oh, and did I mention that a decent amount of the inmate population in the meeting room has some level of mental illness?
Today, a mentally ill inmate attacked Public Defender Danny Lacayo in the holdover. Danny had just told his client that his case was going to be reset and placed a pen on the table for the client to sign his paperwork. The client became very agitated and Danny quickly picked up the pen, moving it from his client's reach. The client then punched Danny in the face.
|Danilo "Danny" Lacayo|
Fortunately, Danny is a pretty stout guy. He stood up and walked out of the room before the situation escalated further. He said the punch hurt, but mostly he was relieved that he had the wherewithal to move the pen. Ultimately, someone told the deputies outside the room what had happened and they removed the defendant from the meeting room.
The situation could have been far more tragic.
To my knowledge, this is the first physical assault on an attorney in the meeting room, but there have been several close calls. Earlier this week, a male inmate began losing his temper with his female attorney. She was able to escape the room before it turned physical. Every lawyer that works a jail docket worries about what would happen if the situation truly got out of control.
It will get out of control one day. It isn't a matter of "if." It's a matter of "when." The quarters are too close. There are no safety protocols. The jail is understaffed. The inmates are angry.
The whole situation is a powder keg, waiting to explode.