Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Powder Keg

Prior to the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey, each court in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center held a docket every day of the work week.  These dockets were (obviously) held in normal courtrooms, where there were holdover cells for the incarcerated defendants.  Attorneys who were speaking with their "in custody" clients, did so through glass partitions.  If a defendant was brought out of the holdover into the courtroom, they were handcuffed.  If a defendant had acted with particular aggressiveness, they might find themselves in leg restraints before being allowed outside of the holdover.

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.


Anonymous said...

Is the attorney/client meeting room at "Little Baker" any more secure than the room at 701? (I haven't done a felony jail docket post-Harvey)

Murray Newman said...

Anon 3:06 p.m.,
I don't know the answer to your question because I haven't done a misdemeanor jail docket Post-Harvey. I have no point of reference.

Unknown said...

Little Baker is much more secure. I have been in both. Little Baker has two REC rooms, not tiny pods. One rec room is the DA's, files, Judge and court staff. One rec room is for attorneys to meet with clients. The attorney/client room has a much stricter policy (Must announce clients coming in and leaving, clients must sit on one side of a table and attorneys on the other side). There are multiple tables and physical separation between attorney and client. While it isn't ideal (trust me), the misdemeanor jail docket situation is a world better. Defense attorneys also have access to TWO laptops to look up bonding information, district clerk information, and DAO portal.

On the down side, there is no "jail coffee" as provided at 701. I am ok with that. I always wondered who made the coffee at 701 in the attorney room.

Anonymous said...

It's going to take someone getting stabbed before they stop forcing inmates to sign resets. If the inmate doesn't bond out, I think they'll make their court date. If they bond out, they have a pretty good incentive to make their court date. Having them sign seems like a completely unnecessary risk.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to our world counselor.
Signed, your local law enforcement officer

Murray Newman said...

Anon 6:14 p.m.,
I completely agree. And I would hazard a guess that having a fleet of attorneys coming in and out of the jail in two different shifts a day does nothing to make the situation any easier for the deputies who work there. The situation is a miserable one for all involved. The point of the article wasn't to criticize the deputies working in the jail. It was to criticize the ridiculous and unsafe scenario created by the Powers-That-Be.

Anonymous said...

I was told by a deputy that a week or two ago another male inmate (which means in the same jail situation) attempted to punch another lawyer but the deputy caught the inmate's hand before he contacted. That was all I was told and it was not the deputy involved so you know how those rumors go.

The misdemeanor docket and the female docket are more secure. I see that someone described the layout of the misdemeanor docket. However, two weeks ago an agitated client, rather than walking out the door after receiving his reset, followed me to the "lawyer side" of the table (where he is not supposed to be) and was in very close proximity to me. He said something or a lawyer said something (there were quite a few in there) which caused me to turn around and he was right in my face and very upset. (I had reset his case from the day before to try to get the OR so we could work out his case - instead I found out that he was charged with assaulting a peace officer in the jail. He had had bruises and marks the first day I met him but had he told me he had gotten into a fight in the jail.) Anyway, one of the deputies began yelling at him and ran over and grabbed him by his clothing and led him out.

As you noted, this is not complaints against the deputies - they are working with what they have been provided and they stay pretty vigilant. But in the male felony docket we are in a room with guys - many of whom are upset or angry, some receiving bad news (such as offers of long prison terms) and there are no deputies even in the room with us. Not sure what the answer is but it is not safe.

I am glad that Danny is okay, and I hope that they can figure out a way to make the situation safer before someone gets seriously hurt.

AMA1977 said...

You have tasers, batons, training, and a sidearm. Attorneys have their wits and that’s about it. Thank you for serving the community, but this situation is like your captain asking you to apprehend suspects in a Honda Accord instead of a squad car. And it’s not a fair comparison by any stretch.

I’ve known Danny for almost 15 years, and he is a dedicated, talented attorney who chooses to serve the community as a public defender. He does it because he believes in justice and the rule of law, and he is an admirable person through and through. Danny, I’m so glad you’re okay. I hope changes are made so this doesn’t happen again.

Anonymous said...

I am amazed that something more serious hasn't happened yet. The situation is extremely unsecure and I am never certain that an inmate won't go after another inmate or his attorney. Danny was smart to get that pen away- I have said since this crap started that it was only a matter of time until someone put one of those pens into someone else and whoever it is will be lucky if its not the neck or eye.

6:14 That is some lame trolling. Any decent LEO would realize that this situation puts *everyone* at greater risk and it is alot easier to go after your unarmed defense attorney who you are pissed at then an armed officer backed up by other officers. Having all these people coming in and out of what should be a secured area is ridiculous and was only ever meant as a stopgap. The fact that it seems to be the new normal is a testament to the absolute lack of concern county officials have regarding *anyone* involved.

Anonymous said...

When inmates are released on bond, they're given paperwork with their next court date, time, and location. A signed reset while in custody is not necessary.

Jason Truitt said...

"Attorneys have their wits and that’s about it."

Welp, we know Murray's in trouble.

Murray Newman said...

In a related story, Jason Truitt is cut out of my will.

Anonymous said...

I felt this exact sentiment since jail dockets started in 701 after Harvey. Judges, prosecutors, and especially defense attorneys are in CLOSE proximity with inmates throughout entire dockets with nothing to prevent a violent situation but the inmates’ own sense of self control. And considering the fact they have found themselves in the jail to begin with that is not a very reassuring thought.

The ludicrous nature of this setup was apparent to me from the beginning, but as the months have passed (and with no end in sight) it has become the new normal that we all just kind of understand but tolerate. Hopefully change comes before something tragic happens.

Anonymous said...

Each and every one of the inmates will follow all of the rules and not lose HIS temper. Gender specific singular oronoun is correct here since you are referring to male jail docket only.
...worries about what COULD happen if ...
Could precedes if and would precedes when.
Possibility vs certainty.

Anonymous said...

…so Commissioners Court doesn’t have an IQ above 375, if you add them all together, to figure out all they need is to allocate the funds to simply partition off the whole area into sections using cyclone fencing, floor to ceiling, to keep a barrier between the inmates and defenders?

That’s what you get when you have 99.999% of your elected officials, who are dumber than dirt, and only there for the lifetime pension because they could never function at a job in the real world. This is why they retire from government job with a pension gig, to milk the next government job with a pension gig….always another government job. Idiots. The whole lot of government employees are pure idiots, except maybe .001%.

Build a cyclone fence partition you stupid idiot government degenerates.

And knowing you will waste taxpayer’s money to have it “engineered”, at a cost of well over a $1,000,000 (ONE MILLION DOLLARS) probably, so whoever gets the “engineering contract” can pad your campaign accounts, just go down to Academy, you IDIOTS, and buy a bunch of 4 x 8 dog kennels and wire them together. They even come with a gate, so the jailer can lock them in.