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Gregg County jail deaths in past 10 years about average compared with similar-sized Texas jails

By Robyn Claridy rclaridy@news-journal.com
July 2, 2011 at 11 p.m.


The number of jail deaths in Gregg County during the past 10

years is about average when compared to other Texas county jails of

similar size.

<em><strong>Editor's Note:</strong> An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the number of years for Gregg County's numbers. This version has been corrected.</em>

The number of jail deaths in Gregg County during the past 10 years is about average when compared to other Texas county jails of similar size.

According to an attorney general's report, there have been 13 deaths in the Gregg County Jail in the past 10 years.

This compares with an average of 12 inmates who have died during the past 10 years among seven county jails comparable in size to Gregg County's.

Those jails are:

Brazoria County Jail, which had 13 deaths since 2001;

Galveston County Jail, which had 21 deaths;

Jefferson County Jail, which had 12 deaths;

McLennan County Jail, which had eight deaths;

Smith County Jail, which had 12 deaths;

and Williamson County Jail, which had six deaths.

Texas Commission on Jail Standards Director Adan Munoz said 81 people statewide died in county jails in 2010.

"A huge number of inmates go through Texas county jails per month and per year," Munoz said. "The number of deaths is small compared to the total number of inmates each jail sees.

"However, I know that to a family who has had a family member die in jail custody, only one matters. All jail deaths are unfortunate for us and the families, and each and every death matters to us."

In almost every case this past year in which a custodial death occurred, the investigation determined the death was not caused as a result of deliberate indifference by county jail officials, Munoz said.

Two people have died in the Gregg County Jail during the past six months.

Amy Lynn Cowling, 33, was pronounced dead Dec. 29 after being found unresponsive in a separation cell.

Micah Aaron Garner, 30, died June 6 after he was found unresponsive in a medical holding cell.

Garner was in a medical holding cell and put on mandatory medical watch every 30 minutes because he was addicted to methadone and heroin, authorities said.

Preliminary autopsy reports from the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's office showed Garner's cause of death was undetermined, but indicated no trauma or foul play was suspected, jail officials said.

Toxicology reports were ordered by the medical examiner's office and are still pending.

The investigation into Garner's death also is pending.

Cowling's death was ruled "probable" seizure due to withdrawal from methadone and Xanax, but the manner of death was ruled undetermined by a Gregg County justice of the peace.

Jail officials have said Cowling was denied prescribed medication, which family members said was in her purse at the jail, because they were not on the jail's approved medication list. In lieu of her prescribed medications, Cowling was given jail-approved medications and put on a regular watch schedule to ensure her condition was sound.

A Houston lawmaker said Cowling's death, and a reported high turnover rate at the Gregg County Jail, spurred a law that would require county jails to report their monthly personnel changes.

Smith County Sheriff J.B. Smith said that on average, about 85 percent of inmates who are booked into his jail have either a substance abuse or alcohol problem.

"Most of them are in poor health to begin with," he said. "Jail food is probably some of the best food some of them have eaten in their entire lives because it's a regular, balanced meal."

In 2010, Smith County spent $2.7 million on the health care of inmates, Smith said.

In April, Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano reported that 11,319 inmates circulated through the jail in 2009, and 10,608 inmates circulated in 2010.

Smith said 13,603 inmates came through through his county's jail in 2009 and 12,112 in 2010.

Munoz said jails do not report this annual information to the commission. Instead, the state uses a monthly report, a snapshot of a given day at the county jail.

According to a jail commission report issued May 1, Gregg County has a daily maximum capacity of 916 inmates and had a total of 679 inmates on that day.

Smith County can hold 755 inmates and had 677 inmates on May 1, the report stated.

Brazoria County has a maximum capacity of 1,170 inmates, and had 797 inmates; Galveston County has a maximum capacity of 1,187 inmates and had 846 inmates; and Jefferson County has a maximum capacity of 1,220 and had 942 inmates, according to the May 1 report.

McLennan County can hold up to 931 inmates, and had 908 inmates; and Williamson County can hold up to 1,128 inmates and had 603 inmates on May 1, the report stated.

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