72ºF

Congresswoman: Jailed rape victim had her civil rights violated

HOUSTON – U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee called for a federal investigation into what a Channel 2 Investigation uncovered in the case of the mentally ill rape victim whose jailing led to a lawsuit against Harris County and the county's law enforcement agencies. 

Jackson Lee called on U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to open a federal investigation into the case, saying the rape victim, named Jenny, had her civil rights violated when she was jailed after she had a mental breakdown on the witness stand.

Surrounded by mental health and community advocates, Jackson Lee blasted the Harris County Jail and prosecutors for locking up Jenny.

"Today I come to articulate a situation that should happen nowhere in America," Jackson Lee said. "We have to admit when wrong is wrong."

The Texas Democrat's request follows a Channel 2 investigation that exposed how Jenny was jailed for 27 days after her breakdown during the trial of the man accused of raping her.

Jenny said she was assaulted by another inmate at the jail. After weeks of being locked up, Jenny then  punched a guard. Charges against her were ultimately dropped.

"Under state law, you are allowed to hold people under Texas state law. I don't know that as it is presently written is a violation of federal civil rights," Jackson Lee said.

Others, like the board president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Houston, denounced the jailing Saturday, saying prosecutors should have found another option.

"This treatment should have never happened," Alice Brink, of Houston NAMI, said. "There is an ultimately responsibility of human decency and the civil right of this individual were clearly violated."

Jackson Lee released a copy of her letter to Lynch Saturday. The letter reads:

"Dear Attorney General Lynch:

"As the Representative for the 18th Congressional District of Texas and Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations, I am writing to request an investigation into policies, procedures and practices of Harris County Jail that led to the incarceration and abuse of a mentally ill rape victim. The Harris County criminal justice system failed to properly protect and care for a 25-year-old woman suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia who courageously stepped forward to testify as a witness against her perpetrator. This traumatized woman experienced a mental breakdown while testifying against her rapist and was hospitalized for 10 days. After her release, the treatment she endured, including being handcuffed, jailed and inexcusably mislabeled as a rape suspect to be housed in general population for 27 days at Harris County Jail without critical medical and mental health care is appalling and inexcusable. For this woman to be re-victimized by other inmates, and charged with assault of a jail guard upon experiencing another mental breakdown while in the custody of Harris County Jail is deplorable.

"This is not the first time I have requested the Department of Justice to investigate safety conditions at the Harris County Jail. I have made similar requests in May and August of 2007, as well as in February 2008. The Department’s prior investigation resulted in findings that Harris County Jail officials had in numerous instances violated inmate rights, including failure to provide required mental health treatment. Specifically, on June 4, 2009, the Justice Department found that Harris County Jail failed to provide prisoners with adequate medical care, mental health care, protection from serious physical harm, and protection from life safety hazards. Sadly, over six years later, these inadequacies remain and call for further action.

"Since the Justice Department’s findings in 2009, there have been at least 70 additional in-custody deaths have occurred. Among these deaths are inmates who have died as a result of improper and excessive force used by jail guards or failure to properly treat or check on inmates with physical and mental health needs.

"For these reasons, I am asking the Department of Justice, pursuant to its statutory authority, to take immediate action and to conduct a thorough investigation into the policies and practices that continue to foster an unsafe environment at the Harris County Jail.

"Thank you for your consideration."

Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman has said Jenny should not have been jailed the way she was and held in general population.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson has defended her office's decision, but has pledged to work with community groups in the future to find other alternatives.

Jenny is suing officials in Harris County. The county has not responded to the lawsuit.

On Friday, County Judge Ed Emmett called for state lawmakers to change how the state allows judges to put innocent crime victims in jail just to assure they testify at court.

“It’s (a) horrible situation. There is no possible way to gloss over how terrible this was for Jenny,” Emmett said. “The fact that someone who is a victim, who has committed no crime, is put in the jail at all to me is just wrong. I don’t think anybody can justify that but that’s what happened under the law."

Emmett said the law that allows this should be changed.

“Absolutely,” he said. “If someone had introduced a bill like that when I was there, I would have said this is a no-brainer, of course we ought to do that.”

Emmett -- who served four terms in the Texas House -- offered an idea that there should be another county facility for certain witnesses.

“If they don’t have a mental health condition, you don’t want to put them in a mental health facility but clearly there should be a small facility where people like that could be accommodated comfortably. A jail cell is not a comfortable place,” he said.

He did not say how that would be funded.

“You know, I could see a Jenny’s law in Austin. Frankly, I’m surprised no legislator has jumped up and said we’re going to deal with this. I think they will," he said.

Emmett says the county’s “jail diversion program” has taken hundreds of mentally ill people out of the jail. It helps repeat inmates suffering from a mental illness.

The program provides treatment for people whose real issue is mental health, not criminal justice related, he said.

While hundreds have been helped, Emmett said there are thousands more the program has not yet reached.

If you have a tip about this story, email or call investigative reporter Jace Larson at jlarson@kprc.com or 832-493-3951.