‘The biggest funeral home’: Activists, family of inmates who died in Harris County Jail demand change

HOUSTON – The family of inmates who died while in custody at the Harris County Jail joined civil and human rights activists Tuesday to condemn law enforcement leadership and officials for those inmate deaths.

On Monday, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office announced the indictment of a former Harris County Jail detention officer who was charged in connection to the death of an inmate from 2021, which is the first time charges have been filed for an in-custody death at the jail. A Harris County medical examiner ruled that the inmate died of blunt-force trauma to his head, prosecutors said.

Community activist Quanell X called the Harris County Jail the biggest funeral home, and said it was extremely understaffed and overworked its deputies.

“Just because a man is charged with a crime, doesn’t mean he’s guilty of that crime. And just because a man has been charged crime, does not mean that he no longer has human and civil rights or constitutional protection,” Quanell X said. “The Harris County Jail has become the house of death in Houston, Texas. This is the biggest funeral home, the biggest morgue in Harris County.”

The mother of Kevin Leon Smith Jr., Tracy Leewoodson-Smith, said she was not notified right away that her son died in Harris County Jail. She said she had to call multiple times and never was told about her son’s death. She was told via social media that her son was found dead in his cell. She said officials told her that he died from an asthma attack.

“Ya’ll don’t have the decency to call and tell a parent and family nothing that’s going on with their loved ones in here?” Leewoodson-Smith said. “He’s just a number. I lost my brother-in-law three weeks prior to that, the third victim that got killed.”

Local activist Dr. Candice Matthews said she and other local community leaders have a meeting with Sheriff Ed Gonzalez on Thursday in reference to what is happening at the Harris County Jail.

A list of topics will be broached during Thursday’s meeting:

1.) Adequate staffing in Harris County Jail.

2.) Adequate notification, according to state and federal law, of when loved ones are to be notified and how to be notified when an inmate dies.

3.) Calling for an outside agency to be contracted by Harris County Commissioner’s Court to investigate the allegations of abuse, wrongdoing and murder in the Harris County Jail.

Previous inmate deaths:

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