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FBI announces investigations into deaths at Harris County Jail

The FBI is launching investigations to review two separate deaths inside the Harris County Jail.
Michael Stravato
The Texas Tribune
The FBI is launching investigations to review two separate deaths inside the Harris County Jail.

Since Jacoby Pillow’s death last month, at least three others have died at Harris County Jail. And the year before, the jail hit a record high of 27 in-custody deaths.

The FBI is opening civil rights investigations into the deaths of two men in Harris County Jail.

In a statement posted Monday afternoon, the FBI announced that it’s scrutinizing the deaths of Jaquaree Simmons and Jacoby Pillow, who both died in custody following an altercation with jail staff. Their deaths took place almost two years apart.

These probes come after a request last week from the Harris County Sheriff's Office, which operates the downtown Houston jail, according to a Monday press release.

“I look forward to learning the FBI’s findings, because we must all know the full truth if we are to improve our operation and make the jail as safe as possible for everyone entrusted into our care,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez in the press release.

Simmons, a 23-year-old man who had mental health issues, was arrested in February 2021 on a felony weapons charge. A week later, he was found dead in his cell. Harris County’s medical examiner would eventually rule Simmons’ death as a homicide.

An investigation by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office determined that staff had used excessive force and failed to document it or intervene, on top of making false claims to investigators. As a result, the sheriff’s office suspended six detention officers and fired 11 others. And earlier this month, a grand jury charged Eric Niles Morales — the 6-foot-5-inch former detention officer who allegedly kneed the 5-foot-4-inch Simmons in the head, struck his head against a door and then dropped him on his head — with manslaughter.

LaRhonda Biggles, Simmons’ mother, told The Texas Tribune on Monday that she’s “excited and happy” to hear about the FBI’s investigation. She’s not satisfied with the manslaughter charge against Morales, noting that it should have been more severe. She also said more detention officers should face criminal charges beyond being fired or suspended.

“I just want justice for Jaquaree,” Biggles said.

“I feel like I owe that to him to get that justice for him because he laid there and died by himself alone. As a mom, that's horrible. … I'm working really hard to try to keep myself from breaking or cracking because it's like reliving it all over again, but I am glad to know the [investigations] are there.”

Pillow’s death in early January is this year’s first death at Harris County Jail.

The 31-year-old man was initially arrested for a misdemeanor allegation of trespassing and was set to be released on a $100 bond a few days later. But the Harris County Sheriff’s Office claimed that he assaulted a jail officer, resulting in staff using “force” to restrain him.

Pillow was found dead the following morning, though the sheriff’s office said he had been examined by medical personnel before being returned to his cell.

The Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff's Office have since opened separate investigations into Pillow’s death.

“The facts of this case are extremely alarming, and they point to a pattern and culture of inmate abuse that we have seen before in Harris County facilities,” Ben Crump, an attorney representing Pillow’s family, told FOX26 last month. “There is no legitimate excuse for this young man to have lost his life for an arrest on a misdemeanor charge right as he was about to get out on bail.”

Crump also held a press conference earlier on Monday urging the Department of Justice to investigate deaths at the jail.

Since Pillow’s death last month, at least three others have died at Harris County Jail. They followed a record high number of deaths last year, where 27 people died while in custody at the county jail. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo acknowledged last week that “the entire system does have challenges” and announced initiatives to address overcrowding, but advocates say more needs to be done.

In its statement, the FBI said its investigations will “proceed independently of any state investigations.” The agency has also stated that it will not be publicly sharing details about the ongoing investigations to protect their “integrity and capabilities.”

“These investigations will be fair, thorough, and impartial,” the FBI’s statement said.