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Dozens of inmates have died in a Houston jail since 2021. Now the FBI is investigating

<em></em>Ben Crump speaks at a news conference in April in New York City. On Monday, the civil rights attorney called on the Justice Department to launch an investigation into inmate deaths at the Harris County Jail in Houston.
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Ben Crump speaks at a news conference in April in New York City. On Monday, the civil rights attorney called on the Justice Department to launch an investigation into inmate deaths at the Harris County Jail in Houston.

The FBI is launching federal civil rights investigations into the Harris County Jail in Houston following the deaths of dozens of inmates there in the past few years.

"These investigations will be fair, thorough, and impartial, and will proceed independently of any state investigations involving incidents at the jail," the FBI Houston tweeted in a statement on Monday. "To preserve the integrity and capabilities of the investigations, no details of the ongoing process will be publicly shared."

The move from the FBI comes after weeks of public calls for an explanation into why dozens of inmates have died while being held at the jail. At least 21 inmates died while in custody at the Texas jail in 2021, according to county records. Another 28 inmates died last year, and another four have died in the first couple months of 2023, according to attorneys Ben Crump and Paul Grinke, who are representing some of the victims' family members.

The FBI said it will be investigating the death of two inmates: Jaquaree Simmons, who died in February 2021, and Jacoby Pillow, who died in January 2023.

"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," Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a statement.

Jail staff committed "multiple policy violations" in the events that led to Simmons' death, according to an internal investigation from the Harris County Sheriff's Office, which resulted in the firing of 11 employees, and suspension of six others, according to the statement. A detention officer was charged with manslaughter.

Pillow, who was in the process of being released on bail, was found unresponsive in his jail cell and later taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences has not released an official cause of death for Pillow, whose death is also being investigated by the Houston Police Department.

Another inmate, Kevin Smith Jr., and his uncle, both died while in custody at the jail, according to the attorneys.

The FBI's investigation also comes days after family members of Pillow and Smith, along with Crump and Grinke, asked the Justice Department for an investigation.

"It is appalling that you would have 32 detainees die in the Harris County jail in a 14-month period," Crump said at a news conference in Houston on Monday. "I mean, nobody really would believe it unless you had these bodies that showed you it was really happening."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Giulia Heyward
Giulia Heyward is a weekend reporter for Digital News, based out of New York. She previously covered education and other national news as a reporting fellow at The New York Times and as the national education reporter at Capital B News. She interned for POLITICO, where she covered criminal justice reform in Florida, and CNN, as a writer for the trends & culture team. Her work has also been published in The Atlantic, HuffPost and The New Republic.
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