HOUSTON (CN) — A new $5 million surveillance system in a Texas county jail produced its first lawsuit this week from an inmate who claims it filmed him being beaten by guards who broke his nose and eye socket.
Harris County police pulled over Jerome Bartee, a 28-year-old black man, in his wife's car on Sept. 3 for failing to signal a turn.
They booked him into Harris County Jail and Bartee's lawsuit contains a copy of his booking photo. His eyes are wide open and his head is cocked upward, neck tattoos visible beneath a short beard under his jaw line.
One day later, Bartee's appearance had drastically changed, as documented in another photo in his lawsuit that shows his left eye swollen shut and his face puffy with bruises.
Bartee sued Harris County, jail officer Andrew Rowell and two John Doe jailers on Monday in Federal Court.
Bartee says his facial makeover came courtesy of the defendant jailers.
The day after he was booked he told the staff he had a severe toothache and asked to be taken to the infirmary. Bartee says that as Rowell escorted him to the infirmary Rowell "unnecessarily and without provocation forcibly pushed Bartee into a door in the clinic hallway."
Bartee says he "reacted verbally," prompting two other jailers to join Rowell in attacking him.
"They threw Bartee into a chair and podium that were in the hallway," the complaint states. "They then threw Bartee to the ground and lay on top of him. While subduing him on the ground, the detention employees and Harris County Sheriff Deputies who had joined the beating punched, kicked and stomped on Bartee."
Bartee says they nearly beat him unconscious, then handcuffed him and pulled him up from his pooled blood.
"Bartee suffered bilateral nasal bone fractures, left orbital floor blowout fracture, multiple cuts and bruises, and a closed head injury," the lawsuit states.
The next day, Harris County employees took Bartee to the county-owned Ben Taub Hospital, where he got stitches.
"No X-rays or other diagnostic tests or medical treatment was provided at the request of the Harris County detention employees," the complaint states.
Bartee was put back into the jail's general population later that day and at Sheriff Ron Hickman's request the Harris County District Attorney's Office charged him with assaulting a public servant, Andrew Rowell, according to the lawsuit.
News of the assault broke Sept. 6 after Bartee's family member sent a photo of his face to local TV stations.
Bartee posted $10,000 bond on Sept. 7 and Sheriff Hickman went into damage-control mode. He called a news conference, where he said the jail's cameras had recorded three jailers using "an unnecessary application of force" on Bartee and he was suspending them with pay pending an investigation, according to the lawsuit.
Despite the admission of excessive force, Hickman told reporters the altercation was "initiated by Bartee" and the video would not be released to the public or media, Bartee says.
Bartee's attorney Donald Kidd said the District Attorney's Office dropped the assault on a jailer charge against his client within days.
"[Harris County Sheriff's Office] did not provide the beating video to the Harris County District Attorney when the charges were filed. HCSO did not share the video with the HCDA until after Sheriff Hickman's press conference. Immediately after viewing the video, the HCDA dismissed the assault charges against Mr. Bartee based on insufficient evidence," Kidd said in an email.
Harris County district attorney spokesman Jeff McShan said the jailers could face criminal charges.
"Our Civil Rights Division is independently investigating this particular case and after our investigation is complete civil rights prosecutors will present this case to a Harris County grand jury," he said in a statement.
Bartee is still recovering from his injuries and from surgery.
"Bartee underwent 4½ hours in surgery on Sept. 26, 2016 to repair the fractures in his nose and to have a metal plate implanted in place of the badly fractured left orbit," the complaint states.
Assistant Harris County Attorney Robert Soard said his office is investigating but declined further comment.
Bartee seeks punitive damages for civil rights violations, negligence, assault and municipal liability. He claims Harris County's de facto policy of condoning jailer brutality and denying inmates medical treatment was the "moving force" that caused his injuries.
Turmoil at the Jail
Harris County officials appointed Hickman sheriff in May 2015 after his predecessor Adrian Garcia resigned to run for Houston mayor.
Voters will decide in November whether Hickman, a Republican, will lead the sheriff's office for a full, four-year term, or if his opponent Ed Gonzalez, a Democrat, former Houston City Council member and former Houston policeman, will get the job.
Gonzalez has criticized Hickman for not addressing the jail's persistent overcrowding. The jail, which has around 9,400 beds and is infamously known as the state's largest mental health care provider, is chronically near capacity.
To prevent a crisis, Harris County shipped 133 inmates to jails in Jefferson and Bowie counties in April.
Hickman highlighted the jail's new cameras in an interview this week on "Houston Matters," a talk show on Houston's NPR station.
"Many of the areas where inmates are held or moved didn't have cameras at all. So we're making sure we have a good solid video package that will ultimately reach about 2,200 cameras throughout the facilities," he said.
He told NPR he has little control over the jail population because it depends on how many people are caught committing crimes and how quickly low-level offenders can post bond.
Help is on the way. A city-county processing center is under construction across the street from the Harris County Jail. Houston police book most arrestees at two city jails before they are booked again into Harris County Jail.
When the new facility is done, Houston will close its jails and take all arrestees to the processing center, which should speed up the bonding-out process for misdemeanor offenders and provide mentally ill inmates with in-house treatment options.
Harris County and its misdemeanor court judges are defendants in a federal lawsuit accusing them of unconstitutionally jailing low-level offenders on bonds they can't afford to pay.
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