As Texans struggled to survive during Winter Storm Uri, a 23-year old Black man turned up dead in a downtown Houston jail operated by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Months later, even after 11 officers were fired in late May, the calls for justice have continued to grow.
Jaquaree Simmons was arrested and placed in a one-person holding cell on Feb. 7. He was charged with possession of a weapon based on allegations in an Instagram story. He spent his time in jail calling his mother, begging for help and drawing attention to the intolerable conditions in the jail. After ten days, he was found dead.
It would take months of unyielding pushback from his family for answers to begin to emerge about the circumstances surrounding Jaquaree Simmon’s death. But thanks to the pressure from family and activists, that information is finally coming forward.
A brutal attack carried out by multiple officers
On the morning of Feb. 16, Simmons was being quarantined alone in his cell when he allegedly clogged the toilet with his clothes, causing the toilet to overflow. Several officers then entered his cell and brutally beat him. He would later be beaten again that same evening.
He was taken to a doctor at a nearby jail clinic where it was reported that he “had a cut to his left eyebrow and upper lip but reported no pain,” very unlikely for such a well-documented and brutal beating. Detention officers refused to allow him to be x-rayed, and at one point he was forced to sit in his cell without any clothes.
This happened during the February storm, when sub-Arctic temperatures and a statewide power failure led to the deaths of 700 people. The following day, Feb. 17, at 12:10 p.m., Simmons’ lifeless body was discovered in his cell. According to Harris County’s own medical examination, “Simmons died from head injuries and a brain bleed.”
Family and friends fight back
Loved ones have engaged in constant struggle to find justice. On April 17, the two-month anniversary of Simmons’s death, protesters gathered outside the Harris County jail to demand answers. Ashton Woods of Black Lives Matter Houston spoke about the impunity that officers in Houston and Harris County are regularly given, such as the multiple killings HPD carried out in a matter of weeks.
“Within a 30-day period,” said Woods, “from the end of April all the way to the end of May, seven people were murdered here in Houston by HPD and nobody said or did anything. It was just like this. But we’re not here for the cameras. We’re not here for those people. We’re here to find out what happened to Jaquaree. We want to know why what happened to him happened to him, and why he was taken back to jail after he was just released. Was he being targeted? Was he being targeted while he was in jail? Why was he not attended to the morning that he died?”
Officials respond to community outrage
On May 28, Harris County authorities announced that 11 jail employees would be fired and another six would be suspended while a criminal investigation was being conducted by the HPD. Major Thomas Diaz, who led the internal affairs investigation, stated that the 17 officers were found to have violated internal policies, “including using excessive force, failing to document the use of force, not interfering when a fellow officer used force, and making false statements to investigators.” However, each of these officers has an appeals process with the Civil Service Commission that may allow them to elude justice. Without strong public pressure, HPD is not likely to carry out a thorough investigation, since the same department refused to charge any of the officers involved in last year’s killing spree.
The termination and suspension of the detention officers responsible for the murder of Jaquaree Simmons is not enough. Those responsible must be charged with murder and held accountable for their brutal disregard for Black life. Jaquaree Simmons was one of over 7,000 people caged in Harris County Jail pretrial, most of whom are in jail simply because they cannot pay obscenely high bail amounts. For some, even being accused of a crime — in this case based entirely on an Instagram story — winds up being a de facto death sentence.
We demand justice for Jaquaree Simmons and all victims of the racist, anti-poor mass incarceration system! Only by building the people’s movement will we see an end to these killings!