2nd apparent suicide in a month at Texas jail

A Harris County inmate jailed on a theft charge died after hanging herself in a common area of the jail


By Keri Blakinger
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON, Tex. — A Harris County inmate jailed on a theft charge died after hanging herself in a common area of the jail late Tuesday, marking the facility's second suicide in less than a month.

Debora Ann Lyons - who was being held on $1,500 bail - was found hanging from a bedsheet attached to a door on the fourth floor of the 1200 Baker building at about 6:45 p.m. on Tuesday, according to the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

After jailers found her, she was rushed to Ben Taub Hospital, where she died a day later.

Citing an ongoing investigation, authorities declined to specify whether anyone else was in the area Tuesday evening, would not explain whether she was regularly checked on, and did not clarify whether she was known to have a mental health history.

"It's a tragedy anytime anyone loses their life in this way," said Jay Jenkins, a project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. "The fact that this is happening is another indication that we need to rethink the wisdom of holding 10,000 people in our jail downtown, particularly those who are still legally innocent."

The 58-year-old had been arrested on July 21 on a felony theft charge, after she allegedly stole clothes and an airbed - items totaling under $2,500, according to court records. She had a long history of theft charges, some of which previously netted state jail time and made her eligible to be treated as a habitual offender, with the potential for higher penalties.

Following her latest arrest, Lyons was initially denied a personal release bond, which could have seen her go free even if she lacked the money to pay bail. She wasn't present for her first court appearance due to "medical" reasons, but online court records indicate she was later approved for a PR bond the day of her death.

Her lawyer did not immediately offer comment.

The apparent suicide is now under investigation by the Texas Rangers, as well as the sheriff's office internal affairs division and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

For advocates, the latest death raises troubling questions.

"How this could have happened in a common area where there are presumably a lot of other people around, both inmates and staff?" asked Michele Deitch, an attorney and criminal justice consultant who teaches at UT-Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs. "How could anyone not have noticed that happening?"

Three weeks before Lyons' death, Navy veteran Eldon Lee Jackson killed himself  in solitary confinement in the same jail building.

The 61-year-old was locked up in April, when he tried lighting his house on fire as he slashed his own throat. In violation of a protective order, he repeatedly called his wife, harassing her from the jail, sometimes up to 20 times a day.

But when the judge signed an order banning him from phone use, the jail chose to enforce it by placing him in solitary confinement.

The next day, he killed himself by forming the gauze used to treat his burns into a handmade noose. His death, which is still under investigation by the Texas Rangers, marked the jail's first suicide of 2018.

Last year, the death of a 32-year-old county inmate sparked protests after authorities deemed it a suicide, a claim his family and supporters repeatedly questioned.

Vincent Young, a father of nine, was found dead in an infirmary cell in February 2017 when guards making their rounds spotted his body hanging by a bed sheet, the sheriff's office said at the time.

He hadn't been checked on for more than an hour by the time officers found him. The jail fired the deputy who skipped checks.

That death came even as the jail was working to drive down its suicide numbers, which were already below the national average per 10,000 inmates, according to federal data. Since 2009, the jail has seen 15 suicides.

©2018 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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