A brutal fight between two prisoners in a Sacramento County Main Jail cell has left an inmate in what family and friends call a vegetative state, no longer able to communicate with friends or loved ones.
Clifton Harris, who was awaiting sentencing for felony assault and false imprisonment charges, was beaten on June 16, with deputies initially naming the cellmate as the suspect in the fight and additionally booking him on felony assault charges.
Sacramento District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Shelly Orio said while the investigation into the prison fight was ongoing, the office has declined to file charges against anyone in the case due to insufficient evidence. The Sheriff’s Department declined to give The Sacramento Bee the name of the inmate.
Cathy Lester, one of Harris’ sisters, said doctors told them this week that he has traumatic brain injuries and a broken jaw as a result of the brawl. It could be up to a year before Sacramento’s UC Davis Medical Center staff can determine if Harris, 61, can overcome the damages to his brain. Harris does not move or respond when she speaks to him and relies on a tube to breathe, she said.
“He’s fighting a battle,” Lester said. “We just want to know what’s going on.”
Lester said she and her siblings, with the help of three Sacramento public defenders, have tried to piece together what happened on June 16 and in the weeks following the assault. Much of what they’ve gathered has come from media reports, said Jacqueline Brown, also Harris’ sister.
Brown said family was notified of Harris’ injuries on July 3, more than two weeks after the assault, when she received a call from Lt. Jason Ramos of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. He told her Harris was injured, and they were considering letting him go on his own recognizance to be cared for by family, she said.
“I wanted to know what was wrong with (my brother) and he couldn’t tell me,” Brown said of the phone call. “ ‘You guys waited this long to tell me about this?’ ” I said. “That’s not right.”
Ramos, an assistant commander at the jail, said Harris was taken to the hospital the day of the attack, where two deputies have stood guard 24 hours a day.
It was after speaking to a doctor, who told him of the severity of Harris’ injuries, that Ramos and jail staff made the decision to contact his family, Ramos said. That process was hindered after finding outdated next-of-kin contact information in Harris’ files, he said.
Monique Smith, Harris’ niece, said she contacted the Sheriff’s Department about a year ago when Harris’ brother died and provided them with updated contact information so Harris could reach out to his family following the death.
Ramos and jail staff also had to take safety measures into consideration before contacting the family, he said.
“We have no policy that makes it mandatory to notify the next of kin (in a serious injury) without considering other factors,” Ramos said. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility that someone might want to get (Harris) out of the hospital because he might be going to prison for a long, long time.”
Harris has more than 14 felony and misdemeanor cases on file in the Sacramento and Solano county courts dating to 1979, including drug possession, assault and robbery convictions. He landed in the Sacramento County Main Jail after he was accused of stabbing a man with a screwdriver and setting his dog on him in December 2015. The man lived, and Harris pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Harris was convicted of the crimes in July 2016, court records show, but Steven Garrett, one of his attorneys, claims he was not found guilty of attacking the man with a screwdriver.
At the time of the jail attack, he was awaiting sentencing and could have faced 96 years to life.
His status as an inmate has made it difficult for Brown, Lester and other family members to access medical files.
Carole Gan, a UC Davis Health spokeswoman, said generally, inmates are considered “blackouts,” meaning medical staff is barred from sharing any information about that patient to anyone, including family, clergy and uniformed officers. Hospital policy states workers can’t acknowledge whether or not an inmate is in their care.
“My understanding is that prisoners, they lose certain rights that all of us have,” Gan said. “I guess this is one of them.”
The little information that Harris’ family has been able to obtain from medical staff has come with the help of Harris’ lawyers, Lester said. The situation is further complicated because Harris had undergone lung cancer treatment while at the jail, she said.
Unable to access medical files, and with little information coming from the Sheriff’s Department given that the case is still being investigated by the District Attorney’s Office, Harris’ siblings, a total of eight who are still living, have been “left in the dark” as they try to plan for his future.
“We’re faith-based people,” Lester said. “We believe God spared him for a reason, but I can’t say what tomorrow will hold for him because I can’t even say what it will hold for me.”
She hopes a hearing on July 28 will give her family more information about Harris’ injuries and an idea of whether the county will continue to keep Harris in its care, or if the family will have to take up that responsibility.
The family is hesitant to accept Harris into its care without knowing what happened to him or what treatment he will need, she said.
“They’re a caring family that is struggling to make the right decision with limited information,” said Garrett, one of three Sacramento County public defenders working with Harris’ family. “We’re on uncharted ground and we want to do the right thing.”