If things were a little too quiet in a particular cell in the Texas prison, the guards didn’t notice. If one of the two men locked inside didn’t stand up to be counted—a process that is supposed to happen at least nine times a day—no one reported it. If there was an awful smell, nobody said a word.
It wasn’t until Cornelius Harper asked prison staff to check on his cellmate that they realized the man was dead. Had been dead for at least three days. Had been choked and beaten so badly he had dried blood and bruises all over his face.
Given that the prison was on lockdown, there weren’t many suspects. Harper hasn’t been charged, but officials say he killed his cellie and tried to hide it, covering the body with a sheet that rippled in the breeze from the cracked window, mimicking movement.
Some officials have suggested that Harper may have done more, perhaps positioning and repositioning the body of 26-year-old Silvino Núñez to make it seem as if he were alive in his cell in the Clements Unit in Amarillo. Investigators say Harper has confessed to the murder; he did not respond to letters requesting comment.
Three months later, officials have released few details, but some things are clear: Harper, 33, had a history of fatal violence and severe mental health problems. At the time of the killing, he was already six years into a life sentence for a triple murder that had nearly gotten him the death penalty. Records show he’d been hearing voices for more than a decade and had a pattern of refusing to take his medication.
Despite that, Harper—like thousands of other prisoners during the pandemic—was locked almost 24 hours a day in an 8-by-11 cell with Núñez, who was serving a 10-year sentence for stabbing his mother. Like the rest of the men in Clements Unit, Harper and Núñez had no recreation, visits or phone calls, conditions even more restrictive than usual for a maximum-security prison in Texas. A prison spokesman confirmed some details about the killing but did not comment on the state’s handling of mentally ill prisoners during long-term lockdowns.
To experts and prison-reform advocates, the dire consequences are an “I-told-you-so” moment.
“This was entirely predictable that people were going to be having exacerbated mental health symptoms,” said Michele Deitch, a prisons expert and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs. “You have people vulnerable with mental health issues and all the stress from the COVID crisis and you’re locking them down and denying them access to their families and support systems.”
To Núñez’s family, it was a painful and unexpected end. “Silvino Núñez was a grandson, son, brother, cousin and nephew,” Estela Núñez wrote on a GoFundMe page seeking to raise money for a funeral. “Let he or her who is innocent cast the first stone.” She did not respond to a request for comment.
As the pandemic spread in the spring, prisons began locking down to try to enforce social distancing and avoid major outbreaks. Early on, experts worried that such responses would be particularly hard on mentally ill people behind bars. How hard can be difficult to quantify unless the result is a dead body; Texas’s tracking of less fatal outcomes—such as assaults, use or force, or suicide attempts—has been unreliable.
In England and Wales, The Guardian reported a rash of prison suicides, five in six days, that sparked alarm among critics there, who attributed the deaths to harsh conditions of indefinite lockdowns.
In the U.S., Oregon’s federal public defender said she worried one prisoner’s suicide and two other reports of serious self-harm could be due to the continuing stress of the restrictive conditions.
“The psychological and physical stress of the 14-day lockdown is becoming overwhelming for some of the inmates and detainees,” the public defender, Lisa Hay, told The Oregonian. One man at FCI Sheridan told Hay’s legal team that a fellow prisoner had “slashed himself” because “he could not stand being locked up this long.”
A few weeks later, Hay’s office filed suit against the prison.
In Texas, Deputy Inspector General Joe Buttitta, whose office investigates all prison deaths, said he’d seen a slight uptick in suicides amid the pandemic. In one instance, a man jumped off the walkway outside a third-floor cell at an East Texas prison and killed himself; several prisoners wrote The Marshall Project to say that he’d leaped to his death just after finding out he’d tested positive for COVID-19. It’s not clear whether he had pre-existing mental health problems.
The same cannot be said for Harper, the man officials believe killed his cellmate; his history of mental health struggles was long and publicly documented. Though he did not respond to a letter requesting comment, extensive court records tell some of his life story.
Born in Abilene, Harper survived a childhood of neglect and abuse, spending his early years with a mother who struggled with drug addiction. His parents lived separately and were never married. At age 7 he moved to Chicago to live with his father. In his teens, Harper began hearing voices, according to court records. He skipped school, and started smoking pot and drinking. Then at 16, he took part in a robbery and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
After five years he got out on parole, but in early 2011 was arrested near Houston after authorities said he killed his cousin, his cousin’s pregnant girlfriend and her unborn child. Prosecutors alleged the murders all stemmed from a dispute over money and a car, but Harper maintained his innocence and took the case to trial.
While waiting in the county jail for his day in court, Harper tried strangling himself. He sometimes refused to take medication for fear of the side effects and told an expert tasked with evaluating him that he still heard voices and had tried to kill himself nine times.
Despite questions about his competency, a jury found him guilty of capital murder in 2014. But the jurors decided there were enough mitigating factors that he shouldn’t be put to death, so he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
At the time of the slaying, the 3,800-man prison where he was held was severely understaffed; roughly half of the corrections-officer positions sat vacant at the end of April. The unit was on lock-down by April 8, and five days later Harper told prison staff to check on his cellmate.
They found Núñez dead in his bunk. It’s not clear how his death went unnoticed, but the warden recommended firing four officers. As of early July, three were still employed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, state records show.
“Security rounds are a must and all staff should be doing them but at the same time TDCJ needs to make sure they have proper staffing levels,” said Jeff Ormsby, a union leader for state prison employees in Texas. Officials said Wednesday that for the first time in recent memory the agency has more than 5,000 guard vacancies, out of almost 26,000 positions. The agency is short an additional 1,000 correction officers due to quarantine.
“When you’re working people 16 to 20 hours a day, they take shortcuts,” Ormsby continued. “Dealing with any inmates can be difficult, but mentally ill inmates even more so. But dealing with mentally ill inmates when you’re short-staffed and tired is even worse.”
To some prisoners, the incident highlights how serious the unit’s staffing problems are, and how little concern some officers seem to have for the people they’re guarding.
To others, it highlights the recurring nightmare of being locked in a tiny, uncooled cell with someone in the throes of a mental health crisis.
It’s almost impossible to get your cell changed, one man told me. “You try to explain, ‘Look, man, this guy's a psych patient. He's on pills. He's seeing things. He's hearing things. He's a cutter.’ Whatever the case may be, you're going to end up having to either have a fight with a guy or he's going to have to kill you or you're going to have to kill him.”