Sandra Bland’s death in police custody puts spotlight on Texas jail standards
More than 4,200 people in Texas have died in custody in the past decade, and Waller County, where Bland died, has repeatedly been found non-compliant with state regulations that could have prevented her death
Tom Dart in Houston
Wednesday 29 July 2015 12.00 BST
If it makes no logical sense that a young and seemingly happy woman would kill herself days after being offered a new job, then the death of Sandra Bland is an anomaly on a statistical level as well.
The official, hotly disputed account is that the 28-year-old hanged herself in her cell on 13 July. If that is true she is the first African American woman to kill herself in a Texas county jail since the state’s standards agency started keeping death records.
Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, said that 140 inmates in Texas county jails have killed themselves since 2009, mostly white men. Suicide, usually by hanging, represents about one-third of the total deaths. Bland’s gender and race mark her out as unique.
Deaths in custody, though, are anything but rare. Officially, more than 4,200 people in Texas have died in custody in the past decade – a figure that includes those killed during attempted arrests or while restrained, as well as those who are incarcerated.
Half of them fell under the responsibility of the state prisons department, which typically holds inmates serving sentences of more than a year. Those in county jails are usually serving short sentences or are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted, like Bland. At the end of 2013, according to federal statistics, Texas held 168,280 prisoners – more than any other state.
Across the country, 958 inmates died in local jails in 2012, according to an analysis last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics – an increase of 8% from 2011. The average annual suicide rate for white inmates between 2000 and 2012 was at least three times higher than the rate for black or Hispanic prisoners.
In Houston alone there have been four deaths in the past eight days, one an apparent suicide of a man who had been screened for mental health issues about 12 hours earlier. “You have a constitutional right to be protected from harm in custody and that includes protection from harming yourself,” said Amin Alehashem, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project in Houston. The project plans to launch legal action against a Houston-area sheriff on Wednesday in a jail suicide case.
Alehashem said that as well as basic failings that vary from county to county, the length of pre-trial detention is a fundamental problem. The majority of inmates in Harris County’s jail, which encompasses Houston, are there because they cannot afford to make bond, he said.
Bland was seemingly unable to raise money for her bond immediately, meaning she was held over the weekend, alone in her cell. “Individuals that don’t have access to resources are confined and it has immediate consequences on mental health,” Alehashem said.
Bland was said to have asphyxiated herself using a plastic trash bag. Wood said that the use of trash bags is “not something that we are looking at prohibiting” because “she could just as easily have used her inmate clothing, her undergarments, her bedding, towels.”
But the Waller County jail, near Houston, has repeatedly been found non-compliant with state regulations in recent years, including after the 2012 suicide of a 29-year-old man.
An inspection in the wake of Bland’s death cited a failure to check on inmates in person at least once an hour and a lack of mental health training. The jail has 30 days to come up with a plan to rectify the problems. Wood’s agency has also spoken to officials about the failure to follow mental health assessment guidelines after she indicated on a screening questionnaire that she had previously attempted suicide and felt depressed.
That should have prompted jailers to contact a magistrate for a decision on whether to have her assessed by a mental health professional. But she was not even placed on suicide watch, which would have seen her checked more frequently and probably put in a cell covered by a camera.
Elton Mathis, the Waller County district attorney, released a toxicology report on Monday which indicated that Bland had marijuana in her system at the time of her death. Warren Diepraam, a county prosector, did not rule out the possibility that she had ingested the drug while in jail. Bland’s jail records and the dashcam video from the traffic stop that precipitated her arrest do not indicate that law enforcement officers suspected she was high on drugs at the time.
Michael McCabe, a toxicology expert with Robson Forensic in Philadelphia, reviewed the report for the Guardian and said that if the levels found in Bland’s blood had come from a living person they would indicate that she had smoked marijuana within a few hours of the sample collection. But, he said, given the faster rate at which the main chemical is released from body fat stores after death, it is not possible from the results to make a definitive conclusion that she was using marijuana or under the influence of marijuana at the time of her arrest or death.
Glenn Smith, the Waller County sheriff, said last week that he has asked a local attorney to form an independent panel to investigate his department’s procedures and performance. Mathis told reporters on Monday that he is forming a committee of outside attorneys to examine Bland’s case with a view to possible criminal charges that would be presented to a grand jury, probably next month.
Regardless of the autopsy results, for many in the local community and beyond, the jail’s errors, the mishandled traffic stop on the afternoon of 10 July that quickly escalated into confrontation and the context – a white trooper waiting in his car just outside the campus of a mainly black university who drives up behind Bland, prompting her to move across, then pulls her over for failing to signal a lane change – blame her death on institutional incompetence and bias.
“Waller County should be held accountable because she died in their care, custody and control,” said DeWayne Charleston, who became the county’s first black justice of the peace in 2003.
“Sandra Bland was entitled to proper medical care, entitled that everything about her care brought her safety and security,” he said, adding that he had previously spent time in the jail because of his activism. He speculated that anyone brought in on suspicion of assaulting an officer, like Bland, would not have received sympathetic treatment from staff.
He is not persuaded by Mathis’s announcement or his promises of a transparent and thorough investigation. “I don’t have any confidence in the fact that he has not made a commitment that he would bind himself to the recommendations,” he said. “I think he should just recuse himself. The trust is too far gone.”
Last week the sheriff’s office said in a statement: “All plastic trash liners have been removed from all cells in the Waller County Jail, pending further direction from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The two deficiencies noted by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards … are being corrected and all inmates are monitored hourly for face-to-face observation.”
The full dashboard video of Sandra Bland’s arrest is nearly fifty minutes long, and can be viewed on YouTube. It has the quality of nightmare, because it starts off so routinely and goes so badly. Sandra Bland was a twenty-eight-year-old African-American woman who was driving from Chicago to East Texas, to take a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University. At home in Illinois, she was active in her church and close to her family. She had taken a keen interest in the Black Lives Matter movement and in the problem of police abuse of authority. At first, the conversation between Bland and Encinia is relatively civil; Bland expresses her unhappiness at being stopped. But she sounds calm, like a reasonable person educated about her rights, and in a hurry to be on her way: here.
‘My Baby Did Not Take Herself Out’: Friends, Family Share Stories of Sandra Bland: here.