Larsen, Ling: Stop jail suicides and deaths – here’s howJan 6th, 2016 | By admin | Category: Ft. Bend County, In The News, McLennan County, Webb County
Is Texas providing enough oversight to protect vulnerable people who are jailed, the majority of whom are still considered innocent in the eyes of the law? Despite concerns recently raised by state lawmakers, the answer clearly is, no.
In September, the Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice held a hearing on jail safety in response to recent jail deaths. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, framed the issue well.
“When people enter the criminal justice system, when we take their liberty away from them, we have a responsibility to make sure they’re safe,” he said, later adding, “I’m going to have zero tolerance for jail suicides and deaths.”
State Rep. Garnet Coleman’s House County Affairs Committee held similar hearings recently, as across Texas, policy makers and agency leaders have increasingly voiced concern about county jails, especially since the death of Sandra Bland.
And yet since the hearing on Sept. 22, there have been at least 13 more deaths in Texas county jails, seven of which are apparent suicides.
In reviewing the recent deaths, several issues stand out.
First, seven of the deaths in recent months have come from just three counties – Webb, McLennan and Fort Bend. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards found McLennan and Fort Bend to be out of compliance with minimum jail standards.
Those findings came only after inspections prompted by people dying. Webb County has yet to be found out-of-compliance with any state standards, despite the fact that three people died in the jail in the month of November alone.
Increased scrutiny has also revealed systemic disregard of safety by jail staff. Last month, following the suicide of Michael Angelo Martinez, three McLennan County correctional officers were arrested for falsifying records after an inspection revealed they tried to hide their failure to make mandated checks on those in their care.
Jailers must be trained and required to prioritize safe and humane care.
Additionally, all but one of the 13 people who died in county jails had not yet been convicted; they were awaiting the disposition of their cases.
On average, more than 60 percent of people in county jails are in a pretrial status, many in custody for court hearings simply because they cannot afford to post bail.
Nationally, many are questioning the cash bail system that often keeps low-income people in jail while the more affluent go free. Even as that issue is debated, Texans need to consider how local jails can be made safer, especially for those with mental health issues.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has only four inspectors and one complaints investigator for more than 240 county facilities. We urge the Texas Legislature to expand the commission’s role so that the agency has the staff, funding and mandate to provide effective, independent oversight.
With our state ranked 49th in the nation for mental-health treatment, we also need more robust standards to protect incarcerated people with mental health diagnoses.
And we urge counties to expand the training of jailers and find ways to transform a culture that distrusts those in its care and mocks guards who show empathy.
We applaud and urge media like the Houston Chronicle (“Making bail not same for everyone” Page A1, Dec. 27) to continue to cover jail conditions and deaths to expose the systemic negligence that places so many people in danger every year.
Fort Bend Sheriff Troy Nehls was right when he called on the state to no longer rely on county jails as “de facto mental health facilities.” But this is a joint failure with joint solutions. Counties blaming the state and the state blaming counties without any accountability or change does nothing for the 13 families left grieving and with few answers.
State and local officials can and must find solutions to prevent more deaths in our jails and truly institute a zero tolerance policy.
Larsen is communications coordinator, and Ling is project coordinator of the Texas Jail Project. Executive Director Diana Claitor also contributed to this commentary.