Texas jails commentary

110 inmates died in custody of Texas county jails last year; a record number.

Despite commendable reforms, especially following Sandra Bland's death in 2015, Texas reported at least 110 jail deaths last year – a record high. Statistics for such deaths go back 15 years.

Experts and advocates cite a lack of oversight, inadequately trained jailers, low pay for jail staff, and a lack of empathy for the incarcerated – even those without convictions – for the increase in Texas of in-custody deaths.

From 2005 to 2017, an average of 93 inmates died in-custody, data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards shows.The vast majority of those inmates were pre-trial detainees who had not been convicted.

The number rose to 98 in 2018, more than five percent higher than the 13-year average, and more than 11 percent higher than 2017, when 88 in-custody deaths occurred.

This increase came despite the Sandra Bland Act, which established sorely needed training standards and protocols for identifying, diverting, and treating mentally ill prisoners. It also requires jailers to complete de-escalation and mental health training.

The law passed two years after Bland, 28, was found hanged in a Waller County jail cell. In 2016, Bland's family settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the county jail for $1.9 million. Waller County had not followed required procedures, including time checks and mental health training for employees.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), a key legislator in getting the Sandra Bland Act passed, told the Herald-Press last week more laws and reforms weren't the answer. Instead, he said, sheriffs need to be held accountable for what happens in their jails.

“Sheriffs, as elected officials, are ultimately responsible,” Coleman said. “It's up to the public to hold them accountable for doing their jobs.”

Coleman, a founding member of the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said he plans to hold statewide hearings this year to help shape a criminal justice reform agenda for legislators to consider when they reconvene in 2021.

The state's nearly 250 jails are inspected annually by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. TCJS employs only four inspectors to make sure Texas jails adhere to minimum standards.

Texas jails hold nearly 70,000 inmates at any given time, but 1 million prisoners cycle in and out of these jails every year.

TCJS has no punitive powers if standards are not met. If a jail continually fails to comply with standards, the commission can transfer inmates to another facility, or close the jail entirely; both of which are unlikely.

Moreover, if TCJS discovers a jail has not reported a death in custody, which is a misdemeanor, its only option is to report the crime to local law enforcement.

County jails are legally required to report all in-custody deaths to both TCJS and the state's Attorney General's office.

Following a death, jail facilities are reviewed by TCJS and investigated by an outside agency, typically the Texas Rangers. The focus of the Rangers' investigations, however, is criminal wrongdoing – not negligence, incompetence, or substandard health care.

Regardless of the law, many deaths have gone unreported, a self-evaluation report by TCJS states. Some sheriffs have, erroneously, argued inmates were not technically “in-custody” when they died because they weren't inside the jail.

The commission also said that to avoid reporting in-custody deaths, some counties release acutely ill prisoners on a personal-recognizance bond, unsigned by the inmate, so that they don't die while in custody.

By “bonding-out” a terminal inmate, county jails alleviate themselves of state review, paperwork, and a criminal investigation.

When county officials, in any way, circumvent the reporting of in-custody deaths it results in an undercount. Therefore, the record number of in-custody deaths this year is actually higher than reported.

Diana Claitor, director of the non-profit Texas Jail Project, said without oversight and accountability in county jails, people will continue to die.

“I think Texans – in fact, most Americans – have too much faith that our public officials always 'do the right thing,' but we don’t really know,” Claitor said. “What's happening with jail deaths is mostly due to a lack of medical care, and that often comes back to counties failing to adequately fund medical care, as well as an often hostile attitude toward people in jail.”

This “hostile attitude,” Claitor said, extends beyond jail staff.

“The voters are living in a bubble, and don't understand a jail is an important part of the community,” she said. “They ignore the fact that innocent and mentally ill people make up the majority of those incarcerated. By doing so, they're punishing the weakest among us.”

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