Garnet Coleman

Texas legislators should not wait until the next session in 2021 to tackle the neglect, incompetence, and indifference that caused, or contributed to, a record number of in-custody deaths this year. 

 The Legislature's mandate is clear and urgent: Reduce unnecessary jail deaths and bring health care in Texas jails in line with the U.S. Constitution and community standards of decency.   

  Despite recent reforms, in-custody deaths in 2019 for pre-trial detainees in Texas jails will rise to 110 or more, up from 98 last year, and about 95 a year over the previous decade.

 Making matters worse, this year's official count of roughly 110 is at least a dozen short of the real number, and Texas already reports 10 percent of all in-custody deaths in the United States.    

Oversight needed

Texas' 250 county jails hold 70,000 prisoners at any given time. Policy reforms to oversee this enormous system should include, at minimum, additional state jail inspectors and better coordination and communication between the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and Office of Attorney General.

To improve health care in Texas jails, legislators also should consider an independent ombudsman's office, reporting directly to the state Legislature.

It's unrealistic to expect local sheriffs to consistently expose malfeasance inside their own jails. In Anderson County, for example, Sheriff Greg Taylor did everything he could to conceal information about the 2018 death of prisoner Rhonda Newsome, 50, even from Newsome's family.

Other sheriffs have acted with equal arrogance, treating county jails as their personal property, instead of public offices paid for by the people.

Rigorous oversight that will result in fewer in-custody deaths starts with enforcing the law on both sides of the bars.

A Herald-Press investigation into in-custody deaths over the last two years found numerous examples of Texas jailers committing low-level felonies by not making required checks on prisoners, and then falsifying observation logs to cover up their misconduct.

Any reform package enacted by the Legislature also should include measures to get an accurate count of in-custody deaths in Texas. The Herald-Press found the attorney general's list this year includes a dozen deaths omitted from the TCJS list, generally considered the official count. State officials can't fix a problem they can't measure.

No one is watching

In general, the laws and standards governing Texas jails are adequate.

The Sandra Bland Act, named after a 28-year-old prisoner who died in the Waller County Jail in 2015, made significant changes, including standards and protocols for identifying, diverting, and treating mentally ill prisoners.

This year, a new law requires temporary jailers to get their licenses, and the training that comes with them, in 90 days instead of a year.

Even exemplary standards, however, can't work if they're not enforced.

The hard truth is, no one is watching jails in the Lone Star State. With only four inspectors, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards covers 250 county jails, spread over 270,000 square miles. TCJS also lacks enforcement powers.

To his credit, state Rep. Garnet Coleman (D.–Houston), a founding member of the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, will hold public hearings on jail conditions next year.

When the next legislative session convenes in January 2021, Coleman and his caucus ought to have a running start on crafting a bi-partisan plan to alleviate the problems identified in the Herald-Press series, “Death without conviction.”

The PHP series found, among other things, excessive force, failures to identify or treat severe mental illness or suicidal tendencies, disregarding prisoners' pleas, excessive delays in treatment, and a culture of indifference to human suffering.

Without convictions, inmates charged with minor crimes, such as public intoxication, drug possession, or criminal trespass, received virtual death sentences from medical neglect.

Some of these problems are systemic, aggravated by poor management, a lack of resources, and understaffing. Others, however, reflect the moral standards of barbarism and cruelty. Among them: The outrageous practice, reported in a TCJS evaluation, of county jails releasing severely ill prisoners to the streets to avoid the scrutiny that may accompany in-custody deaths.

Only by turning a blind eye to human suffering, the U.S. Constitution, state law, and due process can Texas fail to act.

Recommended for you