Garnet Coleman

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

 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.  

 Without convictions, inmates charged with minor crimes, such as public intoxication, drug possession, or criminal trespass, receive virtual death sentences from medical neglect.  Texas reports roughly 10 percent of all U.S.  in-custody deaths.  

Texas jails hold 70,000 prisoners at any given time, but 1 million people a year cycle in and out of them.

 Oversight needed

Policy reforms for this enormous system must include independent oversight, whether from additional state jail inspectors, an independent ombudsman's office, or better coordination and communication between the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and Office of Attorney General.

It's unrealistic to expect local sheriffs to 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 personal fiefdoms, instead of public agencies paid for by local taxpayers. 

A Herald-Press investigation into in-custody deaths over the last two years found numerous cases of Texas jailers committing felonies by not making required checks on prisoners, and then falsifying observation logs to disguise their actions. Legally, falsifying logs amounts to tampering with government records.

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

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, don't work if they're not enforced.

The hard truth is, no one is watching these jails. With only four inspectors, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards covers 250 county jails, spread over 270,000 square miles. TCJS also lacks the legal authority to enforce minimum standards.

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 other caucus members ought to have a head 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, ignoring prisoners' pleas for help, delays in getting them to the hospital, and a culture of indifference to sometimes horrific suffering.

Some jails released severely ill prisoners to the streets to avoid the scrutiny that accompanies in-custody deaths, reports a TCJS self-evaluation.

Getting an accurate count of in-custody deaths also must become a top priority. State officials can't fix a problem they can't measure.

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.

County officials must obey the law by reporting all in-custody deaths to the attorney jail and Texas Commission on Jail Standards. 

Waiting until the next legislative session to tackle in-custody deaths in Texas would demonstrate a blatant disregard for human suffering, the U.S. Constitution, state law, due process, and local taxpayers, who must pay the settlements and judgments from wrongful death lawsuits.

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