Garnet Coleman

State Rep. Garnet Coleman (D, Houston), a leader on criminal justice issues, will need to confront the rising number of deaths in Texas' 250 county jails.   

With 57 county jail deaths during the first half of this year, Texas is on a record pace. If the second half of 2019 matches the first, Texas will report 114 in-custody deaths for the year, the highest number ever, and a double-digit increase from 98 deaths last year and 88 in 2017.

No one can say, with certainty, why these deaths are rising, after remaining  stable over the previous decade. An almost total absence, however, of independent oversight in Texas county jails, and severe staffing shortages that force them to use untrained jailers have undoubtedly contributed to this insidious growth.

Of the nearly 23,000 officers in Texas county jails, more than 3,200, or 14 percent, operate under temporary certifications – no training required, reports the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Here, in Anderson County, roughly 25 percent of local jailers are unlicensed.

Low pay for jailers and high turnover have aggravated staffing shortages. To help out, a state law allows newly hired jailers to work a year before completing the 120 training hours needed to obtain their license.

That law may be expedient, but it's also dangerous. Untrained jailers shouldn't handle mentally ill prisoners, who make up at least 20 percent of the jail population.

Texas accounts for a troubling 10 percent, or more, of U.S. jail deaths, frequently violating the constitutional right to adequate healthcare established, and upheld, by federal courts over the last 40 years.

Negligence alone does not account for every prisoner death in Texas jails. Suspects often enter county jails in poor health. Still, many deaths were preventable, including last year's death of Rhonda Newsome, 50, in the Anderson County Jail.

In Newsome's case, medical staff attempted to use a malfunctioning defibrillator. And they still had not transported Newsome to the hospital nearly seven hours after her blood tests showed imminent danger, a recently completed investigation by the Texas Rangers shows.

Unlike deaths in state and federal prisons, county jail deaths, including Newsome's, involve cases not yet adjudicated or tried. Legally, these prisoners were innocent. Most could not afford bail. Their demise rarely prompted outrage, or even questions.

Across the Lone Star State, county jail deaths occur largely unnoticed, unexamined, and unreported, even by local newspapers.

Bland's death spurs reforms

Reforms enacted by the Texas legislature, following Sandra Bland's 2015 death in the Waller County Jail, should have marked a turning point for Texas jails.

Unlike most jail deaths, Bland's suicide in an isolation cell, three days after a state trooper pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change, sparked a national firestorm.

Over the two years following her death, Bland's family received a $2-million wrongful death settlement with the Waller County Sheriff's Office; Texas state trooper Brian Encinia, who arrested Bland, 28, was fired for misconduct; and Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Sandra Bland Act of 2017.

Among other things, the Bland Act established sorely needed training standards and protocols for identifying, diverting, and treating mentally ill prisoners. It also requires jailers to complete de-escalation training, and it eases restrictions on personal bond for prisoners with a mental illness or intellectual disability.

Those changes, and numerous others, should have reduced deaths in Texas jails, especially the nearly one in four attributed to suicide.

Jails need oversight, trained staff

But that hasn't happened. Sadly, Texas has not adequately enforced or overseen the Bland Act, or maintained enough trained jailers to sustain its reforms. 

It's not because state inspectors aren't dedicated or competent. They're simply overwhelmed. Without central oversight, Texas' 250 county jails cover 270,000 square miles and hold nearly 70,000 prisoners.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards conducts annual inspections but has no authority to levy fines or punish violations of state jail standards, such as making checks every 30 minutes on prisoners with a history of mental illness. Moreover, TCJS deploys just four inspectors for the entire state. Not surprisingly, it reviews many deaths without on-site visits.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman (D, Houston), a House leader on criminal justice issues, told the Herald-Press last week he plans to renew work on bi-partisan jail reforms next session, including measures to ensure better trained jailers. Democrats and Republicans ought to support those efforts, and more.

The work matters. Over a year, 1 million people cycle in and out of Texas jails. The state is largely responsible for maintaining constitutional standards of care, protecting taxpayers from liability, and ensuring the health and safety of prisoners, who are solely dependent on their keepers.

Perhaps half as many people die in the state's forgotten county jails as on its troubled Southern border. It's time local jail conditions receive the attention they deserve.