Reporting nearly 10 percent of the nation's jail deaths, Texas already leads the country in that gruesome statistic. And this year, Texas is headed for a record number of deaths, with well over 100 prisoners dying in its jails.
In the first half of this year, Texas reported 53 in-custody deaths, putting the state on track for 106 deaths this year.
From 2005 to 2017, the average number of in-custody deaths in Texas was 93. That's 15 percent less than the number projected for this year. Last year, the number of deaths rose 5 percent to 98 – the highest number in decades.
Legislators and advocates expected state jail deaths to decrease after 2017, when legislators passed model reforms under the Sandra Bland Act. Among other things, the act established training and sorely needed protocols for identifying and treating mentally ill prisoners.
Bland, 28, died in the Waller County Jail near Houston, three days after she was arrested in a routine traffic stop. She was found hanging from a partition in her cell on July 13, 2015. An autopsy ruled the death a suicide.
Four years later, jail custody standards remain unenforced and often violated, and prisoner deaths in Texas continue to rise. Experts say recruiting and training problems, coupled with a lack of oversight, are preventing progress.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards is tasked with inspecting the state's 250 county jails, which hold about 65,000 prisoners. The commission deploys just four inspectors to cover the state.
Without oversight, accountability, and regulation in county jails, people will continue to die, said Diana Claitor, director of the Texas Jail Project. The non-profit advocates for jail reform, prisoners, and their families.
“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,” she 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.”
TCJS's annual inspections note a jail's deficiencies., If a jail is found to be non-compliant with state standards, however, the commission has no authority to levy fines or punish infractions, TCJS Executive Director Brandon Wood told the Herald-Press.
Punitive action must come from local governments, if it comes at all.
Deaths in Texas jails are also investigated by the Texas Rangers. The focus of the Rangers' investigations, however, is criminal wrongdoing – not negligence, incompetence, or substandard healthcare.
For the most part, negligent care in jail deaths goes undetected by the Commission on Jail Standards and ignored by Texas Rangers because the substandard care isn't a criminal matter.
Rhonda Newsome, who died in the Anderson County Jail on June 15 of last year, is a case-in-point.
A Texas Rangers investigation cleared the Anderson County Sheriff's Office of criminal wrongdoing but also uncovered negligence that contributed, or caused, Newsome's death.
Newsome, 50, died in a holding cell, nearly seven hours after the hospital that conducted blood tests on her informed jail medical staff her results were critical. The investigation also found that medical staff in the Anderson County Jail tried to use a non-working defibrillator on Newsome.
Because those aren't criminal matters, however, nothing has been done about them.