The Texas Senate announced it will hold hearings to investigate jail procedures in the wake of the suicide of Sandra Bland in a Waller County jail. Texas lawmakers are conducting an in-depth investigation into current practices for evaluating the mental health of prisoners once they are arrested.
Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) told Breitbart Texas, “We have way too many suicides in county and municipal jails and I have zero tolerance for the situation. There have been three since Sandra Bland.”
Sandra Bland is the woman who was arrested in Waller County, Texas, after a traffic stop and an altercation with a Texas trooper where he brandished a Taser and told her, “I’ll light you up.” Bland allegedly assaulted the trooper by kicking him several times in the leg. The case has received national attention after she was found dead in her cell after spending three days in jail, as reported by Breitbart Texas. An autopsy report ruled she committed suicide.
The Waller County jail was not cited by the regulatory jail standards commission, as reported by Breitbart Texas. While the commission did state there were several “red flags,” it concluded that the jailers were not at fault because they filled out the intake evaluation forms completely. “The form was filled out in its entirety,” Texas jail standards commission executive director Brandon Wood told the Chronicle in explaining why the jail was not faulted. “It’s a subjective form. And the final question regarding ‘does the screener suspect mental illness’ does say no.” “If we had more resources, to conduct more trainings, so as to ensure jailers were aware of forms and recommendations out there, it would benefit all involved,” Wood concluded.
The executive director’s investigation into the Bland incident revealed two areas where the jail was non-compliant with jail standards. The first involved the failure to document training of its personnel in regards to handling mentally ill or disabled inmates. The second was that the jailers did not perform hourly face-to-face observations of the inmate. Breitbart Texas reported that this is apparently a recurring problem in jails across the state.
Texas has had 29 suicides in Texas county jails in this fiscal year which will end on August 31st. Over the past six years, almost half of the 159 suicides occurred within seven days of arrest. Of these 74 suicides, 41 occurred within 24 hours of arrest.
Breitbart Texas has reported about the number of those who have killed themselves in the last five years in Texas county and city jails. On August 10th, Breitbart Texas reported about the mysterious death of Francisco Vasquez, an inmate found in the Williamson County jail. Vasquez’ death is at least the third in-custody death in Texas jails during the past month. Breitbart Texas has reported on the suicides of Sandra Bland who hung herself in the Waller County jail, and Hung Do, who hanged himself in the City of Houston jail.
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has called for an interim study on jail safety practices. A press conference was held at the Texas Capitol on August 18th and was attended by Texas lawmakers and Texas sheriffs.
Sen. Whitmire will be leading the hearing to investigate jails in the Texas Senate. The long-time senator is the chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
“Our criminal justice system assumes a great responsibility for the people in our custody. In many instances, individuals have unresolved issues in their lives, particularly a mental illness, which has resulted in their arrest. It is our responsibility to make certain we have the necessary tools and resources to meet the health, welfare and safety needs of every individual in our custody,” stated Sen. Whitmire.
“I applaud Lt. Gov. Patrick for ensuring we will conduct an in-depth examination of our current practices, identify and address where our system is failing, and how the state can be more supportive to all involved,” concluded Sen. Whitmire.
Whitmire told Breitbart Texas that his committee will be conducting hearings to review the operations in county and city jails. He said they will look at best practices and deficiencies in the system. He said, “We have way too many suicides.”
The senate committee will begin its investigations in September. The chairman of the committee told Breitbart Texas, “We will talk to people, review the jails, bring in the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, and let the public talk to us.”
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards inspects 243 county jails and private detention facilities in the state.
Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne told Breitbart Texas, “Texas sheriffs will continue to work with Chairman Whitmire trying to identify not only the problems, but create good solutions to eliminate suicides in county jails.”
On the Texas House side, a hearing by the House Committee on County Affairs was held in the State Capitol on July 30th. Breitbart Texas covered the hearing when the committee questioned law enforcement and jail officials about jail standards in the state, and about procedures for dealing with potentially mentally ill people in county jails. The House committee questioned mental health experts about ways the procedures could be made better.
Jackson County Sheriff Aj (Andy) Lauderbach told Breitbart Texas, “Texas sheriffs aren’t waiting, we have already started to solve these problems.” The immediate past president of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas said, “We already have a group of sheriffs and jail management professionals working to establish realistic and effective approaches to those with mental health issues in our county jails.”
Lana Shadwick is a contributing writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. She has served as a prosecutor and associate judge in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2