Since 2012, Texas has seen an average of 25 suicides a year in county jails. That number doesnt account for facilities run by other jurisdictions. Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced a plan to begin holding legislative hearings on Texas jail standards.
Our goal at the state level is: what can we do to assist our jails, our sheriffs? Patrick said. What can we do to make our jails as safe as possible, particularly for those who have mental health issues?
Lawmakers say part of the problem is that the issues only come to light after an incident occurs. In one of the most highly-publicized cases, Sandra Bland was found hanged in her cell at the Waller County Jail. It was just days after her arrest during a traffic stop on July 10. Her death prompted an inspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which regulates county jails. The commission found that Waller County staff failed to complete mandatory training on how to recognize and handle mental health issues.
So were asking people to take on a role that they havent been appropriately trained for, says State Rep. Garnet Coleman, who chairs the Committee on County Affairs.
The democrat from Houston issued a letter last week to the Commission on Jail Standards. Hes pushing for several changes which he says would prevent future suicides. At the top of the list is revising the mental health screening forms used during the intake process. Jail records show Bland admitted to previously attempting suicide on an intake questionnaire. But on another page of the same form, jail staff marked that she had not attempted suicide.
It was clear that the form did not give the appropriate information to the people making decisions, Coleman says.
Coleman says some reforms could go into effect immediately, like revising the intake forms and requiring more mental health training.
State Sen. John Whitmire of Houston agrees. Earlier this month, he called for jailers and sheriffs across Texas to take a closer look at their practices.
Review your operations, Whitmire said. If it has become routine but not safe, change your operations.
Other reforms are likely to take longer. In the wake of Blands arrest, Coleman is also calling for greater transparency from the Texas Department of Public Safety. The DPS has acknowledged that the state trooper who arrested Bland violated its courtesy policy. But Coleman thinks the incident represents a larger issue.
He cites DPS data on traffic stops from 2012-2014. It shows blacks were more likely than whites to receive a citation and be subject to vehicle searches after being pulled over for a traffic violation. Coleman says he wants a more in-depth look into these interactions and what accounts for the racial disparities.
If they are trained in a way that implies racial profiling, and implies that individuals of color, particularly black people, are dangerous, then we need to change that training, he says.
For some, that lack of transparency has created confusion about the circumstances surrounding Blands arrest. In a recent interview, Blands sister, Sharon Cooper, said the family is still seeking answers from the DPS and Waller County officials. That led them to file a federal lawsuit against the agencies earlier this month. Cooper said Bland should never have been arrested in the first place for a minor traffic violation.
That traffic stop, the dashcam video is there for public consumption, and what it does show is an officer who was excessive in his use of authority, and honestly out of line, Cooper says.
The hearings on jail safety standards are set to begin next month.