On the Heels of Sandra Bland's Death, Texas to Examine County Jails

Twenty-nine people have committed suicide in Texas county jails since September 2014, more than in any of the last three years. That's too many, says a bipartisan group of state officials.

Led by Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Democratic state Senator John Whitmire, a group of Texas lawmakers announced plans Tuesday to review jail safety practices in each of state's 243 county jails.

"I think we have an emergency. We don't have to wait for hearings or new laws or a new budget for the jail standards commission. We can declare an emergency today, which, in my opinion, we're in. We can ask all the sheriffs in the state of Texas, all the jailers, all the police chiefs to pause and review their best practices," Whitmire said at a Tuesday press conference.

Despite the uproar that's surrounded the death of Sandra Bland — who apparently committed suicide July 13 in Waller County Jail after being arrested during a July 10 traffic stop for failing to signal a lane change — Patrick emphasized that the review was not being initiated in response to a specific case. He didn't mention Bland's name, even when he was asked if there was a reason he'd not said her name during the press conference.

Whitmire, however, did say that Bland had helped lead the state to the decision to look into the jail system. The senator also emphasized the need to review the bail bond system that helped keep Bland in jail despite minimal charges.

“I am as serious about this issue as anything I’ve ever done,” Whitmire said. “We’re talking about human lives.”

In the last three years 250 people have died in county jails. Seventy of those deaths were suicides. Over the last six years, according to data provided by the state, almost half of county jail suicides — 74 of 159 — occurred, like Bland's, within a week of arrest.

Hearings to discuss the review will begin in September after lawmakers have the opportunity to talk to the families of people who've committed suicide in jail, law enforcement officers and jailers. Patrick and Whitmire emphasized Tuesday that they wanted to take action before the next state legislative session in 2017.

"We will be looking at the entire system from intake to release with emphasis on identifying and caring for people with mental health issues," Whitmire said in a discussion with Facebook commenters after the announcement.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young