Texas Continues Post-Sandra Bland Trek to Bring Justice to County Jails

For Democratic state Senator John Whitmire, it's simple.

"You pay now or you pay later," he says. "If you don't pay now, you may pay with your life later or you'll have to beg someone not to shoot you in your garage when they're a crack addict or a mental patient having an episode."

Whitmire continues fighting for what's become a bipartisan cause for the senator and Texas' Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick — reforming the state's county jails. Specifically, Whitmire wants to deal with mentally ill jail inmates who aren't treated properly — which has led to multiple suicides — and the issues created by a bail system that can keep nonviolent inmates who haven't been convicted of anything locked up, away from their jobs and families.

Patrick's and Whitmire's push comes on the heels of the death of Sandra Bland in Waller County. According to the county, she hanged herself three days after being arrested during a traffic stop. According to jail records, Bland told officers at the jail that she suffered from depression and had attempted suicide previously, in 2014. Patrick said last month that seeking jail reform was not about any specific case, something Whitmire contradicted Tuesday.

"If anyone thinks Ms. Bland did not lead to this hearing, they do not know me very well," he said.

Whitmire opened the Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice hearing about what to do with jails by highlighting three other deaths that have occurred over the course of the spring and summer at local jails: Jesse Jacobs, who died in Galveston County on March 14; Hung Do, who died in Houston Police Department jail on July 23; and Francisco Vasquez, who died in Williamson County jail on August 8. All three, Whitmire said, faced mental health or emotional issues, and all three were failed by the jails in which they were housed, either through protocols not being followed or because of a lack of appropriate training.

Brandon Wood, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, said Tuesday that he wants to create simpler intake forms for jails to use when deciding how to appropriately deal with someone at the jail who has a mental health issue. The form would keep the mental health screening questions currently used on intake forms but add specific instructions for what the jailer should do if someone is likely suffering from mental illness.

Whitmire seemed to have wanted more from Wood.

“It’s an improvement,” Whitmire said, but “it’s only as good as the person asking the questions. You have to take your time, have people skills.”

In many jurisdictions, usually rural, Wood said jailers receive little to no training. All they have to do before starting work is have a high school diploma and pass a psychiatric evaluation. The rest of the jailer's training can take place over the course of their first year on the job.

Senator Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock, was antagonistic to Whitmire's goals throughout Tuesday's hearing. More rules, Perry said, wouldn't necessarily fix the problem, because the current rules aren't being followed properly.
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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