Published with permission from AlterNet.
Almost a year to the day later, there remain plenty of outstanding questions about the death of Sandra Bland in a Waller County, Texas jail. Though cops and other officials say Bland committed suicide by hanging herself in her jail cell, there are justifiable reasons to be suspicious of that account, from questions about the integrity of the original dashcam video to the excessive force displayed by the arresting officer in the video to the long history of state-sanctioned violence against black Americans.
We may never know the full story of Bland’s death, but she is an exception to the rule because unlike so many who die in American jails, we do know her name. In the year since Bland’s case became national news, a Huffington Post investigation reveals 811 people have died in U.S. jails. Many of those cases resemble Bland’s, with poor oversight and general disregard for arrestees’ health—particularly their mental state—creating frightening, desperate conditions for inmates that, in too many incidents, have yielded tragic results.
In one-third of cases analyzed by HuffPo writers Dana Liebelson and Ryan J. Reilly, the cause of death cited in inmate fatalities was suicide. Additionally, one-third of those who who died in local jails were arrested just three days prior or fewer. (Race, as in all things in this country, also plays a role. Liebelson and Reilly note that “African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and, on average, 32 percent of people who died in jail between 2000 and 2013, according to federal data.”)
It’s difficult to understand why inmates in local jails—temporary holding areas for people who are often charged with low-level offenses and unlikely to receive lengthy sentences—might be moved to take their own lives when the stakes seem comparatively low. Yet since 2000, suicide has been the primary cause of death in local jails. While inmates in prisons are incarcerated far longer, people charged with low-level offenses in local jails are often reeling from the shock, fear and panic of their recent arrest. (In Bland’s case and others, the trauma of recent police abuse can only heighten those feelings.) For these arrestees, Liebelson and Reilly found, the harrowing process of arrest and incarceration itself can be a contributing factor to the vulnerability many already feel when they are taken in.
“I don’t think most of us realize just how frightening that experience is,” Steve J. Martin, a corrections professional, told HuffPo. “You have a total and absolute loss—immediate loss—of control over your being, over your physical being.”
Jeffrey Metzner, a University of Colorado psychiatrist, elaborated: “You get clothes that don’t fit you, you get strip-searched, you lose any semblance of privacy, you don’t get to make many decisions that we all take for granted.”
Couple this with the lack of comprehensive medical screening and diagnosis that goes on at intake, along with the animalizing treatment many inmates receive, and an alarming picture is painted of the psychological toll taken on those who enter custody. Liebelson and Reilly cite the case of 32-year-old Donyale Thomas, from Berkeley, Missouri, who spent a week in jail for outstanding fines related to tickets. (The authors note that “Berkeley, like nearby Ferguson and many surrounding cities in St. Louis County, relied heavily on fines and fees for revenue.”) Thomas, who suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, says law enforcement officials ignored her need for her prescription medications and showed little concern for her general well-being:
In the Berkeley jail, Thomas soon started to feel “like an animal,” she recalled. She was placed in a windowless cell with two bunk beds. “I wasn’t able to bathe or anything or take care of my hygiene. I wasn’t able to see my kids. There were like three or four women in the cell. Pads were laying around the cells,” she recalled. “My mind started going in other routes and started thinking all opposite things and crazy things.” After a while, she said, “It gets to the point where you think, ‘OK, I just want to find my way out of this.’” Thomas said she told guards she was suicidal.
In response, guards removed Thomas’ blanket. A jail authority was told to monitor her behavior via a closed-circuit camera. Desperate, Thomas attempted suicide using material taken from her bra. She was only then given medical attention, ultimately being placed in psychiatric care after a doctor noted that she was “not fit for confinement.”
Yet even after all this, the Berkeley police chief told Liebelson and Reilly that Thomas was just trying to “get out of jail.” He expressed little empathy for her reaction to the choking conditions of the jail, stating that there was “enough room where if they want to get up and pace the room, she could’ve paced the room three, four, five steps one way and back and forth.”
Liebelson and Reilly note that often, arresting officers—low-wage workers who have typically received little to no mental health or suicide prevention training—are also tasked with interviewing their arrestees. Predictably, poor screening methods can result in the omission of critical information, from preexisting mental health conditions to notations of previous suicide attempts. Officers may also fail to note that an inmate is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which increases the risk for suicide. In some cases, Liebelson and Reilly found law enforcement failed to do due diligence even when given explicit warnings about the potential for an inmate to self-harm:
Alberto Carlos Petrolino, a 50-year-old chef and artist, was arrested last July, after his ex-girlfriend called 911 to report that he planned to kill himself on the Golden Gate Bridge, according to a lawsuit filed by the family. Petrolino’s family contacted the jail to warn staff that he might try to take his own life, the lawsuit states; his mother was so worried that she took a bus to the jail, said Petrolino’s son, Fabio. And yet Petrolino wasn’t treated by a doctor or placed in specialized housing for suicidal inmates, the family claimed. Within 72 hours of his arrival, Petrolino had hanged himself in a shower.
In a similarly tragic Texas case, 22-year-old Marcus Johnson, jailed for using a fake ID, “told officers he had attempted suicide three times, including a few weeks earlier,” and alerted an officer at intake that “he had depression and bipolar disorder and had previously been institutionalized.” Because Johnson said he was not currently experiencing suicidal ideation, he wasn’t placed on suicide watch or provided the psychiatric medication his mother urged his jailers to give him. Only sporadically monitored by guards, Johnson hanged himself “with the drawstring of his pants.”
Liebelson and Reilly found that when they shared details like these with experts, they were repeatedly told that many of the tragedies they uncovered could have been avoided.
“If you talk to any of the experts in the field, they will tell you that we know how to stop people from committing suicide in jail,” Samuel Bagenstos, who previously served as the principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, told HuffPo. “You need to do decent screening of people as they come into jail, and you need to put people in places where it’s not easy for them to kill themselves. At some level, it’s not really rocket science.”
Liebelson and Reilly also spoke with Raymond Patterson, a psychiatrist who has worked closely with corrections departments. He suggested that while it was impossible to make a jail cell “suicide proof,” ensuring that police take the time to communicate with inmates and mental health experts on staff is crucial:
“How about you talk to him?” Patterson suggested. “And you ask him questions like, ‘How are you? What’s going on in your life?’” It can take as little as five minutes for death to occur by strangulation, so people who are at high risk of suicide need to be under continuous watch. That means in-person contact, not watching remotely via a surveillance camera. (The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, for example, bans camera-only observation.)
Lindsay Hayes, who instructs jail staff on suicide prevention practices, says low-risk inmates should still receive check-ins every 15 minutes. He suggests someone other than the arresting officer should conduct the initial interview, in a private space where incoming arrestees are more likely to feel safe—and are thus more apt to be truthful. Hayes recommends that jail staffers have “eight hours of training on suicide prevention so they understand how to assess an inmate’s actions and history,” and “clear instructions on when to call for medical or mental health personnel.”
Sandra Bland’s arresting officer, Brian Encinia, was indicted for perjury earlier this year and fired from his job as a result. A wrongful death suit in Bland’s case isset to go to trial early next year. Amid all the conflicting reports, we know that Bland had previously stated she had experienced depression and PTSD. Liebelson and Reilly report that “jail staff did not take into consideration her reference to a suicide attempt earlier in the year.” They report she had a number of outstanding traffic fines accrued during a period when she was unemployed and lacking the funds to pay them off. (Her near-palpable exasperation in the video of her arrest is likely due to the sheer fatigue and annoyance of yet another “driving while black” interaction with the cops.)
None of us should pretend to know precisely what went down in that jail, but what seems certain is that Sandra Bland was wholly, viciously, failed by the justice system. Dana Liebelson and Ryan J. Reilly’s death tally shows that’s true of far too many people.[h/t Huffington Post]
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.
Photo: Demonstrators hold signs of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman, both of whom died in custody, during a rally against police violence in New York July 22, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton