Sandra Bland’s Death and the Problem of Jail Suicides

The Houston Chronicle‘s, St. John Barned-Smith, joins the Standard to discuss his recent story investigating Texas county jail suicides.

By Rhonda FanningJuly 31, 2015 11:05 am, ,

Sandra Bland’s case has made international headlines. But as the Houston Chronicle reported this week, Bland’s suicide is hardly a one-off incident in Texas county jails.

Since 2009, 140 inmates in Texas jails have died by suicide; that’s when the state started tracking those numbers. Journalist Sinjin Smith has been following the issue for some time. He investigated the case of Danarian Hawkins, who was found last year hanging from a noose he’d made from a bedsheet tied to his cell’s sprinkler system.

Below is a transcript of Smith’s conversation with the Standard, edited for brevity and clarity:

Let’s put this in perspective. There are at least 1 million bookings in Texas county jails per year – is that right?

The actual number of inmates might be lower if someone comes into jail several times over the course of the year. But there are a million bookings at jails in Texas every year.

How are these suicides happening?

The overwhelming majority are by hanging and inmates will use linens, clothes, cords, and — as in Sandra Bland’s case — bags. Although that number is lower.

I was struck by something that Adan Muñoz, who is a former head of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, told you for your article this week. He said that if an inmate wants to take their life, they’re gonna find something in that cell. What more can jailers do to prevent county jail suicides?

I’ve been talking to experts about that over the last couple of weeks and one thing they really stress is the intake process of making sure that jailers ask about mental health. And then also having a good relationship with mental health authorities. And making sure that those jailers are doing frequent checks on inmates.

If most of these suicides are actually hangings, one would assume that you got to be particularly careful about the points which inmates can use to tie off homemade nooses. This gets back to a sort of larger issue – lapses in observation and proper screening.

Absolutely. I spoke to one professor the other day who said it’s really important in cells to make sure there aren’t points at which inmates can tie off — meaning that they can attach a rope or a homemade noose — that’s one thing you can do to cut down on suicides. To go back to that other point about frequently observing inmates and checking — to try and narrow the window when they might be able to do something.

The jailer isn’t always able to see what’s going on at all times. In fact there’s not even video monitoring of a lot of these cells – is that right?

Yeah, there was no video directly looking into Sandra Bland’s cell, for example. Some jails do have cameras in cells. But in her case, it was just of the hallway.

Since Bland’s death what, if anything, is being done to review policies involving suicides in county jails?

Lawmakers met yesterday. There was a several-hours-long hearing where they discussed some of those issues. I know that they’re reviewing it and I believe they will be holding more hearings early next month to talk about if there are policies or procedures that should be changed or if additional funding needs to be put out there. But we’ll really have to see because they’re just getting started.