In Texas Jails, Hanging Most Common Method of Inmate Suicide
Of the 501 inmate deaths that have occurred in county jails since 2009, nearly a third of them were by suicide. Most of those suicides were by hanging, with inmates using objects jailers provided for them as ligatures.
Texas county jails see 1 million bookings a year, and inmate deaths there are a rarity.
But of the 501 inmate deaths that have occurred in county jails since 2009, nearly a third of them — 140 — were by suicide.
And most of those suicides were by hanging, with inmates using objects available to them as ligatures: bed linens, clothing, telephone cords and trash bags.
"Anytime there's a death in custody, we are concerned how it occurred," said Brandon Wood, director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the 16-person state agency responsible for overseeing all of Texas' county jails.
The Texas Tribune examined the commission's county jail death data as Waller County continues to investigate the hanging death of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who died three days after being arrested by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper following a traffic stop in Prairie View for an improper lane change.
The medical examiner in that case has ruled Bland's death a suicide by hanging; Waller County officials have said that a trash can liner was found around Bland's neck at the time of her July 13 death. They are handling the case as a homicide investigation to consider all possible causes of death.
County jails are generally used as holding areas for people arrested but not yet convicted of a crime. Inmates inside the state's 244 such facilities — 236 public county jails plus eight privately operated ones — are allowed to make phone calls. They receive clean bedding. And trash cans are used to keep cells free of waste.
"We have to ensure the jails remain clean," Wood said. "They have sanitation requirements."
The jail standards commission began keeping track of county jail deaths only six years ago, beginning on Sept. 1, 2009. County jails are required by law to notify the commission of any deaths within 24 hours.
While all deaths in custody are deeply concerning, suicides are a constant worry for the commission, which has pushed jails to keep all but absolutely necessary items outside of cells. For example, Wood and his personnel have urged jails to try to keep the telephone cords that stretch into inmates' cells short to prevent them from using them as nooses. But jails have to balance the rights of prisoners to communicate with their families and attorneys. The types of cordless phones that have been considered for county jails are difficult for inmates with disabilities to use.
"It's a constant balancing act," Wood said.
Of the 140 suicides in county jails since 2009, 118 were by hanging, the commission's data shows.
Of those hanging deaths, 60 percent involved linens like sheets, blankets or towels. Another 14 percent used articles of clothing, like socks or shoelaces. Electrical cords — like those connected to phones and televisions — were used in 12 percent of suicide deaths. Trash or laundry bags were used in 7 percent of the hanging deaths.
The commission's county jail death data is not precise; it is collected from across the state's 254 counties, and different jails at times use different terms to describe the cause of death. But it's the only real-time glimpse of county jail deaths.
Of the 140 total suicides since 2009 — a figure that includes Bland due to a medical examiner's determination — 80 were committed by white men. Another 16 involved African-American men. There were 14 female suicides, including one Hispanic woman and one African-American woman.
Bland's death has renewed questions about why trash bags are available in county jail cells at all. While trash can liners are often available in county lockups, they are scarce in state prisons. Jason Clark, a spokesman with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the agency that oversees the state's prison system, said there are no trash cans in prison cells.
Instead, the 148,000 Texas prison inmates, who are serving sentences after having been convicted of crimes, take waste out of their cells and place it in trash cans in common areas. Of the more than 5,000 prison inmates in solitary confinement or "administrative segregation," trash is handed to staff to throw away. The same goes for the 260 inmates awaiting execution on Texas' death row.
"Most give their trash to janitors or officers to throw away," Clark said.
Correction: A previous version of this story said there had been 502 deaths in county jails since 2009. There were actually 501.
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