When Sandra Bland was booked at the Waller County Jail, she told the staff she had attempted suicide before — a staff, it turns out, who had not been sufficiently trained on how to safeguard the well-being of inmates who are mentally ill, suicidal or pose a risk to themselves.
Three days later, the 28-year-old was found dead in her cell — an apparent suicide, according to a Harris County autopsy. Now, mental health watchdogs and advocates for criminal justice reform are sounding the alarm, saying Bland’s case spotlights deficiencies in jail monitoring and oversight that can sometimes have deadly consequences.
Had Bland's jailers followed through on mental health training and complied with minimum state standards for inmate monitoring — including checking on her at least once an hour — they might have been better prepared to prevent her apparent suicide, mental heath advocates and criminal justice experts said. But they said the lack of sufficient mental health training for jail staff is widespread in Texas.
With an annual budget of about $1 million, the watchdog agency that sets standards for the state's disparate network of 244 county and private jails employs four people to inspect those local lockups each year, and one inspector to respond to inmate complaints. The agency is chronically underfunded and understaffed, experts say, meaning citations for jails found out of compliance often come only after a tragedy.
The commission’s annual budget is, in many cases, one-third those of comparable agencies in other large states, The Texas Tribune has found. Its much smaller staff of inspectors, until recently, had to share motel rooms because of a limited travel budget.
“I think any advocate would tell you that the jail commission is not adequately resourced to do the kind of preventative inspections that we would like for them to do,” said Matt Simpson, a senior policy strategist at the ACLU of Texas.
Even though it's understaffed and underfunded, criminal justice experts said, simply having an independent agency that inspects and regulates local detention facilities is nonetheless rare in the United States.
When Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, tells criminal justice officials in other states about the commission, “they’re like, ‘Seriously? You guys have that?’” she said in a telephone interview.
Still, suicides remain a problem at Texas jails, accounting for 28 percent of deaths in custody. According to the jail commission, 140 people have killed themselves in Texas lockups since 2009.
The 40-year-old commission should “absolutely” be strengthened and better funded, “but structurally it’s way ahead of many other states,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s law school and the LBJ School of Public Affairs and an attorney who has worked on prison and jail condition issues for decades.
“In the Sandra Bland case, we can get copies of recent inspections, we can find out what kinds of issues exist,” she said. “In most states, that wouldn’t exist — you couldn’t get that information.”
The commission is required to inspect every jail annually, and jails are required to submit operational plans to the commission for approval. The commission has the authority to shut down a jail found out of compliance — a move it has made just twice in the past 15 years. (In both cases, the county built a new jail, according to the commission.)
In the few other states that have official jail watchdogs, including California and New York, the agency often is housed within a state corrections department that also oversees prisons — something Deitch said she’s never understood because jails are far more complicated to operate, full of people like Bland who haven't been convicted of a crime.
While those comparable state agencies have larger staffs and budgets than the Texas commission, they also oversee at least twice as many facilities.
In California, the Division of Facilities Standards and Operations — operating under the Board of State and Community Corrections — employs nine inspectors to review more than 600 facilities, including adult and juvenile jails. In New York, the Commission of Correction has 15 inspectors for 532 local jails and state prisons. Both entities have annual budgets of about $3 million.
Those states, and Texas, are exceptions, however.
“Oversight in the U.S. is extremely limited — unlike in every other Western country, where independent oversight of correctional facilities is absolutely standard practice and required,” Deitch said. “There are some states, some counties that do have oversight mechanisms in place, but they are really the exception.”
There has been some movement in the past decade toward more oversight — and more recently with incidents like the Bland case — but Deitch said the United States still has generally relied on court intervention to correct problems in lockups, often when it is too late.
There have been various attempts over the years to abolish or consolidate the Texas jail commission, said Executive Director Brandon Wood. But it has always prevailed.
When the commission was created in 1975, “it was seen as the best model to utilize,” he said. “We carry out our responsibility very seriously.”
As far as being underfunded and understaffed, Wood said, “We operate as efficiently as we possibly can.”
Wood noted a 2009 review of his agency by the Sunset Advisory Commission found it needed more employees — and it got three before all state agencies were forced to cut their budgets by 10 percent in the wake of the recession — but he also said he thinks current law gives the agency all the authority it needs to do an effective job.
That Sunset review also instructed the commission to target “specific risk factors, including a jail’s compliance with standards for the treatment of inmates with mental illness.”
Staffers at many county jails take a brief online training course for handling mental health crises, a minimum standard enforced by the commission. In its operational plan, the Waller County Jail had committed to additional mental health training, but given the volume of inmates with mental illness, many advocates say it's still not enough.
The commission has “made some serious efforts to try to increase training, but it’s still, in my opinion, extremely inadequate,” said Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, which advocates for inmates.
Mental health watchdogs say it’s dangerous to have an undertrained staff at a time when the burden of providing mental health care has shifted to county jails and away from publicly funded psychiatric facilities. Wood, of the jail commission, said many county sheriffs and judges feel the state has left them to shoulder the mental health care burden alone.
“What they have relayed to me is that they feel their jails have become de facto mental institutions or state hospitals,” he said.
Some advocates for criminal justice reform say the best way to reduce jail suicides is to reduce the number of people who are held for minor offenses. Yáñez-Correa said she hoped Bland’s death would renew focus on efforts like a 2001 bill, vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, that would have prevented police from arresting people for certain misdemeanor traffic offenses. Perry defended the veto at the time, saying police officers “should retain their existing authority to use their discretion to arrest for a traffic violation.”
Said Yáñez-Correa: “I believe that if that bill would have been passed, if it hadn’t been vetoed, she would be alive still.”
Andrew Keller, executive vice president of policy and programs for the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute for Texas, agreed that the Bland case could raise awareness of policy reforms aimed at keeping people with mental illness from being locked up unnecessarily.
“To me it raises the question — what are we doing to systematically train law enforcement personnel to not bring to jail people that don’t need to be brought to jail?”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute for Texas are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.