Interim Committee to Take a Closer Look at Jail Safety

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sen. John Whitmire on Tuesday announced the creation of an interim jail safety study committee following concerns in the wake of the hanging death of Sandra Bland and the deaths of other jail inmates.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (second from right) and State Sen. John Whitmire (right), D-Houston, announced on Aug. 18, 2015, the creation of an interim study committee to take a closer look at jail safety.

In the wake of the hanging death of Sandra Bland and the deaths of other Texas jail inmates, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sen. John Whitmire on Tuesday announced the creation of an interim jail safety study committee to look at issues related to mental health and suicide concerns among inmates.

"It's a very small percentage and a very small number, but they are human lives and we should do the best we can to protect those lives in those jails," said Patrick. The lieutenant governor never mentioned Bland's name during the announcement at the Capitol, saying, "We're not here to talk about any particular case."

Bland, 38, was arrested on July 10 for failing to signal before changing lanes in Prairie View, about 50 miles northwest of Houston. The video of her traffic stop, in which Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian Encinia is seen losing his temper after Bland failed to put out a cigarette, has drawn national outrage. Encinia arrested Bland because he said she kicked his shin during the arrest.

For three days, Bland remained in the Waller County Jail, unable to post a $500 bond. On that third day, July 13, Bland was found hanged in a cell. The Harris County medical examiner's office has ruled the death a suicide, but the local district attorney is investigating the matter as a suspicious death and will turn over findings to a grand jury.  

Since Bland’s death, it has been determined that Waller County authorities failed to complete a two-part mental health check on Bland, who indicated that she had tried to commit suicide over the loss of a child. Documents released following her death show that she gave conflicting answers to the suicide question and that she should have been referred for a mental health evaluation, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. 

Patrick referred to "her" case as part of the reason he was creating the panel and tapping Whitmire, D-Houston, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, to head the panel. 

"Suicides in our jails have been in the news," Patrick said. "It's drawn the attention, quite frankly, of senators on both sides of the aisle."

Whitmire, who praised the work of the Texas sheriffs who run the more than 240 county jails in the state, called on them to immediately review their procedures.

"If it has become routine but not safe, change your operations," said Whitmire, who plans for his committee to hear testimony on jail safety to address suicide prevention, inmate medical care and the bail bond system in Texas.

"I want all of us to think for a moment what it would be like, what you would do if you're taken to jail on a nonviolent charge," Whitmire said. He talked about his concerns over jail medical care when those detained might not have access to insulin or mental health drugs, creating a more dangerous environment for the inmate and jailer. 

He said he was told by some sheriffs that some jails have so few resources that an inmate would have to go into a diabetic coma before medical aid is given through emergency paramedics.

That said, Whitmire said most of the county jails in Texas are "generally a well run system." 

But practices are uneven.  

"When you have a broken link as it was in Waller, it affects the whole thing," Whitmire said.

Each year, about 1 million people are booked in county jails. Each day, about 67,000 people reside in Texas jails, and about 60 percent of those have not been convicted of any crime.