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Criminal Justice

Investigation into Texas jail deaths found majority were among those still awaiting trial

From Texas Standard:

Sandra Bland's death in a Texas county jail in 2015 led to, among other things, deeper scrutiny of how people are treated in lockup. As tragic as her death was, though, a recent Texas Observer investigation found that hers was one among over 1,100 since 2010. Observer writers Michael Barajas and Sophie Novack reviewed more than 400 Texas Ranger investigations during months of reporting on the matter.

They found incidents of neglect, apathy and abuse. And of those who died in jail, most were "legally innocent" and awaiting trail. Listen to an interview with Barajas in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more about how some jail conditions led to preventable deaths.

Note: If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

A few warning signs of suicide:

Increased alcohol and drug use; aggressive behavior; withdrawal from friends, family and community; dramatic mood swings; impulsive or reckless behavior.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and details about suicide omitted.

Texas Standard: You report that most deaths are among people who were never convicted of their alleged crime – people awaiting a trial. Could you say more about that?

Michael Barajas: The majority of people held in Texas jails, county jails, county lockups, are people that are technically pretrial. That means they're legally innocent. They may have been charged with any number of offenses and might be serious. A lot of them might be petty or, you know, symptoms of underlying issues like homelessness or substance use problems or mental illness. But the vast majority of people being held in those facilities are pretrial, preconviction, have not been convicted of the charges that landed them in lockup.

Of the investigations you reviewed, what did you find?

On a whole, what these state police investigations into jail death showed just a pretty disturbing picture. The records show state police pretty regularly documenting conditions that can lead to preventable deaths, like jail staff ignoring people with deteriorating health conditions, taking hours to respond to emergencies, violently restraining people in the throes of psychosis or mental health crises, denying treatment for serious conditions that people walked in the door with like diabetes or heart disease, [they] might go so far as mocking people who are moaning and writhing in pain in their cells. The red flags and shocking behavior really run the gamut.

Can you give an example that stuck out to you?

One thing that really stuck with me were the cases that we briefly talked about in the piece, was a death at the Travis County Jail in late 2019. This was a woman who was hospitalized after her arrest. It looks like a fight with her boyfriend. It seemed like it was potentially a domestic violence kind of situation. She appeared to attempt to take her own life, which is why she ended up at the hospital ... guards checked on her every half hour as required by state law.

But this is one of many cases that really, for me, raised questions about how good or maybe even cursory those existing safeguards are ... when they finally intervened ... it was too late.

What about consequences for jailers or sheriffs when wrongdoing is found?

These records also show how jail staff that, you know, when they cut corners, are often not held accountable as well. We found a lot of cases where jailers were, for instance, caught lying about the frequency of cell checks, basically marking down a cell check that security cameras upon review later showed didn't happen. That's a potential felony offense for what's called tampering with government records. It's like the clearest charge that you see jail staff often facing in a situation like this. But we found numerous situations where those conditions existed and yet the case didn't even go to a grand jury.

Your story mentions that there are procedures outlined by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Are they being followed?

So, unlike a lot of states, Texas actually has some degree of regulating of local jails, that has a state jail commission that's tasked with that. This came before the Legislature in the most recent session. There's this review process for state agencies, and the state jail regulators had their time come up. And the state Sunset Commission effectively came to the same conclusion that a lot of advocates and reformers have been saying for years, which is state jail regulators are hobbled with very few resources.

The standards that they have are vague and therefore not always enforced. And when jails run afoul of those standards, their enforcement mechanisms are pretty weak. And so similar to the situation you have with the [Texas] Rangers and the state police investigations into facilities that are turning up all these problems, all of this stuff, this regulation, this oversight, it all exists on paper, but nothing's really much done about it after that.

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