by Matt Clarke
There are over 1,000 prisoner deaths each year in U.S. jails, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and one of every ten occurs in Texas. Over the nine-month period between October 1, 2017 and July 1, 2018, some 80 prisoners died in Texas jails – a rate 22 percent above the national average over the previous 13 years.
One reason for the state’s high death rate may be insufficient oversight. Despite the high number of jail deaths, only 7.5 percent of the state’s nearly 280 jails were ruled non-compliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS), the agency that sets the standards local jails are supposed to follow.
The facilities overseen by the TCJS take in over a million prisoners each year, with an average daily population of around 65,000 spread across the sprawling state. According to Right on Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, most of the people jailed in Texas – 74 percent – are pretrial detainees.
The TCJS also inspects jails and investigates prisoner deaths, but it has just four inspectors to ensure that local jails are compliant with standards related to building condition, maintenance, staffing, paperwork, procedures, availability of medical, dental and mental health services, fire safety and suicide prevention protocols.
“There are a lot of functions that have to be served by [TCJS] oversight,” noted Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
She favors the creation of a statewide jail ombudsman’s office for prisoners and their families.
“We shouldn’t look to the TCJS to do what they were never intended to do,” she said. “We’re putting all of our eggs in the [TCJS] basket.”
The agency conducts annual inspections at each of the state’s jails, but according to Eva Moravec, co-founder of the Texas Justice Initiative, a non-profit that collects criminal justice data, it is too understaffed and underfunded to fulfill an oversight role.
“They [TCJS] are a regulatory commission,” said Moravec. “They were never meant to be an oversight committee.”
Take, for example, the TCJS’ procedure when a death occurs at a Texas jail. Spokesman William Turner said the agency will review documentation and video evidence to determine whether any standards were violated. But the review does not require an on-site visit, and one will likely not occur unless the TCJS deems the submitted evidence insufficient. No jail was found at fault in any of the 80 prisoner fatalities from late 2017 through mid-2018.
Jail deaths can be expensive for counties. The July 2015 suicide of Sandra Bland, 28, at the jail in Waller County, around 50 miles outside Houston, resulted in a $1.9 million settlement for her family. [See: PLN, Aug. 2017, p.24]. It also led to the passage of the Sandra Bland Act, a 2017 state law that reforms the way jails treat mentally ill prisoners.
Thanks to the Sandra Bland Act, the Converse Police Department is investigating the July 2018 death of Janice Dotson-Stephens, 61, at the Bexar County jail, where she was being held after an arrest for criminal trespassing. The county’s medical examiner said her death was caused by coronary artery disease compounded by schizoaffective disorder. Her family has sued the county as well as its hospital district and pretrial services.
“What we’re convinced is that [she] was ignored to death,” said San Antonio attorney Leslie Sachanowicz.
Dietch said the cumbersome and scattershot nature of jail oversight resulting from such lawsuits and investigations could be obviated with an ombudsman.
“For a brief time, there was an ombudsman as a part of the [Sandra Bland] bill,” she added. “It was taken out. Lawmakers believed, wrongly, the TCJS could adequately fill that position.”
Jail deaths have mounted despite the passage of the Sandra Bland Act. Nursing student Barbara Nixon, 41, who was incarcerated at the Anderson County jail for 30 days in April and May 2018, said violations of the TCJS standards occurred daily.
“We weren’t checked every hour or half hour,” Nixon stated. “At maximum, we would see the jailers twice a day. They’d come at the beginning and end of their shifts. We’d also see them when they brought meals, but that was about it.”
Deaths in the Anderson County jail include prisoner Rhonda Newsome, 50, on June 25, 2018 – nine months after the facility passed its annual TCJS inspection. Five months before that inspection, Eddie Brown, 31, died at the jail in April 2017.
The Travis County Sheriff’s Office filed a pair of lawsuits in January 2019 against the state Attorney General to prevent the release of information related to deaths at the county’s jail. A disability rights group sought information about the July 2018 death of prisoner Naquan Carter, 23, whose autopsy said he suffered from an enlarged heart. Austin television station KXAN also requested information on the 2017 death of Travis County jail prisoner Herman Titus, 21.
In both cases the office of Attorney General Kenneth Paxton, Jr. had ordered Sheriff Sally Hernández to comply with the records requests, which the Sheriff’s Office claimed would threaten the security of the jail and its guards. The two lawsuits join an earlier challenge filed by Hernández’s office over the release of information related to the 2016 death of prisoner Justin Dominguez, 24. That suit also remains pending.
The lawsuits by Sheriff Hernández were filed under a loophole in Texas law that allows the withholding of information related to any prisoner who has not been convicted, even if they die in custody. A bill has been introduced in the state legislature to address that issue.
Critics blame frequent jail deaths on low pay for guards, which leads to understaffing, as well as inadequate training. Anderson County Sheriff Greg Taylor asked the county commission to raise the starting pay for jailers to help with difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. In response, starting annual pay was increased from $27,000 to $30,000 – still $3,000 below the state average.
In 2015, McLennan County received a rare TCJS notice of noncompliance after three guards at the privately-operated Jack Harwell Detention Center were arrested for changing jail logs to make it appear they were conducting mandatory headcounts every 30 minutes.
Michael Crittenden, Milton Walker and Christopher Simpson were charged with tampering with government documents related to the November l, 2015 suicide of jail prisoner Michael Angelo Martinez, 25. Surveillance video showed the three LaSalle Corrections employees did not conduct the headcounts they logged as having performed. But the indictment of the jailers and Martinez’s death were not enough to keep McLennan County commissioners from renewing the company’s contract to operate the jail. A lawsuit filed by Martinez’s family against LaSalle, Crittendon, Walker and Simpson remains pending.
Harris County has received three TCJS notices of noncompliance over the suicide deaths of four detainees in two years. Following the February 2017 suicide of Vincent Dwayne Young, 32, investigators from the Texas Rangers discovered that cell checks had been falsified. Protests were staged, a jailer was fired, the TCJS found the jail non-compliant and Young’s family filed suit against the county in January 2019.
The Harris County jail was still non-compliant with TCJS standards in April 2017 when four detainees were left locked in a transport van overnight. A second non-compliance notice followed the December 2017 suicide of prisoner Maytham Alsaedy, 26, just before his scheduled guilty plea to a capital murder charge. A third notice was issued by the TCJS after the August 2018 suicide of Debora Lyons, 58.
More recently, the news media reported the January 25, 2019 death of Evan Parker, who hanged himself at the Waller County jail – the same facility where Sandra Bland committed suicide four years earlier. According to a news report, an inspection the month before Parker’s death found the jail was non-compliant with several operating standards.
Sources: cnn.com, texasstandard.org, palestineherald.com, wacotrib.com, chron.com, kxan.com, huffingtonpost.com
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