Texas launches probe of jail suicides: Will this be Sandra Bland's legacy?

Texas' lieutenant governor has called for an inquiry into the problem of suicide in county jails, following the controversial death of Sandra Bland last month.

Andy Alfaro/Texas Department of Public Safety via AP/File
Trooper Brian Encinia arrests Sandra Bland after she became combative during a routine traffic stop in Waller County, Texas, in a frame from dashcam video provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety on July 10. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) demanded a review of jail safety protocols following Ms. Bland's death in a Waller County jail.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) has demanded a review of jail safety protocols following the death of prisoner Sandra Bland last month, which caused national controversy.

Lieutenant Governor Patrick said legislators will start holding hearings next month to discuss the problem of suicide in state jails. It is unclear whether Ms. Bland’s family will be invited to testify.

Bland died three days after being brought to the Waller County jail, following a violent interaction with a police officer during a traffic stop that reportedly turned aggressive on both sides. Her death was ruled a suicide by the coroner, but her family disputed that finding. As The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time:

Although Ms. Bland’s family members said that she would not have taken her own life, and suggested that her death may have been a homicide, the autopsy showed that the marks around Bland’s neck were consistent with suicide by hanging, officials confirmed. Her body also showed no signs of injuries sustained during a struggle, a Waller County prosecutor said.

Bland reportedly confessed to jailers that she had attempted to commit suicide in the past, leading some to question why these revelations did not prompt a suicide watch.

Bland’s treatment during her arrest – a cell phone video shows her on the ground, shouting at the police officer, “You just slammed my head into the ground” – and the nebulous circumstances surrounding her death have fanned the fire of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and raised questions about Waller County’s history of racism.

As the Monitor reported last month:

DeWayne Charleston, a former Waller County judge, ordered a black funeral home to handle the burial of an unidentified white woman in 2007. The order sparked controversy and local activists demanded that the woman be buried in a white cemetery. Another federal lawsuit, alleging that Hempstead was neglecting historically black cemeteries while maintaining white ones, was settled in 2004.

‘This is the most racist county in the state of Texas,’ said Mr. Charleston, in an interview with The Guardian [last] month. ‘You’ve got racism from cradle to the grave.’

One of the main targets of racial animosity in the wake of Bland’s death has been Glenn Smith, the Waller County sheriff. Mr. Smith was suspended for two weeks in 2007 and ordered to take anger-management classes after using profanity and pushing a black man during an arrest. He was fired as Hempstead police chief in 2008 and then elected county sheriff.

Despite calls for his resignation, Smith said he plans to seek re-election next year.

'I’m not a racist,' he said at a press conference, 'Black lives matter to Glenn Smith.'

Since 2012, an average of 25 people a year have committed suicide in Texas county jails.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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