No indictment for jailers, but Sandra Bland's death may prompt reforms yet

Ms. Bland's death has relit the spotlight on the incidence of jail suicides in Texas.

Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune/AP
Geneva Reed-Veal (l.) and Sharon Cooper (c.) the mother and sister of SandraBland, listen to attorney Larry Rogers Jr (r.) explain concerns about the Texas grand jury's role in the death of Naperville resident Sandra Bland, Monday in Chicago.

A grand jury has decided not to issue any indictment in the hanging death of a 28-year-old black woman in a southeast Texas county jail last summer.

The Waller County Prosecutor’s Office said on Monday that the grand jury decided that neither sheriff's officials nor jailers committed a crime in the treatment of Sandra Bland.

According to Prosecutor Darrell Jordan, the grand jury will return in January to consider whether to indict the trooper who arrested Ms. Bland.

The decision not to bring any charges relating to Bland's death likely comes as a blow to the woman's family members, who have maintained that she was excited about starting a new job and wouldn't have taken her own life. But Bland's death in the Waller County jail may still have a lasting impact on the Texas criminal justice system.

Bland was found dead in a jail cell three days after being pulled over by police for a traffic violation and then arrested for allegedly kicking an officer during the stop. Authorities said Bland hanged herself with a plastic bag, but her family questioned the findings. 

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 death attracted national attention amid increased scrutiny of police treatment of blacks in the wake of several high-profile police-involved deaths. In Texas, her death also led to a statewide inquiry into the problem of suicide in county jails and how to solve the problem.

The state already had been taking a hard look at the circumstances around potentially inadequate supervision of inmates who have committed suicide in Texas jails. A Houston Chronicle investigation found numerous instances where jailers skipped scheduled cell checks and fabricated records to hide the fact that they had failed to make rounds. An expert review of jail procedures conducted after three suicides in 2014 highlighted deficiencies in staff training and screening procedures around identifying inmates who may be in need of mental health care.

Bland's apparent suicide pushed the issue into the national spotlight and prompted both houses of the Texas legislature to demand additional reviews. Those reviews have led to some reforms.

For instance, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards made improvements in jail screening by changing the intake form, which is supposed to be filled out immediately after an inmate arrives at the jail, according to the Texas Tribune.

The previous form asked inmates to self-report medical problems, mental health histories or intellectual disabilities and indicate if they felt depressed or suicidal, among other inquiries.

The new form uses multiple questions to try to elicit the same information, and gives jailers lengthier instructions responding to inmate answers.

Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, told the paper that the thorough screening gauges the risk of inmate suicide and helps identify medical and mental impairments.

"The entire reasoning behind that," he said, "is to hopefully divert individuals from the criminal justice system into treatment or a more appropriate setting where they might actually receive treatment in lieu of just sitting in the county jail as punishment for a crime."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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