DALLAS (AP) — Several recommendations issued by a panel investigating the small-town Texas jail where Sandra Bland died could be difficult to implement, including a call to separate sheriff and jail operations, which may run afoul of state law.
Waller County would also face financial challenges to implementing other panel recommendations, such as constructing a jail better equipped for suicide prevention and hiring medically trained experts to evaluate the mental health of inmates. County officials have faced criticism for not properly monitoring Bland in jail after she acknowledged last summer that she had once tried to kill herself.
Problems at the jail highlighted in the report released this week are common to many jails across the country, but few have been scrutinized as closely as Waller County’s was after Bland was found hanging from a cell partition, provoking national outrage and drawing the attention of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The county sheriff endorsed the report’s findings and said he has already started making changes — the beginning of an overhaul that the attorney for Bland’s family hopes could be her legacy.
But some recommendations are far-reaching and more difficult to attain for Waller County, a historically rural area that’s become one of the fastest developing in the state as the Houston metro region pushes northward.
Among the report’s recommendations is one that would separate the sheriff’s policing duties from the administration of the jail. JoAnne Musick, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association and a member of the five-person panel, said officers responsible for law enforcement should not also be responsible for overseeing inmates.
“In the arrest they’ve already formed opinions about that person, which generally is going to be negative if that’s a person you’ve already arrested,” she said.
However, state law assigns sheriffs the responsibility of overseeing county incarceration efforts, and modifying that oversight through legislation could be difficult.
State Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate criminal justice committee, said he doesn’t support a change in law. Instead, he said Bland and many other nonviolent offenders in county jails should be released on personal-recognizance bonds. This essentially would let them leave jail on the condition they appear later for a court hearing and would help reduce jail overcrowding and avoid mental health crises.
“The state has to take more responsibility in terms of overseeing jail operations, and we haven’t even discussed city jails or private jails,” Whitmire said.
The Waller County committee is also pushing for a new jail, describing the current one as obsolete and inadequate for several reasons, including its lack of adequate suicide-prevention cells. The report acknowledges that a new one is planned, but says the construction schedule “should be accelerated.”
County Judge Trey Duhon, the top administrator in the county, said Waller owns 60 acres on which it’s planning to build a new jail. But he said the county must first secure $15 million to $20 million to build one, which will take time. And he said even the most modern of jails don’t address a core problem.
“Dealing with mental health issues in our criminal justice system continues to be a huge problem, not only for Texas, but also for the country,” Duhon said. “The jails are never going to be the right place to treat somebody with a mental health condition.”
Bland, who was in the process of moving to Texas from the Chicago area, was jailed after a white state trooper pulled her over in July for a minor traffic violation and their exchange turned combative. She was found dead in her cell three days after her arrest. A medical examiner ruled it a suicide and a grand jury declined to indict any sheriff’s officials or jailers.
Authorities have said Bland indicated on an intake questionnaire that she once tried to kill herself and was taking medication for epilepsy. After she died, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards cited the jail for not observing inmates in person at least once an hour and not documenting that jailers had undergone training for handling potentially suicidal inmates.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other lawmakers last August formed a legislative jail commission that’s holding hearings on jail safety, including mental health reviews of inmates and suicides. But the commission has yet to suggest reforms.
Musick’s committee recommends emergency medical technicians conduct mental health assessments for people being booked into the jail, rather than jail staff. But contracting with an EMT service could be an added cost that’s difficult for a small county to absorb.
“Deputies do not possess the training or expertise to evaluate the medical and mental health needs of inmates,” the report says.
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