Systemic prisoner abuse continues at jail where Sandra Bland died: report
Report commissioned after Bland’s death in a Texas jail, which became a cause célèbre for the Black Lives Matter movement, says staff dehumanize inmates
The jail where Sandra Bland died is a seriously deficient facility where some staff persistently dehumanize inmates, according to a new report commissioned after her death.
Bland was found hanged in her cell at the Waller County, Texas, jail last July, three days after being arrested when a routine traffic stop escalated into a confrontation with a state trooper. Her death became a cause célèbre for the Black Lives Matter movement, with skepticism about the official account that she took her life mixing with accusations of police brutality during her initial encounter with state trooper Brian Encinia.
Under heavy pressure, the Waller County sheriff, Glenn Smith, asked a local attorney, Paul Looney, to form a committee to examine operations in the sheriff’s office and suggest improvements. The five-person panel, comprised of attorneys and a former judge, announced its findings on Tuesday afternoon in front of the county courthouse.
The report calls for a new jail and says that some members of the department “persisted in name-calling and dehumanization towards some suspects. Epithets such as ‘turd’, ‘thug’, ‘gangbanger’ and ‘piece of sh*t’ were sometimes used to describe suspects.”
The eleven-page report makes nine recommendations, including using medical professionals to screen inmates for health problems, purchasing body cameras, zero tolerance for disrespect towards the public, a digital booking process and anger management and psychological evaluations for deputies.
“Many officers ‘bottle up’… stress, and when coupled with personal stressors this presents the risk that the stress will explode to the surface at the worst possible times and in the worst possible ways,” the report says.
Bland was found dead on 13 July 2015. Authorities said she hanged herself with a plastic trash bag. The inside of her cell was not covered by the jail’s video cameras.
The committee was formed 31 July and most of its members made unannounced visits to the jail between August and December, Looney said. They did not interview former inmates.
Smith said that he agreed with “99 percent” of the report. He said that the jail in the rural county near Houston, built in 1986 and with a capacity of 110, is not overcrowded but its design is outmoded. “[Bland] was a female inmate in a cell by herself and the only communication she had was yelling across the hall to the other inmates,” he said. “I think it can [affect] anybody’s mental condition.”
He said that building a new facility would be dependent on county funds, but that the department has already applied for a grant to equip its officers with body cameras and “mandatory de-escalation training” would begin in June.
The jail was cited by the state standards agency soon after Bland’s death for failure to follow protocols on how to handle potentially suicidal inmates and for not conducting sufficient in-person checks. Smith said the department has addressed these deficiencies. Another problem to emerge was that jail intake questionnaires contained conflicting information about Bland’s mental health status.
“Presently, deputies screen arrestees for mental and medical problems, but this is not an accurate or efficient process. Deputies do not possess the training or expertise to evaluate the medical and mental health needs of inmates,” the report says. “Suicide prevention measures are applied in a less than optimal manner.”
Cannon Lambert, the Bland family’s Chicago-based attorney, said that he had not yet seen the report but that the family still had many concerns and questions about the 28 year old’s death, which came soon after she moved from Illinois to Texas to start a new job at Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater. “It’s hard not to when you’re in a situation where you’ve been told a bunch of things that don’t add up,” he said.
Dashboard camera footage showed Encinia threatening to “light up” Bland with a Taser. The trooper was fired by his employer, the Texas Department of Public Safety, after he was indicted by a grand jury in January on a perjury charge related to his description of Bland exiting her car – the only criminal charge to result from her death. He pleaded not guilty last month.
Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, is pursuing a civil wrongful-death lawsuit against Encinia and other officials. Lambert said that he has seen a long-sought-after report by the Texas Rangers into Bland’s death, which is believed to contain more detail, but he is legally prevented from making its contents public.
Activists have called for sheriff Smith’s resignation. Several were present at the press conference and doubted that improvements will come to a place with a long history of racism. “Not one thing has changed [since Bland’s death],” LaVaughn Moseley, a family friend, told the Guardian. “Always all talk and no action, that’s Waller County. This is all for show.”
Craig Washington, a committee member, bristled at such suggestions. “You think I can ever be used for PR purposes? Hell no,” he said.
Hannah Bonner, a Methodist minister who has held vigils outside the sheriff’s office almost daily since Bland’s death, reiterated the family’s call for an investigation by the US Department of Justice.
DeWayne Charleston, a former justice of the peace who has spent time behind bars in the jail, accused officials of taking advantage of Bland’s death to push for a replacement facility that would be more pleasant for staff. “They don’t need a new jail, they need new people,” he said.