Before Sandra Bland died in a Texas county jail last month, a national conversation about jailhouse deaths was all but nonexistent. But a new report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics released Wednesday shows these deaths were happening—and continue to happen more and more despite a 4% decrease in jail population in 2013.
According to the report, 967 inmates died in local jails in 2013, the third consecutive yearly increase. Suicide accounted for 34 percent of those deaths. Suicides, which are the leading cause of jailhouse deaths, increased 14 percent in a single year, from 2012 to 2013. Astonishingly, the majority of those who die in jail are there for fewer than 7 days and are overwhelmingly unconvicted, like Sandra Bland and Raynette Turner, who died in jail last Monday in Mt. Vernon, New York while awaiting arraignment on a shoplifting charge.
The report says that 23 percent of all jail deaths occurred in California and Texas In 2013.
Sandra Bland’s death has increased awareness about the incidence of jailhouse deaths. Bland was arrested on July 10 during a routine traffic stop for a failure to change lanes. Bland’s interaction with the Texas state trooper who pulled her over, Brian Encinia, escalated quickly. Encinia pulled out his taser and said to Bland: “I will light you up.”
Two days later, while waiting to be bailed out, Bland died in the Waller County jail of an alleged suicide. The family said in a press conference this week that they were suing the arresting officer, two jailers, the Department of Public Safety and the Waller County sheriff.
High cash bails are partly responsible for the high number of unconvicted inmates who die in jail, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute, a national advocacy group.
“Cash bail keeps individuals who need help behind bars and unable to access the treatment they deserve” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the group’s executive director. “The last thing we should be doing is confining people who pose no danger to the community because they’re too poor to buy their way out.”
And some inmates are more likely to experience this injustice than others.
“Black and brown Americans are twice as likely to be held pretrial because they can’t pay bail, which is often set under $1,000,” said Fanno Burdeen in a recent Fusion article, citing a Bureau of Justice Statistics study. “Compound that with the fact that you’re more likely to be stopped and arrested, and you start to see the scope of the problem.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.