Sandra Bland and the problem with jailhouse suicides

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Three days after being pulled over and arrested on charges of assaulting a peace officer, Sandra Bland was found hanging in her jail cell. Authorities say it was a suicide, while her family says a suicide would have been "unimaginable."

Bland had just arrived in Texas from her home in Illinois to start a teaching job at Prairie View A&M University, her family says, calling on the Department of Justice to investigate her death. "You don’t come all the way to Houston just to kill yourself," Rev. David Madison, pastor of a local church told the New York Times.

Such cases should always be treated with a high level of scrutiny, experts say.

"Any suicide in any place of incarceration in the year 2015 that is not witnessed by another party, captured on video, or where the video is found to be missing or malfunctioning, is suspicious," Ron McAndrew, a Florida-based prison consultant and former prison warden who frequently appears as an expert witness in inmate suicide cases, told Fusion.


"Any suicide whatsoever should be treated and investigated with scrutiny," he said.

Earlier this week, the Waller County Sheriff's Office released surveillance footage from inside the jail, showing that there was no movement outside Bland's cell in the 90 minutes prior to when she was found hanging. There was no footage taken from inside the cell, and there were no eyewitnesses.

Between 2000 and 2012, Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data found that suicides were the leading cause of death in local jails like Waller County Jail—with an estimated 40 suicides out of every 100,000 local inmates in that time. In 2012, the most recent year available, 31.3% of inmate deaths in local jails were deemed to have been suicides—amounting to 300 cases across the country.


That number might be skewed, said McAndrew. "In almost every case of an alleged suicide, the main investigator that is appointed by the institution will gather evidence at the scene, take photos, and start to lay out what they think happened," he said. "The vast majority of the time, that investigator witnesses the autopsy, where they will share information, and their point of view on the case."

Sometimes, he said, "it can affect the outcome [of the medical examiner's cause of death report]."


The federal data suggests that statistically, Bland's case had a relatively high probability to end in suicide. Suicide is the most common cause of an unnatural death for incarcerated women, the data shows. Other factors matching the case, like the fact that it was her first offense, that she had yet to go to trial, and that her death occurred within the first week of incarceration, are also leading contributing factors of inmate suicides, according to the data.

Suicides are three times more likely to take place in small local jails like the Waller County Jail (capacity 111) than a federal prison, and more than twice as likely than state prisons, found a U.S. Marshals report released last year.


"Generally speaking, people are much less safe in small jails," Kansas-based prison suicide consultant Dr. Thomas White told Fusion. "[It's] largely a resource issue, a training issue. Small jails just don't have as many staff, don't always have sufficient training."


"The issue in most suicide cases is not necessarily that there was foul play that was covered up, but that procedures weren't followed, that the death was foreseeable and preventable, or that policies weren't followed," White said.

Following Bland's death, the Waller County Jail has already been cited by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for violations of minimum jail standards, reported The violations included a failure to train staff about how to handle inmates who are mentally disabled and/or suicidal, and a failure to observe inmates at least once every 60 minutes, as required by state standards.


In a written statement, Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith said: "We have no reason to believe that either one of these deficiencies had any part in the death of Sandra Bland."

Additionally, state agencies have already stated that standard procedures were not followed during her arrest, video of which was released to the public yesterday. The Texas Department of Public Safety said that the officer who pulled her over violated the agency's "procedures regarding traffic stops and the department's courtesy policy."


Video of the stop, which was released to the public yesterday, shows the officer threatening Bland with a Taser, and refusing to tell her why she was being arrested, even after she asked why she was being detained fourteen times. The State trooper who pulled her over has been placed on desk duty.

"The notion that [Bland's death] was not a suicide, and that there is some kind of cover-up, is very very outside the norm, especially barring specific information that would suggest there is a cover-up," said White. "But, I have been involved in one case in the past, where that did happen. So yes, it can happen."


The case is being investigated by the Waller County district attorney, who told reporters on Monday that the case would be investigated as thoroughly as a murder. "Do I believe this is a murder? No. I believe it’s a suicide," district attorney Elton Mathis said.

“There are too many questions that need to be resolved,” he clarified. "Ms. Bland’s family does make valid points. She did have a lot of things going on in her life for good.”


Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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