How Many More Black Women Have to Die in Police Custody?

Black women and girls should not be killed in jail in America. Not under any circumstances. And the last thing their families should have to do is fight for answers. What exactly are they hiding? And why exactly are we tolerating it?
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A prison cell
A prison cell

Kindra Chapman , 18, died in a cell in Alabama. She hanged herself with a bed sheet.

Joyce Curnell, 50, died in South Carolina, allegedly begging for water and medication that never came.

Ralkina Jones, 37, died in Ohio. She had a heart condition among other medical issues and was recorded telling officers that "she didn't want to die in a jail cell."

Raynette Turner, 43, died in New York. The mother of eight was found dead in a Mount Vernon jail even though she, too, alerted the authorities to her medical condition.

Sandra Bland's death horrified the nation. Bland, at just 28 years old, was driving home after having landed her dream job, when former Texas state trooper Brian Encinia stopped her for supposedly failing to signal a lane change. The stop devolved into a beating off-camera, an arrest, and Bland would be found hanging dead in a Waller County Texas jail cell three days later.

Although Bland's death followed a string of high-profile racially charged deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police, her hanging death rattled public sensibilities because of this country's history of lynching and the role of law enforcement therein: for decades African Americans were taken from jails and lynched by angry white mobs, if not at the behest of police officers outright then with their tacit approval as they unlocked the cells.

Bland's death also pierced the silence surrounding police brutality against black women, and for many it became a powerful symbol of the State's devaluation of black life. That summer, 2015, Bland was among the other aforementioned black women to die in jail, nearly all in custody for only two or three days and imprisoned for minor charges--things like traffic violations or shoplifting.

And before all of these deaths, a transgender black woman, Kayla Moore, died in police custody in Berkeley in 2013. Moore, like Curnell, was seeking medical treatment when an outstanding warrant landed her in jail instead. According to the authorities, "While restrained in a gurney due to her 'large stature,' Moore stopped breathing and was taken to a local hospital where she was pronounced dead." New evidence suggests authorities failed to properly monitor her vital signs. Moore's father filed a lawsuit but ultimately justice remains elusive.

Sandra Bland's case seemed like one that might get justice and result in some kind of change. However, despite tireless, heart-breaking pleas for justice her family has received anything but. Between the secret report presented to a secret grand jury that resulted in--surprise, surprise--no indictment to the slap in the face that is Encinia's perjury charge (yes, you read that correctly: Sandra Bland is DEAD and he is facing a misdemeanor) to the lack of engagement on the part of the Department of Justice it's been one disappointment after another.

But we cannot let this stand. This is a national crisis.

Bland's demise, the deaths of the other black women, and the more recent suspicious death of 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen, who died earlier this year in a cell in Kentucky, mark a broader failing in the justice system that must be addressed.

As US Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) explained at a recent press conference outside a federal courthouse in Houston: "We're in a fight for getting the right kind of treatment for citizens of this nation and particularly young women and young men of color."

Black women and girls should not be killed in jail in America. Not under any circumstances. And the last thing their families should have to do is fight for answers.

Justice has always been biased in this country, but it's a crisis point when a federal judge must order the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to review heavily redacted reports on the suspicious deaths, as one just did in Texas on February 18, so that Bland's family might obtain access to clear documents.

What exactly are they hiding? And why exactly are we tolerating it?

Bland's mother makes a call: "Let's start looking at indicting the system then," and, "let's not let our quest for justice die like they did." Call upon the FBI to open the records and continue to press the Department of Justice to launch an independent investigation into Sandra Bland's death.

We need to use this case to push for changes in the treatment of prisoners and better oversight of the officials in charge of protecting citizens, even the ones behind bars.

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