AUSTIN ― A man held in Waller County jail in Texas died of an apparent suicide last month, the jail’s first death since Sandra Bland was found hanging in a cell there in 2015. After Bland’s death, Texas and Waller County each implemented reforms intended in part to reduce jail suicides, which are highly preventable. But Evan Parker, a 34-year-old black man, died in similar circumstances to Bland anyway — raising questions about how another hanging in such a closely scrutinized facility could have happened.
Parker was booked into Waller County jail on Jan. 10 on charges of murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon related to a workplace attack that left Parker’s supervisor dead. On Jan. 25, he attempted suicide in his cell, according to the Waller County Sheriff’s Office—he reportedly hanged himself with a mattress cover. He died at a hospital a couple days later.
Suicide is the leading cause of death in jail. A HuffPost investigation found that of the more than 810 people who lost their lives in jail in the year following Bland’s death, nearly one-third died from suicide. People can quickly deteriorate after being arrested: In HuffPost’s data, at least one-quarter of the suicides occurred within the first three days. But in jails—which mostly hold people who have not been convicted of a crime—suicides can be prevented through processes such as conducting thorough inmate screening and making sure staff monitors inmates at appropriate intervals, which save lives.
We still don’t know exactly what happened in this case. As of Jan. 25, according to a statement put out by the Waller County District Attorney, there wasn’t any information indicating that jail staff didn’t follow procedures or guidelines; the county sheriff also said there have been “no indications of wrong doing.” An investigation is ongoing, with the F.B.I. and the Texas Ranger Division taking lead.
Waller County jail, which is overseen by Republican Sheriff Glenn Smith, is about 50 miles outside of Houston and is on the smaller side, designed for a capacity of 110 people. In July of 2015, Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, landed in the jail under very different circumstances from Parker: A Texas state trooper pulled her over as she was driving, he claimed, for not signaling when she changed lanes. She initially refused to get out of the car, and after the trooper threatened her with a Taser, in dashcam video, she was heard saying her head was knocked into the ground. She was found hanging in her cell within 65 hours after her arrest. Bland’s case drew national attention to the way police treat black Americans and also brought scrutiny to how jails are responsible for protecting inmates in their care.
Waller County has a long history of racism, and with the circumstances of Bland’s case, and the violence inflicted upon black Americans nationwide, some people, including those close to her, questioned whether she really took her own life. But the details of her death fit a familiar pattern for jail deaths ruled as suicides, which staff can prevent. Bland was not placed on suicide watch and did not see a mental health professional, though she referenced a previous suicide attempt and indicated feeling depressed, according to an intake screening form.
After her death, a state agency rolled out a new intake form for inmates, a Texas law was passed, the Sandra Bland Act, that includes some jail reforms that are still in the process of being implemented. Bland’s family reached a settlement that stipulated changes to jail procedure in Waller County. A spokesperson for the Waller County Sheriff’s Office told HuffPost “medical staff on all shifts” and an “improved screening form and additional training,” were some of the changes made after Bland’s death.
“You would hope given the scrutiny [Waller County] was under three years ago, it would shape how they go about their business now,” said Cannon Lambert, an attorney who represented Bland’s family in their settlement case. “Apparently there’s a gulf between what they’re doing, and what needs to be done.”
Across Texas, there has been a downward trend in county jail suicides since Bland’s death: In Texas FY15, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a regulatory agency created by the state’s legislature, recorded 34 jail suicides. In FY2018, there were 22, according to Brandon Wood, executive director of the agency.
“I think quite a bit of it can be attributed to the increased awareness and pressures placed on the system to do a better job,” he told HuffPost.
How Did It Happen?
Here’s what we know about Parker’s case so far: The local mental health authority said he did not qualify for suicide watch, but jail staff placed him on it at some point anyway, for what was apparently several days. The Sheriff’s Office spokesperson declined to comment to HuffPost on the day he was taken off suicide watch, but he was not on it on the day of his suicide attempt. He was checked on “periodically” and in-person, according to the spokesperson, with a check around 2:21 a.m. before he was found inside his cell near 2:57 a.m.
“Waller County Sheriff’s Office personnel do their job daily to assure safety of all people and are saddened by any death,” the Sheriff’s spokesperson told HuffPost in an email.
The situation raises several issues, said Margo Schlanger, a law professor at the University of Michigan who is an expert in criminal detention, such as whether jail authorities appropriately decided Parker should not be on suicide watch.
Waller County jail has faced other scrutiny since Bland: As recently as Dec. 19, 2018, a Texas jail inspection report found that Waller County jail wasn’t fully compliant with certain standards, which included reports that staff allegedly lagged behind in monitoring inmates. The jail had submitted a corrective plan of action to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, Wood said, adding his staff reviewed it to ensure it addressed the issues.
As the investigation continues, the community is waiting for answers. Ashton Woods, an activist who founded Black Lives Matter Houston, said he had the same reaction to Parker’s death that he did with Bland’s: “Something doesn’t feel right about this, it’s all too familiar,” he said. “They’ve had a few years now to correct these issues.”
“They’ve had a bad experience in the past, same sheriff, and it looks like they don’t get it,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who authored the Senate version of the Sandra Bland Act.
“I’m anxious to see the report, to see how did it happen,” he added. “We have a duty to run safe jails.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.