Within two weeks of Sandra Bland dying in a Texas jail cell one year ago, authorities had concluded she took her own life. The response from many of those close to her, as well as millions of people who watched the video of her arrest, was swift and unequivocal: Bullshit. No way. Not Sandra.
Behind the refusal to accept that version of events was a healthy skepticism of law enforcement. But it was also based on the premise that if Bland took her own life, her jailers were somehow off the hook and the system was exonerated ― which would insult her memory.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Coming to terms with the idea that Bland died by suicide forces us to interrogate what exactly is going on inside jails across the U.S. It isn’t pretty: By panning back and taking a broader look at the ad hoc constellation of facilities that make up our jail system, a brutal pattern comes into focus.
A few years ago, Time magazine made a big deal out of three possible suicides in Chinese jails, warning that something barbaric may be going on in the communist country. Yet right here in the U.S., an average of five people have died by suicide in jails around the country every single week since Bland’s death. And like Bland, at least 53 had been in jail for less than 72 hours, according to a new investigation led by The Huffington Post’s Dana Liebelson and Ryan Reilly. A team of HuffPost reporters scoured the country to the learn the story behind every death that has occurred in an American jail since July 13, 2015.
What we found is a scandal as significant as the death of Bland, and one driven by the same forces that she opposed as a criminal justice activist.
Too often, the reaction to a suicide in jail is a simple shrug ― there’s no outrage because nobody is considered culpable. But the vast majority of people held in jails are presumed innocent, and certainly not yet proven guilty. They aren’t a threat to public safety. The offenses they are charged with, if turned into convictions, often wouldn’t even mean jail time. Yet there they sit.
Taking someone off the street or out of their home to put them in a cage is, after capital punishment, the most profound power the government has over an individual. Most folks, even those guilty of whatever they’re accused of, consider themselves to be good people. What’s known as the “shock of confinement” has a traumatic potency that is difficult to understand without experiencing it.
“I don’t think most of us realize just how frightening that experience is,” Steve J. Martin, a corrections expert monitoring reforms at Rikers Island, told HuffPost. “You have a total and absolute loss of control over your being, your physical being.”
Getting arrested ― even if it doesn’t lead to a conviction, or even if the conviction doesn’t mean prison time ― comes with long-term ramifications that often appear insurmountable while sitting in the back of a police car. Custody or visitation rights with children are at risk. So are marriages or relationships. So are jobs. The fact that Bland was moving to Texas to take a new job was often cited as evidence that there was no way she would have killed herself. But she may very well have feared that job was about to go up in smoke.
“These people are presumed innocent, and in many jails around the country, they’re not even allowed to see let alone touch their children, or their wives, or their husbands, or their parents,” Alec Karakatsanis of Equal Justice Under Law told Reilly. “They’re just warehoused away there, many of them in solitary confinement, in utter filth without proper food and exercise and sunlight. Many of them are just there only because they cannot afford to make a payment.”
The shock of being arrested, especially when coupled with contemplating potential consequences, puts people in a deeply vulnerable mental state. A typical jail, however, takes very few precautions to put obstacles between that despair and the act of self-harm.
As with police violence, the suicide crisis in jails hits black Americans disproportionately hard. While African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population, 32 percent of the people who died in jail between 2000 and 2013 were black. But that doesn’t mean a black person in jail is more likely to die by suicide than somebody else. The impact is disproportionate because mass incarceration is disproportionate: Thirty-four percent of the jail population is African-American.
Not that it’s acceptable for anybody in the hands of authorities to die by suicide, but most people in jail are there for minor infractions and shouldn’t be behind bars. Why, after all, did Bland need to be in jail several days after her arrest? Setting aside how improper her arrest was to begin with, the only reason she was still locked up was her inability to post bond. If jails aren’t able to keep safe the people they’re holding, they need a higher standard to justify holding somebody.
As New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said after the suicide of Kalief Browder, who spent three years in jail without trial, said: “It’s so obvious that our bail system ― excuse the expression ― is totally ass-backwards in every respect.”
If a person is not a threat to public safety, but jail is a threat to that person’s safety, the person shouldn’t be in jail. The bail system should be eliminated for anything other than the most serious, violent crimes. If people are innocent until proven guilty, let’s act like it.
It is, on a psychological level, paradoxically difficult to treat inmates as human. In order to deal with the fact that you are putting a person in a cage, it is often easier to dehumanize them.
“People who work in the system become desensitized about how brutal it is to cage someone, and so our jails are places largely in the shadows where there’s not a lot of scrutiny about what is happening, and there’s a culture of indifference to human beings who are there,” Karakatsanis said.
All of which means the Justice Department needs to keep a closer watch on the jail system. Just as the FBI has been lax in monitoring police shootings until recently, so, too, has it avoided tracking deaths in local jails. Through our own investigation, we found more than a few where people are dying at a shocking clip, even though there are standard practices that can be followed to effectively eliminate jail suicides. A close look by the FBI, with an eye toward identifying the worst offenders, could lead to real improvements. When an investigation was done of the Waller County jail where Bland died, the breadth and depth of problems led to the conclusion that the jail needed to be rebuilt.
Much like police officers have become armed social workers tasked with challenges far beyond their capacity, jails have become dangerous places partly because they are more than just jails ― they have become detox units and mental health wards, even though they are typically equipped to be neither.
An addict going through heroin withdrawal is at risk of dying. Life-saving medications exist, but are often unavailable or simply barred. There is no uniform policy on prescribing life-saving medications like Suboxone, or having the anti-overdose drug Naloxone at the ready. Guards in many jails seize prescription drugs like Suboxone, which puts an addict at risk of an overdose or sends them into withdrawal. Guards may also seize or refuse to fill other prescriptions, heightening the risk of a mental break. HuffPost counted at least 61 drug-related deaths in jails over the last year.
As people have said her name and recalled her memory, the cry has gone out that there must be no more Sandra Blands. But there have been hundreds since, and unless local, state and federal officials start to take jail safety seriously, there will be countless more to come.