WASHINGTON -- Two black women died in jail cells last week. Authorities in Texas claim Sandra Bland, 28, took her own life on July 13, days after being jailed on charges stemming from a traffic stop -- for failing to signal when changing lanes. In Alabama, 18-year-old Kindra Chapman was also said to have killed herself on July 14, just over an hour after being booked into jail for robbery charges. Many are questioning those official accounts and alleging that the deaths are instead another byproduct of a criminal justice system that disproportionately harms people of color.
Amid the broader trend of state violence against black Americans, it’s easy to see why there’s been so much skepticism around the official stories. Studies show that black people are more likely than their white peers to face violence at the hands of police, regardless of the race of the officer.
Last week, Bland's family said they were "confident that she was killed and did not commit suicide." They've demanded a thorough investigation to examine the possibility of foul play, and the FBI has joined the Texas Rangers in a probe into Bland's death. As of Monday, the Waller County district attorney said that the probe was being treated "like a murder investigation."
In Alabama, Chapman's mother has said she believes police killed her daughter. Homewood Police Department spokesman Sgt. Andrew Didcoct told The Huffington Post that all reports, videos and witness statements in Chapman’s case have been forwarded to the Jefferson County district attorney's office for review.
But for authorities, the most generous interpretation -- that they’re telling the truth -- still leaves us with a system that has failed to preserve the welfare of its inmates. While the jails may have been hoping to absolve themselves of guilt by claiming Bland and Chapman took their own lives, the fact that these deaths would have happened under the jails' supervision raises troubling questions.
These two jails aren't alone in attracting scrutiny. In 2011, an average of six people died by suicide every week in local jails around the country, according to the latest data from the U.S. Justice Department. Female inmates are less likely to take their lives in jail than males, and between 2000 and 2011, there were around three times more suicides by unconvicted inmates than by those who were convicted. Statistics also show that African-American inmates are less likely to commit suicide than their white counterparts.
Captain Brian Cantrell, chief of investigations for the Waller County Sheriff's Office, said jail staff asked Bland a standard set of questions about her physical and mental health when she was processed, and suggested that she didn't report anything out of the ordinary.
Bland and Chapman were both dead within days of being brought to jail. According to a manual of guidelines for correctional mental health provided to HuffPost by the ACLU, over a two-year period, nearly half of all jail suicides occurred during the first week of custody. Women were in jail less than half as long as men prior to taking their own lives, for a median of four days.
Generally, a well-run jail should have fewer suicides than one that is poorly run, said Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Each facility must quickly assess whether an inmate is at risk for suicide. Jails also must be prepared to quickly renew prescriptions like antipsychotic medications, provide mental health treatment, and have an effective system for detoxing prisoners from alcohol and drugs. Balaban noted that police officers play an important role in notifying jail staff whether an inmate is upset.
Jailers in Texas are also required to receive annual training by the local mental health authority -- just two hours of instruction each year -- designed to help them identify and control potential issues. On Thursday, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards released a review of the Waller County jail, finding that it had violated these minimum standards in the Bland case.
If a person is actively suicidal, he or she should be put under constant observation. If the women in these cases were exhibiting potential suicidal behavior, the jails may not have been aware of it, but it is the duty of their staff to be proactive about recognizing problem signs.
Asphyxiation can result in permanent brain damage in just three minutes, according to the World Health Organization, and can be lethal in as little as five minutes. Suicides are also more likely to occur when the inmates are in isolation or segregation cells.
Bland was placed in a cell by herself based on her charge classification, an alleged assault of a public safety officer. If the jail's account of Bland's death is accurate, this raises questions about whether she should have been under closer watch. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards also reported that in Bland's case, the jail had failed to meet an observation protocol requiring them to make hourly face-to-face observations with inmates.
The sheriff’s office acknowledged in a statement it had used an intercom system rather than an in-person inspection during its final contact with Bland. But the sheriff's statement said he wanted to make it clear that “the death of Ms Bland in the Waller County Jail was a tragic incident, and NOT one of criminal intent or a criminal act.”
According to authorities, Bland hung herself using a plastic bag. Steve J. Martin, a national corrections consultant, said it was “remarkably stupid” for the jail to leave plastic bags in cells, given the potential for them to be used to cause harm. (The jail said that the bags have since been removed.) Martin also called the intercom system jailers reportedly used to check on Bland “absurd.”
In 2012, the Waller County jail failed to prevent the alleged suicide of an inmate who authorities said was found hanging in a cell. The 29-year-old man, who was white, had been in the facility for less than two weeks.
Fewer details have been released about Chapman's case, but authorities said she was last seen at 6:30 p.m., eight minutes after being booked, and was found dead -- reportedly asphyxiated by a bed sheet -- just over an hour later.
Jails have been held accountable for inmate suicides before. Monterey County Jail was sued after an inmate hanged himself three days after being arrested. The man had ongoing mental health problems and the lawsuit alleged the California jail ignored the warning signs. Later, as part of a different settlement, the jail agreed to make sweeping changes to improve mental health care, among other things.
Cantrell, the investigator from the Waller County Sheriff's Office, did not immediately respond to HuffPost's request for additional comment.
Martin pointed out that the idea that inmates intent on taking their lives will do so regardless of safety measures is a myth. “If the jail discovers that somebody is suicidal and takes the right precautions, your chance of preventing the suicide is extremely high,” he said.
Of course, these troubling trends don't preclude the possibility of foul play in the deaths of either Sandra Bland or Kindra Chapman. But whatever the cause, the fact remains that jails are responsible for the safety of their inmates, and in these cases, the system failed in tragic fashion.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.