WASHINGTON ― An attorney for the family of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who was found hanging in her jail cell days after she was arrested during a traffic stop, announced Thursday that they’d reached a $1.9 million settlement over her death.
But while Bland’s 2015 death and news of the settlement drew national attention, hundreds of people are still dying unnoticed in jails across the country.
More than 800 people have died in jail in the year since Bland’s death, a Huffington Post analysis found. Many of these deaths were preventable. At least one-third of those people died within three days of being arrested or booked in jail, and nearly one-third of the total deaths were suicides.
Video of Bland’s arrest showed a white state trooper trying to grab her out of her car after she refused to put out a cigarette. She died just days later in jail, and Texas officials ruled it a suicide.
The circumstances of Bland’s death fit a disturbingly common pattern.
Many people who die in jail are not yet convicted of a crime, and their charges may never result in real prison time. But jail, nonetheless, can have a devastating impact on a person’s psyche, particularly if he or she has a pre-existing mental health or drug issue.
“I really didn’t do anything to somebody in there to be denigrated as a human being, to be disrespected as a woman,” said Donyale Thomas, a 32-year-old mother living on a fixed income in Berkeley, Missouri, who was jailed in March 2011 after failing to pay hundreds of dollars in fines for municipal code violations. Thomas attempted suicide, but staff intervened. (Berkeley Police Chief Frank McCall called Thomas’ suicide attempt an effort “to get out of jail.”)
“You have all kinds of things going through your head, so it gets to the point where you think, ‘OK, I just want to find my way out of this,’” Thomas said.
It’s a misconception that if an inmate wants to take his or her own life, there is nothing that can be done to stop it. Jail suicides are highly preventable when adequate protocols, like comprehensive screening and regular observation, are in place. When a suicide occurs, it’s often because something went wrong.
In Bland’s case, numerous problems were found at the jail where she died. Bland told staff about a prior suicide attempt, which should have triggered close observation. A guard also said he lied about when Bland was checked on, according to the Bland family’s lawyer. (A Waller County attorney disputed this characterization.)
Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, on Thursday emphasized in an interview with NPR that she is more interested in changes that are going to occur as a result of the settlement agreement, rather than any money.
“It’s always been about that other mother who’s lost their child as well across this country,” she said.
The Bland family attorney told reporters that Waller County jail agreed to make a number of changes as a result of the settlement, including requiring cell sensors to ensure adequate inmate monitoring. On Thursday, officials contested that an agreement had been finalized, and the Waller County attorney told The New York Times that “defendants also emphasize they vigorously deny any fault or wrongdoing, and the potential settlement does not involve any such admissions.”
Other changes have been made in county jails statewide in the wake of Bland’s death, including the introduction of an improved intake screening form. Last year, there were 33 suicides in county jails in Texas. This year, as of June, there had been eight.
But jails don’t always make improvements until it’s too late. In March, 22-year-old Marcus Johnson, arrested for possession of a fake ID, hung himself in jail with the drawstring of his pants. Prior to his death, he told officers he had attempted suicide three times, including a few weeks earlier, and had previously been institutionalized. His mother also called the jail and said her son needed psychiatric medication. But Johnson wasn’t checked on for over two hours. After his death, Michael Whaley, the Burkburnett city manager, told HuffPost that department-wide training would be conducted.
Just this week, a woman whose 21-year-old son took his own life at a Nevada jail in June questioned how he was able to do so while on suicide watch. The 21-year-old was arrested for disturbing the peace and not being on a sidewalk, according to Fox5.
One reason it’s so difficult to identify which jails are having problems is that the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which counts fatalities, doesn’t release jail-specific data. Instead, this information is published in aggregate form. That means if multiple suicides occur at one jail over a short period of time, there may be no outside scrutiny — unless there is a high-profile case like Bland’s.
Reed-Veal said earlier this year that her family’s tragedy had motivated her to fight for the other women dying in the nation’s jails.
“I will continue to speak for every mother paralyzed because of the loss of their child,” she said.