Just over a year ago, 18-year-old Victoria was found hanging from a bookshelf inside her isolated jail cell. An investigation into her death exposed that jailers, in direct violation of the law, failed to check on her nearly a dozen times and failed to contact a judge for days despite her mental health screening results. In honor of Victoria, Think Progress took a closer look at suicides in Texas jails and found a deadly and systemic pattern of neglect. “A lot of people don’t realize how much damage can be done to individuals in the county jails,” says Texas Jail Project’s Executive Director, Diana Claitor.
The Austin Chronicle asked TJP’s Executive Director what could prevent further tragedies like the death of Sandra Bland. ‘We need there to be more training of jailers to have the knowledge and temperament to take their role as caretaker very seriously – because the emphasis on security and regimented rules leads to jailers who do not pay attention to the person who may be sick or angry or mentally ill,” says Diana Claitor. “Jailers need to look after the people in their care as if each was a relative instead of viewing them as the enemy. And we need the jail and jailers to be thoroughly investigated each and every time a person dies of suicide or any death inside the jail itself …. Finally, we need independent investigations by someone other than the Texas Rangers, who are not transparent in the least and are extremely connected to the local law enforcement.”
Excellent news from California: for the first time, judges are questioning and stopping the unfair practice of courts demanding bail before drivers are allowed to challenge traffic tickets. The practice had been applied unevenly across California, and just like in Texas, it unfairly affects the poorest among us. In April, legal advocates published a report on the four million Californians who do not have a driver’s license because they either failed to appear or pay up. It’s more than 2 million in Texas! Think about how a change in this practice would mean fewer people in jail, who are also able to drive to their job, stay with their families, and live their lives.
Check out this short and entertaining animated film about the differences between county jails and prisons. Texas Jail Project finds that because many people, including lawmakers, church leaders, and advocates, don’t understand the distinctly different functions and populations , they fail to ask the right questions or make informed decisions. Thus, writer Maurice Chammah (from Texas) and the Marshall Project created this film to explain how local lockups differ from state and federal facilities.
“We spend a tremendous amount of money on our jails, and it’s not because we are keeping violent criminals in jail, it’s because for years we have been inefficient in the way we process these individuals,” says El Paso county commissioner Vince Perez. Nearly 3/4 of the 1600 inmates in the El Paso County jail are awaiting their first appearance in court, which can take up to 45 days! Imagine how much money that wastes while wrecking families and the livelihoods of those being held pretrial. Perez says that El Paso wants to change that. In this excellent story in the El Paso Times, it becomes obvious that the bail bondsmen are the only ones who find this new plan controversial.
Would you like to be a Story Gatherer for Texas Jail Project? We’re inviting you to help us collect stories in your community—or contribute your own story about a county jail in Texas. And this week we are connecting our Jailhouse Stories to Nation Inside, a national website!
Nation Inside is an online platform that supports people all over the United States who are working to challenge mass incarceration. On our front page, click on the video Jailhouse Stories Invitation in which Maria Anna describes her son’s long pretrial incarceration in the Comal County Jail and why it’s important to tell his story. You can also still email firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us your story or ask questions.
“”The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, created in 1957 by the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, works to uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans, particularly some of the most vulnerable members of our society.”
We believe that those “vulnerable members” include people in Texas county jails. Especially in those counties where we hear from numerous familes begging for help for loved ones: sons abused by other prisoners and guards, pregnant daughters losing weight and needing care, veterans with mental illness locked in solitary, geriatric parents needing medical care. That’s when you call on the DOJ.
Mentally ill Texans caught up in the criminal justice system do not fare well, for the most part. The complexities of their illnesses and the limitations of the county jails lead to nightmare situations, but there is one contributing factor that could be changed: currently, mentally ill people are dropped from the Medicaid rolls and benefits are TERMINATED after 30 days in a county jail. Read this editorial from the Houston Chronicle about a common sense solution to correct this situation in the coming legislative session.
The Marshall Project has published Maurice Chammah’s new story about Marine veteran Adan Castañeda with the subtitle, “Does he belong in a prison or a hospital?” Looking at his history of mental illness and trauma, it seems obvious that the 28-year-old former scout sniper needs psychiatric care in a hospital. But when he goes on trial, he could receive a long sentence in TDCJ, despite the fact that he did not injure anyone when he shot up his parents’ house. During the more than three years he’s been held pretrial in the Comal County Jail, he has deteriorated. His mother reports that Castañeda no longer always remembers his service, and he often expresses fear and paranoia. While she believes her son can be well again, she doubts that outcome is possible in a prison setting.
A new coalition is in town: Texas Jail Project, Mama Sana/Vibrant Women along with ACLU of Texas and Amnesty International. You are welcome to join in—we need all the help we can get—because it will take a concerted effort to move the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and county sheriffs to make changes in the way they care for pregnant inmates in county jails.
In this San Antonio Current article, Alexa Garcia-Ditta provides outstanding writing on this complex subject. She leads with the story of 29-year-old Shela Williams, who was incarcerated in the Travis County Jail during a high-risk pregnancy. Her baby Israel died, and Shela wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral. She shares her painful story, to raise awareness of the need for better health care for pregnant women in local jails.