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Stop the Suicides: Monitor Jails Properly

Feb 12th, 2021 | Category: Lead Article

Before he killed himself in his solitary cell the Red River County jail in May of 2019, Christopher Cabler wrote a note that said, “I couldn’t be alone anymore—I’m tired of them telling me to do it that’s all they ever say do it do it do it so f*** I’ll do it! All I wanted was to be able to talk to somebody.”

 

Being held in isolation, the only people with whom Christopher could talk kept telling him to “do it.” Kill himself. Same as the jailers kept telling another troubled man in the Taylor county jail in Abilene a decade ago. His name was Wes, and he was only 19, experiencing mental illness, in and out of jail, often emotional and crying. Unpopular with the jailers. A chaplain who regularly visited prisoners there reported that it was common for jailers to torment people like him when they heard them threaten suicide. Wes later told his mother that they were always egging him on: “Go on, Wes, do it!” And here in 2021, Texas Jail Project staff is worrying about a very sick man also in Abilene, again in the Taylor County Jail, who says jailers urge him to “Go ahead, kill yourself, JP,” over and over.

The verbal abuse and taunting of the population of people with mental illness is not uncommon, but however cruel, that kind of abuse pales in comparison to the many ways Red River county staff failed Christopher Cabler. They violated numerous regulations, called jail standards,  which are based on laws passed by the legislature to ensure care and medication for people like him. And Red River County jail had violated them before, repeatedly, and been found “out of compliance” by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. So what are the consequences for lawmen breaking the law?

In the case of Christopher Cabler and others, because of the way the enabling legislation is written, it appears there ARE no consequences. The families of those who kill themselves in our county jails while experiencing mental illness or living with an intellectual disability must find an attorney with the abilities, experience and resources to sue a county—cases that must overcome the protective shield of government immunity and that take years to pursue. So earlier this month, a federal lawsuit by Constitutional rights lawyer Dean Malone was filed on behalf of Christopher and his family.

It’s almost unbearable to read the long list of failures in the Red River Jail cited in that lawsuit. For one thing, they neglected to provide Christopher with his prescribed medications and for another, they failed to provide the magistrate with correct information about his illness. Of course, they caged him in a solitary cell—the most common setting for suicide, but amazingly, they allowed Christopher to have items that could be used for suicide and recorded him on video during the hours in which he prepared those materials for his own death.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards discovered these and other violations and declared the Red River Jail out of compliance. As they had after previous inspections. Again, where are any real consequences?

There is, of course, the consequences of this lawsuit, and that’s very important, to provide some sense of justice to the family and a financial penalty to the county, but how can we ensure that policies and practices are really changed, so that this jail doesn’t continue with business as usual? Rumor has it that down the road in Dallas, a county commissioner once said it’s cheaper to have a lawsuit now and again then it is to spend the money it takes to properly operate and staff a jail. We need to also remember the young man who killed himself in the Waller County Jail just two years before Sandra Bland’s tragic death there. Because of his suicide, the Jail Commission ordered Waller County’s Sheriff to initiate changes that would ensure the staff was meeting the standards. But when Sandra’s death was investigated, it turned out the jail hadn’t actually made any of those changes.

Since the enabling legislation seems to hamstring the Jail Commission, what if, when a county jail is found to be ignoring the very standards established to protect vulnerable people, another agency is required to step in? TCJS maintains that medical and mental health supervision falls outside its purview, but why can’t we pass a law compelling a jail that fails to care for and protect a person incarcerated with mental illness or intellectual disability or even a physical disability to answer to the Texas Commission on Health and Human Services and the Texas Medical Board? And surely, when a jail is found to have repeatedly violated the laws to protect those with mental illness, the local mental health authority (LMHA) for that county should begin close monitoring of conditions in that jail going forward. Perhaps our legislature needs to fund regional monitors from those agencies—monitors who have the power to inspect the conditions of confinement and medical care inside our county jails on a regular basis, more or less constantly, just as the US Department of Justice assigns monitors to walk the halls and dispensaries of recalcitrant correctional facilities.

There may be other solutions to create true accountability, but however we address this gap, our state cannot continue to allow irresponsible county jails to operate with impunity—to allow them a pass when they disregard the lives of our citizens with illnesses and disabilities. We owe that to Christopher Cabler and the other 23 people who killed themselves in Texas county jails in 2019. Preventable tragedies every one.

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