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Sadness, Beauty, and Essential Listening

November 23, 2021

What families teach us about stigma around the death of a loved one in county jail and the trauma inflicted by communities and law enforcement. By Diana Claitor

Topics:   Custody Death, Medical, Mental Health, Suicide

Brazoria County

By Diana Claitor

Victoria Gray
Family photo of Victoria Gray, who died in Brazoria county jail at only 18 years old

“Hello, can you hear me? I want to talk to someone there about my daughter.” The call came from somebody driving, with plenty of road noise. People calling our nonprofit were often catching a moment between work and home to reach out to us for advice on getting medical care for a loved one who’d been arrested. This man said he was outside Angleton, Texas. 

“My 18-year-old daughter. Can you hear me?” I told him, yes, please, go ahead. His voice cracking, he said, “She died, she killed herself, two weeks ago. In the Brazoria County Jail.” Stunned, I said something — my God, how terrible, so very sorry. At Texas Jail Project, we hear from families who reach out after such tragedies, but it had always been months after the death.

“Excuse me, ma’am, can you wait a minute? I have to pull off …” The road noise stopped, the engine stopped, and he began sobbing. I said he shouldn’t be alone and asked him if he had anyone nearby. He caught his breath and apologized. He said his name was John and then told me the story of his beautiful Victoria, who had a history of severe mental illness, who had previously tried to kill herself before in that very jail, who had been left untended and managed to asphyxiate herself within four days of being arrested.

The horror of such a death descends on families like an apocalyptic storm. Over the past 16 years, approximately 351 people have died by suicide in the county jails of Texas. I say approximately since every year, we find out about unreported deaths. And there are other deaths, equally horrific, like that of Jaqueree Simpson, a small-statured, 23-year-old Black man murdered by Harris County jailers earlier this year. The mother of this beloved son has been waiting for charges or punishment of those officers, beyond losing their jobs.

“Their stories would expand and deepen as we talked multiple times. ‘Here is a photo of her wearing her favorite color — purple.’ ‘If there was a puddle of water in the street, he’d be fishing in it.’ ‘He would give me and his dad a kiss on the cheek whenever he went somewhere and when his dad asked him when he thought he would grow out of giving us a goodbye kiss, he said never!”

Even more frequently, we hear from those whose relatives desperately needed a medication they had been prescribed–in Denton, Gregg, Livingston, Nueces, and Victoria counties, for example. Their friends and family lie awake each night, wondering if they had just called that jail nurse one more time, or found the right pro-bono attorney who would speak to the DA’s office, that their baby girl or elderly mom would still be alive. 

Family members tend not to be quiet in their despair, and it’s horribly difficult to find consoling words as they break down over and over. I felt totally unqualified to deal with the agonized voices of total strangers, pouring out grief over the phone. At that time, Texas Jail Project only had part-time director (me) and a part-time assistant. We really didn’t have the funding or capacity to take these calls. And I discovered early on that most nonprofits, large or small, did not take calls from the public, whether they were about deaths or other unsolvable problems; they had website forms, not an actual person, to answer such time-consuming calls.

And practical folks would say, “Frankly, all you can do is give them little general non-legal advice.” Like a. the odds against a successful lawsuit are enormous; b. they need to find a very experienced attorney; and c. they must hurry up and get the case filed within two years.

This work, however, isn’t as much about advising as it is about a fellow human listening to their story. A story that seems beyond belief, a story that means their lives were forever changed, and a story that nobody seems to want to hear. Cruelly enough, it often was and is their own family or members of their temple or church who don’t want to hear it. People are ashamed of the association with incarceration, and the stigma of a death in jail seems to obliterate normal sympathy. Within a short time, the message becomes “It’s best to move on.” A Livingston mother with a large East Texas family asked me, “How am I supposed to move on? He was my only son and the jail let him go into a coma without ever telling me he was sick. I can’t just move on!” 

The wife of a man who had struggled to get the Denton County Jail to provide heart medication for her husband told me that after his death there, her adult children asked her to stop talking about their father — an erasure even of the very memory of him–because they were ashamed of where his life ended.

Blaming people who die in jail for their own deaths is another way stigma works. The diabetic should have kept up with his diet; the heart patient didn’t see the doctor enough, the alcoholic woman should have gone through rehab. And most often: “If he hadn’t gone off his meds, he wouldn’t have gotten locked up in the first place.” 

Misplaced blame results in what Dr. Kenneth Doka calls a disenfranchised death. Dr. Doka, author and Professor Emeritus, coined that term for deaths that people don’t feel comfortable talking openly about due to social norms, such as deaths from drug overdoses or suicides or even COVID deaths. He was recently interviewed on NPR about the recent trend of folks denying or dismissing COVID deaths because of political or conspiracy theories, creating additional pain and division among family and friends.

A death in custody is also dismissed based on another, even more painful, type of judgment: the person’s criminality, as seen when the death is announced by a sheriff who lists prior offenses or arrests along with the individual’s name. Presenting that history at that moment seems to indicate that regret or accountability is unnecessary–never mind that frequently, there’s evidence of untreated mental illness or substance use disorder, not to mention that most incarcerated people who die in jail are still pretrial i.e. unconvicted. Adding salt to the wounds, some community members will publicly celebrate because a death saves the county and taxpayers the cost of jailing them. And it’s also not uncommon for law enforcement to scoff and question the grief. I’ve had to listen to “They didn’t care about them enough to get them out of jail and now they’re all boo-hoo” statements more than once. Sandra Bland’s family had to suffer through that.

There are some exceptions among law enforcement–sheriffs and officers who show empathy and concern. Examples include the jail nurse who has traveled to Austin to contribute information on care of incarcerated pregnant persons, and deputies in two different counties who, rather than leave those released from rural jails out on the road in bad weather at night, drove them to nearby towns–and then were criticized by officials for risking the“liability” of transporting people out of custody.

We see another stigma when the public and public officials accuse families of only caring about getting bucks from a lawsuit. We have not observed that in any of the families we’ve known and followed through the long agonizing years required by lawsuits. One day, I received a simply worded email asking when there was going to be something done to stop deaths like what happened to his grandmother in “that jail.” Later I discovered that the 12-year-old who had written me was a member of a family still grieving her loss eight years after she had died and years after receiving a large settlement.

“This work, however, isn’t as much about advising as it is about a fellow human listening to their story.”

I have taken pride in doing what I could: expressing sympathy, voicing outrage, publishing their stories, and most of all, listening.

Listening to the El Paso woman who just needed someone to talk to, because her husband had not left his bed or spoken since word of came of his only son’s death in their county jail.

Listening to the grandfather and mother of a beloved grandson and son, dead after an experimental “accelerated withdrawal” from his medication in the Victoria County Jail.

Encouraging John Gray to come to a bill hearing at the legislature to tell the story of his daughter’s death to Sen. Whitmire’s Criminal Justice committee and hugging him as he shook with nervousness.

Listening to a Denton grandmother talk to describe how the 8-year-old she’s raising kept asking to see his dad after that father died by suicide in jail.

Marking the ten-year anniversary of the death of the much-loved Amy Lynn, whose family has honored her by naming a new grandchild after her.

Their stories would expand and deepen as we talked multiple times. Here is a photo of her wearing her favorite color — purple. If there was a puddle of water in the street, he’d be fishing in it. He would give me and his dad a kiss on the cheek whenever he went somewhere and when his dad asked him when he thought he would grow out of giving us a goodbye kiss, he said never! You could hear the sad beauty beneath the grief and rage. Their loved ones were so much more than “somebody who died in jail.”

In 2021, the stories continue. Texas Jail Project’s executive director Krish Gundu has been listening to LaRhonda Biggles, mother of Jaquaree Simmons who died from multiple assaults in the Harris County Jail during the winter storm last February. She is in agony over her young son’s death, over the lack of a criminal investigation, the lack of community support. While listening to her, Krish has worked to find her help with housing and grief counseling, but Krish herself is traumatized by the inaction, despite her calls and letters to Harris County officials.

It may not be possible for a small group like Texas Jail Project to stop the injustices leading to these deaths, but we can try, and, at the same time, fight to eliminate the stigma. Just because a death happens in jail doesn’t mean it’s less worthy of recognition, sympathy, rage and action. We must empower these families and tell the stories of their loved ones. Shout their names from the rooftops!

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