Panel Calls for Major Changes at Texas Jail That Held Sandra Bland

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A memorial for Sandra Bland near where she was arrested in Prairie View, Texas, last July. (Photo credit Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times)

By David Montgomery, nytimes.com

A panel reviewing the Texas jail where a 28-year-old black woman, Sandra Bland, was found dead three days after being arrested in July has called for major changes in the treatment and medical screening of inmates.

“Presently, deputies screen arrestees for mental and medical problems, but this is not an accurate or efficient process,” said a report by an independent committee charged with investigating practices and policies at the facility, the Waller County jail. “Deputies do not possess the training or expertise to evaluate the medical and mental health needs of inmates.”

Lingering questions after Ms. Bland’s death, which was ruled a suicide, focused on medical information on a booking form as she was being processed into the jail after a confrontational traffic stop. Ms. Bland responded “yes” on the form when asked whether she had ever attempted suicide, and told jailers that she was taking medication for epilepsy.

Committee members called for new policies requiring medical specialists to conduct medical and mental screening, and said deputies might not be qualified to deal with such issues.

“Often, deputies taking mental health history do not know what to do with this information once it made part of the file,” the report said.

The panel also found that suicide prevention measures at the jail were applied “in a less than optimal manner.”

The review committee, made up of four lawyers and a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, was formed after Ms. Bland was found hanging from a garbage bag in her jail cell.

Ms. Bland, who had recently moved to Texas to accept a job at Prairie View A&M University, was arrested on July 10 after being pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. The encounter turned tense, and the arresting trooper, Brian T. Encinia, eventually ordered her out of her car after she refused to put out a cigarette.

Trooper Encinia was fired by the Texas Department of Public Safety after being indicted on a perjury charge in January. He pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge. The grand jury declined to indict any of Ms. Bland’s jailers.

Craig Washington, the committee chairman and a former congressman, told reporters that the panel had focused specifically on conditions in the jail and not on Ms. Bland’s death or incarceration. Her name appeared only twice in the 11-page report, both times in reflective, tribute-like references.

“The committee was driven by Sandra Bland’s words: ‘I am going to Texas to make it better,’ ” members wrote in a two-sentence passage on cover page. Committee members also stated that, while studying “all areas” of the jail, “we are reminded of Sandra Bland’s untimely death as perhaps the impetus for this review.”

The panel issued nine recommendations, including building a new jail, buying body cameras, creating a digital booking process and separating jail administration from policing to enable deputies to concentrate on law enforcement.

Committee members, who participated in ride-alongs and were given access to the jail, said they had witnessed Sheriff Department employees insulting and dehumanizing people they encountered. The report called for “zero tolerance against the use of demeaning or derogatory language.”

In a related recommendation, the committee called for mandatory psychological evaluations and anger management courses to help deputies cope with stress.

The sheriff, R. Glenn Smith, who participated in the committee’s news conference, said he agreed with “about 99 percent” of the findings but suggested that he wanted to take a closer look at the recommendations on jail administration.

Mr. Washington, a lawyer in Houston, said the recommendations should also be broadly applied to other Texas sheriff’s offices. “I think this could be a model to others in law enforcement,” he said.

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