Ambitious Texas law fails to make dent in inmate suicides
Officials say understaffing contributes to a rise in inmate deaths, lack of CO safety
Riin Aljas and Ryan E. Little
AUSTIN, Texas — In a county jail in central Texas, an inmate on suicide watch begins strangling himself with a phone cord. The guard watching him does not rush in because of security rules that prohibit him from going into a cell alone, leading to an agonizing 10-minute wait before another staffer arrives to provide backup.
Derrek Monroe, who died the next day in a hospital, was among the first of 48 jail suicides since the 2017 launch of a sweeping Texas law aimed at reducing such deaths through better screening and monitoring. That law hasn’t made a dent in the number of suicides, and experts blame its failure to address one of the most significant factors: the lack of staff to watch troubled inmates.
“Jails are understaffed and often very understaffed,” said Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, which advocates for inmates and their families. “You know you have to check a suicidal inmate, but at the same time, another crisis or fight occurs down the hall, and you have to go there. If you don’t have any extra personnel because someone is sick, you’re doing everything alone.”
In a joint reporting effort, The Associated Press and the University of Maryland's Capital News Service compiled a database of more than 400 lawsuits in the last five years alleging mistreatment of inmates in U.S. prisons and jails. Close to 40 percent involved suicides in local jails — 135 deaths and 30 attempts. All but eight involved allegations of neglect by the staff.
“It’s not always maliciousness,” Claitor added. “We’re talking about people who are doing a very tough job.”
Texas became a national flashpoint in the debate over jailhouse suicides and treatment of mentally ill inmates after the highly publicized 2015 case of Sandra Bland, a black activist who killed herself in a county jail three days after her arrest in a contentious traffic stop.
Her death led to protests, debate and ultimately an ambitious law in her name that sought to be a national model. It included policy changes that required mentally ill inmates to be diverted toward treatment, independent investigation of jail deaths, de-escalation training for police, and funding for electronic sensors or cameras for accurate and timely cell checks.
But critics note that the law had no requirement or money for additional guards, and jailhouse suicides remain a stubborn problem in Texas. The 22 suicides in the state’s jails this year through November already surpass the 17 in all of last year, a nearly 30% increase.
Since the Sandra Bland Act went into effect in September 2017, state figures show staffing levels at Texas' 239 local jails have remained largely unchanged at around 25,000 jailers. Jails are still only required to meet state standards that mandate a minimum of one jailer for every 48 inmates in a single-story jail. In multistory jails, a guard is required for each floor with 10 or more inmates.
At the time of Derrek Monroe’s video-recorded suicide attempt on Oct. 1, 2017, the Coleman County Jail met state standards with a single guard overseeing nine inmates and two floors, even though Monroe was on a suicide watch because of another attempt the day before.
Details of Monroe’s case have emerged as part of his family’s lawsuit against the county. The guard and the sheriff acknowledged in a deposition last year that the guard could have stopped the 28-year-old Monroe, who was being held on unspecified drug or alcohol charges, if more than one guard had been working in the jail that day.
Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, said another staffing-related challenge for jails is failing to carry out face-to-face checks of suicidal inmates every 30 minutes — the standard set by Texas administrative code even before the Bland Act.
The commission regularly inspects the state’s 239 jails for compliance with state inmate safety requirements and fails jails if there are one or more violations. The agency carried out 3,752 inspections since 2006 and jails failed one of every four inspections. When a jail fails, it is listed on the commission’s web page until it passes re-inspection and ultimately could be shut down if it keeps failing.
Waller County Jail — where Bland died in 2015— appeared on the list last December for violating five standards, including the 30-minute check requirement. A month later, Evan Parker, 34, hanged himself there while in custody on murder charges.
Sheriff R. Glenn Smith said the 30-minute check violation was caused by an error in the software system the jail used to track jailer rounds and had no bearing on Parker’s death.
Smith said the biggest issue in Waller County is keeping trained staff, noting that he often loses guards to larger jails in other counties where there are more opportunities for advancement. Other guards leave because they are burned out working hard hours for little pay.
“They’re incarcerated every day along with the inmates,” Smith said. “They just don’t want to do that 20 years.”
Texas State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat who introduced the Sandra Bland Act, explained that cameras and tracking equipment are one-time expenditures but staffing requires a sustained commitment that would be too costly for the state. He said local governments have primary responsibility for funding jails and the wherewithal to do so with their own tax revenues.
"Nothing forbids governments from increasing taxes to improve our jails," Coleman said. "But how can they convince people that it's necessary? That comes only with educating people and with the rise of awareness. It is happening, but not fast enough."