Sandra Bland Act brings needed focus to suicides in Texas jails

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Photo Credit: Caleb Kuntz | Daily Texan Staff

Since 2009, 140 people have committed suicide in Texas jails. On July 13, 2015, Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas after an arrest on July 10. Her wrongful death was ruled to be a suicide, as she was found hanging. The circumstances of Bland’s original arrest spurred a national discussion of race and policing. Her family sued Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety and settled. As part of the settlement, Waller County has agreed to have an on duty nurse or EMT available at all shifts, in order to prevent suicides like Bland’s. Jails have a suicide rate of 46 per 100,000, while the general population is 13 per 100,000.

After her death, State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, announced that he would file a bill that would hopefully save others from the same fate, and would focus on “race, poverty, mental health and accountability in law enforcement and corrections.” The Sandra Bland Act attempts to help people with mental health issues, who are arrested, get the treatment they need.

The Treatment Advocacy Center reported that mentally ill people in Texas are 10 times more likely to be in jail, rather than in a mental health facility, where they can get the treatment they need, instead of being locked up. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards currently requires that when an inmate arrives, they be reviewed for any signs of depression, loss of loved ones, or any signs of self-harm. If any of the answers to those questions are yes, someone must evaluate the inmate and watch them more carefully. Despite this being legally binding, Bland was not given these rights.     

Suicides in jails should be rare, if they ever occur. Texas has had 140. That is 140 too many. The Sandra Bland Act recognizes this fact and attempts to solve the problem by increasing training for officers on how to deal with mentally ill people, and even driving them to a mental health facility as opposed to a jail, if this factor is considered in their arrest.     

Austin’s homeless and jailed population are deeply intertwined. Of 7,000 homeless people in Austin in 2015, 45 percent reported mental health problems. Homeless people get arrested as a way to keep them off of the streets, their mental health problems do not get treated in jail and it becomes a revolving door. Not only is this costly and ineffective, but it is also inhumane. Furthermore, about 14 percent of the general population sought treatment for depression in 2011, despite the actual rate of depression likely being higher, while the African-American population was at 8 percent, with African-American women being among the most undertreated group for depression in the United States.

Sandra Bland’s death should not be seen as simply a mental health issue. This bill is deeply ingrained in the Black Lives Matter movement and makes important strides to ensuring accountability for Texas law enforcement officers and removing current arrest rights that police have, many of which have been found to be unnecessary. The act prohibits certain acts and arrests that police are currently allowed to make.    

There is absolutely no reason legislators should deny the passage of this bill. It protects citizens in more ways than one, and ensures that people struggling with their mental health will be given the proper treatment. The Act even provides grants for smaller counties to help pay for the costs of the required services. Requiring trainings will help solve some problems, but mandating that people with mental health issues get the help they need can save a life. These requirements are necessary to ensure treatment, as Texas has a history of ignoring the mentally ill. Our state legislature must pass the Sandra Bland Act to protect all of its citizens and ensure that Sandra Bland’s death will be the last of its kind.

Kashar is a radio-television-film sophomore from Scarsdale, New York.