Texas launches jail safety study weeks after woman's death in custody

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 18, 2015 1:44 PM

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas will conduct a study on jail safety with the goal of preventing suicide in custody, officials said on Tuesday, weeks after the death of a black woman in a county jail renewed questions about racial bias in U.S. policing.

The announcement by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick comes a day after five special prosecutors were appointed to look into the death of Sandra Bland, 28. She was found hanged in her cell on July 13, three days after her arrest for a minor traffic offense in Waller County, about 50 miles northwest of Houston.

Patrick, a Republican, told a news conference he had asked a Texas Senate committee to conduct the study. The review is not about any one case and the goal is to prevent suicide in custody, he said.

The chairman of the Senate committee that will conduct the study told reporters more must be done to protect those in Texas jails.

"It is our responsibility to make certain we have the necessary tools and resources to meet the health, welfare and safety needs of every individual in our custody," said Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat.

Bland's family has acknowledged a Facebook post by the Chicago-area native in which she had discussed struggling with depression, but they have disputed officials' suicide ruling.

Waller County, where Bland was held in jail, had been cited by a state monitor for not doing enough to keep an eye on inmates and properly filling out intake forms, an official told a separate state Senate committee last month.

Brandon Wood, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, also told the committee about 1 million people a year end up in Texas county jails and there were 22 suicides among those taken into custody in the state in 2014.

Bland's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit this month against the Texas trooper who arrested Bland, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office and her jailers.

Bland was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. After the incident escalated into an altercation between her and the white trooper, Brian Encinia, Bland was taken into custody and charged with assaulting an officer.

Texas officials have said Encinia acted improperly during the traffic stop.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)