By Christopher Zoukis
As more troubling details regarding the untimely death of Sandra Bland emerge, it’s clear that being under police custody is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to be. On the heels of the deaths of Freddie Gray and Eric Garner, and following in the tradition of Maricopa County’s trail of deaths, Bland’s experiences both during her arrest and in a Texas jailhouse stand out as yet more examples of both overzealous police aggression and the failure of local jails to ensure the safety and security of those under their care.
Bland’s death was initially ruled a suicide, but her family were vociferous in their opposition to that finding and have called for a secondary autopsy—(particularly important in a country where massive problems exist regarding the qualifications of local medical examiners). The Texas district attorney has since announced they will be treating the death as a murder investigation, and last week jail was decertified for its failure to check in on inmates hourly (and when on suicide watch, every 15 minutes).
Local jails house individuals on a short-term basis (sometimes only hours) for a wide variety of reasons, the bulk of which are for non-violent crimes related to “traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses” and the like. While the prison system houses more individuals on a daily basis, the average number of people who pass through local jails is far higher (600,000 versus 11,700,000, respectively). As such, it’s significant that so little attention is paid to the conditions and policies involved in the operation of these institutions. These numbers present challenges in facilities that are already seriously overburdened.
As of 2010, only three states in the country have an independent local jail inspection body to ensure oversight of their operations (authors of the study note that Department of Corrections oversight should not be considered to be “independent” when the DOC is running said facilities)—numbers hardly in keeping pace with the growing trend towards privatizing prisons.
As with state and federal prisons, the number of individuals being incarcerated in county and city jails continues to grow disproportionately and with the same over-representation of African Americans, the poor, and the mentally ill. And as with other prisons, these incarcerations at the local jail level are representative of systemic failures to deal with the root causes of either the crimes and/or arrests—the latter being of particular importance in the Bland case. Some states have sought to combat the trend towards detention for minor crimes in order to channel offenders into streams that assist in dealing with addiction or mental health concerns, education, and quality-of-life considerations, or through the use of alternative court systems. But such initiatives remain few and far between, and instead, the trends towards increasing mandatory sentences for minor offences continues.
There can be little question as to what the end results of an increasingly criminalized society which dehumanizes offenders and allows local officials to run roughshod over human rights: more Sandra Blands, more Freddie Grays, and more Eric Garners.