An alarming number, 80 prisoners, died in Texas jails in a nine month period between Oct. 1, 2017 and July 1, 2018, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics, in an article published by Prison Legal News.
The Texas Commission of Jail Standards (TCJS) is an agency that sets the standards for Texas jails to follow. They perform annual inspections of local jails and prisons. TCJS is also responsible for investigating the deaths in the jails and prisons.
“We shouldn’t look to the TCJS to do what they were never intended to do. We’re putting all our eggs in one basket” said Michele Deitch, lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Texas. Deitch is in favor of a statewide ombudsman for the prisons, jails and families, according to the article.
Although the TCJS is responsible for investigating the deaths that occur in Texas jails, no jail was found at fault for any of the 80 deaths. TCJS performs procedures such as: video evidence and documentation review to see if any standards were violated, according to the article.
The investigations can be troublesome. Kenneth Paxton Jr. of the Office of the Attorney General had to order Sheriff Sally Hernandez to comply with record requests. The sheriff’s office had made claims that to provide such information would threaten the security of the guards and its jails.
The sheriff utilized a Texas law loophole that prevents any information, even in death, being released on a person not convicted of a crime, according to the article. Legislation has introduced a bill to prevent this tactic being used in the future.
In 2015, Sandra Bland committed suicide in the Waller County jail. The jail settled with a $1.9 million settlement resulting from her death. The county also created a new law called the Sandra Bland Act, which created policies and procedures for dealing with people with mental health issues.
In 2015, three LaSalle Correction guards in McLennan County were arrested for changing jail logs to appear as if they were in compliance with the mandatory head counts every 30 minutes.
Michael Crittenden, Christopher Simpson and Milton Walker were the guards alleged in the tampering of documents. The charges were prompted by the suicide death of Michael Angelo Martinez on Nov. 1, 2015.
The video from the prison showed the aforementioned guards logged in headcounts they did not perform, reported the Prison Legal News.
“We weren’t checked every hour or every half hour. At maximum we would see the jailers twice a day,” said Barbara Nixon, a nursing student housed at the Anderson County Jail. Adding, “They’d come at the beginning and the end of their shifts. We’d also see them when they brought meals, but that was about it.”
The TCJS standards had recent violations with the Harris County Jail, in which four detainees were left and locked in a transport van overnight in April, 2017. This was followed by the December, 2017 suicide of Maytham Alsaedy, who was scheduled for a guilty plea on capital murder charges.
Debora Lyons committed suicide in August ,2018. In 2019, Evan Parker hanged himself at the Waller County Jail. One month prior to his death, the prison was found to be in non-compliance of several operating standards.
This is the same facility where Sandra Bland committed suicide four years earlier and where the Sandra Bland Act began.
Some attributed the prison deaths to low pay and under- staffing. The commission later was asked for a pay increase by Anderson County Sheriff Greg Taylor, who hoped to recruit more guards to remedy understaffing.
The annual pay was in- creased from $27,000 to $30,000, which is still around $3,000 below the state average pay.