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“Waiting For Justice In Local Jails”: Why More Americans Are Dying In Holding Cells

On Monday a special prosecutor announced that neither the sheriff’s office nor jailers in Waller County, Texas, would face criminal charges related to the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was arrested during a routine traffic stop last summer in Texas and was found three days later hanged in her cell.

In a time of heightened scrutiny following the highly publicized killings of black Americans by police, Bland’s arrest and untimely death renewed national debate over the inequitable, and sometimes brutal, treatment of black citizens by police.

Bland’s family members have since filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against authorities in Texas openly questioning the official cause of death as a suicide. Friends and family have disputed that Bland would have taken her own life, saying that she was “in good spirits” and looking forward to starting a dream job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.

While it may seem unthinkable to loved ones, statistics show that Bland’s grim fate is shockingly common.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in local jails. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (PDF), since 2000, 4,134 people have taken their own lives while awaiting justice in local jails.

In 2013, 327 inmates—a third of the total who died while in custody of local jails—died this way. The suicide rate per jail inmates increased 14 percent from 2012 to 2013, and 23 percent from 2009.

Roughly 60 percent of all suicides in jails involve inmates between the ages of 25 and 44. Bland was 28 years old.

Suicide is more of a problem for jails than prisons, with half of them occurring within the first week of admission. The reason for the disparity is twofold, says Lindsay Hayes, the project director for the nonprofit National Center on Institutions and an expert in suicide prevention in prisons: fear and bad policing.

This month in Roanoke, Virginia, 22-year-old Clifton Antonio Harper was found hanging by his bedsheet in his jail cell. Harper had been in jail since March on charges of burglary, grand larceny, and assault.

And a 35-year-old Indianapolis man jailed for theft and possession of paraphernalia reportedly killed himself while in custody, prompting a review of jail suicides in Marion County.

In jails, Hayes says, people are sometimes going in for the first time, facing uncertainty and fear. Some are intoxicated at the time of their arrest, which can trigger an emotional response.

It’s what corrections expert Steve J. Martin called the “shock of confinement.” In an interview with NPR, Martin explained the trauma of being in jail for the first time: “My life is going to end right now with this experience. Everything I’ve worked for, the way people view me, the way my parents view me’—all that stuff is suddenly and dramatically in jeopardy.”

Hayes says that, while jails are getting better, there are still many that lack good training and intake screening practices that prisons have worked to institute.

“The classic response used to be, ‘If an inmate wants to kill himself, there’s nothing you can do about it,’” Hayes said. “Fast-forward to today and jails and prisons are much better resourced, and have tools now to identify suicidal behavior and manage it.”

In fact, Bland’s death prompted the Texas legislature to call for a review of local jails and how potentially suicidal inmates are handled and treated. Such reviews have resulted in an increased emphasis on training jail staff and an improvement in screening procedures in the state. New intake forms that identify suicide risks were put into practice this month by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Death by hanging is by far the most common method of suicide in U.S. jails—either by bedding, or with clothing attached to an anchoring device such as a bunk, bars, or a cell door, according to a national study of jail suicide (PDF).

Critics have blasted Waller County jailers for failing to properly monitor Bland after she told them about a previous suicide attempt. While an intake form shows Bland answered “yes” to whether she had ever attempted suicide—as recently as 2014 by “pills”—her jailers left her alone in a cell with a plastic trash bag which she used to strangle herself.

 

By: Brandy Zadrozny, The Daily Beast, December 22, 2015

December 24, 2015 Posted by | Black Americans, Incarceration, Jail Deaths, Sandra Bland | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why All Americans Should Support Obama On Prison Reform”: Our Prison System Makes A Mockery Of The Justice System

Last week, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit federal prison. It’s a shame it took so long, because so many Americans are prisoners, and because so many former presidents probably belonged in there themselves.

Obama’s first words on prison reform last week were absolutely right: “We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison — and we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That’s no joke. These things are unacceptable.”

Much of the commentariat blames our prison system’s woes on the politics of “law and order” from the 1970s through the early part of the new millennium. But what Obama is asking for is “law and order” for our prisoners and prisons. He deserves bipartisan support in this.

On a philosophical level, people who think about prison conditions and sentencing issues tend to divide themselves between retributivists and rehabilitators. Backers of retributive justice believe sentences should be punishing. Rehabilitators believe the criminal justice system should aim to restore criminals to society. I agree with both of them, and think they should agree with each other. I doubt that a convict can be properly rehabilitated unless he is also punished. To punish someone for a crime is to take his moral agency seriously. Taking that agency seriously is a sign of respect not just for the victims of crime, but the perpetrators.

America’s prisons cannot possibly qualify as either punitive or rehabilitative. Instead, they are vindictive, chaotic, and degrading. A prison sentence should be the punishment in and of itself. But today, prisoners are expected to cope with unimagined and uncountable horrors. They are incentivized to join gangs. They are encouraged to commit more violence in order to avoid violence. Rape is pervasive and the threat of rape encourages prisoners to submit themselves to other violent men. There is no instance in which being plunged into barely controlled danger, or being raped, can be a just punishment.

The message a prison sentence should send to the convict is that his crime was a grave violation of a just law, and that his punishment may be unpleasant but it will habituate him to a life of simple order. At the end of paying his debt, he’ll be restored to full freedom.

Instead, our prison system makes a mockery of the justice system. It says that our laws are a joke since we certainly don’t intend to prevent them from being broken even in institutions so closely monitored by the state itself. It tells prisoners that they are human garbage, unworthy of even the most basic respect or safety. The pervasiveness of our jokes about prison rape suggest that we believe that there are some deserving victims of violent sexual assault. There are none. My colleague Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry said it well in a column denouncing prison:

Can there be anything more abject than a society whose police-procedural TV shows include prison rape jokes — and nobody is outraged? Everyone knows that it goes on. Everybody knows that it’s endemic… And we joke about it. On those grounds alone, the entire [prison] system deserves to be scrapped.

President Obama has done well to help humanize prisoners. He has emphasized that some receive unduly long or harsh punishments just for being “teenagers doing stupid things” in the absence of real help from functioning families and social institutions. His statement of empathy, that he could have ended up in prison himself, will be used cynically by his haters. It may well reek of sentimentalism even to some of his supporters. But it is a more vivid way of repeating John Bradford’s statement upon seeing a group of men led to execution: “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

There are all sorts of social, scientific, and even fiscal reasons to justify prison reform and sentencing reform. But the key to gaining momentum in this effort is to remind the public that America’s imprisoned are human beings. They may deserve punishment for their crimes, but they do not deserve to become victims of yet more crime.

 

By: Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Week, July 20, 2015

July 21, 2015 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Federal Prisons, Incarceration | , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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