AUSTIN, Texas — In August, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Senator John Whitmire announced that the state will conduct an interim study on jail safety standards and practices. The announcement followed the in-custody suicides of several county jail inmates, as well as the high-profile death of Sandra Bland in June, which sparked nationwide protest concerning inmate treatment.
“I applaud Lt. Gov. Patrick for ensuring we will conduct an in-depth examination of our current practices, identify and address where our system is failing, and how the state can be more supportive to all involved,” said Sen. Whitmire, who has served as chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee for much of his 30-year tenure, in a statement.
“Our criminal justice system assumes a great responsibility for the people in our custody,” Sen. Whitmire continued. “In many instances, individuals have unresolved issues in their lives, particularly a mental illness, which has resulted in their arrest. 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.”
Patrick stressed at the Aug. 18 press conference that the committee’s formation was not in direct response any one event, but instead is a response the growing issue of in-custody suicide and an opportunity to examine practices and make improvements. He also noted that the ultimate goal is to establish a zero-tolerance policy on inmate suicide.
Approximately 1 million total inmates have circulated through Texas county jails each of the past three years, and 2015 is on target for similar figures, according to Patrick’s statement at the press conference. He remarked that last year 24 inmates committed suicide in Texas county jails, and similar numbers were recorded in 2013 and 2012. According to state research, nearly half of those suicides occurred during the inmate’s first week of incarceration, most often in the first 24 to 36 hours
“I think we have an emergency,” said Whitmire during the press conference. “We don’t have to wait for hearings or new laws or a new budget from the Jail Standards Commission. We…can ask all the sheriffs in the state of Texas, all the jailers, all the police chiefs to pause and review their best practices. If it has become routine, but not safe, change your operations.”
The Jail Standards Committee, which employs just five inspectors in an effort to not impede on local jail facilities control, currently is responsible for reviewing 244 jails across the state. Texas has experienced 143 total in-custody suicides since it began keeping record, 31 of which have occurred in 2015 (29 in county facilities, two in municipal facilities).
Whitmire further called on jail staff to improve inmate treatment, and expressed that the correctional system as a whole must work harder to differentiate “who we’re afraid of vs. who we are mad at.” He added that topics such as increased risk assessments, more availability to in-person visitation and improved release procedures will likely be examined in the upcoming hearings.
The new committee will begin work in September following meetings with stakeholders and impacted families.