Committee Releases Operations Report for Waller County Jail

HEMPSTEAD, Texas — A civilian committee released a report on April 12, recommending a variety of changes to Hempstead’s Waller County Jail operations in direct response to the suicide of 28-year-old Sandra Bland last July.

Bland was found hanging in her cell on July 13 with a plastic trash bag around her neck, just three days after a traffic arrest in Prairie View, Texas, according to Arresting State Trooper Brian Encinia said Bland had failed to signal while changing lanes. A Texas Department of Public Safety dash-mounted camera captured a quickly escalating argument between Encinia and Bland. The circumstances that followed sparked nationwide controversy, and Encinia was fired and charged with perjury; however, he has pleaded not guilty, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Paul Looney, a local Hempstead and Houston lawyer who chose the civil rights and defense attorneys for the committee formed the five-person committee. It also included JoAnne Musick, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association; Juan L. Guerra Jr., criminal defense lawyer; Randall Kallinen, civil rights attorney; and Morris Overstreet, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, reported the Houston Chronicle.

The committee was allowed complete access to review documents, walk cell blocks, ride in patrol cars and speak privately with both inmates and sheriff’s department employees. None of the members had allegiance to the sheriff or the local law enforcement, committee members told the Houston Chronicle.

While the committee acknowledged finding fewer serious issues at the jail than expected, it created these recommendations, as reported by the Houston Chronicle:

• Equip staff with body cameras to document encounters between officers and civilians.
• Construct a new jail with upgraded safety and security requirements.
• Install an electronic booking and records management system.
• Use emergency medical technicians instead of deputies to screen inmates for medical and mental health issues, and video conference with a doctor to determine if treatment or suicide watch is needed.
• Ban the use of "demeaning or derogatory language" such as "thug," "gangbanger" and other slurs. The "dehumanizing language" can encourage inhumane actions and sets a bad example for younger employees, the report notes.
• Require deputies to undergo stress management and psychiatric examinations.
• Create a jail management process separate from policing operations, a move that could require a change in state laws, the Houston Chronicle reports.