“Over the past year, there have been so many stories of violence and injustice in America, and even the most well-known deserve to be revisited. This is one: Last July, Sandra Bland was pulled over by a Texas state trooper for, he said, failing to signal when she changed lanes. After the 28-year-old questioned his instruction to put out her cigarette and refused to get out of the car, the trooper arrested her for assault of an officer. Bland didn’t have enough money for the $500 bail bondsman’s fee, and so she was held in jail. Within 65 hours of her arrest, she was dead. The coroner determined that she had hanged herself with a noose fashioned from a garbage bag.
What made Bland’s death so shocking—the reason that millions of people watched the dash-cam footage of her arrest or closely examined her mugshot—was the mystery at its heart. What had really happened inside the Waller County jail? If Bland had taken her own life, how could she have reached a state of irreversible despair so suddenly?
Deaths inside American jails frequently go unnoticed, sometimes even unrecorded. Unlike prisons, jails hold people for only short periods—about 21 days on average—and many of their inmates have not been convicted of a crime. Additionally, jails typically aren’t required to release public information about people who die within their walls. The federal government publishes only generalized data years after deaths occur, making it nearly impossible to identify the most dangerous facilities”Here.
This Huffington Post article marking the one year that has past since Sandra Bland died in jail, goes on to show that in the year since her death 810 more people died in jails. The article examines the basis for this frightening statistic and details that perhaps a third of those dying in jails do so by their own hand. I think this article needs to be read by anyone trying to come to terms with America’s broken system of justice. I want to approach this, however, not from the factual proof that the system of American criminal justice is broken, as I wrote about in America’s Broken Criminal Justice System, but via the empathy I can muster to see how this system affects those captured and destroyed by it.
There is no contesting the fact that Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal when she changed lanes, a relatively minor and common traffic offense, that we see any time we drive. While I’ve trained myself in nearly 55 years of driving to always signal while changing lanes, the fact is that the majority of drivers don’t signal. However, in this country the nature of “driving while Black” is such, that it has been statistically proven that police pull over people of color in much greater percentages than they do White drivers. Exploring Sandra Bland’s scenario from even the worst context, what she did was fail to obey the police officer by continuing to smoke her cigarette and failing to get out of her car. For this she was arrested for assaulting a police officer and that arrest led to her death. When I was a new driver in 1962, the protocol for dealing with a police traffic stop was for you to get out of the car and over to the officer who remained in his car. If you didn’t do it quickly enough the police officer would become angry with you if they had to actually get out of the car and walk over to your car.
The change in this came about when Richard Nixon launched his racist “War on Drugs”. You can see my critique of it at this link, which shows it to be a racist plot meant to attack people of color, specifically Black Americans. With America’s Insane War on Drugs, all levels of government in America were mobilized to supposedly rid the country of this phony menace. Use of illicit drugs, like the use of alcohol during “Prohibition”, only becomes a “public” problem when it is prohibited. This is directly because there are exponentially increasing prices, which turns selling drugs into a very lucrative, if dangerous business. With draconian incarceration penalties applied for possession and for the selling of “drugs,” some people would use violent means to prevent being arrested, leading to an escalation in police tactics and so it went.
That period was when police began to insist that those pulled over in a traffic stop remain in their cars, which added a modicum of control for the officer and also was an excuse for police to look into cars for suspicious situations and provide the opportunity to justify the search of cars for illegal substances. That period predated the formation of “Mothers Aainst Drunk Driving” in 1980, but the success of that organizations public relations campaign was such that it fit conveniently into the “War on Drugs” niche. Having been frightened by government propaganda and a pro police bias by the American corporate media establishment, most Americans never questioned the shaky premises upon which that this insane “War on Drugs” was constructed. The fact that enforcement of these draconian laws was focused almost completely on people of color and people of lesser economic means was understood, but ignored by most Americans. The simple reasons for this “feigned ignorance” is that our country has always been racist in outlook and has always approved of the unfair treatment of people of lesser means.
What is looked at all too infrequently is that the American system of criminal justice is based on revenge and retribution, rather than prevention and rehabilitation. Throughout our country’s history there has been general approval of harsh treatment of those caught in the criminal justice system. The idea is that if the police charge you as a criminal, you are a criminal and therefore harsh treatment in locking you up is called for. Our criminal justice system from our Constitutional perspective is based upon the concept that one is innocent until proven guilty. Therefore those arrested and in jail for particular criminal offenses, are supposed to be deemed “not guilty” until a guilty trial verdict or guilty plea is entered. Why then are our jails such harsh environments and why then are those arrested treated with such indignity? The only way to make sense of this situation which exists throughout our country is that rather than our legal niceties, if a police officer arrests you then you are fair game to be denigrated and dehumanized.
As I wrote in the many posts to be found at this link “The Law is a Whore” the entire American criminal justice system is biased against anyone who is arrested, except if they’re wealthy or otherwise privileged. In jail one is herded like cattle, given bad food and dehumanizing habitation. In some places there is great danger from other inmates and the authorities do nothing to stop it. We see jokes made about jailhouse rapes and other assaults while people are in custody. We have a ridiculously unfair “bail” system that keeps one a prisoner if, like Sandra Bland, they cannot afford the bail money. As with Sandra Bland we see the system is so broken and unfeeling that in the last year 810 people have died in jails in America, the majority of who were never deemed guilty at trial.
Of those 810 people to die in jail, about one third are believed to have committed suicide. Why would that be? We will look at some examples from the Huffington Post article, but first a description of the experience of being jailed and feeling suicidal by experts in the field:
Suicide has been the leading cause of death in jails in every year since 2000, according to the latest Justice Department data. This is not the case in prisons, where inmates are more likely to die of cancer, heart and liver disease. There’s a reason for this difference. People land in jail right after they’ve been arrested. They’re often angry, desperate or afraid. They may be intoxicated or have psychiatric conditions that officers have no way of knowing about.
The experts we spoke with emphasized that entering jail is an instantly dehumanizing process. “You get clothes that don’t fit you, you get strip-searched, you lose any semblance of privacy, you don’t get to make many decisions that we all take for granted,” said Jeffrey Metzner, a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado in Denver who specializes in inmate mental health. “I don’t think most of us realize just how frightening that experience is,” added Steve J. Martin, a corrections expert who is monitoring reforms at Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York City. “You have a total and absolute loss—immediate loss—of control over your being, over your physical being.”
Under these circumstances, people can deteriorate at an alarming speed. About two weeks after Bland’s death, 20-year-old Brissa Lopez was arrested for allegedly fighting with her boyfriend, and arrived at a Texas jail around 4:47 a.m. She was “very cooperative” and “chuckled as she removed her tongue and lip ring,” according to a sergeant who admitted her. Staff checked on her at 6:15 a.m. Some 40 minutes later, she was found hanging from a fire alarm cage by a bedsheet.
Brian Schnirel was arrested by deputies in Palm Beach, Florida, for failing to appear in court for a DUI. After two days, he was found hanging from a shower vent. Catherine Rowell, an unemployed housekeeper, was arrested because she allegedly violated a protection order by being at her boyfriend’s house. Three days later, she hanged herself with a metal braided phone cord.
In its last annual report on jail deaths the Justice Department found that 40 percent of the inmates who died in 2013, or 387 people, had been behind bars for a week or less. One-quarter of the suicides in our data occurred within the first three days. (This number should be considered low, since we have not yet obtained a cause of death for 237 cases.)
There are several distinct groups of people who can be at risk when they arrive in jail. There are those charged with violent crimes and sex offenses, who may fear long prison sentences or being targeted behind bars. Another group occupies the opposite end of the spectrum entirely—people who have been arrested for very minor offenses. We identified dozens of suicides of jail inmates who were arrested on low-level offenses such as public intoxication, drug possession, trespassing, traffic charges, DUI and theft.
Then there are those who have become enmeshed in a cycle of short jail stints because they can’t pay fines for minor violations or afford to post bond. (This is a particular hazard for minorities; research has found that black Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 receive significantly higher bail than other racial groups, for example.) Bland herself had some knowledge of this cycle. While unemployed, she had racked up thousands of dollars in fines and fees in connection with traffic charges. Her lawyer believed he could get a 2010 marijuana charge dropped, according to The Nation, but Bland couldn’t afford to pay him, so she spent nearly a month in a Houston jail.”
People may consider me dense, but why are people who are unable to pay traffic fines sent to jail, when there they would then have no way of paying them at all? What higher utilitarian purpose is served by this? Why is it that this country seeks to solve its social problems by turning them into criminal problems and using incarceration to punish individuals, especially people of color. Then too we see an example of someone locked up to keep him from committing suicide:
“Although Alberto Petrolino was arrested after his ex-girlfriend called 911 to report that he was suicidal, he wasn’t placed on suicide watch, his family said. He hanged himself within 72 hours of arriving in jail”
Someone peculiarly arrested for being suicidal somehow does not seemed best served by being put into a jail cell. Where was a mental health facility or psych ward for Mr. Petrolino? If none of those appropriate facilities were available for Alberto Petrolino, why wasn’t there?
“When someone’s existence is already precarious, even a short jail stint can seem like a catastrophe. People may fear that they will lose a job, or a relationship, or a home, or be unable to care for a child. These feelings are often amplified by other risk factors—drug and alcohol withdrawal, disrupted prescription medications, lack of basic medical or mental health care.”
As a recipient of a heart transplant for instance I take about 36 pills a day to keep organ rejection at bay. This includes 6 pills of specific anti-rejection medication. Were I to be arrested the likelihood is that I wouldn’t receive the necessary dosages to maintain my medical regimen, putting my life in jeopardy. What kind of system is it that would put my life in jeopardy that way and how do we as people in a supposedly “free society” justify it?
“In March 2011, Donyale Thomas, a 32-year-old mother living on a fixed income in Berkeley, Missouri, arrived in the city’s three-cell lockup. At the time, Berkeley, like nearby Ferguson and many surrounding cities in St. Louis County, relied heavily on fines and fees for revenue, and Thomas owed hundreds of dollars in municipal code violations. She is part of a lawsuit in which she says she was kept in the Ferguson jail for a week over outstanding tickets and denied access to medicine for her bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
In the Berkeley jail, Thomas soon started to feel “like an animal,” she recalled. She was placed in a windowless cell with two bunk beds. “I wasn’t able to bathe or anything or take care of my hygiene. I wasn’t able to see my kids. There were like three or four women in the cell. Pads were laying around the cells,” she recalled. “My mind started going in other routes and started thinking all opposite things and crazy things.” After a while, she said, “It gets to the point where you think, ‘OK, I just want to find my way out of this.’”
Thomas said she told guards she was suicidal and they took away her blanket. A dispatcher was instructed to keep an eye on her via closed-circuit video. But Thomas had a backup plan. “I still had my bra on. So that’s what I ripped up and tied up there,” she said. Thomas’ cellmate alerted the guards, who reached her before she asphyxiated.
Frank McCall, the Berkeley police chief, argued that Thomas never really meant to kill herself. Her cell, he said, had “enough room where if they want to get up and pace the room, she could’ve paced the room three, four, five steps one way and back and forth.” He added that his officers weren’t aware of Thomas’ mental health issues: “We don’t know what she really has going on,” as he put it. But McCall believes Thomas’ real intent “was to get out of jail.” After the guards found her, they took her to hospital, where she was admitted for psychiatric evaluation. The doctors deemed her “not fit for confinement.”
We know from the Department of Justice investigation, following the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, that there was a pattern of making people of color “cash cows” by the imposition of an intricate system of municipal fines, legislated for the sole purpose of raising revenue as a substitute for taxes. The fines fell almost exclusively upon people of color and people of limited means. Were they to fall behind in these fines they were then jailed as if we were back in the times of Debtor’s Prison
While the Huffington Post article does an excellent job of researching and commenting upon the one third of jail deaths from suicide, it does nothing to explain what is behind the two thirds of those 810 Jail deaths who didn’t commit suicide. Perhaps those deaths are too complex a tale to be completed in an article, even a long one. My own suspicions is that the story that would unfold would uncover a system of cruelty, punishment and inmate violence that would account for the significant amount of people dying in our country’s jail systems. The raw number would be 540 deaths in U.S. Jails in the past year, that weren’t cases of suicide. Why are jails in our country such dangerous places and why does that danger fall upon people of color in greater numbers percentage-wise than on other ethnicities? The short answer to me is racism and the nature of racism in our society. The larger answer is that the American criminal justice systems and prison systems, are designed to maintain the primacy of the wealthy and privileged in this country. Therefore they are not designed to be fair or to mete out justice equally. We say about our system that “Justice is Blind”, meaning in effect it gives equal treatment to all. The true meaning of “Justice is Blind,” is that it is incapable of seeing the injustices perpetrated in its name.