Demonstrators hold signs picturing Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman, both of whom died in police custody, during a protest in New York. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Sandra Bland’s death was preventable on multiple levels. A jail architect explains how design failed her nearly as badly as the police.

Sandra Bland’s death in a Texas county jail cell was likely a suicide, according to a prosecutor in Waller County, where she was arrested earlier in July over a minor traffic stop. An autopsy found no signs of struggle or any other evidence consistent with a homicide. Yet her death was always preventable.

As Bland’s family struggles to process what happened, a picture of negligence is growing clearer. Law enforcement failed Bland at every turn: From the Texas state trooper who needlessly escalated a minor traffic stop to violence to the inadequate intake procedures at Waller County Jail to the bail-bonding industry that kept her incarcerated there.

Even the design of the jail contributed to Bland’s death, says Frank Greene, a principal at RicciGreene Associates, an architecture firm that designs justice facilities, including jails and prisons.

"If you look at the photographs, the cell that she was in had bars in the front. Bars are a huge suicide risk,” Greene says. “That's been known for a long time. One of the first projects I ever did when I was a young architect—this was back in the '70s—was to suicide-proof the police precincts in Boston."

Greene adds, “It's Jail Design 101 to eliminate opportunities for someone to do themselves harm."

All of the factors at work in Bland’s death conspire to claim the lives of hundreds of inmates every year. Samantha Dell, a 23-year-old woman, hanged herself in a jail in Manatee County, Florida, three days after she was incarcerated for a probation violation. Tevin Garcia, 24, hanged himself in his jail cell in Charles County, Maryland, six days after a misdemeanor arrest; he was unable to post a $100 bond. Kindra Chapman, 18, hanged herself an hour and 20 minutes after she was booked into a Birmingham jail. She had been charged with stealing a cell phone.

These people (and others) all killed themselves in July. They died in local jails, not state prisons: Suicide rates are 2.6 times higher in jails than in prisons. Understanding why—and just what happens the moment someone is booked into a jail—is key to identifying the steps to prevent these deaths.

“I can’t believe I have to say this, but incarceration is a traumatic experience,” says Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “Regardless of the state of one’s mental health on entry.”

Demand better reporting on deaths in police custody

Here’s what we know about the hundreds of inmates who kill themselves in jails every year.

  • Suicide leads all other causes of death in jails. Almost one-third of inmates who died in jails between 2000 and 2009 committed suicide (29 percent).
  • Suicide is an immediate concern after processing. Nearly half of the inmates who committed suicide had been in jail for 7 days or fewer (48 percent).
  • Suicide is not just tragic, it is unjust. The vast majority of jail inmates who killed themselves had not been convicted of any crime (82 percent).

These figures, from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, are the best data available. But they may not tell the whole story. The Deaths in Custody Reporting Program ostensibly began tracking these deaths in 2000, but the initiative was flawed from the start. The original congressional act that authorized the program expired in 2006 before it ever released a single report. (The DOJ continued to collect the data, however.)

Thanks to the dogged work of the NAACP, Congress reauthorized the Death in Custody Report Act in December 2014 and added a stronger enforcement mechanism. States that don’t participate now risk losing law-enforcement funding. Still, as Mother Jones reports, some of the same problems that plague efforts to gather data about police shootings also hamper data collection about deaths while in police custody. While the latter data aren’t nearly as bad as the data on police shootings (which barely exist), it will nevertheless take time to get a more complete understanding on suicides in jail.

Demand transparency from private prison providers

At the local level, leaders are often frustrated by the lack of transparency from corrections providers. Corizon Health, for example, has refused to hand over its report on the suicide of an inmate in a Des Moines jail to the Polk County sheriff. Jeff Cornick, who was booked on January 8, was found dead on January 9, just five hours later; the sheriff alleges that no Corizon staff had any interaction with him the entire time. The company considers his file a “peer-review” record, whatever that means, and won’t release it.

Jim Cornick, Jeff’s father, has condemned the structure that puts Corizon in charge of its own investigation. In a recent column for The Des Moines Register, he praises the sheriff—and even Polk County Jail staff—for their forthrightness, while railing against privatization in law enforcement.

“Mental illness in Iowa needs to have the lights shown brightly upon the needs of the mentally ill instead of keeping it confidential, inaccessible, and in the dark,” he writes. “Corizon Health needs to at least be held accountable for the humane treatment of Iowa’s most vulnerable.”

Stop locking people up for no reason

Bland’s arrest in Texas demonstrates the sometimes lethal caprice of law enforcement. State trooper Brian Encinia stopped Bland over a fairly arbitrary moving violation and controlled all the decisions that led to her arrest. The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim explains:

A close look at the police car dashcam video that recorded the exchange shows her questions [regarding the stop and arrest] had merit: Encinia at every occasion escalates the tension. He tells Bland, a Black Lives Matter activist, she's under arrest before she has even left her car, shouts at her for moving after ordering her to move, refuses to answer questions about why she's being arrested and, out of the camera's view, apparently slams her to the ground. He gets testy with her—"Are you done?"—when she explains after he points out she seems irritated. And, contrary to a recent Supreme Court decision, he unconstitutionally extends the traffic stop, it appears, out of spite.

The video also shows that Encina never actually ordered Bland to put out her cigarette, but rather asked her politely, to which she responded with a question. To which he answered with aggression.

Bland’s case is exceptional for the speed with which a stop escalated into an arrest, and because it was captured on video. But many people who are processed into jails don’t belong there any more than Bland did.

“More people are being incarcerated than need to be in this country,” La Vigne says. “On average about 60 percent of those who are incarcerated in jails at any given time are there pre-trial. So they’re there prior to sentencing or disposition. That poses a big question: Are all of those people truly a danger to society to the point that they need be confined? Or could some of those people be released without being a risk to public safety? I would argue that a fair share of them could.”

There are better ways to compel a flight risk to show up at trial than confinement, La Vigne says. Moreover, reducing the huge volume of people coming through jails would help staff to devote more resources to inmates who need greater care and supervision. While municipalities are increasingly adopting alternatives to incarceration—such as supervised probation—many jails still face a crisis.

“They’re in constant triage mode,” she says of jail staff. “Often these [inmates] aren’t staying long at all. They’re barely staying long enough to be assessed.”

Design corrections facilities for rehabilitation, not punishment

The Orange County Correctional Facility, a maximum- and medium-security facility joined by a central administrative core. (RicciGreene Associates)

The Waller County Jail failed Bland in two critical ways. Bars on cell doors are dangerous to inmates and staff alike—they’re “old school,” says Greene, and entirely out of step with best practices in correctional-facilities design today. Operationally, the department failed Bland by not checking up on her at least every 30 minutes, given that she indicated during intake that she had attempted suicide within the last year  

In Waller County, sheriff R. Glenn Smith has asked for an independent civilian panel to review every aspect of county law enforcement, according to the Houston Chronicle. Fixing what’s wrong with the Waller County Jail and the hundreds or thousands of jails like it will mean bringing both the facility and operations in line with a goal of helping people, not hurting them.

The first 72 hours of incarceration represent an enormous challenge for jails and inmates alike. Intake inevitably interrupts the flow of medication and drugs—legal and illegal—which can exacerbate a bad situation. The stress of arrest and incarceration is profound; coupled with withdrawal or physical or mental disorders, intake can be incredibly dangerous.

“When people find themselves in jail, in many cases, they’ll crash,” Greene says. “The environment itself needs to be one that’s supportive of these kinds of needs. Design is a big part of it, but also, the operations and staff training is another part of it.”

Observation is central to a sweeping change in corrections facilities over the latter part of the 20th century. Jail design has shifted from the panopticon (in the 18th century) to linear-indirect supervision (long rows of cells, from which the officer is remote and removed) to direct-supervision jails (which represent best practices today). In the direct-supervision model, the officer is in the housing unit with 50 to 60 detainees; their cell doors aren’t locked, and they are free to move in between units and a common room.

The DOJ began promoting direct-supervision facilities in the 1970s, but some places have been slower to adopt it than others.

“Basically, it means the officers are running the program,” Greene says. “In the other, old, indirect model, the inmates were running the program. It was survival of the strongest.”

Greene says that his firm, whose work includes planning and architecture, aims to replace jails across the country that he describes as obsolete and dangerous. A central philosophy guides the work at his firm, he says: Corrections facilities should be humane, dignified, and supportive of positive behaviors. He speaks about jail design the way that other designers might talk about libraries.

“Environment cues behavior,” Greene says. “People should be housed in environments that recognize their effect on the human spirit. They should be environments where people feel safe, where they’re not at risk of assault and other kinds of threats. They should have access to daylight, access to recreation, be able to go outside, access to counseling and programs and activities that support a sense of hope, and that allow people a path to return to society.”

The criticism that surrounds prison architecture has mostly centered on cruelty. Raphael Sperry, an architect and activist, has mounted a campaign to ask the American Institute of Architects to prohibit its licensed members from designing justice facilities with solitary-confinement cells or death chambers. Yet there is a more fundamental problem insofar as people believe that prisons and jails exist to punish inmates.

“There are some people that the majority of citizens would believe need time behind bars, because they pose a very, very serious threat to public safety, or because many people believe they need to be taught a lesson,” La Vigne says. “While they’re being taught that lesson, they can be housed in cold, institutional, inhumane, and even dangerous environments, or they can be housed in environments that facilitate rehabilitation.”

Crush the bail-bonding industry

In the U.S., for-profit bail bonding dates back to 1898. According to the Justice Policy Institute, it was the dread McDonough Brothers—underworld bosses who ran San Francisco prostitution and gambling rings—who launched the bail-bond industry. The enterprise set a new bar for corruption. A San Francisco police chief described bondsmen in 1912 as “the offal of the earth.”

The history of bail bonding is also a history of efforts to dislodged the entrenched interests of bail bondsmen. As a 2012 report from the Justice Policy Institute relates, a Chicago critic first noted that “poor people remained in pretrial detention solely because of their inability to pay even small bail amounts”—way back in 1927. The situation looks no different almost a century later, except today the industry is run by giant insurance corporations, which write some $14 billion in bonds every year.

The best alternative to for-profit bail bonding is pre-trial services, a term for a variety of procedures that emphasizes fair assessment of risk, public safety, and non-financial options for an inmate’s release before trial. In some notorious systems, such as New York’s Rikers Island or the Cook County Jail in Chicago, suspects may languish in lockup for years awaiting a trial.

The Justice Policy Institute reports that pre-trial services following standards set by the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies are as effective as bail-bonding in ensuring court appearances—and pre-trial services are conducted by public agencies, not private organizations. Building agencies that decide whether to release inmates based on risk takes resources, but so does committing inmates to jail because they don’t have the money to pay for release.

And the cost in terms of human life, such as Sandra Bland’s, is something the nation can’t afford to keep paying.

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