- "Waller County will pay the family $1.8 million. The Texas Department of Public Safety will pay the family $100,000."
- "To prevent future document falsifications, Waller County jail will use automated electronic sensors to ensure accurate and timely cell checks."
- "From here forward, Waller County jail will now provide an on-duty nurse or EMT for all shifts."
- "The Waller County Judge pledges to actively seek passage of state legislation providing for more funding for jail intake, booking, screening training and other jail support like telemedicine access for Texas county jails AND HE SUPPORTS HAVING ANY RESULTING LEGISLATION NAMED IN SANDRA BLAND'S HONOR!" [emphasis in original]
- "The Waller County Sheriff's Office shall provide additional jailer training (including ongoing continuing education) on booking and intake screening."
I was pleased to see that the settlement includes efforts to address problems in the intake screening process, the need for additional staff training, concerns about medical care, and problems with falsification of records about staff rounds in the jail. These are all steps in the right direction and can definitely help shift the culture in the jail towards one that is more responsive to the needs of inmates and to compliance with constitutional standards of care.
But some caution is also necessary: none of these settlement terms will guarantee inmate safety, and more details and steps are necessary.
Take, for example, the use of electronic sensors to "ensure" that staff conduct their rounds in a timely fashion. There is always a danger in over-reliance on technology. Yes, the electronic wands can be helpful, but the technology can also mask poor performance or other operational problems in the jail. Staff have been known to quickly dash through the cellblocks touching wands to sensors to ensure that a record exists of their rounds, but they haven't necessarily taken the time to carefully observe the inmates or engage with them--even though observation and engagement (not sensor-touching) is the objective of the rounds. We need to ask questions about WHY records get falsified or observations aren't conducted properly. Are there staffing shortages that limit officers' ability to leave their posts to make rounds? Is there a culture at the jail that does not hold staff accountable when they don't follow procedures?
Also, while it is good news that Waller County will be bringing in an on-duty nurse for all shifts, there is no indication about what type of nurse it must be. Too many jails rely on LVNs, who are not authorized to handle certain medical tasks. A California jail recently settled a lawsuit for $8.3 million in a wrongful death case that involved private correctional health provider Corizon's improper use of an LVN to do jail intake medical assessments.
Also, the Waller County Jail has had other recently reported serious problems in the delivery of medical care with disastrous results, despite the involvement of a nurse at the Jail.
The training provisions in the Bland settlement are important, but it would be good to clarify what that training will consist of, how many hours of training will be offered, and who will conduct it.
As the settlement suggests, there will be a critical role for the Legislature on these jail safety issues next session. The Legislature can do a great service for county jails around the state--especially small and medium-sized jails--by providing resources for improved intake procedures, staff training, and access to telemedicine. But just as critical, the Legislature needs to ensure the availability of mental health services (including detoxification centers) in local communities so that arrested individuals with mental health issues and those who are heavily intoxicated or high on drugs can be diverted to these more appropriate settings. Legislators also need to support the creation and training of Crisis Intervention Teams in various law enforcement departments to help de-escalate situations that could lead to violent confrontations.
Beyond all this, it is essential to improve external oversight of Texas's county jails. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which regulates the jails' compliance with certain minimum standards, needs more resources to ensure its ability to conduct regular inspections of each jail and to provide jails with technical assistance.
And Texas also needs to create a form of independent oversight that allows for assessment of inmate complaints about their safety and treatment, since the Commission on Jail Standards was never designed to fulfill that function. For example, inmate complaints about poor medical care, mental health care, brutality, and sexual assault are well outside the scope of the Commission's mandate. Just as Texas created an Independent Ombudsman to ensure the safety of incarcerated youth in Texas in the wake of the 2007 TYC scandal, the creation of such an Ombudsman function for the state's jails would be a wise move. In fact, rather than creating a new entity, it would be easy enough to expand the current Ombudsman's role to include oversight of adult jails.
The bottom line is that the settlement of the Sandra Bland case is an important step in the right direction, but no one should mistake this development for a solution to safety problems in the jail. The operational issues that led to Sandra Bland's death and to other inmates' medical problems will require ongoing scrutiny from external oversight bodies, more resources from state and local officials, and careful monitoring by jail managers.