Monday, January 21, 2019

TDCJ suicide record argues against state takeover of Harris County Jail

In a roundup post over the weekend, Grits pointed to an odd story emerging when "Sen. John Whitmire suggested the state should take over the Harris County Jail after its fifth suicide in two years. If the Texas Department of Criminal Justice did a better job, Grits might agree. Suicide attempts at TDCJ are quite high."

Then, on cue, yesterday Keri Blakinger published a story in the Houston Chronicle titled, "Mother sues Texas prisons after 'egregious' failure to prevent son's suicide." So TDCJ has its own suicide prevention problem.

When I made that passing comment, I didn't have the data on TDCJ suicides close to hand, but Keri did. From the story: "In 2017, the Texas prison system saw 34 suicides, the second-highest number in a decade. At the same time, suicide attempts have been on the rise, though previously officials chalked that up to a change in data recording."

The Harris County Jail, whose inmate population is about 1/15th of the state prison system, has had five suicides since January 2017, Blakinger reported last week. So TDCJ's suicide situation isn't notably better than the Harris County Jail. Why would a state government bureaucracy that can't stop suicides do a better job at suicide prevention than a county-jail bureaucracy that struggles with the same problem?

Perhaps the solution has nothing to do with who manages the facilities, but reducing unnecessary incarceration and vastly expanding mental health services outside of the justice system?

Grits believes that expanding TDCJ's jurisdiction isn't the answer to anything; that agency's footprint needs to contract. The institutional division should incarcerate fewer people. The probation division should supervise people for shorter periods. Understaffed, rural prison units should close and the property beneath them should be sold on the open market.

Anyway, if the state wants to take over the jail, will they pay for it? That's the reason it's incredibly unlikely such a thing will happen in 2019.

If legislators have that much extra money to throw around, there are better ways to improve the justice system. To prevent suicides in county jails, legislators would be better off reducing incarceration levels across the board through bail reform and sentence reduction, and financing outpatient competency restoration so fewer mentally ill people are incarcerated there.

5 comments:

Tom said...

As I recall, and I could be wrong but it is my memory, most jail suicides are young people, often intoxicated, being held on their first arrest -- usually for a minor offense. Most of these people probably don't belong in jail. Rather, they should be in a sobering center.
In the bad old days, big cities had "drunk tanks" where intoxicated people were held in large groups to sober up. I would think that a person is less likely to commit suicide if he is in a large group if for no other reason than someone likely will see him and call a guard.
Putting a drunk 18-year-old from a middle class family in a single cell is likely to bring on a feeling of hopelessness, followed by a hanging.

texasyankee said...

If a private prison had this bad a record, the media, politicians and Grits would have been up in arms, demanding the facility be closed immediately. Lawsuits would be filed and the company's contracts cancelled.

Since its a government facility, there will be a few stories, maybe a study and the incident forgotten until the next suicide.

One way to improve jails is to remove qualified immunity from government employees. If their assets were at risk, they would be more attentive.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm all for lawsuits, texasyankee, that would do a lot more to change the Harris County Jail than giving it to TDCJ to run!

That's the point. Changing which inept bureaucrats run the jail won't reduce suicides. Why would it? But you CAN reduce suicides by reducing incarceration numbers. If Sandra Bland had been released the same day (or better, never arrested), she'd still be anonymous and teaching at Prairie View A&M as I write this.

texasyankee said...

Totally agree. I was just trying to point out double standard in the media and public official reactions when the problem is a private jail and when it is a public jail. I shouldn't have taken a shot at you. My apologies.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No worries, part of the cost of doing business. :)