Thursday, September 15, 2016

Settlement of Sandra Bland lawsuit an important step in the right direction, but no panacea for ensuring safe jail conditions

Today's news about the $1.9 million settlement of the lawsuit filed by Sandra Bland's family against the Waller County Jail and the Texas Department of Public Safety surely comes as a welcome development for many supporters and observers around the country.  As reported by Johnathan Silver in the Texas Tribune, the terms of the settlement include the following:
  •  "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."
The financial settlement may strike some as too high and others as too low, but in the world of death in jail custody lawsuits, it is a very solid settlement and in the neighborhood of some other very high-profile cases with which this writer is familiar.  Of greater interest for purposes of this post, though, are the non-financial parts of the settlement.

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.


He's Innocent said...

I agree that this settlement is a step in the right direction and further agree that the shortcomings pointed out by Grits bear keeping an eye on.

One thing stuck with me though about Grit's suggestion of the ombudsman's office creation within the Jail Commission's mandate. What makes me doubt the effectiveness of this is that the current TDCJ Ombudsman's office is fairly useless.

They put several obstacles in the path of those trying to help inmates. The incident cannot be submitted via phone; snail mail, email and I think fax. There is no sense of urgency, no matter if the issue is indeed urgent.

But most important is that the TDCJ Ombudsman will often wait until the max response due date of 10 working days to only recite existing policy as a response. I'm a well educated family advocate. I know the policies. I contacted the Ombudsman because a policy is being violated or not followed at all. Then you choose to respond to me with the policy?

Michael said...

I could not disagree more. Sandra Bland hung herself. He family had a chance to bond her out, but did not. She hung herself and now her family gets paid?

Anonymous said...

Sort of like spilling coffee on yourself and suing McDonalds.

Anonymous said...

Well Michael and anonymous...I somehow doubt that would be your attitude if it was your daughter huh????

Anonymous said...

As tragic as Ms. Bland's suicide might be, there's something a little bit unseemly to me about her family, who wouldn't put up $500 to bond her out of jail, getting a $1.8 million dollar settlement.

Anonymous said...

6:40PM - I would dearly miss my daughter and would second guess what I as a parent could have done better to have changed the outcome or up-brining of my child. If in that same secerino, I'd pay the $500. If I couldn't pay the $500, I would have been supportive and encouraging in all communications with her. As sad as it is, Bland killed herself and that is not the fault of anyone else.

Mark M. said...

Did you mouth-breathers even read the story? And, when a person is in the custody of the state, the state has a responsibility to provide appropriate medical care. Those that are suicidal are entitled to that care, just as are the non-suicidal. Waller County failed in its duty to provide that appropriate medical treatment and monitoring. That, is the failure and the fault. On another subject, if you believe that having suicidal thought is a defect or moral failing affected by "upbringing", you might want to expand your knowledge base rather than continuing to spout every vapid, uninformed, nonsensical prattle which spontaneously forms out of whatever you consider your thought process.

Anonymous said...

So she told medical staff that she was (IS) suicidal at in-take and/or at various times while in custody?

Ruben Zamora said...

First, the correct description is Sandra Bland hanged herself. The more important point is that an American citizen who was charged with a minor traffic infraction was unfairly treated and then jailed because of "insolent behavior". The whole world was apalled at how the peace officer responded and when jail procedures were investigated, a coverup was independently found and admitted to. I do not want to go through the facts as presented to the public and the grand jury but a talented teacher and daughter's life was snuffed out by people who are servants of the community and pledge to protect and defend (all of the citizens including the innocent awaiting trial). $1.9M for a daughter's life? The family got as cheated as Ms. Bland!

Ruben Zamora said...

We really do not care that you would pay $500 or that you supposedly are a better parent. We do not pay for your behavior but we certainly expect much better from those taking citizens tax money to promulgate peace and protection for EVERYONE!

Anonymous said...

I'm a little confused as to why DPS is involved in this, as it was an occurrence at the jail, not during the stop, that led to the settlement. Todays AAS said that DPS was not part of the settlement.
IMHO, It was a valid stop that escalated exponentially beyond it's justification. The trooper over-reacted to extreme disrespect and provocation on the part of Bland. This was either mental illness or idiotic attitude on her part, or both, but to involve DPS in a lawsuit involving a Waller county facility is just another example of searching for the deepest pocket on the part of Ms. Bland's "Bereaved" family.

Anonymous said...

So, is this actually settled? I thought I saw a news report that the Waller County Attorney disagreed with the final settlement.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Ruben for pointing out the facts. No amount of money can replace the family's daughter. For all you haters out there...keep on hating...but in this case the family received some form of justice.

Anonymous said...

As for me, well I just hope someone gets to Brian Encinia and makes an example of him..

Anonymous said...

7:02PM - Encinia was charged, arrested and held accountable. Accountability is a good thing.

While I wish no ill will on anyone, I have no pity for those that kill themselves, except those that are terminal in health.

Jail staff making their rounds every 30 minutes or having a trama surgeon on duty would not have saved Bland. Tragic yes, but any intentional act on her own accord.

She or anyone else in a like situation would have received $0 if I was a juror.

Anonymous said...

Encinia was indeed arrested and charged, but with misdemeanor perjury instead of felony murder, so he won't be held accountable. Encinia is directly responsible for Bland's death and should be punished accordingly. It will never happen but I'd love nothing more than to see him made an example. Perhaps we'd see this if the families of victims would stop accepting blood money from the government.

Anonymous said...

No prosecutor in the US would accept/file a murder charge I the Bland case except maybe Marylon Mosby. You see how that turned out.

I'd be surprised if the misdemeanor perjury charge results in a conviction.

Anonymous said...

It's funny how you don't care what anyone else has to say (except to correct grammar) or what they would do for their loved one, but care only about blaming public officials for the suicidal actions of a person who was clearly disrespectful to a law enforcement officer and who had a family that did not care much about or want to have anything to do with her (until the cash train pulled into the station). No doubt, the DPS officer was too easily agitated and then apparently lied about some stuff.

However, how do govt officials protect future Sandra Blands from THEMSELVES? Whether in the jail or in their own homes, this question is only a matter of geography, not accountability.