Last Thursday, July 30th, I gave testimony before the House Committee on County Affairs regarding the issues arising from Sandra Bland’s death in a small county jail in East Texas. The tragedy raises so many concerns, that it’s impossible to frame solutions within one policy. The series of mistakes span the distance from racial profiling to dismal treatment inside county jails. To emphasize one aspect over another deprives Sandra and her family of justice.
I showed up to offer six strategies for reform. My colleagues and I had worked 14 hours per day leading up to the hearing, studying racial profiling data, de-escalation techniques, and Supreme Court decisions urging states to stop arresting people for minor infractions. We also researched pre-booking diversion programs, mental health assessments, and county jail oversight. We prepared our written testimony, and I drew the short straw to testify at the actual hearing.
The hearing room was crowded with news media. I had to edge past camera crews to make my way to a seat near the front. More importantly, the room was crowded with people who had ventured across the state to give witness to generations of police encounters that have divided communities into “us” versus “them.” I could hear the women in the row behind me groan with impatience when the first panel spent too long discussing mental health assessments and jail standards.
To them, the issues were clear – Sandra Bland dared to assert her rights, and she was treated with brutality as a result. She shouldn’t have been in jail at all, and now she’s dead.
I realized that we were grappling with issues as a community, and that I couldn’t go to the microphone as merely a policy analyst. The issues were too personal. I remembered my own treatment inside county jail, and I shared it with the Members. I admitted that my descent into addiction and criminality included several stops at psychiatric hospitals along the way, including two Intensive Care Units after I had attempted suicide. Out of desperation for drugs, I had committed four counts of robbery with a highlight marker wrapped in a shirt. When I was arrested and taken to county jail, I told the truth about my mental health history.
What happened to me because I told the truth was nothing short of torture. They sat me in a metal chair and strapped my head, arms, and feet to immobilize me for hours. Later, they stripped me naked and put me in an icy cold padded room for the night. They kept me in isolation for days. Someone in the next cell had combined alcohol with Xanax, and spent the night screaming at imaginary attackers. It was a horrific experience.
I recounted my experience to the Legislators to help them see the inhumane treatment people experience inside county jails. It didn’t change the fact that Sandra should never have had to step foot inside of a jail. I tried to relate the issues to mass incarceration, the need for bail reform, and pre-booking diversion, but it was my personal story that seemed to have the most impact. When I sat down, one of the women seated in the row behind me put her hand on my shoulder and leaned forward to say something in my ear:
“I want you to know how much good you’ve done for my people today.”
The issue is about inhumanity at every level of the criminal justice system from law enforcement to corrections. Racial minorities are treated with suspicion and contempt by law enforcement. We arrest people for minor infractions, and allow counties to complain about jail costs and overcrowding. We treat drug addiction as a crime instead of a disease, investing untold sums into the criminal justice system that could have been used for treatment. We allow the bail industry to dominate the system for their own profit, holding low income people in jail for months, often for crimes they didn’t commit, simply because they can’t afford to post bail. We do this despite the fact that people are just as likely to show up for trial on a personal recognizance bond as they are when they post bail. We deprive people with mental illness continuity of care while they are incarcerated, and subject them to torture. And then we deprive children and families the right to a face-to-face visit with loved ones, because jails have learned to cut costs and make a profit on video-only visitation.
Yes, there are so many issues involved that it’s difficult to name just one reform. It starts with humanity. Police must have an actual reason to stop someone. Suspicion is not enough. Nearly 71% of the people whom police perceive as “suspicious” are racial minorities. Anytime a police officer uses force outside of the context of defense of self or others is a failure of good policing, and police departments must be held accountable when it happens. We have to recognize that the criminal justice system is not equipped to deal with problems of addiction and mental illness, and we must divert people to community organizations more frequently. Finally, we must acknowledge that most of the people who enter the criminal justice system will rejoin our community.
When we allow mistreatment of our once and future neighbors by police and jailers, we all must be held accountable.
For more information about the six strategies for reform in the wake of Sandra Bland's death, check out our written testimony on the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's website: