Sandra Bland was arrested for a minor traffic violation by a Texas state trooper in Waller County in July 2015. She was placed in the county jail. Three days later she was found hanging in her jail cell. This past summer Waller County officials reached a $1.9 million wrongful death settlement with the Bland family.
Unfortunately, Ms. Bland’s tragic death was not unique in our criminal justice system. The nation’s jail system is plagued with violence, corruption, abuse, and death. There is no worse place or worse way to die than alone in a jail cell.
In the wake of Sandra Bland’s tragic, and quite senseless, death, the Huffington Post gathered the names, causes of death, dates of arrest and other information about the more than 800 people who died in jails and lockups across the country in the year following Ms. Bland’s death.
Thousand Die in Texas Jails, Nationwide
The Atlantic reported this past July that between 2005 and 2015 some 1,111 people died in Texas jails—the overwhelmingly majority of whom had not been convicted of a crime and were in jail because they could not make bail or pay some sort of court fees. A disproportionate number of the 100 people who die in Texas jails each year are African-Americans, poor, and/or suffer from serious mental health issues.
The HuffPost used the case of 37-year-old Jennifer Myers to illustrate the tragic factors surrounding a typical jail death. She died in a Macomb County, Michigan jail in July 2013. She was serving a 30-day jail sentence for failure to pay child support. She had been in jail just 12 days after being arrested on a “bench warrant” for failure to pay a $500 fee when she died.
A typical, insensitive judge—some of whom dispose of the cases before them much like they would human garbage—“determined incarceration was the best way to deal with her inability to fulfill her financial obligations,” reported HuffPost.
These kinds of judges have embraced the “pay or stay” policy that targets the poor, mentally handicapped, homeless, or people of color. It not only justifies but sustains the need to have them on the bench to make sure that the disadvantaged in our society are held to the full account of the law.
Health Care Needs of Inmates Disregarded
Most American jails are notorious for their indifference to the health care needs of the inmates housed in them. This indifference resulted in the completely unnecessary death of Jennifer Myers. She was sick when processed into the Macomb County jail, reported HuffPost. She informed jail staff that she had recently been hospitalized for an infection in her right arm. That information had about as much impact on jail staff as a honey bee sting would have on an elephant. All they were concerned about was getting her processed, outfitted in a jail jumpsuit, and assigned to a cell.
Myers, who was also bipolar and suffered from hepatitis C, had a longstanding history of heroin use. She was not a physically strong person. She quickly exhibited signs of failing health. Fellow inmates reported to jail staff that there was a foul odor emanating from her cell, like she was “rotting from within.” She became completely incapacitated. Fellow inmates brought her meals to her cell in the face of that “unbearable” odor. She couldn’t eat.
Myers managed to request medical care as did her fellow inmates. Jail staff and Correct Care Solutions, the private company contracted to provide medical care for inmates, ignored all these pleas. Myers, of course, died. Her death was caused by sepsis, a reaction to the severe infection in her arms.
Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit Alleges Knowing Neglect
Myers’s family has since filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against jail officials and Correct Care Solutions, charging that they knowingly neglected her “severe and life-threatening symptoms.
“The deliberate indifference of the jail and medical staff to Jennifer’s serious medical needs, as tragically demonstrated in this litigation, should absolutely cause our citizens to distrust the correctional system,” Harold Perkis, a lawyer for the Myers’s family, told HuffPost. “Decent, humane treatment of inmates by corrections officers and jail medical staff is what the law requires and must be demand by all of our citizens.”
Meyers’s father, Russell Hubble, was furious with Macomb County officials. He told a local television station that the officials “are very proud” of the fact that they lock up so many people for failure to pay child support.
In response to a lawsuit filed by the Michigan ACLU, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the poor should not be jailed because they cannot pay court fines.
The ruling came a little late for Jennifer Myers.
Like Waller County officials had to do in the Sandra Bland case, Macomb County officials will soon be forced to shell out millions to the Myers’s family because they literally let Jennifer rot to death in a jail cell.