Waller County Jail recommended practices released

HOUSTON - A civilian review committee released recommendations for new jail practices for the Waller County Jail in response to the suicide of Sandra Bland, 28.

Bland was found hanging in her cell July 13 with a plastic trash bag around her neck, three days after her controversial traffic arrest July 10, 2015 in Prairie View, Texas.

The commission, which was comprised of defense attorneys and former Houston congressman Craig Washington, presented its report to Sheriff R. Glenn Smith Wednesday.

These are strong recommendations that are really on the cutting edge,” committee member Juan L. Guerra said at a press conference Tuesday at the Waller County Courthouse in Hempstead.

The nine recommendations include hiring medics to screen potentially mentally ill or suicidal inmates. Jail records show Bland told jailers when she was booked into the jail that she'd made a suicide attempt over the loss of a child .

The report also recommends anger management training and body cameras for jailers, and construction of a new jail building.

Sheriff Glenn Smith said he agrees with the recommendations and that some are already being implemented. Smith said body cameras have already been ordered, and de-escalation training is scheduled for jailers. Waller County has acquired land for a new jail building to replace the 30-year-old facility now in use, but Smith says no funds have been appropriated by the county for construction.

“(I'd) love to stand here and tell you a new jail is going to be started in the next couple of months, but realistically I don't think that's going to happen, but the county is moving forward,” Smith said.

Bland was arrested and brought to the Waller County Jail, where she died three days later. Authorities said Bland apparently hanged herself with a trash bag from a metal barrier that separated the bathroom from the rest of the cell.

Former congressman Washington said the county should move to issue bonds to speed up construction.

“All people should be treated fairly and the same by whatever governmental agency they come in contact with,” Washington said.

Some protestors who spent weeks outside jail following Bland's death were also at the press conference. One asserted the commission was being used to cover up mistakes in the Bland case. Washington heatedly replied, “You're absolutely wrong.”

Another protestor, former Waller Justice of the Peace DeWayne Charleston complained that commission members didn't go far enough by interviewing current and former prisoners.

“It's window dressing. (They're) good people, probably did their job, but they didn't go after the right thing and the right thing is Sheriff Smith,” he said.

Smith asked for the civilian committee to be appointed after Bland's death put his department's management of the jail in the national spotlight.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards cited the jail for violations of prisoner screening and monitoring requirements. Smith says those problems have been addressed and the jail is in compliance.

The recommendations released today include:

-    Inmate Screening for Mental Health and Medical Problems: Employ emergency medical technicians to triage and assess medical and mental health issues while also creating the ability for physician review and video conferencing.

-    Body Cameras: Develop a written policy for the use of video recordings and purchase body cameras to document interactions to protect both the officer and the citizen accused.

-    Language and Demeanor: Create a zero tolerance policy against the use of demeaning or derogatory language.

-    Counseling and Fitness to Serve: Anger management courses and psychological evaluations should be implemented as a matter of routine to maintain acute mental fitness within the Office.

-    New Jail: New jail facilities are necessary as the current facility does not address the safety and security required.

-    Booking Process: Invest in technology for an electronic booking process to facilitate access to information on inmates.

-    Digital Reporting from the Field: Invest in technology to allow deputies to access records electronically and enter offense reports without the necessity of returning to the Office.

-    Public Information Officer: A single point of contact for public information allows the Office to present information more clearly and accurately.

-    Separate Jail Administration and Policing Duties: To the extent possible, jail administration and policing should be separated.

2016 Click2Houston/KPRC2