After investigators announced that Sandra Bland’s death in jail one year ago was a suicide, many people quickly denied it. Deniers analyzed her mug shot. They looked at maps of her jail cell. They tore through her past, her current situation, and her promising new career. They created all sorts of conspiracy theories — simply to deny what the available evidence had laid bare.
The undertone of the denial was clear: If Bland had killed herself, then the death was somehow more her fault. If police or jail officials didn’t directly kill her, then they were somehow less culpable.
This was wrong. Just because Bland killed herself does not mean the people who let it happen — the people who forcefully took her in and were charged with watching over her — were any less culpable. We know, for example, that jailers didn’t complete a mandatory visual face-to-face observation of Bland for more than 60 minutes. We also know they seemingly ignored Bland’s admission that she’d previously tried to kill herself. And we know that people in a mental health crisis are, by definition, not in full control of themselves, so it’s on those around them to intervene.
Through an investigation in the Huffington Post, we also now know there are hundreds of stories like Bland’s — several of which happened in the past year since she died. In the investigation, Ryan Reilly, Dana Liebelson, and other reporters at the Huffington Post combed through news reports, press releases, and official records to find that at least 811 people have died in jails since Bland died — an average of two a day — and at least 31 percent of those were suicides or apparent suicides.
The consistent theme in these suicides is that they were preventable. As Margo Schlanger, a University of Michigan law professor, told the Huffington Post, “People often say, ‘Well, if somebody wants to kill themselves, they’re going to kill themselves.’ That’s false. If you run a jail with an appropriate degree of suicide prevention, you get almost zero.”
Jails could, for example, adopt better intake screening, better monitoring, and better access to mental health professionals. But many jails don't have the right policies or, as was apparently the case in the Texas jail that held Bland, don’t take their measures seriously enough. And people die as a result.
Take this one story, from the Huffington Post, in which a jail appeared to completely ignore some of the most obvious possible warning signs:
Alberto Carlos Petrolino, a 50-year-old chef and artist, was arrested last July, after his ex-girlfriend called 911 to report that he planned to kill himself on the Golden Gate Bridge, according to a lawsuit filed by the family. Petrolino's family contacted the jail to warn staff that he might try to take his own life, the lawsuit states; his mother was so worried that she took a bus to the jail, said Petrolino's son, Fabio. And yet Petrolino wasn’t treated by a doctor or placed in specialized housing for suicidal inmates, the family claimed. Within 72 hours of his arrival, Petrolino had hanged himself in a shower.
Reading this, the obvious conclusion — if the events claimed by the lawsuit and family are correct — is that the jail failed to prevent Petrolino from killing himself. They ignored clear warning signs about a person’s looming death, even though they could have done something, and he died.
Bland’s story isn’t too far off from Petrolino’s. Jail officials knew she had previously tried to kill herself. The jail had policies in place to try to ensure people don’t kill themselves, yet jailers repeatedly failed to follow those policies. It may not be as dramatic as an officer shooting and killing someone, but the justice system failed horrifically — and caused a completely unnecessary death. And, based on the Huffington Post’s investigation, this happens hundreds of times each year.