Texas Bill Tries to Shroud Jail Deaths in Even More Secrecy

A new proposal could let sheriffs investigate themselves, undermining the Sandra Bland Act that helped expose the state’s deadly jail conditions.

Michael Barajas   |    March 24, 2023

A memorial on the side of the road in Prairie View where Sandra Bland was stopped and arrested. (Patrick Feller/Flickr)

Sandra Bland didn’t seem to eat or drink much inside the Waller County jail after her violent arrest by a screaming state trooper on a rural Texas roadside. Guards told the Texas Rangers, the detective arm of state police that later investigated Bland’s death behind bars, that she cried so hard that they sometimes had trouble understanding her. Between sobs and pleading to use the phone, Bland, who was 28 at the time, told jailers that she had just moved from Chicago to the outskirts of Houston for a job she was scheduled to start later that week at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, the local historically Black college. She also insisted the trooper who pulled her over and accused her of assaulting him during a routine traffic stop was lying—something the state police investigation would later confirm.

Guards put Bland in a jail cell alone with little supervision despite her telling them that she was depressed and had attempted suicide the previous year. The Rangers investigation would later show evidence that jailers lied about how often they checked on Bland, leaving her unmonitored for nearly two hours before they found her hanging in her cell three days after her arrest.

Bland’s treatment by Texas law enforcement in July 2015 quickly blew up into a national scandal. In the following years, her family channeled that public pressure over her death into a $1.9 million settlement agreement with Waller County that also mandated changes at the local jail, as well as into a statewide reform bill the Texas legislature passed in 2017 bearing Bland’s name. The Sandra Bland Act required Texas police to collect more data on traffic stops and make a “good faith effort” to divert people with mental illness away from jail. 

The new law also required Texas sheriffs to commission an independent investigation whenever people die in their jails. That job has mostly fallen to the Rangers, and state police investigations into jail deaths have spiked since 2018, when the requirement went into effect, helping spotlight the dehumanizing and dangerous conditions that can lead to preventable deaths. 

But those investigations could soon dry up because of a bill, filed in the Texas legislature this month by a Republican lawmaker, that would allow sheriffs to investigate themselves for deaths in their jails. Under the bill, the current mandate for an independent investigation would no longer apply if a death is due to “natural causes or occurring in a manner that does not indicate an offense has been committed,” even though such conclusions are what an investigation is supposed to determine in the first place. 

Cannon Lambert, the attorney who represented Bland’s family and helped them negotiate the 2017 reforms, says the proposal, Senate Bill 1896, would undermine a key plank of the reforms that bear her name. “It’s antithetical to the purpose of the act,” Lambert told me, saying Bland’s family had wanted systemic changes that would lead to greater oversight of jail conditions and accountability for deaths in custody. 

“Having a situation where law enforcement is investigating itself, it causes concern for what the result of that investigation will be,” Lambert said. “It shouldn’t be someone trying to cover something up or trying to massage facts, it shouldn’t be any of that, it should be what are the facts, what do they bear out, and how should they be dealt with.” 

The broadly-written exception in SB 1986 could be stretched to cover the vast majority of state police investigations into Texas jail deaths in recent years. In 2021, a former colleague and I obtained and reviewed more than 400 Rangers investigations into Texas jail deaths. Most had not immediately raised suspicion and almost all were initally ruled by medical examiners to be either suicides, accidental (largely drug overdose) or due to “natural causes,” a blanket term including anything from heart attacks to COVID-19 to complications from withdrawal. But the investigations later conducted by the Rangers often revealed troubling new facts in those cases. Reports I have reviewed detail jail staff across the state ignoring people with deteriorating health, taking hours to respond to emergencies, denying treatment for chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease, and even mocking dying people while they moan in pain.  

Dean Malone, a civil rights attorney who represents families of people who have died in jails across Texas, told me the Rangers investigations sometimes help uncover initial facts that make it possible to bring a case because their reports often point to lapses and systemic problems that likely contributed to someone’s death—even when ruled to be from “natural causes.” 

Malone pointed me to a lawsuit he filed earlier this month on behalf of the family of Lonnetta Johnson, a 41-year old woman who died last January after a heart attack in the Harrison County jail in rural East Texas. Like many people who die in Texas jails, Johnson struggled with serious mental illness that resulted in her arrest and incarceration at the county jail more than a dozen times over the previous decade. The Harrison County sheriff’s office shared a boilerplate press release after her death that said Johnson experienced “labored breathing” at the jail and was sent to a hospital, where she was later pronounced dead. 

But the Rangers investigation that the sheriff was then required to commission later painted a different picture. Their investigation report, which I reviewed, showed that jailers had put Johnson on suicide watch inside a solitary cell without a mattress for more than two weeks, with nothing more than a smock and a blanket to cover herself. While jailers were told to check on Johnson every 15 minutes, that usually just meant peering through her cell window. Guards interviewed by the Rangers said Johnson’s health seemed to be deteriorating before her death. The investigation showed that Johnson had been sitting on the floor of her cell, hunched over what looked like a puddle of urine, for several hours before jailers finally entered, discovered she was “cold to the touch” and called an ambulance. One guard said it felt like 60 degrees inside the cell. (The Harrison sheriff’s office did not reply to my request for comment.) 

Malone attached a photo of the Harrison County jail to the lawsuit he filed.

Malone says that he worries the language in SB 1896 could preclude independent police investigations into the vast majority of jail deaths, including many from “natural causes,” like Johnson’s, that deserve a closer look. Like most investigations into law enforcement, Rangers reports rarely result in consequences or charges for jail staff, let alone convictions, and sometimes they reflect the kind of pro-police bias that independent investigations are supposed to prevent. These lawsuit settlements offer the only semblance of justice most grieving families can ever hope to see. 

Michele Deitch, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on prison and jail oversight, told me that the Sandra Bland Act gave Texas “one of the best statutes in the country when it comes to allowing for independent investigations of deaths in custody.” She said that this part of the 2017 law provided “a vehicle for identifying measures that can prevent deaths in the future.” SB 1896, she says, would create “an enormous loophole” that could reduce overall reporting of jail deaths, which sheriffs already undercount. A 2019 report by state jail regulators highlighted how sheriffs across the state already skirt the requirement to report and commission outside investigations into deaths by abruptly releasing people in medical crisis from custody right before they die. 

“This reduces transparency at a time when we need increased transparency about these deaths,” Deitch said. 

The author of SB 1896, Republican state Senator Brian Birdwell, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment or any of my written questions about his bill. The topic surfaced during a Senate committee hearing Birdwell hosted last November, when the senator invited sheriffs to testify about the crushing deployment of state police and national guard troops to the border in recent years. Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn, whose jail has seen a spike in deaths and numerous allegations of brutality and medical neglect in recent years, suggested during the hearing that state police were wasting precious time and resources investigating him. 

“For instance, last week I had a death in custody, he was in my jail for 20 days, he was in stage-four cancer, died in the hospital, had been up there for 12 days, and now I’ve gotta take up the Rangers’ time looking at that,” Waybourn told senators. “I just think that maybe we can look at a better way of doing that. We want accountability, but sometimes it’s like, golly, well couldn’t he be doing a murder case or something else than reviewing this?” 

Waybourn’s office initially sent me a written statement claiming the exception in the bill would only apply to “the death of inmates who are in custody, but are in the hospital under the medical supervision of a physician and pass away.” The actual language in the bill, however, is much more broad and, as currently phrased, it expands the exceptions for sheriffs to even report any jail deaths. In fact, the state’s criminal code at present already specifies that the reporting mandate does not apply to deaths that occurred “while attended by a physician or registered nurse”; the new bill would strike out that clause, replacing it with broader language. In answer to follow-up questions, Waybourn’s office said he’s “happy with the current language of the bill.”

The Rangers investigations into jail deaths are currently part of a larger patchwork of jail oversight in Texas that might look solid on paper but in practice still repeatedly fails to keep people safe. Law enforcement are required to report all deaths in custody to the state attorney general’s office, which also compiles reports on jail deaths that typically just restate whatever the sheriff’s office said.

Then there’s the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a governor-appointed commission with minimal staff and a shoestring budget, which is tasked with inspecting more than 240 jails across the state and also looks into deaths to determine whether facilities complied with minimum state jail standards. However, those jail commission investigations have limitations; commission inspectors are not police, are not looking for potential criminal violations, and the commission itself has said that it often encounters “opposition when requesting inmate medical records,” which can cloud their inquiry. Civil rights activists and even another state auditing agency have criticized the jail commission for failing to hold sheriffs accountable; jails across the state, from rural counties to the largest, regularly fail inspections and sometimes cycle out of compliance for years. The commission’s executive director has defended its work, saying regulators have tried to “remain respectful of local government.” 

Even with the increased investigations required by the Sandra Bland Act, circumstances surrounding jail deaths remain opaque. It often takes a lot of persistence and money to get records from the Rangers, and sometimes sheriffs will kick jail death investigations to a much smaller local police department, which usually refuses to release any documents at all. Malone says people mourning loved ones usually struggle to get even basic information about what happened to them. “Even if there’s an investigation, the family has to fight to get the records,” Malone told me. “But if there’s no investigation, then nobody knows what’s going on in these jails, and I’ve seen some pretty horrific situations described in these records.” 

Deaths and overcrowding behind bars are on the rise in Texas, while Republican and law enforcement officials push to restrict pretrial releases. Civil rights activists as well as some sheriffs have warned that more people experiencing homelessness and mental health problems are now getting stuck in county jails on low-level charges like criminal trespass. Most people who die in Texas jails are pretrial detainees, like Bland and Johnson, who weren’t convicted of the charges that put them in jail.

Deborah Smith speaks outside the Texas jail commission’s February meeting next to photos of her daughter, who died in the Harris County jail last year. (Courtesy Texas Jail Project)

“When you lose a loved one in jail, it’s like an unspoken death sentence,” says Krishnaveni Gundu, co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project, which monitors conditions in local jails and advocates for better conditions. “Answers are nearly impossible to come by without a thorough and impartial investigation. All families want and hope for is to know what happened to their loved one so they can find some sense of closure. And this bill will take away what little those families are currently able to get.”

Gundu helped organize a group of people who lost loved ones to Texas jails to attend the state jail commission’s most recent meeting in February, begging for help. Among them was Deborah Smith, who held up two poster-sized images of her daughter, Kristan, 38, as she testified before commissioners. One of the photos showed her daughter with a beaming smile; in the other, Kristan is hooked up to a ventilator. While an autopsy into Kristan’s death at the Harris County jail last May is still pending, Deborah says her daughter was diabetic and struggled to get proper medical treatment in jail. 

“This is what I gave to Harris County,” Deborah said, showing the photo of a smiling Kristan around the room before grabbing and holding up the image of her daughter lying in a hospital bed. “This is what I got back.”