Since Sandra Bland committed suicide, many more Black women have perished in Texas jails.

Sandra Bland was arrested in Prairie View, Texas on July 10, 2015. That was a Friday. After spending Saturday and Sunday in a county jail cell, alone, crying and bereft, Bland — who suffered from depression and had previously tried to kill herself — used a twisted up garbage bag to stop her breathing. She committed suicide on Monday morning, July 13.

July 13 this year also falls on Monday. I have written extensively about Bland’s impassioned, moral, and troubled life, and it’s been eerie this weekend, counting down the days and hours to the fifth anniversary of her tragic death — a death that infuriated the world and helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s also been chilling to check national and state statistics and learn that instead of going down since Bland died, jail suicides have increased. That’s true nationally, and in Texas the biggest jump has been among women. Especially Black women.

This may surprise. Evidence gathered in 2015 from Bland’s autopsy, jail intake records and reports from other women inmates pointed overwhelmingly to the conclusion that she took her own life. Yet, statistically, Black women commit suicide less frequently than other demographic groups, including Black men — who themselves are less suicide prone than whites. The relative rarity of female Black suicide is an important reason why many thought that Bland had been murdered by her jailers.

But Bland’s family’s lawsuit, seeking damages for her death, had as its premise that she had taken her life due to gross jailhouse negligence. At intake she’d told her jailers that she had recently tried to kill herself. She said she was depressed. According to the jail’s own rules, she should have been put on suicide watch or sent for mental health treatment. Instead, she was put alone in a cell, and the jail failed to check on her wellbeing as often as regulations required. Bland’s family won a substantial settlement from the county where she was jailed. And her death inspired tighter regulations in Texas jails for intake and monitoring of people vulnerable to suicide.

Yet five years later, things have only deteriorated, especially for Black women.

In Texas from 2009 to date in 2020, according to data available from the Texas Justice Initiative, there have been 868 reported suicides in county jails. That covers eleven and a half years — and 2020 is only half done. Breaking the eleven-plus years into two cohorts, 2009 to 2014, and 2015 to date, statistics reveal that, statewide, the county jail suicide rate has increased almost 9 percent. The suicide problem in Texas jails is getting worse. And for some groups, dramatically worse. When the data is further sliced by race and gender, chilling disparities emerge.

Disregarding gender, the one group for which the rate went down was whites, from 235 to 224 — a 5 percent decrease. But it increased 25 percent for Latinxs, from 97 deaths to 121. Black people’s rate increased 20 percent: from 79 to 95.

For men of color, the numbers were bleak. Black men had a 10 percent increase in suicide. Latino men’s increase was 25 percent. Only white men’s rate improved, with a 6 percent decrease.

Women fared worse, regardless of race or ethnicity — with Black women doing especially badly. Comparing 2009–2014 and 2015 to date, white women’s suicide rate went up 9 percent. Latinas’ rate increased 25 percent. Two Black women committed suicide from 2009 to 2014. Startlingly, since 2015 ten Black women have taken their lives — a 500 percent increase.

Two of the ten Texas Black woman who committed suicide after Bland were Debora Ann Lyons and Ashanti Emoni Taylor.

Taylor was only 19 when she took her life last summer. She was mentally ill and had just been released from psychiatric treatment when she threatened her family with violence and ended up in jail in San Antonio. She had barely been booked when she said she was going to kill herself as soon as she had a chance. She promptly drank cleaning fluid. She didn’t die on that first attempt. She was successful on the second — she hanged herself.

County sheriff Javier Salazar said Taylor shouldn’t have been in jail in the first place, but instead in a mental health facility. Her bond had been set at $800. She could not pay.

Debora Ann Lyons, 58, was in the Harris County jail, in Houston, in 2018 on a $1500 bond for allegedly shoplifting $155 worth of food and merchandise from a Walmart. Lyons suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She had threatened suicide just days before her death. But jail officials inadvertently left her alone for a prolonged period. During that time she hanged herself, with a bedsheet attached to a door in the jail.

Taylor’s and Lyons’ suicides happened after 2017, the year when a new Texas law, named after Sandra Bland, was touted as a national model for saving the lives of suicidal people in jails. The Associated Press summed up the law as including policy changes requiring mentally ill inmates to be diverted to treatment; independent investigation of jail deaths; and funding for electronic sensors or cameras for adequate cell checks.

But the Sandra Bland law didn’t require money for more guards. Staffing at Texas’ 239 local jails stayed the same, and jails still are required to have only one jailer for every 48 inmates in a single-story facility, and one for each floor with 10 or more inmates.

Meanwhile, criminal justice reform efforts, in Texas and nationally, have focused on banning cash bond for poor people accused of minor, non-violent offenses; and on replacing police and jails with social workers and mental health services for those who commit crimes while suffering from emotional illness. Black Lives Matter this year has radically extended these calls.

I learned much about Bland while reporting on her life. Even back in 2014 and 2015 she was actively promoting criminal justice reform. If she were with us today, she no doubt would be continuing that work, under the #BLM rubric. She was a treasure. She would have agreed that Debra Ann Lyons and Ashanti Emoni Taylor were treasures. Their lives mattered. So do those of all Black women who need love and protection from our government — including during their darkest hours.



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