TEXAS VIEW: Texas prison suicides are up; why aren’t officials more concerned?THE POINT: A prison sentence shouldn’t be a death sentence for people who didn’t receive one.

The tragic jail death of a woman initially stopped for a traffic infraction spurred Texas to take stronger steps to reduce suicides in local jails. Now the state needs to afford that same level of concern to inmates in the state prison system, which last year saw 40 suicides — the most in 20 years.
Completed suicides in Texas prisons doubled between 2013 and 2018, even as the prison population declined. Meanwhile, suicides in the state’s jails dropped by a third over the same period, to 17 last year. That drop was largely due to reforms made after the July 2015 death of Sandra Bland, who hanged herself with a plastic trash-can liner in the Waller County Jail. That happened three days after she was charged with assaulting a state trooper who stopped her for failing to signal a lane change.
Waller County officials later admitted Bland probably should have been placed on suicide watch. She had disclosed on a jail screening form that she once tried to kill herself with pills after losing a baby. She also had told her jailers that she had battled depression and was feeling depressed after being arrested.
Her suicide led to the passage of the Sandra Bland Act in 2017. The Texas statute mandates additional mental health training for jailers and law enforcement officers and improved supervision in jails of suicidal and mentally unstable prisoners, including round-the-clock monitoring and sensors or cameras to ensure continual checks of cells containing at-risk prisoners.
Similar reforms are needed to reverse the rise in prison suicides. Unfortunately, there’s been no similar urgency for action. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Unlike jail inmates who are awaiting trial, most prison inmates have already been tried and convicted. The public has less sympathy for felons so politicians are less motivated to act. They barely responded when inmates complained about stifling conditions in hot cells that needed air conditioning or about difficulty eating solid food because inmates weren’t provided dentures.
A 20-year high in prison suicides should not be ignored.
Attempts of suicide in Texas prisons are also up, rising from 65 a month in 2013 to 150 a month in 2017. The increase is being attributed to the poor conditions within the state’s prisons, critical staffing shortages and the high number of inmates who enter prison with mental health problems. About 27,000 inmates, 18.5% of the state’s prison population, have some form of mental illness, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Two Houston legislators, Rep. Jarvis Johnson and Sen. Borris Miles, believe the suicide increase reflects the TDCJ’s mismanagement. The Democrats filed companion bills in the last legislative session to create an independent ombudsman post to monitor the state prison system, but the legislation never got out of committee.
Johnson said an ombudsman might prevent costly lawsuits challenging prison conditions, but litigation may be unavoidable. A federal judge in Alabama ruled last month that unaddressed “severe and systemic inadequacies” within that state’s Department of Corrections had led to a dramatic increase in inmate suicides. The ruling cited 15 suicides that had occurred in Alabama prisons over 15 months.
Judge Myron Thompson said Alabama prisons had failed to conduct adequate suicide risk assessments, failed to place suicidal or potentially suicidal inmates on suicide watch, failed to monitor inmates released from suicide watch, failed to adequately monitor inmates placed in segregation and failed to require staff to take immediate life-saving measures when they find an inmate attempting suicide.
It would not be a surprise if the Texas prison system were found guilty of some of those same lapses. Gov. Greg Abbott shouldn’t wait for that to happen. He should be demanding that the TDCJ explain why suicides are increasing in Texas prisons and tell him how it plans to bring that number down.
A prison sentence shouldn’t be a death sentence for people who didn’t receive one. Suicide is preventable both behind bars and outside of them, but not if people and institutions who can intercede ignore the signs. It’s the TDCJ’s job to pay better attention; it’s the governor’s job to ensure it does.