WALLER COUNTY, Texas – Sandra Bland is not the first inmate found hanging lifeless in her jail cell here in recent years. The question haunting authorities this time around is whether her death could have been prevented.
Video of the civil rights advocate’s arrest went viral after a seemingly ordinary traffic stop took a hostile turn when a state trooper ordered her out of her car. She was taken into custody, charged with assaulting a public servant. Three days later she was found hanged in her jail cell.
It’s a scene all-too familiar for a small-town jail that has already suffered a brush with tragedy. Three years after the jail facility was reprimanded after an inmate hanged himself in his cell, the same problems with protocols are seen again in a case that has drawn national scrutiny. As more details come to light about Bland and darker moments of her past, more questions swirl over whether jail officials missed warning signs of tragedy that were ultimately triggered by her arrest.
So far, no jail official has been publicly disciplined for their role in Bland’s death. “Ms. Bland, based on jail staff observations, was not placed on any suicide watch,” Sheriff Smith said in a statement posted to Facebook Thursday evening.
The sheriff on Wednesday announced plans to establish a new outside commission to review jail procedures, evaluate staff and serve as a liaison to the greater public that has been skeptical of the circumstances surrounding Bland’s death.
Paul Looney, a prominent defense attorney in the region tapped to head the commission, says Smith has given him full authority to probe any element of the county’s jail procedure, enlist whomever he wants and take as much time as needed before offering up new recommendations.
“I’m fascinated that he’s willing to do it. It’s a really bold statement for him – I’m not used to the sheriff letting the fox into the hen house,” Looney told msnbc. “I’m far from being a jail standards expert.”
There is much for Looney and his commission to draw on. In November 2012, James Harper Howell IV was found hanging from a ceiling vent with a bedsheet wrapped around his neck, the Houston Chronicle reported at the time. Like Bland, Howell was arrested for assault of a public servant, but also for evading arrest and marijuana possession. The 29-year-old white man had been in custody for a week prior to his death.
State authorities who inspected the jail after Howell’s death found the county at fault for failing to observe inmates face-to-face every hour – the same noncompliance violation inspectors found with the Waller County jail in the wake of Bland’s death.
“The fact that it occurred again would be just one of those things that do happen,” Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, told msnbc.
The county jail in recent weeks has faced intense scrutiny for keeping garbage liners in cells with inmates, which authorities say Bland used to create a noose. The sheriff’s department maintains that the garbage bags were mandated by the jail commission a year earlier. But the prospect of two inmate hangings in the same jail in under three years has become unsettling for public officials.
“It bothers me,” District Attorney Elton Mathis said during a press conference Thursday. “Of course like anyone else it bothers me.”
Medical examiners have ruled Bland’s death a suicide by hanging, seeing no indication of a struggle that would suggest a potential homicide.
In addition, Warren K. Diepraam, first assistant district attorney for Waller County, said in a press conference Thursday afternoon that her autopsy revealed that Bland had scars on her forearm that were consistent with cutting attempts. The roughly 30 marks were healing from 2-4 weeks prior to her death, Diepraam said.
Bland told her jailers she had attempted suicide before, indicating that she took pills after “losing a baby.” In her initial intake form, Bland answered in the affirmative when asked the questions “Have you ever been very depressed?” and “Do you feel this way now?” However hours later when asked the same questions by the same intake officer, Bland said “No.” The district attorney’s office said the discrepancy in the forms was because Bland changed her answers, not because of input error.
Her sister Sharon Cooper acknowledged during an interview with NBC News that her sister suffered from a miscarriage in May 2014, but said Bland did not have a history of depression. “It was very early on, and it was unfortunate,” Cooper said of the miscarriage.
Her family has said it is “unfathomable” that Bland would take her own life. She was moving back to Texas after landing a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University. And though the dashboard camera on the car of State Trooper who arrested her depicted a hostile incident, the district attorney said a bail bondsman was in contact with Bland’s family and working to get her out of jail.
Just as important as answers in Bland’s death are answers for the community that will have to continue with daily life as the investigation continued. Looney, the new head of the sheriff’s commission, couldn’t say whether oversight and accountability would restore the community’s faith – but there was hope.
“I don’t know. That’s for you the public to decide,” Looney said. “The only thing I can tell you is he is going to give me the keys the ignition to drive.”