The inscrutable death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail cell spotlighted racial disparities in the penal system, but for many in the black community it was a reminder of a time when African-Americans were routinely terrorized by lynching and other forms of torture.
“It’s a concern as a woman, as a black woman, and a mother,” said Bland’s mother Geneva Reed-Veal. “More so, the county has on record, it’s on record, a history of this and we know it.”
The unusual circumstances of Bland’s death are complicated by Waller County’s long history of racial tensions dating back to the Reconstruction. A report by the Equal Justice Initiative shows Waller County had the third highest number of lynchings in Texas between 1877 and 1950.
The county’s history of racial discrimination, abuse of power and corruption were magnified in 2008, when Glenn Smith, then-police chief in Hempstead, was fired following allegations of racism and police brutality. Now Waller County sheriff, Smith is in charge of investigating Bland’s death in the jail he oversees.
“The history that precedes him is concerning for us in light of the details that we’ve been given about Sandra’s death to this point,” said Bland’s sister Sharon Cooper.
Jailhouse deaths spark suspicion
The concerns flagged by Bland’s family follow a long-history of wariness among blacks regarding detained or incarcerated loved ones.
In the 1990s Mississippi jails came under fire following a string of 48 hangings in jails across the state dating back to 1987 — more than 20 of which involved blacks. Some family members and supporters of the deceased believed the terror from the Jim Crow and civil rights eras had taken new form.
While many jailhouse suicides are just that and most involve white males, dozens of suspicious jail deaths and hangings over the years have prompted requests for investigations by family members and civil rights groups like the NAACP.
“People have a historical frame of reference,” said Lecia Brooks, of the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “If given no reason to trust law enforcement than why would they trust them when dealing with the death of a loved one?”
In mid-July, Rexdale W. Henry, a well-known Native-American civil rights activist, was found dead in a Neshoba County Jail cell in Mississippi following a traffic fine arrest. This is the same jail from which three civil rights activists vanished during Freedom Summer of 1964 only to be found dead in a dam 44 days later.
During the month of July alone, Bland was one of at least five black women found dead while in police custody – including Ralkina Jones, whose body was discovered in a Cleveland Heights city jail cell on July 26, two days after she was arrested for a domestic dispute.
Raynette Turner, the 44-year-old mother of eight who was taken to a hospital when she fell ill in her holding cell, died less than 24 hours after being returned to it. Turner had been booked in the Westchester, New York facility for shoplifting.
Linda Franks can relate to the pain and frustration Bland’s family is experiencing.
She learned her son, Lamar Johnson, was found hanging in a lockdown cell in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on May 30, four days after she said he was arrested on a warrant for traffic violations.
Franks said she’s baffled because her son, who eventually died at a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hospital, was in good spirits before he died and had a lot to live for, including three children.
“I spoke with Lamar on Tuesday. He was upbeat. He was, you know, ‘Mom, don’t worry about it. It’s just a traffic violation; I’m glad that it happened because now you know I’ll get this fine from over my head.’”
Franks said she’s been given little information about her son’s death and describes treatment by jail officials as callous. She said she doesn’t know what happened but she is sure suicide is something her son would never consider.
“He went in there totally sane, totally upbeat, totally positive, totally ready to get on with this thing,” she said. “And then a few days later you tell me that he was so distraught and he was so hopeless that he went and he hung himself? It makes no sense at all.”
Franks said when she learned of Bland’s death she immediately saw similarities.
“It was surreal. It was absolutely surreal when I…when I heard about what had happened,” Franks said. “It floored me. It absolutely did.”
Inconsistencies leave room for doubt
A new study released last week—on the same day that Bland’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit—reveals deaths in local and state jails are on the rise for the third consecutive year.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics report found an increase in unnatural causes of death such as suicide, drug or alcohol intoxication, accident and homicide—types of deaths that are preventable. It also noted that 25 percent of all jail deaths occurred in California or Texas facilities.
Many civil rights experts have called Bland’s arrest and subsequent death preventable, and say they reflect long-held biases of people of color often found in law enforcement.
“People have a historical frame of reference. If given no reason to trust law enforcement then why would they trust them when dealing with the death of a loved one?”
“It’s a systemic thing that’s in the very fiber of this country and the institutions of this country,” said New York-based civil rights attorney Ken Montgomery. “One of the places you can see it perform its best is the law enforcement and the criminal justice system.”
Bland, who was arrested on July 10th during a traffic stop and found dead in a jail cell three days later, had just moved to Texas from Illinois to start a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.
Authorities said she hanged herself, a finding her family disputes.
“We know that reportedly based off of their autopsy that she [Bland] allegedly committed suicide by hanging but we don’t know that for sure just based off of the inconsistencies with the information that we’ve been given,” she said.
Among the inconsistencies: Bland’s autopsy. Cannon Lambert, the family’s attorney, said the Waller County district attorney requested Bland’s body be brought back to Texas on July 22 so another procedure testing drugs found in her system could be performed.
Lambert said District Attorney Elton Mathis later changed his position after news broke of the request. “Mathis walked back…that decision and sent me an email saying, ‘Please proceed with funeral as planned,’” Lambert said.
And Brooks says the family has reason for concern.
“The information had been so contradictory from the beginning that the family rightfully cannot trust what they hear from law enforcement officials,” Brooks said.