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More Jails Became Death Traps in 2022 Amid Lack of Mental Healthcare, Housing, Bail Reform Backlash

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In 2022, more jails in the United States became death traps, as people faced inhumane conditions in overcrowded facilities amid a lack of mental healthcare, housing and backlash against bail reform. Most of those who died were incarcerated pretrial, and activists say this number is heavily underreported. From New York City to Houston, Texas, jail deaths have reached their highest levels in decades. We get an update from Krish Gundu, with the Texas Jail Project, and Keri Blakinger, investigative reporter with The Marshall Project. Blakinger is the organization’s first formerly incarcerated reporter, and her memoir, “Corrections in Ink,” was banned from prisons in Florida this week. She also discusses a new searchable database of which books prisons don’t want incarcerated people to read.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Well, as 2022 comes to a close, we look now at one of the most alarming developments this year: how more jails in the United States are becoming death traps, where people face inhumane conditions in overcrowded facilities.

New data show New York City jails are the deadliest in more than a quarter of a century. Nineteen people died in city custody or shortly after being released, and severe understaffing at the notorious Rikers Island jails has been linked to several suicides, as officials are now predicting the population to balloon in coming years, even as the city faces a mandate to shut Rikers down by 2027.

Meanwhile, in DeKalb, Georgia, officials report two people died from hanging this week in less than 24 hours, making this the deadliest year in the jail’s history.

In Houston, Texas, the Harris County Jail has seen a record 27 deaths this year. It’s been under a noncompliance status since September.

That’s where we begin now, to look at this underreported crisis. For more, we’re joined by Krish Gundu, Texas Jail Project co-founder and executive director, which aims to be an unofficial citizens’ jail oversight commission throughout Texas, has been raising alarm about the crisis in Houston. Also with us, Keri Blakinger, investigative reporter based in Texas, covering jails and prisons for The Marshall Project. She’s moving on to the Los Angeles Times.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Krish, let’s begin with you. Why are in-custody deaths surging in Texas jails? I mean, let’s be very clear here: Jail is where people go, more often than not, before they have been convicted of anything, and they are dying in jail either by suicide or by maltreatment, not clear. Tell us what’s happening.

KRISH GUNDU: Good morning, Amy.

Yes, you’re absolutely right to point out that jails are places where people are held pretrial. That means they have not been convicted. They’re legally innocent. And it’s become a death sentence for a lot of folks in Texas county jails. As of yesterday, we had 161 custody deaths in Texas county jails. That’s about 240 jails spread across 254 counties. And in Harris County Jail, that number is actually — officially, they say 27, but we know that there were 28 deaths, because people are being given a PR bond as they are dying in the hospital, so that they don’t have to be counted. So, actually, we’ve had 28 deaths that we know about.

And the reason for that is severe overcrowding. And the overcrowding is being determined by a really small group of prosecutors and local judges who handle felony cases, which is in stark contrast to reforms enacted by misdemeanor judges that have dramatically reduced incarceration and reduced crime and improved public safety. But the officials responsible for felonies have rejected overwhelming evidence to expand pretrial releases, and they’ve pursued policies of greater pretrial detention, which is why we’re seeing the system collapsing under its own weight. We hear about systemic medical neglect, medical abuse. Just the whole system is just collapsing under its own weight.

AMY GOODMAN: So, even as we speak, overnight you’ve been getting more information. Describe the situation of people who have died in jail.

KRISH GUNDU: Yes. So, just to give you an idea of some of the tragic and completely preventable deaths — that’s one thing I would like to underscore, is that these are absolutely preventable deaths. So, a 24-year-old young man went into the jail with his insulin shots, and he told the staff that he was diabetic and he needed his insulin. Four days later, he’s dead because of diabetic ketoacidosis, because he didn’t get his insulin. The first death this year was Simon Peter Douglas, who came into the jail in acute psychiatric crisis, tried to hang himself, and they put him in a padded cell. And he managed to beat his head so badly against the walls and the metal grate on the floor that he eventually died, which is abject medical neglect. I mean, these are absolutely preventable deaths. Another death that I was reading an autopsy report on yesterday of a 38-year-old woman with diabetes, she died because of complications from a fungal infection.

So, all these were just completely preventable deaths. Three of them were suicides. Four of them were people with severe mental illness who were found incompetent to stand trial. And these are custodial deaths. So, these people are under the direct supervision, surveillance and care of the sheriff’s staff. And so they’re responsible for their life and death. And when people die under direct surveillance and supervision, it just erodes the public’s trust in these systems. I mean, if I can’t trust the sheriff to keep people in his own custody safe, how can we expect him to keep people in the community safe?

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re talking about the Harris County Jail, where, of course, Houston is. What about mental illness? Nearly 80% of people admitted to the jail are recorded likely to be suffering from a mental illness, according to the jail’s own data?

KRISH GUNDU: Yes, you’re absolutely right. So, Harris County Jail is actually the largest confiner of people with mental illness in the state of Texas. In fact, the top three out of the top five facilities with psychiatric populations are county jails, which should tell us something about our priorities as a society, you know, where we’re investing our resources. We’re investing them in punitive systems. So, this is a trend across the state. In many of the county jails, there’s a growing number of the population that is people with mental illness. And in Harris County, that’s over 80%.

And you add this overcrowding issue to the fact that we are also having this decade-long mental health crisis in the state, where we have underfunded the mental health system, so we have over 2,500 people who are sitting in county jails awaiting competency restoration. So, they’ve been found incompetent to stand trial; they’re awaiting competency restoration. That’s over 2,500 as of last week. And, in fact, four of the people who died, our community members who died, this year in Harris County Jail were severely mentally ill and found incompetent to stand trial. So, they were one of the most vulnerable folks in the jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, how is the overcrowding in the jails linked to the backlash against bail reform in a vote that was just taken in Harris County?

KRISH GUNDU: I think it’s directly connected to the backlash against bail reform. So, the reason why we’re here today in Harris County and in the state of Texas is a completely self-inflicted crisis. So, when Harris County went through misdemeanor bail reform — which, I might say, was hugely successful. The latest report that came out of the Quattrone Center is very clear about how successful misdemeanor bail reform was. But there was this backlash against the misdemeanor bail reform. They did not want it to spread to the rest of the state.

And so, combine that with the beginning of COVID, there was this huge ask from public health experts to decarcerate jails because, as we know from all the evidence out there, that communities with big jails was where the most COVID spread was happening. And so, there was this ask for depopulating jails. And the response by Governor Abbott to that ask was his executive order GA-13, which limited releases of people from jail. So, they couldn’t be given PR bonds anymore. And after that, there was the George Floyd protests, and a lot of people were getting bailed out by charitable bail funds.

And so, between that and the ask for depopulation, we had S.B. 6 pass into law in this last legislative session, which was basically the codifying of GA-13. And what S.B. 6 did is that it — there was a blanket denial of people — to give PR bonds to people on a wide range of charges. So, it was sold as “bail reform,” but it really wasn’t bail reform, because what it did was it further entrenched cash bail into the equation. So, for charges you might have gotten cash bail for — a PR bond for earlier, now you had to pay cash to get out. So people who are unable to pay cash are stuck in jail, and those are mostly poor folks and Black and Brown folks, mostly. So, that has led to — directly led to skyrocketing pretrial populations across the state. And that’s a result of the backlash on the bail reform.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Krish Gundu, we want to thank you for being with us, head of Texas Jail Project, as we turn to Keri Blakinger, investigative reporter based in Texas, covering jails and prisons for The Marshall Project as the media organization’s first formerly incarcerated reporter. She’s also author of the memoir Corrections in Ink, which details her experience serving time in prison in upstate New York. Her most recent piece for The Marshall Project is headlined “Why Would Prisons Ban My Book? Absurdities Rule the System,” after the state of Florida banned her memoir from the prisons.

Keri, it’s great to have you back. If you can talk about this larger — putting Texas into the larger picture, from Rikers to Texas to where you’re headed, to work at the Los Angeles Times, what’s happening in Los Angeles, as well?

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah. I think that we’re seeing a lot of the same things across the country. And I’m so glad that you had Krish on talking about Texas, because it feels like Rikers Island is the thing that everyone is so well aware of. So much of the media focus is often on Rikers Island because of the concentration of reporters and news outlets in New York. So, I think anyone who sort of follows this is broadly aware that there’s been this huge spike in deaths in Rikers. And we’ve obviously just heard about how that’s true in Harris County, as well, this year. But we’ve seen the same sorts of things happening in jails across the country.

And on top of that, sometimes we have other layered concerns, like some of these facilities are deteriorating in a very extreme way, and you have the physical plant — like, the physical facilities are in quite bad shape, and then you also have the overcrowding that Krish has mentioned, and some of that is sort of a rebound that we’re seeing after COVID as various states rescinded the measures in place that they had to reduce populations during COVID. Obviously, Krish has talked about how that worked out in Texas, but in California there was at one point a zero-bail order, and that has been — when that was rescinded, you immediately saw an increase in jail populations, particularly in Los Angeles, which, you know, has something like 13,000 people in their jails at this point. And their jails have been in extraordinarily bad shape. They’ve been under a consent decree since the '70s and have not managed to comply adequately in that entire timeframe. And then, you know, you have COVID and the aftereffects of COVID, and that's a very dire situation going on there right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, finally, I wanted to ask you about your book being banned — and you talk a lot about all these kinds of issues — Corrections in Ink, which we did an interview with you about on Democracy Now!, being banned in the prisons in the state of Florida. And fit that into The Marshall Project’s release of this database of books that have been banned from prisons, spanning at least 18 states, Keri.

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah. I’m so glad to talk about this. So, about a year ago, actually, I started looking into this. I started collecting the banned book lists from every state that maintains a banned book list for its prison system. Turns out about half of states maintain banned book lists. But of those, only 18 sent as usable banned book lists, because several of the states were messy data or sort of not relevant. But out of the 18 that we got, that includes about 54,000 titles total. We sorted out some of the magazines, so that’s just looking at books.

And there’s definitely some absurd and concerning patterns that you see within that 54,000. One of the big patterns is that a lot of the reasons that books are banned are just patently absurd, like many books are banned for things like nudity, when prisons have forced nudity. Like, you have regular strip searches, often in groups. And yet books are commonly banned for nudity, sometimes nudity of cartoon characters.

But there’s many other reasons that are really absurd when you look at them, but one of the big takeaways is that these absurd reasons are often applied in a manner that seems pretty racially biased in several states — not every state, but definitely some states. One of the sort of examples that stands out to me is Texas, where Mein Kampf is not banned, but Ida B. Wells’ book on lynchings is banned for racial content. And there are several states that ban, you know, Black abolition and Black liberation authors for racially related reasons, which is, you know, extremely concerning, to say the least.

But, I mean, I think, fundamentally, the reasons that we see these books banned sort of speak to their absurdity, especially in this day and age when so many people behind bars have contraband cellphones. When you ban books, all you’re doing is keeping the well-behaved people from reading what they want, because the people who are already breaking the rules can get those materials through their contraband phones.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Keri Blakinger, for joining us, investigative reporter based in Texas, covering jails and prisons for The Marshall Project as the organization’s first formerly incarcerated reporter. We will link to your article, “Why Would Prisons Ban My Book? Absurdities Rule the System.” Your book, of course, your memoir, Corrections in Ink.

Next up, we look at the new documentary Angola Do You Hear Us? Voices from a Plantation Prison. It’s just been shortlisted for an Oscar. Back in 30 seconds.

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