THE BLOG
09/30/2016 04:42 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2017

True Price Of The Bland Settlement And Black Women's Custodial Deaths In Texas

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Bland family settled their wrongful death civil suit for $1.9 million and a litany of procedural changes to be implemented in the Waller County Jail, where Sandra Bland, 27, was found hanged last summer following a violent arrest for supposedly failing to signal a lane change.

Putting aside that arresting ex-trooper Brian Encinia faces only a perjury charge for his role in Bland's death, the procedural changes--which include mandated electronic automated sensors for timely cell checks, additional medical services staff, and education for improved intake screening--will be implemented only in Waller County despite the epidemic custodial death rates for black women across the entire state.

Data from the Texas Justice Initiative shows between 2005 and 2015, black women were 33 percent of the female Texas prison population and accounted for roughly 40 percent of female deaths in custody. Many of these losses were completely preventable, as the leading causes of non-natural death for African American women and Latinas stem from drug and alcohol intoxication - 37 percent for black women and 32 percent for Latinas. These rates are double those of other races and ethnicities, male and female.

Keep in mind Texas has the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the country, trailing only Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. But because of its size, as of 2014 Texas had the largest incarcerated population of any state in the union.

As Amanda Woog, founder of the Texas Justice Initiative explains, "Texas incarcerates more people in its jails and prisons than any other state, which means that state-level reforms will impact hundreds of thousands of lives."

Some might argue that prisoners deserve to be at the mercy of hard-hearted jailers, but this kind of thinking goes against the very founding principles of the nation. The Eighth Amendment makes it plain: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." Being arrested and incarcerated does not negate one's humanity or one's civil rights. The current conditions in facilities in Texas are essentially tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. Changing those conditions would make a huge impact.

Beginning state-level reforms in Texas is important because of its massive carceral size and because it tends to set custodial trends for the rest of country; changes there could more swiftly be taken up in institutions nationwide. Even so, we need to be clear: while operational changes such as preventing the falsification of staff rounds is a key starting point, implementation of such changes does not guarantee that endangered prisoners will get necessary help or treatment. This is where accountability factors in.

The officers involved--beginning with Brian Encinia and ending with the jailers who falsified records in the case--must face the appropriate criminal charges for their actions.

This is not about vengeance, but about justice and real reform - neither of which will ever take hold so long as law enforcement is given a pass every time its representatives unlawfully kill a black person. And as we have seen from the available data regarding custodial deaths, these circumstances are especially dire for black women, both because of their vulnerabilities on the inside but also because black women's lives seem to matter so little on the outside.

Even as a massive social movement calling for substantive change in criminal justice has gripped the country--a movement that has spotlighted how judicial racism has resulted in scores of African American deaths--the loss of life for black women and girls has not figured prominently.

Some argue that because women account for a small segment of the prison population it is right to focus on black men's plight to the exclusion of all others. But whether it's 5 black women killed in custody or 500, their lives, too, matter.

The Bland family fought bravely and managed a victory of sorts, but there remains much to be done. A million-dollar settlement and the promise of procedural change fall short of what Sandra Bland and other black women deserve.