It's Not Just Sandra Bland: Why So Many Americans Die in Limbo Behind Bars

The African-American woman's mysterious death following a controversial arrest is an indictment of our modern bail system.
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Activists gather for a rally and march against police brutality in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo: a katz/Shutterstock)

Activists gather for a rally and march against police brutality in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo: a katz/Shutterstock)

First, a timeline: On July 13th, Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell. The 28-year-old African-American woman had been arrested in Hempstead, the county seat of Waller County, Texas, on the charge of assaulting a police officer after he asked her to put out her cigarette. Recently released footage from the officer's dash-cam appears to show the trooper in question threatening Bland for simply being unresponsive. Three days later, Bland was found dead in her jail cell. The Waller County prosecutor claims her autopsy shows her injuries were "consistent" with a suicide, the New York Times reports.

The strange saga of Sandra Bland has become yet another flashpoint in the steady count of African Americans who have died at the hands of police, either during a run-in with an officer (Eric Garner, Walter Scott) or in police custody (Freddie Gray). Bland's case is even more disturbing when you consider that she is one of five black women to have died in jail in July; most recently, 43-year-old New York woman Raynetta Turner was found dead in her cell, after waiting two days for her arraignment on a shoplifting charge.

Bland's death isn't just another instance of police brutality (despite irresponsibly perpetuated rumors that she was dead in her official police mug shot). Really, it's symptomatic of another problem: She was simply left to fester in a county jail cell. "I keep thinking about how Sandra Bland spent three days in jail because she couldn't pay $500," tweeted Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce on Sunday. "There's a lot to think about in Sandra Bland's case. But how many people are removed from society because they can't pay $500 bail?"

Is an indeterminate imprisonment in a local jail really the best way to apply justice?

This speaks to a larger problem: Is an indeterminate imprisonment in a local jail really the best way to apply justice? After all, county  jails aren't for convicts who have been subjected to the due process afforded by the Constitution; often, inmates are simply stuck in a pre-trial limbo, unable to pay for their freedom. "About six out of every 10 inmates in this country is unconvicted," Pretrial Justice Institute executive director Cherise Fanno Burdeen told Fusion. "Most of them are for misdemeanors, and most of them are low-level charges. If they had their risks assessed, they would be identified as low-risk, and they should never be booked or held in the first place."

But as Fusion notes, those low-risk arrests are dying, rather than walking free. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an average of 73.2 percent of prisoners (698 people) who died in local jails between 2000 and 2012 were not convicted of any crime; an average of 37.8 percent of them had been incarcerated for less than a week.  The majority of these deaths involved folks who had no business being incarcerated, even temporarily, in the first place—a list that, according to a New York Times analysis, likely included Bland, whose only crime was refusing to exit her vehicle. But why didn’t Sandra Bland just pay her bail, you may ask? Ask yourself this instead: Do you have $500 floating around? Because some 62 percent of Americans don't have enough money in their savings to cover unexpected expenses, like a trip to the emergency room, or, apparently, an arrest by an irate state trooper.

So whose fault is it that Bland died in prison? The Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that suicide continues to be a leading cause of death in local jails. This makes Bland, who had reportedly told her jailers that she was depressed and had attempted suicide, less of an outlier than expected. That's not to say her death isn't part of a larger trend: County jails are significantly worse at providing medical care to inmates than prisons. Nearly half of county jail inmates between 2011 and 2012 said they were "not at all satisfied" with health-care services provided during incarceration; more than half said it was worse than the health care they’d received in the 12 months prior to admission.

Let's add up the factors: Mix together an arrest over a frivolous violation, a bail system that keeps citizens languishing behind bars, and a pattern of medical negligence in county prisons, and you have a recipe for punitive chaos, a judicial limbo that keeps otherwise law-abiding Americans incarcerated for no compelling reason other than a confluence of circumstances—and puts those with chronic illnesses in a health-care danger zone.

But why didn’t Sandra Bland just pay her bail, you may ask? Ask yourself this instead: Do you have $500 floating around?

This problem could affect anyone—indeed, more than half of jail deaths in 2012 were among white inmates, per the Bureau of Justice Statistics—but the bail trap is especially pronounced among African Americans. Just consider the Department of Justice investigation, which found that white police officers and city officials in Ferguson, Missouri, exploited the bond system in order to fill city coffers. And it's not just Ferguson: Nationally, African Americans "are two times more likely to be detained than whites for non-violent drug arrests in America, and their pretrial bond is 35% higher than for white men charged with the same offense," MSNBC reported following the release of the Justice Department's Ferguson report.

This is a problem of national consequence, beyond the borders of Hempstead and Ferguson: Long-simmering racial tensions, like those that have molded Waller County for decades, can mar even the most "well-intentioned" police departments with a grossly disproportionate sense of justice. As American University law professor Cynthia Jones noted in 2008, two longitudinal studies of 30,000 and 36,000 criminal cases showed that African-American defendants faced significantly higher bail amounts than white arrestees with similar criminal charges and criminal histories; one researcher observed that "being black increases a defendant's odds of being held in jail pretrial by 25%.” And this lays the sod for America's ongoing mass incarceration problem."The bail determination process has resulted not only in racial inequalities in bail and pretrial detention decisions, but also in the over-incarceration of pretrial defendants and the overcrowding of jails nationwide," Jones wrote."[These] are caused, in part, by the virtually unbridled and unchecked discretion that bail officials have in setting bail."

Sandra Bland isn't the only victim of an overzealous police officer and a "disastrous" bail bond system. Consider Kalief Browder, the New York teenager who spent three years in pre-trial detention on Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder attempted suicide while incarcerated, and again upon his release. He finally succeeded in 2015. The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution supposedly affords all Americans "the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed." If the deaths of Bland and Browder are any indication, the modern American bail system is a long way from fulfilling that promise.

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