County jails prepare for new rules under Sandra Bland Act

Andrew Moore reports

Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law Thursday that requires county jails to help inmates with mental health problems get treatment.

The legislation, dubbed the Sandra Bland Act, was named after the now-famous 28-year-old woman who was pulled over in Waller County in 2015 for failing to signal a lane change. A confrontation with a state trooper followed, and Bland was arrested for allegedly assaulting him. Three days later, she was found hanging in her jail cell -- having committed suicide. It was later discovered that she may have suffered from depression and other health issues.

Senator John Whitmire (D), who sponsored the Senate version of the 55-page bill that was written by Representative Garnet Coleman (D), said 26 people committed suicide in Texas county jails last year. 

The new law will attempt to address jail suicide deaths by requiring more mental health and de-escalation training for jail employees. The Bell County Jail said Friday it was already preparing to make training arrangements for its employees.

The law also requires local sheriff's departments to tell a judge within 12 hours if a person in their custody may be dealing with a mental health issue or mental disability. Prior to this law, deputies had three days to do that. After notifying a judge, the individual now must be examined by a mental health professional and possibly taken to a mental health facility.

The Bell County Jail said it was working to make sure its staff had access to a mental health expert 24/7, even if it was by teleconference.

"County jail, for most mental heath people in crisis, is not the place for them," Bell County Jail Cpt. Byron Shelton said. "We don't have the staff to continuously take care of these people, take care of their hygiene needs. With the Sandra Bland Act this will allow them to have more resources to send people to. Will allow them to get on and stay on medication once they get out of jail also."

The new legislation gives counties permission to develop programs to place homeless people and individuals with mental illnesses into care facilities instead of behind bars. It even allows the Department of State Health Services to provide certain grants for nonprofits to fight drug abuse, mental illnesses and homelessness -- as a preventative measure to keep people out of the jail system.

Some information for this report came courtesy of our Austin sister-station KVUE.

© 2017 KCEN-TV


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