What or who killed Sandra Bland? | Mental Health Matters
Special to the Sun-Bonanza
Sandra Bland is dead, an alleged suicide during a third day of incarceration in a Texas jail after being pulled over for failure to signal a lane change.
Over the last 50 years, as public mental health programs have been shuttered, the criminal justice system has incarcerated an increasing number of people with emotional and/or substance abuse issues either as a primary or secondary cause of their offense against society.
According to jail consultant Kenneth Ray, some 64% of prisoners have mental problems, which is shocking enough, considering the purposeful underfunding of mental health resources to address these problems.
Back to the alleged suicide of Sandra Bland. What happened?
We know that Sandra Bland was a 28-year-old single, black woman from Illinois with a bachelor’s degree. She was retuning to her alma mater in Texas to start a job when she was arrested on July 10, 2015. She died in police custody three days later.
Beyond these basic facts, media coverage provides a dazzling array of different stories.There is the police story, the family story, the lawyer story, the television story, each a snapshot, a point of viewing.
The police story: Ms. Bland was arrested for assaulting an officer (see police video). Ms. Bland received routine treatment while in custody (again, see police video). Blood toxicology revealed high levels of cannabis in her system. Ms. Bland hung herself and committed suicide.
Other data from police intake forms: Bland may have attempted suicide with pills in 2015 after a miscarriage or she made a suicide attempt in 2014. On one form she reported no suicidal thoughts in the past year; on another, she reported such thoughts.
The family story: Sandra had a job offer from her alma mater. She was excited about it. She had no history of mental illness. Before her arrest she was “upbeat and looking forward to the future.” She would never have killed herself.
The family attorney: Sandra was a social activist. Social activists don’t take their own life, particularly in jail.
The NBC television story from Chicago: Sandra Bland had 10 run-ins with the law. She had a DUI. She owed court fines. She was convicted of operating an uninsured vehicle, driving with an expired license, pled guilty to misdemeanor possession of marijuana, and to retail theft of less than $150.
Sandra Bland’s on-line postings: She spoke out against police brutality. In one post she said, “I want you guys to know that I am a human, and so if there are any of you dealing with these same things, depression and post traumatic stress disorder — it’s O.K.”
Other relevant facts: The rate of suicide in jail is 40 per 100,000 inmates, more than three times the rate in the community, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice. There were 3800 jail suicides from 2000-2012. Suicide is the leading cause of death in custody.
My observations: Watch the police video of the arrest; you see a police officer provoking an anxious woman who becomes irritated and then agitated, defiant, helpless and enraged.
Watch the in-custody police video: You see a sterile, impersonal, spare environment. You see Ms. Bland, first in the dress she wore when arrested, then in the formless orange jumpsuit she was issued in its place. You observe Ms. Bland rubbing her eyes on several occasions, apparently tearful.
You see her being issued a spare mattress pad and a blanket. No pillow. She drops the blanket onto the pad, appearing upset. You observe her being ordered into a cage of a holding cell whereupon she throws the bedding on the floor and again appears to be wiping away tears.
I don’t discern any particular interest or concern about her behavior on the part of her jailers.
Here’s the takeaway: Sandra Bland is dead because the stresses involved in the “routine” incarceration of this emotionally vulnerable woman overwhelmed her.
How? Ms. Bland likely had a history of emotional issues; she was a black woman in America. She had financial stresses based on her arrest and conviction history.
She was a single woman, apparently living alone, with less than a robust support system. She told Internet followers that she suffered from emotional difficulties. She responded affirmatively to a jailhouse questionnaire about having made a prior suicide attempt.
These factors, taken together, suggest emotional fragility. Add her failure to quickly raise bail, and the length of her incarceration is uncertain. Add her behavior prior to and during her arrest — heightened emotions, anger, agitation, feeling victimized and helpless, and then, after arrest, diminished frustration tolerance and tearfulness.
Then add her likely perception of the jail environment — “I’m being denigrated and punished for what? Failure to signal a lane change. Unbelievable! First they take my freedom, then my clothing.”
The lockup cell, the bedding, the absence of any privacy, even toileting, the isolation — all of it cues, “You’re a bad person, and we are punishing you.”
Next, add what we know about suicide: It is frequently contemplated and then completed in the course of minutes or hours without an immediate prior history of clinical depression.
The Bland family “knows” that Ms. Bland could not have killed herself and suggest foul play by a police department with a sordid racist history. The police provide data to “prove” they acted properly and professionally and had no part in or responsibility for her suicide.
Bottom line: “Routine” policing can lead to problems. Placing someone in custody can have lethal consequences. That’s the system. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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