AUSTIN, Texas — In 2008, a murder suspect at the Waller County Jail went on a crash diet, shimmied his way through a footwide air conditioning vent and was found days later taking a dip in a Houston hotel pool.

AUSTIN, Texas — In 2008, a murder suspect at the Waller County Jail went on a crash diet, shimmied his way through a footwide air conditioning vent and was found days later taking a dip in a Houston hotel pool.

In 2012, a 29-year-old who had been in the jail for a week used bed sheets to hang himself from an air conditioning vent in the ceiling.

Last year, another inmate locked a jailer who came to retrieve a food tray inside his cell and then slipped out the jail’s unsecured lobby door.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has found the Waller County Jail — the 110-bed lockup where 28-year-old Sandra Bland was found hanging from a plastic bag July 13 — out of compliance with state jail regulations at least five times since 2009, a figure that doesn’t include the 2008 escape, which was the subject of news reports. The violations include minor technical issues, such as missing documentation showing that the jail’s menu met dietary standards.

But others were major red flags that experts say could indicate lax security protocols and ineffective management. After the 2012 suicide, the jail was cited for the same violation that occurred when Bland died: failure to regularly observe the inmate.

"That, to me, is symbolic that staff-wise, there’s just something not quite right," said Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates for criminal justice reform. "They’re not quite on top of things."

The Waller County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment on the violations. But in a news release, Sheriff Glenn Smith said he is seeking the creation of a commission to review the jail’s procedures, evaluate personnel and discuss community relations.

"The death of any person in the custody of any governmental entity should experience great scrutiny and be thoroughly investigated by an outside source," Smith said.

Brandon Wood, executive director of the jail commission, said that after each previous violation, Waller County officials submitted a corrective action plan within 30 days and addressed the problems. The county is expected to submit a similar plan to respond to factors in Bland’s death.

Bland was arrested July 10 after a Texas Department of Public Safety officer pulled her over for failing to signal. Dashboard camera footage of the incident shows that the stop escalated when Bland defied the officer’s request to extinguish her cigarette. After Bland refused his order to get out of her car, 30-year-old Trooper Brian Encinia brandished a Taser, screaming "I will light you up!" A screaming match ensued, with Bland repeatedly asking why she was being arrested and calling Encinia a "pussy."

Three days later, Bland was found dead in a jail cell. An autopsy has ruled the death a suicide. Bland’s family has said she had no history of mental health trouble and demanded a deeper investigation, although she appears to have told jailers that she had been suicidal in the past.

The story has sparked outrage nationally amid debate over racial disparities in policing. Activists and others have asked whether the traffic stop was legitimate and whether Bland was properly supervised and cared for at the jail.

The state jail commission oversees conditions in the state’s more than 200 county jails, inspecting the facilities to ensure they meet regulatory standards. Since 2009, the agency conducted at least 15 inspections at Waller County Jail. After five of those inspections, the agency informed the jail it was out of compliance with state standards.

Some of the infractions were technical: a kitchen fire suppression system hadn’t been inspected in a timely manner; a licensed dietician hadn’t recently reviewed the jail’s menu.

Other violations, experts said, were more worrisome. After the 2012 suicide, the jail was cited for failing to observe inmates at least once every hour. Reports from the incident show that jailers had not made face-to-face contact with 29-year-old James Howell for more than 90 minutes before they discovered him hanging from a blue bed sheet.

After the 2014 escape, the commission said jailers didn’t lock critical doorways, allowing an inmate who had been arrested on an arson charge to run out the front door and into a nearby residential neighborhood before he was tracked down, tasered and returned to the lockup.

And again this month after Bland’s death, the facility was cited for failing to observe the inmate regularly. The jail was also cited for failing to show that jail staff had received required training on handling inmates who are mentally disabled and potentially suicidal.

Of larger concern, said Michele Deitch, a University of Texas professor who is an expert in prison and jail conditions, are previous serious lapses in security and oversight, particularly the 2012 suicide.

"That’s hugely troubling, this issue about not following through on security checks on face-to-face observations," Deitch said. "They were cited for that in the previous case and don’t appear to have done anything to ensure that staff are, in fact, doing that."

Also disturbing, she said, was that in both cases, the inmates had access to materials that allowed them to commit suicide.

"In the Sandra Bland case, the fact that she had access to a plastic garbage bag is mind-boggling to me," Deitch said.

Apparent discrepancies in the jail’s intake forms are also alarming, she said. Before booking, an inmate must complete forms that help officials assess their mental health and determine whether additional monitoring is necessary.

In Bland’s case, one set of hand-written forms indicates she had previously attempted suicide and experienced depression. A computer-generated set of similar forms gives no indication of past mental distress.

Sheriff Smith, in the news release, said the differing information on the forms indicated that Bland changed her responses to the questions about her mental health. He also said she refused medical treatment before she was jailed. And she was not on a suicide watch.

Wood, the jail commission director, said his agency continuously monitors jails statewide and tracks violations over time that could indicate deeper problems at the facilities and trigger increased oversight.

Jails that are repeatedly found out of compliance can face sanctions such as limits on the inmate population and even forced closure, though that is rare.

As for Waller County, Wood said after the jail submits its plan to improve monitoring inmates, the commission will inspect again to check for adherence to the plan.


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