Changing hidebound attitudes and cultures in Texas jails, rather than creating reams of new government forms and laws, is emerging as a likely key to curbing a high suicide rate in local lockups, reports the Houston Chronicle. Suggestions by members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which held a hearing yesterday on the problem, buttressed calls by legislative leaders and activists for better mental-health screening to answer a record of 29 jail suicides so far this year, compared with 22 in all of 2014. The inquiry and a separate one in the Texas House were launched in response to the self-inflicted hanging death in July of community activist Sandra Bland, 28, in Waller County.
“We can change all the forms we want, and we can pass all the new laws we want, but if we don’t change the attitude and culture of the jail system, then we will still have the same problem,” said committee chairman John Whitmire. “Our attitude should be to treat mental-health inmates like we would want our relatives to be treated. And we need to change the culture in communities so that all the local elected officials who are part of this system are talking, working together to get the best outcomes.” A Bexar County program to divert mentally unstable, nonviolent offenders into special shelters and treatment programs, instead of housing them in jail, is saving San Antonio taxpayers about $15 million a year. Tony Fabelo, a criminal justice expert, said the Bexar County program is proving successful at removing thousands of offenders who otherwise would clog jail cells. New assessment and screening procedures took effect Sept. 1 that could lead to even better outcomes, he said.