Inside the Struggle for Justice at the Texas Jailhouse Where Sandra Bland Died

Human Rights

It’s 105 degrees in the shade, which is scarce outside the Waller County Sheriff’s Office and Jail. The building is low, and in varying grades of disrepair. Pooling water. Dingy sideboards.

This is where, on July 13, Sandra Bland died. In the month since the Sheriff’s Office claimed that her body was found hanging in cell 95 of the county jail, concerned members of the community have kept daily vigil outside. It’s been one of the hottest summers on record, and yet, here they are.

Until a few days ago, there was a large tree under which they would sit vigil, praying, singing and reading. After the protests that took place outside the building on the one-month anniversary of Bland’s death, and the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, the sheriff, purportedly displeased with the protests, had a barricade erected around the jail. He’s also had the single, shade-giving tree cut to the groundOn the Friday after the protests, we stood under umbrellas and camping tents, but most of all under the sun, undeterred by the loss of the beloved shade tree.

The county seat of Waller County, TX, is a small town called Hempstead. In a county that is 70 percent white, Hempstead is almost 40 percent African American and 37 percent Latino. This is the town in which the Waller County Sheriff’s Office and county jail are located.

“This is the most racist county in the state of Texas which is probably one of the most racist states in the country,” DeWayne Charleston, a former Waller County judge, told the Guardian earlier this month.

The sheriff, R. Glenn Smith, is no stranger to controversy under his watch. In 2007, when serving as chief of police in Hempstead, Smith came under fire for physically accosting and using racist language during the arrest of a 35-year-old black man. His punishment took the form of a two-week suspension, a six-month probation and mandatory anger management classes, measures dismissed by a local leader as a “slap on the hand.”

Smith was fired the following year, after the allegations of police misconduct persisted. Newly unemployed, Smith ran for county sheriff and won. Today he is the person charged with investigating the death of Sandra Bland, which occurred in the jail he oversees.

Bland’s death is puzzling; she was on her way to start a new job she was excited about, so why did this passionate young woman die in the Waller County Jail? Her family and friends do not believe that she killed herself, as the sheriff’s office is maintains. Her case has become an important flashpoint in a national discussion about law enforcement and police brutality in America. State and federal authorities are investigating but the loudest and most consistent voices calling for answers are those that sit outside the jail day after day, making sure that the sheriff knows they care about what happened to Bland, and that they will be there until they get answers.

Karisha Shaw, a Houston-based activist who regularly keeps vigil outside the jail, told Salon why she returns, day in and day out. “For those of us that are sitting vigil, we want our justice system to be just. And we realize that it isn’t,” Shaw said. “I for one am not able to be silent about that.”

When asked about the sheriff’s interactions with those protesting and keeping vigil, Shaw described a challenging relationship. “The sheriff treats us as though we are criminals,” she says. “He put up a barricade to keep us out. But to keep us out from what? We are sitting in a peaceful way. We want to know what happened to Sandy. Why has that brought so much hostility?”

The inconsistencies in the story are significant. According to Smith’s report, two jailers talked with Bland, during which time she expressed that she was not depressed, but was upset about her arrest. But the documentation itself is inconsistent. One form said she had suicidal thoughts in the past year, while another said that was not the case. If Sandra Bland had indeed disclosed suicidal ideation, then by Texas law, it would have been the responsibility of the staff at the jail to check on her every 30 minutes at a minimum, and every five minutes if she was judged to be a high risk for self-harm. How often was Bland checked on while in her cell?

Furthermore, during her arrest, which was caught on the officer’s dash-cam video, Bland disclosed that she had epilepsy, and stated that Officer Brian Encina had slammed her head against the ground. Did Bland seek or receive medical attention for that injury? From the moment Bland was brought in to the jail, her wellbeing was the responsibility of the staff there. Who will be held to account for her death?

There are many national calls to action on these questions. One petition calls on U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to take over the investigation, while another calls for an external private investigator to handle the case. A committee on safety in Texas jails has launched an investigation on jail suicides, sparked by Bland’s death. Bland’s family has set up a legal fund in order to navigate a legal system that often seems apathetic to black lives.

Those keeping vigil outside the jail want answers. Rev. Hannah Bonner, a Methodist pastor at St. John’s Church in downtown Houston, has stood outside the jail every day since Bland’s death. “Those who stand in solidarity with Sandra Bland desire the same things that she desired: that people would know they are loved and that they deserve to live in a just community," Bonner explains.

Even after being told by Sheriff Smith earlier this month to “go back to the church of Satan," Rev. Bonner remains undeterred. “Each and every person who lives [in Waller County] and each and every person who drives through there deserves to feel safe and deserves to have their rights respected,” she says. “We are willing to make sacrifices and endure heat and ridicule in order to communicate that message.”

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