The suicide of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail cell in July was shocking because it seemed so easily avoidable: Not only had Bland been pulled over and booked for trivial reasons, she was also held in jail for three days, for no reason other than that she was unable to make bail.
In August, Bland’s mother filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Waller County, two screening officers at the jail, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the officer who pulled Bland over. Now comes word, via the Houston Chronicle, that on Wednesday, lawyers for Waller County and the jail screening officers filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the defendants “did not have any subjective knowledge of and were not deliberately indifferent to any alleged serious risk of suicide.”
But the 39-page motion makes another, more explosive claim, as well: The blame for Bland’s suicide, it asserts, lies with her friends and family for not helping her secure the $515 dollars she needed to make bail.
“Bland committed suicide by hanging herself in the jail cell, using a rolled/twisted plastic trash bag as a ligature, and tying it around the support of a privacy partition in the cell,” the filing reads. “It is apparent now that Bland’s inability to secure her release from jail—and her family and friends’ refusal to bail her out of jail—led her to commit suicide.”
This assertion ignores what is arguably most important about this case: Bland should not have been required to pay her jailers any money in order to buy her freedom. As civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis told me back in July, “what made [Bland’s case] illegal was that they arrested this woman and kept her in a jail cell, and there was never a finding that she was a danger to the community, there was no adversarial hearing with a lawyer where that question was asked, let alone answered, and there was no finding that she was a risk of flight.”
Karakatsanis added: “They put this amount of money on her head, and basically said, ‘You will be kept in this cage unless and until you pay this arbitrarily set amount of money,’ without any inquiry into her ability to pay it.”
The bail system Bland was subjected to is unfair to poor people, who end up serving time behind bars simply because they can’t afford to pay their way out. According to one study, 5 out of 6 people in jail are there because they could not afford to pay their bail.
Whether or not responsibility for Sandra Bland’s suicide should rest with anyone but her is far from obvious. But blaming her friends and family for it because they didn’t participate in a patently unjust system is obscene.