by Douglas Lucas
Hung Do, 38, told a guard “I feel like hurting myself, I feel like killing myself,” according to #GulfPort7 Occupier and combat veteran Eric Marquez, who witnessed the interaction while locked up in Houston’s Central jail on July 23.
The young guard replied, “Okay, okay, okay,” but then left for the hallway to perform a count of inmates, abandoning Do, who was arrested the day before and charged with possession of a controlled substance. “If you’re not trying to kill yourself right then,” Marquez told us, “they’re not going to do anything about it. It’s sad.”
In hindsight, Do’s fate seems clinched from the moment his plea for help was neglected. While the guard was away, Marquez told us, another prisoner discovered Do’s hanging body and started screaming. Guards ran to the area and pulled the man down. He had used his own clothes to hang himself. It is unclear if Do was detoxing or if, as some inmates thought, he was distraught from involvement in an auto accident.
When we told her about the interaction, Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, said, “Totally believable. The guards who respond to somebody saying something like that are just terribly undertrained.”
Last month Claitor testified before the Texas House Committee on County Affairs that careless mistakes and lost opportunities contributing to jail suicide could be prevented by improved mandatory training, especially for personnel administering the mental health/suicide screening form during intake. Her review of Texas Commission on Jail Standards reports from July 2010 to February 2014 showed the number one reason jails were found out of compliance statewide was failure to fill out the screening questionnaire correctly. An effective solution targeting that part of the intake process might indeed reduce suicides—“the leading cause of death in local jails [across the country]each year since 2000,” according to a Justice Department report out this month.
But such a reform is only a better step in the same direction, and what is needed most is a new course, according to Austin Community College philosophy professor Azzurra Crispino of Prison Abolition and Prisoner Support. She told us, “We need to face the reality that jails and the prison-industrial system are there to make a tremendous amount of money for certain elites, not to keep us safe nor to rehabilitate us. The very structure of a jail, the idea that someone is unable to leave, that there are scary guards issuing orders, that there are people running around with weapons—nothing about a jail is meant to feel safe or comforting or rehabilitative. That’s problematic for a person suffering mental illness and also problematic for someone who has done wrong and knows he has done wrong.”
The increasing number of people with mental illness entering jails and prisons need care and if they violated rights they need transformative justice. Crispino said, “Imagine for the sake of the argument that Mr. Do did actually kill someone in a vehicular accident. If he knew that he was going to be responsible for taking care of children whose parents died in another car crash, then perhaps he would have had a reason to live knowing that okay, I’ve done a wrong, and now it’s going to be my responsibility to help right a similar wrong that someone else has done (someone else since obviously it would be traumatic for children to be raised by the same person who killed their parents).”
But as long as the current criminal justice system is allowed to stand, anyone facing the possibility of jail should expect an environment where their health needs will likely not be met. During the #BaltimoreUprising in April 2015, for example, some people held for days without charges did not receive medication. “They don’t care,” Marquez told us, describing jailers. “Just because we’re inmates, they end up losing respect for us.”