Texas Inmate's Suicide Highlights Need to End Cash Bail, Advocates Say
Cash bail has enormous consequences for people living in poverty.
An inmate unable to afford $1,500 bail died by suicide on Aug. 14 in Harris County, Texas, a county that encompasses Houston, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Debora Ann Lyons was found in the common area of the jail and was rushed to Ben Taub Hospital, where she was later pronounced dead.
Lyons, 58, had been arrested over a felony theft charge stemming from shoplifting. She endured prison time in the past over similar charges, and her “habitual offender” status made her more likely to face bail.
On the day before she died, however, she had been approved for pretrial release, but officials overseeing Lyons’ detention had failed to act on this decision, according to the Chronicle. Authorities at the Harris County jail are investigating the situation to determine if Lyons had been checked on by guards and if she had mental health issues that should have warranted closer attention and treatment, the Chronicle reports.
Either way, criminal justice reform advocates argue that Lyons’ death should have been avoided. While you cannot necessarily attribute a person’s suicide to any one cause, advocates argue her death highlights the urgent need to end cash bail for most offenses across the country, because of the practice’s overwhelming tendency to ensnare poor people accused of crimes in jail and greatly damage their livelihoods in the process.
“Using money bail means that if you're too poor to pay you get stuck in a cage, and oftentimes you’re in a moment of crisis, you may be facing mental health or addiction issues, you’re away from family, you’re under enormous stress, and you’re in a cage that’s not designed for a human being — and it can be a devastating experience,” Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corp, told Global Citizen.
Debora Ann Lyons was jailed before trial, because she couldn’t pay $1,500 to buy her freedom.— ACLU of Texas (@ACLUTx) August 20, 2018
The money bail system that left her in jail is unfair, unsafe, and in urgent need of reform.https://t.co/0yPlv0VaCs#PeopleNotPrisons
More than 90% of the people in pretrial jail, meaning they haven’t yet been convicted of anything, are only there because they can’t afford bail. Pretrial bail drives 99% of the US’s prison growth and will lead to 12 million people sitting in county or city jails this year.
Sitting in jail because of an unpaid bail fee causes people to lose their jobs, medical care, apartments, custody of their children, and much more. The costs related with detention — lawyer, court, and other fees — can drive an inmate’s family into debt.
Read More: Why It's a Crime to Be Poor in America
“Poor people in Houston aren’t getting arrested and then fleeing to Panama or Switzerland,” Karakatsanis said. “Being stuck in jail makes you more likely to plead guilty, more likely to get longer sentences.
“It exposes people to the horrible things that happen in jails, like infectious diseases; lack of sunlight, fresh water, and nutritious food; and sexual assault,” he added.
Cash bail in the majority of cases doesn’t make sense from a law enforcement standpoint, according to Robin Steinberg of the Bail Project, who explains in a TED Talk that sitting in jail because of bail makes someone more likely to commit a crime in the future.
While Harris County jail is allegedly working to stop inmate suicides, there has been one other suicide in the facility this year, and 15 since 2009. These numbers, however, are lower than the national average, the Chronicle notes. The most up-to-date figures show that in 2014, 3,927 inmates died by suicide.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can find international resources here.