Last week I read an article in The Marshall Project digest that reported that in the last 10 years in Texas, over 4,200 individuals have died “in custody” of police, corrections or other law enforcement. That’s 420 people each year, at least one person every single day.

Sandra Bland was one of those individuals. As so many news reports have noted, her death was almost certainly avoidable had not every single point of contact between her and the law enforcement system not failed. Had just one of those interactions gone differently – more humanely, legally, or at least according to protocol – the young Black Lives Matter activist would have survived her contact with the police. One cannot help but wonder if the system worked so unconscionably for the other 4,199 individuals, and when the time for learning, if not reckoning, will finally come?

Far from a single word of newspaper coverage, and unknown to the world beyond a small circle of his friends and family, a friend of my husband and mine died in police custody in June, at a prison in Beesville, TX. It would not seem an atypical story except we know the details. The details make it his story; unique and especially poignant for us.

Our friend was a long-time addict in a long-time struggle to resist a constant whisper of temptation. Alcohol was his addiction but I rankle at the label “alcoholic” when the vast majority of the time he was winning his battles. But the road is long; things happen that make life hard.

Our friend was married, and miraculously his wife was pregnant. But she miscarried. The marriage ended, abruptly, pain on top of pain. An ultra-runner, our friend contextualized his emotional pain in physical suffering. He ran and ran and ran. Until he injured himself, and could no longer run. Bereft of wife, his vision of their family and future, and without his primary coping mechanism, he drank. One night, driving over the legal limit, he was arrested. Indigent, subject to mandatory sentencing for a prior, he took a plea just after the New Year. Within six months, he had a heart attack, and had died by the time he arrived the hospital. He had been achieving sobriety for most of his life; he was an ultrarunner; he was 55 years old; his life ended in custody in Texas. One of the 4,200.

I am sure that the story has been told other ways. But as I have told it, there is nothing untrue or unduly generous.

Several weeks back, again in the Marshall Project, I read about the group of American delegates who visited a German prison. There, it was noted that there was one doctor for every 100 people. In Virginia, a far less healthy population for all residents and undoubtedly with an extremely less healthy population in its prisons, there was only one doctor for 800 people.

It should make all decent people wonder about our friend. Did he have chest pains? Should he have been on medication? Did he try to see a doctor that wasn’t available? A nurse himself, did he know more about his body than the rest, or did he only know what he needed and could not get? We should ask: What goes on in a prison that a healthy but troubled middle-aged man can’t survive for 6 months? What goes on in jail that a 28-year old activist can’t survive for 3 days? These are real questions, ones that decent people ought to ask. They are questions that require both answers and solutions from all members of the criminal justice system.    

Thinking about our friend, about Sandra Bland, about my own ability to cope were I to be incarcerated has made me dig into that word, “custody” which has legal meanings that seem cold and clinical, but which has its root in the idea of guardianship, protection, and taking-care-of. When the police take a person into their custody, they become responsible for that person – for their emotional and physical well-being, for their preparation and transition to being ”out of custody.” When I think more deeply about what it means to take that kind of responsibility for someone, I realize that only a system that has completely forgotten the origins of that word would agree to take custody of some 2.3 million Americans into prison – among them the country’s poorest and sickest. It makes the word “custody” a bitter word, one used regularly with an explicit hypocrisy that has come to be accepted.

The distortion of the word “custody” is obvious when police make a game of trying to toss peanuts into the mouth of a homeless, inebriated man at booking (Sarasota, FL), or to the St. Tammany Parish Jail, which bought chain link cages similar to dog kennels to house mentally ill prisoners for days or weeks (Covington, LA), or to the treatment of Kalief Browder, a juvenile in solitary confinement for over two years without being convicted of any crime (New York, NY), and who committed suicide two years after he left Rikers Island.

Without question, an honest look at those 2.3 million people in American prisons reveals that the vast majority need more than average levels of guardianship, protection and taking-care-of, not less. Sandra Bland, 28, with a disclosed mental health flag, and accused of a traffic violation, needed protection not punishment. Our friend, battling addiction and incarcerated for behaviors related to that struggle, needed protection not punishment. Sandra Bland posed no threat to society, and other outcomes than jail should have been available for our friend. A reasonable justice system would not want to take “custody” of either of them in the true meaning of that word, and an aware public would not want to pay for that “custody” because it is rife with risk and expense for no benefit.

I’ve been wondering, what is a public defender’s role in all this anyway? The fact that jails and prisons pride themselves on meals that cost less than $1, skimp on health care, and only retain the services of a single doctor for up to 800 very sick people is not a mitigating factor, is it?

Or maybe these facts can be helpful. For indigent clients that are sick, elderly, mentally ill, or in need of treatment, maybe these facts are compelling. Maybe we should ask, and report: How many other prisoners have died in the jail where they will go? How many doctors or specialists are there? What will it cost to truly take care of this person? What will it cost if you don’t take care of them, and we sue you?

Public defenders and advocates litigating prison conditions have been long-time allies. Recent reports of the increased risk of death for individuals in jail custody – pre-conviction – may inspire new collaborations. American prisons are awful places, and law enforcement officials are earning a reputation for cruelty, corruption and complete desensitization. There is justified outrage in a system that every day has people die in their custody. An immediate answer is to take far fewer – far, far fewer – people in custody. That’s certainly not the whole answer, but it is a start.

Sometimes the road is long. Public defenders know this from their collective experiences, and they know this when they build a meaningful relationship with their client whose struggles, like our friend’s struggles, may span decades. Public defenders know it because so many of us have spent so many years on the road to reform.

Jail or prison is not where the road should end. The custody of people who break laws but really pose no risk to public safety or can be offered alternatives to incarceration should remain in the custody of their communities, their service providers, people who love them and care for them and deliver the real meaning of the word.