New report highlights mental health issues in Texas jails

Reagan Ritterbush

In 2010, Amy Lynn Cowling, a 33-year-old mother, was arrested for an outstanding misdemeanors warrant. 

Upon arriving at the nearest jail, Cowling had to replace her normal medications with substitutes because her original medications were banned by the Texas jail system.  While withdrawing from the drugs, she stopped eating, and began having hallucinations and seizures. After five days in jail, Cowling died of a seizure — without ever seeing a doctor. 

Cowling’s story is one of many in the Texas Law Civil Rights Clinic’s report Preventable Tragedies: How to Reduce Mental Health-Related Deaths in Texas Jails. The report tells the stories of 10 “tragic and preventable deaths” in Texas jails and offers recommendations to the jail system for the treatment of people with mental illnesses.

According to the report, there are “severe and persistent failures” in the Texas jail system that abandon mentally ill people. Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the School of Law, who worked on the report, said the purpose of the report is to raise awareness and provide solutions to Texas legislators on what to do about this issue.

“These people’s stories hardly get out there,” Natarajan said. “It may be difficult to make uniform rules and requirements since there is a great variation among jails, but maybe these people’s lives will make it possible.”

The UT School of Law hosted a discussion about the report Tuesday afternoon. Two authors of the report, Amanda Gnaedinger and Alex Stamm, and Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, analyzed some of the mental health problems featured in the report. They also speculated what could have been done to save the lives of inmates whose stories were highlighted in the report.  

“The stories were incredibly hard to hear, let alone write about,” Gnaedinger said. “All we can do now is make sure we do something about it. We can fix so much for so many.”

First-year law student, Ashley Craythorne, said she was shocked by some of the stories featured in the report because she didn’t know detox and withdrawal were some of the prominent mental health issues in Texas jails.

“I figured most of the problems stemmed from ignorance of jail staff and suicide,” Craythorne said. “I never thought something black and white like withholding someone’s mental health drugs was even a possibility.”

According to the data collected in the report, over 60 percent of 65,000 imprisoned individuals are still waiting to face trial. Of those imprisoned in Texas, 30 percent have a serious mental illness.