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Cash Bail Yields A New Casualty

A Texas jail suicide involving a woman who couldn’t make bail in a shoplifting case highlights of the plight of pretrial detainees with mental illness.

An empty prison cell.
Photo illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Darrin Klimek/Getty Images

Cash Bail Yields A New Casualty

A Texas jail suicide involving a woman who couldn’t make bail in a shoplifting case highlights of the plight of pretrial detainees with mental illness.

On July 21, Debora Ann Lyons walked into a Walmart in Houston and headed to the deli counter. There, she stuffed food into a beach bag and proceeded to the self-checkout register. But she did not pay for the items; instead, she walked to a nearby McDonald’s and ate them. When she was finished, she placed food scraps back into her beach bag and then returned to the Walmart. In the store’s pharmacy section, she picked out a walking cane. In the men’s area, she grabbed some clothing. She then left the Walmart, again without paying for the items. Outside the store, she was arrested by Houston police; later, a Harris County magistrate judge set her bail at $1,500 and she was remanded to the county jail.

Like the nearly 500,000 people nationwide who are held in local jails because they cannot afford bail, Lyons could not purchase her release from the Harris County jail. At around 6:45 p.m. on Aug. 14, the 58-year-old Lyons, who, according to the Houston Chronicle, suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, hanged herself in the jail’s common room.

Lyons was then taken to a nearby hospital for treatment; her attorney, meanwhile, requested a personal recognizance bond so that she would not have to return to the jail if she had survived. The judge granted the bond but Lyons died soon afterward.

Lyons’s death was the second suicide in a month at the jail. And It was the fourth time in two years that the jail—Texas’s largest, which holds around 9,000 inmates and houses more mentally ill patients than all of the state’s mental hospitals combined—was deemed to be noncompliant by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards after guards had not properly monitored inmates. Lyons’s death also came as Harris County is fighting litigation in federal court that would ensure that poor defendants like her are not detained pretrial. Last month, a federal judge ruled that a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of Kenneth Christopher Lucas, who died in the jail in 2014 after he went into cardiac arrest when a deputy sat on his back, can move to trial. Lucas died the same day his bail was set at $5,000 for violating a child custody order; he was accused of keeping his children too long during a scheduled visit. The lawsuit filed by his family noted that between 2001 and 2007, most of the 101 detainees who died at the Harris County jail were there pretrial.

Even though the items Lyons stole from Walmart totaled just $155, she was charged with felony theft by the Harris County district attorney’s office because it was the latest in a string of low-level thefts. Lyons had been arrested six times for stealing dating back to 2009; in two of those incidents, she had stolen items ranging from $50 to $500. “It doesn’t appear she was a lifelong thief,” Jay Jenkins, an attorney with Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, told The Appeal. “She appears to be stealing out of necessity. If she would have had enough money to make bail, she probably wouldn’t have been stealing in the first place.”

Under Texas law, prosecutors can enhance misdemeanor charges if there are prior convictions but the district attorney has the ultimate authority to decide whether that’s appropropriate. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who ran as a reformer, should have used her discretion in Lyons’s case, Jenkins says.  “It certainly doesn’t fit the mold of someone who wants criminal justice reform to be nibbling around the edges on some issues and still handling cases like Ms. Lyons in this way,” he said. “As long as low-level theft defendants are facing years in prison we’re not going to be able to fix things.”

But Anthony Robinson, the chief of the district attorney’s mental health division, said prosecutors never had the chance to make a recommendation on Lyons’ bond because she did not appear at the probable cause hearing for health reasons. Because Lyons was not present, the prosecutors didn’t make a recommendation and the sole authority in making a bond determination fell onto the magistrate judge, he said. “In a situation like this there’s not really anything we can do,” Robinson told The Appeal.

Lyons’s $1,500 bail was set on July 22 by a magistrate judge after she missed a probable cause hearing for an unknown medical reason. It was less than the $5,000 bail she was given in her previous two theft cases, in March 2018 and June 2017, but one she was still unable to make.

At the Harris County jail, where roughly a quarter of the inmates have a mental illness, Lyons was housed in a mental health step-down unit, which is where detainees are placed while they stabilize from a mental health crisis yet still require daily care. Jail officials use a system of colored wristbands to help them monitor mentally ill prisoners and they were aware of Lyons’s mental health issues, a source close to the case told The Appeal. But according to another source briefed on the case, jail officials mixed up the color of her wristband and she was ultimately left alone for a prolonged period of time during which she was able to hang herself. According to the Houston Chronicle, she had threatened suicide in the days before her death.

The Harris County sheriff’s office declined to comment on the claim, citing a pending investigation.

An investigation by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, charged with overseeing the state’s jails, found that Lyons was not checked on every 30 minutes, which is required for prisoners known to be suicidal, mentally, ill, or “who have demonstrated bizarre behavior.” According to the commission’s report, which was released in late August, Lyons had left her cell to take her medicine just before she hanged herself. Brandon Wood, the commission’s executive director, told The Appeal that lax monitoring of prisoners with mental health issues is a “concern” within the Harris County jail. Because it has been an ongoing problem, the commission is examining how to address it once the jail is back in compliance, he said.

Now, the jail must devise a plan to remedy its problems with monitoring prisoners with mental health issues. The commission will then review the plan and continue to monitor the jail to ensure that it is being put into action. Wood said he has information regarding how Lyons was able to hang herself in the common room, but declined to provide specifics because of a pending investigation by the Texas Rangers, a division within the Texas Department of Public Safety with lead criminal investigative responsibility in areas such as major incident crime and public integrity investigations. The Texas Rangers did not respond to a request for comment.

Since Lyons’s death, the jail has also set up a suicide hotline for prisoners as part of a 60-day pilot program that sends their calls to a center that is in charge of mental health services.

Lyons’s suicide came months after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge’s 2017 ruling that Harris County’s bail system violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution. “The wealthy arrestee is less likely to plead guilty, more likely to receive a shorter sentence or be acquitted, and less likely to bear the social cost of incarceration,” court wrote in its February opinion. “The poor arrestee, by contrast, must bear the brunt of all of these, simply because he has less money than his wealthy counterpart.”

But in August, after Harris County argued that a defendant waiting for 48 hours in jail for an “individualized (bail) hearing” is not a violation of the equal protection clause or due process, the Fifth Circuit issued a stay on the 2017 ruling, effectively granting the county the ability to detain people regardless of their ability to their pay bail. Even when the injunction was in place, Lyons was not eligible for release because she was charged with a felony; but she was the sort of person who the legal challenge to wealth-based detention was meant to protect.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, the legal nonprofit organization that filed the class action lawsuit in federal court against Harris County in 2016 that led to the landmark 2017 decision declaring its bail system to be unconstitutional. “Nobody should lose their life because they can’t make a monetary payment. I think it just goes to show how senseless, heartless, and inhumane the system is.”

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