Sept. 30, 2016 – In an effort to prevent inmates from taking their own lives, state Rep. Garnet Coleman proposed the use of technology to treat prisoners with serious mental health issues during a classroom discussion at the University of Houston Law Center.
Coleman made his remarks Monday during a Health Legislation & Advocacy class taught by Research Professor Allison Winnike.
"Texas, like other states, has a problem with jail suicides," Coleman said. "As policy makers we don't like to see any suicides. You should be able to protect people either from themselves or others when they're in your custody."
Coleman's comments came after Sandra Bland's family recently reached a $1.9 million settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Bland, 28, committed suicide in the Waller County jail on July 13, 2015, three days after being arrested near Prairie View University following a routine traffic stop.
To prevent similar incidents in the future, Coleman, who represents the UH campus area and chairs the House County Affairs Committee, recently announced plans to introduce the Sandra Bland Act during the next legislative session in January. Part of the plan includes the use of video conferencing tools to connect inmates with mental health professionals.
"We need some form of telemedicine, particularly in screening for mental illness," Coleman said. "The use of video telemedicine is advantageous, and we really know that it works. That has to be one of the answers – being able to screen someone to show they are at risk through the statewide in-take form and being able to talk to a mental health professional either in the area or digitally."
Coleman acknowledged potential issues with the Sandra Bland Act, including the lack of broadband connectivity in sparsely populated regions that has limited mental healthcare services.
"There's one challenge – the whole nation is not wired for Internet," he said. "In rural areas it is especially difficult to create enough bandwidth to conduct a video assessment. We have to come up with technology that is reasonably priced and the state is going to have to put something in. If we require it, it's only right for us to give grants to counties that can't afford the whole program."
Coleman, a member of the House Select Committee on Mental Health and a long-time champion of improving mental health policy, also listened to students' presentations on the mental health policy initiatives they are working on this semester and provided valuable feedback.
"This is a unique course which gives students the opportunity to learn legislative lawyering skills and draft their own proposed legislation to address a health policy problem," said Winnike, who teaches the course alongside Patricia Gray, a former member of the Texas Legislature and research professor.
"This session the students are developing proposals to improve the mental health system in Texas. We are so fortunate to have Representative Coleman provide insight on how the students should craft their proposals to create a meaningful impact."