On Sunday, 37-year-old Ralkina Jones was found dead in a Cleveland Heights, Ohio, jail cell. A Cleveland NBC affiliate reports that Jones had a violent altercation with her ex-husband before being arrested on Friday, and that a Monday autopsy by the county medical examiner found nothing suspicious about her death. Northeast Ohio Media Group adds that Jones seemed fine when her sister visited on Saturday before being hospitalized due to concerns about her blood sugar and blood pressure on the day she died. But even without a full accounting of exactly what happened, the story of a person of color dying behind bars is becoming increasingly familiar—a sort of a horrific epilogue to a year defined by police killings of unarmed black men.
In fact, Jones—whose uncle Craig Bickerstaff was shot to death in a confrontation with Cleveland police in 2003—is at least the fourth person of color to die in an American jail this month. Although the deaths that came toward the beginning of July did not garner national attention, they are under renewed scrutiny since Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, died in a Texas jail on July 13 after a confrontation with a police officer who pulled her over for allegedly failing to use her turn signal. Since people all over the country started asking #WhatHappenedToSandraBland—authorities are maintaining her death was a suicide—each subsequent death has begged the broader question: Why does this keep happening?
On July 9, Rexdale Henry was picked up by police for failing to pay a fine. As the Jackson Free Press reported, the 53-year-old was a member of the Choctaw tribe in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and a prominent community activist. Five days after he was taken into custody, Henry was found dead in his cell at the county jail, inviting comparisons to three civil-rights activists who were held in Neshoba and then turned up dead in 1964—as well as much more recent events.
Two law professors at Syracuse University in New York are helping Henry's family conduct an independent probe into his death. "At a time when the nation is focused on the terrible circumstances of the brutal death of Sandra Bland, it is critical to expose the many ways in which Black Americans, Native Americans and other minorities are being arrested for minor charges and end up dead in jail cells," one of them, Janis McDonald, said in a statement.
On July 14—the same day Henry died—an 18-year-old black girl named Kindra Chapman was found hanging by a bedsheet at a jail in Homewood, Alabama. She had been arrested earlier in the evening for stealing a cell phone.
In Rolling Stone on Friday, Matt Taibbi argued that even if Sandra Bland technically committed suicide, she was effectively murdered. The headline might be incendiary, but the piece itself makes several valid points, mostly about how Bland was arrested for essentially no reason and threatened with violence for daring to disagree with an officer of the law. She died during what most observers seem to agree was an illegal detention, arguably a crime in its own right.
As absurd it is to die over the crime of failing to use a turn signal, it's really just as preposterous that someone should die days earlier for failing to own up to a debt. No sane person would argue that a human life is worth the same as a cell phone, either.
And as Taibbi pointed out, what happened to Sandra Bland is "not just happening in a few well-publicized cases a year, but routinely, in hundreds of thousands or even millions of incidents we never hear of." So if four people of color in one month seems like a lot, it's worth asking if this is really a new development, or just something the public never paid all that much attention to until the activism and rage that emerged around this time last year forced us to start asking some hard questions.
This post has been updated.
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