Unanswered Questions in Jailhouse Suicide

Since 2012, 100 have suffered self-inflicted deaths in Texas jails

Gina Muncrief (r) and her common-law wife Athena Covarrubias, who hung herself in a county jail this year (Courtesy of Gina Muncrief)

How did Athena Covarrubias manage to hang herself in a shower stall?

On Tuesday, Aug. 18, a few minutes after 10am, the Travis County Sheriff's Office sent notice of what will likely be recognized as Texas' 30th suicide in a county jail this year. The news came just as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee, were decrying the fact that the state had already recorded 29.

Covarrubias, who was 40 years old, died Monday, Aug. 17, at the Travis County Correctional Complex after 12 days in jail. She was there for three warrants – bond forfeiture for a felony (possession of a controlled substance) and two misdemeanors (possession of marijuana and driving with an invalid license) – as well as a new charge of possession of a controlled substance.

Covarrubias' mother, Gloria Covarrubias, and her common-law wife, Gina Muncrief, have spent the days since her death trying to process information – or a lack thereof. Dissemination of details from the sheriff's office has been fragmented. They learned from a victim service specialist who met with each of them separately on the 17th that Covarrubias died that morning; guards found her at 8:57am. (She was declared dead at 9:49am.) The specialist brought Covarrubias' belongings to her mother. The collection contained a note Covarrubias had written: In case of emergency, it said, call her wife. Muncrief and Gloria learned from an investigating detective that Athena's death was likely suicide. She was found in the shower stalls with a bed sheet around her neck. How, exactly, she managed to hang herself is a detail they're still questioning.

So, too, is how exactly Covarrubias was able to make it into a shower stall carrying a bed sheet. The family's concerns that Covarrubias' guards weren't doing an adequate job accounting for her were only heightened when Muncrief received a call from another inmate the evening of Covarrubias' death. The inmate, a cousin of Covarrubias', told Muncrief that Covarrubias had visited her cell on the second floor (Covarrubias was supposed to be confined to the first floor, noted Muncrief) just after 8am, nearly an hour before her body was found in the shower. Covarrubias told her cousin that she couldn't reach her family. She felt they'd given up on her, and she was going to take a shower. Forty minutes later, guards found her unconscious.

What she meant by not being able to reach her family was that she didn't have the money to call her wife or her mother. Covarrubias had already exhausted her two free on-site visits earlier in the week – Muncrief the previous Tuesday, Gloria two days later, on Thursday – and they hadn't been able to add money to her Securus communications account that weekend. Her family says she likely felt given up on because she was going through serious symptoms of withdrawal from methadone – historically very difficult. Gloria notes that Athena was wearing a blanket during their last video visitation to combat chills, a likely symptom of withdrawal, and that she'd fallen outside and hurt her head. She says that TCSO has thus far barred her from accessing her daughter's medical records, prohibiting the family from determining what kind of care she was receiving. And questions linger concerning Covarrubias' activity before the suicide: How was she able to visit with an inmate on the second floor when she was supposed to be kept down on the first? How can an inmate go unaccounted for for 40 minutes before being found dead in a common area?

TCSO says jailers at the Del Valle facility conform to Texas jail standards concerning supervision, which calls for face-to-face supervision with all inmates no less than once every 60 minutes. But Muncrief, who's spent time at the facility, believes that's often overlooked. "It just depends on the officer on duty," she says. "I've seen guards come in and say 'No fighting, no sex, and no foul language,' then be on the phone talking and laughing it up. Speaking from experience, there are a lot of things you can get away with, because the guards don't do their job."

At the time Covarrubias' death became public, Patrick and Whitmire were at the Capitol presenting preliminary plans for their special study into inmate suicides. The half-hour announcement was thin on specific details, but did reveal that Whitmire will chair the study and that hearings will begin next month after, Whitmire says, "we do our preparation, talking with our stakeholders and families, and have a purpose in mind." And while both deflected attention away from Sandra Bland's memorable suicide in Waller County, pointing to the 98 other self-inflicted deaths in Texas jails since the beginning of 2012, Whit­mire did use Bland's July hanging as an example. "Our criminal justice system in Texas jailing is a well-run system," he said. "But when you have a weak link in the system, or a broken link, as it was in Waller [County], it affects the entire system, and people's confidence in criminal justice."

Whitmire added that he'd like to see a change in Texas' stance on in-person visitation. The state passed a law in June that will require sheriffs to allow two, 20-minute in-person visits per week to all facilities except for 23 deemed to have recently spent "significant funds" on converting to video-visitation-only facilities – but Whitmire said he'd "challenge those facilities" to "go back, in view of the mental health concerns we have, and realize ... that if a family member can go counsel and visit with one of their loved ones, an in-person visitation would improve things."

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Dan Patrick, Gina Muncrief, Sandra Bland, jail suicide, Athena Covarrubias, Travis County Sheriff's Office, John Whitmire, Dan Patrick

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