Pregnant Women Allege Abuse in Texas Jails
At the same time, state lawmakers are pushing to incarcerate more people pretrial.
Last October, Jane was around four months pregnant when Brazoria County, Texas, jailers put her in solitary confinement, according to a letter she sent to her mother, which was viewed by The Appeal. Jailers had accused her of possessing controlled substances while in custody, her mother told The Appeal. She’d been in jail since August on a failure to appear charge, according to court records.
In solitary, she was not allowed to make phone calls, buy food from the jail commissary, or even bring with her the food she had already purchased, Jane’s mother told The Appeal.
“They took my food,” Jane wrote to her mother in a letter dated Oct. 12, 2020. “I’m going to starve. So is the baby.”
Jailers permitted her to have extra cough drops, her mother, Hannah, told The Appeal. “She would order cough drops every day and suck on them in hopes of trying to numb her hunger,” said Hannah. Hannah requested that The Appeal use pseudonyms for herself and Jane, citing legal concerns.
“Mom Please call them,” Jane pleaded in an Oct. 13 letter. “This is not enough food and I’m losing weight already.” In an Oct. 21 letter: “They are still starving me here… I had a bump, it has diminished to a completely flat stomach.” And the next day she wrote, “I haven’t felt the baby move or flutter at all today.”
During Jane’s check-up in early November—while she was still in solitary confinement—the doctor could not find a heartbeat, according to Hannah. “That’s when they rushed her to the ER and it was too late,” said Hannah. “She had just lost the baby.”
Jane’s experience isn’t an anomaly in Texas, according to civil rights activists who say decarceration is an important tool that must be used to reduce or eliminate abuses inside the state’s jails. But lawmakers are considering legislation and a constitutional amendment that would actually expand the state’s use of pretrial incarceration.
As of May 1, of the more than 63,000 people held in Texas jails, more than half are awaiting trial, according to state data.
“While we were hoping to see an effort to reduce pretrial detention, reduce the number of people in Texas jails simply there because they are poor, these bills move us in the opposite direction,” said Nick Hudson, a policy and advocacy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
House Bill 20, also known as the Damon Allen Act, prohibits release on personal bond—when someone promises to return to court without needing to pay a cash bond—for a number of offenses, including aggravated sexual assault, compelling prostitution, and murder. The House passed the bill earlier this month.
Last Saturday, the Senate passed a version of HB 20 that differs from the House’s in significant ways. The Senate bill prohibits release on personal bond for a person previously convicted of an offense involving violence. The Senate version also includes language to limit the work of charitable bail organizations. If enacted, such organizations could not assist anyone charged with an offense involving violence or who had previously been convicted of a crime involving violence. For some people held pretrial, said Hudson, “the only options will be the for-profit predatory bail bond industry.” Private bail bond companies typically charge a nonrefundable fee of 10 to 15 percent of the full bail amount.
“These charitable bail organizations don’t charge a nonrefundable fee,” said Hudson. “By giving people without money another way to get out of jail they are undermining the profits of the for-profit industry.”
The two chambers must reconcile the differing versions by this Saturday and vote by the end of Sunday. Governor Greg Abbott has championed HB 20. “Public safety is at risk because of our broken bail system that recklessly allows dangerous criminals back onto our streets, which is why I made the Damon Allen Act an emergency item this session,” Abbott said in a statement last month.
However, pretrial incarceration makes communities less safe, said Scott Hechinger, founder and director of defender initiative Zealous. (In 2020, Zealous was part of The Justice Collaborative, The Appeal’s predecessor organization.)
“Pretrial caging in Texas, as is true throughout the rest of the country, has always been cruel, inhumane, unhealthy, racist, and violent,” said Hechinger.
The constitutional amendment also being considered would expand the types of offenses ineligible for cash bail. If approved by two-thirds of the Senate and House by the end of Sunday, it will go to voters in November.
Rather than subjecting more people to inhumane conditions, elected officials should be working to reduce the jails’ populations, said Hechinger.
The Texas Jail Project, with Zealous and Civil Rights Corps, recently launched Shedding Light, a digital archive that shares letters and spoken testimonies of people incarcerated during the COVID-19 pandemic who have survived abuse inside the state’s jails. Some have been held pretrial for years.
“The people in power don’t really understand what these settings are like,” said Krishnaveni Gundu, co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project.
One testimonial shared by Shedding Light is from a mother of two with bipolar disorder. While incarcerated at the Harris County Jail, she said she waited four months before receiving her medication. “And that’s because I tried to hang myself inside my cell,” she said in a recording.
In another letter the Texas Jail Project received but has yet to add to the Shedding Light project, Sarah, a pregnant woman held at the Taylor County jail, wrote that on April 9 she told an officer she was cramping and bleeding. More than two hours later, the officer brought her a menstrual pad “to see the blood themselves,” Sarah wrote. The officer came back, observed the blood, and brought Sarah a Tylenol. The Appeal is using a pseudonym to protect Sarah’s identity.
Sarah has been losing weight since she arrived at the jail, according to her letter and a phone call to the Texas Jail Project shared with The Appeal. She filed a grievance with the jail, requesting more food. “We do not issue extra snacks for pregnancy, you receive milk at each meal,” reads the jail’s response, which was dated April 23 and signed by Sgt. K. Henry. The Taylor County sheriff’s office declined to answer The Appeal’s questions.
In a letter dated May 5, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards responded to a complaint about Sarah’s treatment, writing that “no violation of jail standards has occurred.”
On May 11, Sarah went to the doctor. She was more than seven months pregnant and weighed 179 pounds, two pounds less than when she arrived at the jail, according to her letter.
“They treat me like an animal,” she wrote. “We went at 10:30 am and came back at 12:45 pm, I was in handcuffs the whole time.”
In December, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards investigated Jane’s allegations against the Brazoria County jail and issued a one-page report. Investigators found that the jail did not provide prisoners the required recreation outside of their cells—no less than three hours per week—and did not appear to have a dietary menu for pregnant prisoners. “The Commission issued a notice of non-compliance after receiving a complaint and conducting a special inspection,” Brandon Wood, executive director of the commission, told The Appeal in an email.
Wood sent The Appeal Brazoria’s new menu, dated December 2020. In addition to regular meals, pregnant prisoners are to receive a nutritional supplement like Boost or Ensure.
But the report made no mention of Jane’s miscarriage or her placement in soltiary confinement. In fact, when it comes to placing pregnant people in isolation, Wood told The Appeal in an email, “We do not recommend a prohibition against administrative separation or disciplinary separation, or medical separation.”
Jane is still housed at the jail, but after pleading guilty, she will be transferred to state prison soon.
Isolation, abuse, and medical neglect are rampant inside the state’s jails, according to Shedding Light and the Texas Jail Project’s collections of letters and audio recordings. If the Texas legislature expands pretrial incarceration it will only inflict these traumas on more people, said Hechinger.
“Inevitably you find people who are locked up pretrial or caged pretrial are going to be among the most vulnerable members of our society,” he said. “Folks who we should be supporting and investing in in terms of mental health treatment, substance use services, education, affordable housing. … Instead we’re literally throwing them in cages.”