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Texas Passes Laws to Preserve Dignity of Women Prisoners

by Matt Clarke

With the passage of House Bill 650, which Governor Greg Abbott has already signed into law, Texas took a first step toward protecting the dignity of women held in state prisons.

There are more women prisoners in Texas than in any other state. The number of women incarcerated in Texas increased almost 1,000% since 1980, yet they are still only a tiny fraction of the state’s overall prison population. Perhaps for that reason, problems unique to women have long been neglected by prison officials. HB 650 addresses some of those problems.

The chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee, Rep. James White, introduced the bill after noticing a large increase in the female prison population. His committee had received complaints about issues such as shackling of pregnant prisoners; requiring pregnant prisoners to climb onto top bunks; inadequate nutrition for pregnant prisoners; inadequate provision of tampons, menstrual pads and panty liners; the presence of male guards when women prisoners were strip searched; the placement of pregnant and post-partum women in solitary confinement; and an inadequate period of bonding for mother and child after birth. The bill addressed those issues.

HB 650 created laws that prohibit the shackling of pregnant prisoners, requiring that they be housed on lower bunks and given adequate nutrition, mandating a 72-hour bonding period after birth, and prohibiting the placement of pregnant prisoners or those who recently gave birth into solitary confinement.

The legislation requires the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to offer women prisoners up to 10 regular or large-sized pads with wings and regular or large-sized tampons each day, at no cost. It prohibits male employees from being in areas where they can observe strip searches of female prisoners. It also requires the TDCJ to train guards on the mental and physical care of pregnant prisoners – including the effects of restraints and invasive searches – while also requiring pregnant prisoners to participate in prenatal care and parenting skills training.

Some former prisoners had testified before Rep. White’s committee to urge passage of the bill. They reported conditions that disregarded prisoners’ dignity and sometimes their safety as well.

“I’ve heard officers ... whenever girls ask for pads, ‘Let me see your pants. When you stain your pants, we’ll give you some,’” former prisoner Margarita Luna told the committee, explaining that some women required more than the TDCJ’s meager monthly allotment of sanitary pads.

Former prisoner Coretta Brown described being watched during a strip search by a male guard who later commented on her body.

“He let me know that he was looking through the window as we were stripping and I couldn’t do anything about it,” she said.

“What I can tell you from my personal experience of being incarcerated and pregnant is that, when you can’t see your feet at eight months, and you’re shackled with leg irons and shackled around your wrists, it’s really hard to maintain your balance,” said ACLU prisoners’ rights advocate Laura Johnson.

HB 650 passed the state Senate with unanimous support. It also requires women to be screened for past trauma upon their intake into the prison system. According to University of Texas prison policy researcher Michele Deitch, the trauma that some women have experienced often leads to poverty, mental illness and drug abuse, which ultimately results in incarceration. Therefore, prison policies should be trauma-informed.

Another bill, HB 1651, which was signed into law by Governor Abbott and goes into effect on September 1, 2019, will ensure that pregnant prisoners in Texas jails receive better treatment. The law bans the use of shackles on jail prisoners during pregnancy and for 12 weeks afterward, except in special circumstances; it also allows prisoners to bond with their babies for three days. Further, it requires county jails to “identify when a pregnant prisoner is in labor and provide appropriate care to the prisoner, including promptly transporting the prisoner to a local hospital.”

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards reported there were 374 pregnant women held in Texas county jails as of June 1, 2019.

“This sort of shines a light on some of the disparities that these women have while they are incarcerated, and it’s much needed,” stated San Antonio doctoral student Allison Crawford, who has studied issues related to pregnancies while incarcerated. “I assumed, and I think a lot of society assumes, that everybody gets basic laws and civil liberties. The laws that we all sort of take for granted. And I realized, and was really shocked that this subset of women and children that don’t have the same protections as everybody else,” she added. 

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Sources: keranews.org, texastribune.org, texas­observer.org, news4sanantonio.com