by Jo Ellen Nott
A Texas prisoner says she was punished for sharing abortion information with fellow prisoners at the Lane Murray Unit in April 2023.
Kwaneta Yatrice Harris, 50, is serving a sentence for her boyfriend’s 2006 murder, as well as a subsequent scam to rob his family of assets he left behind. The former nurse is also a writer collaborating with the non-profit media organizations PEN/America and Truthout.
When she heard other prisoners in her segregation area shouting pregnancy misinformation to one another, Harris decided to intervene. Knowing that many of the women grew up in foster care without a mother to mentor their reproductive health, she shouted back to share her knowledge of birth control, sexually transmitted infections and abortion care.
One of the misconceptions she corrected: so-called “partial birth abortions.” That “non-medical phrase,” according to The Nation, “was created by the anti-abortion movement to stigmatize later abortion care.”
“There’s no such thing,” Harris assured her fellow prisoners, explaining that most abortions are now accomplished with medication without any surgical procedure.
That was apparently enough to ignite the ire of a guard she described as male and in his 20s – he was wearing no name tag, Harris said – who then wrote her a disciplinary ticket and threated her with a new criminal charge. After the guard angrily marched off, Harris began to research the law, looking for any that the guard could use against her. There wasn’t one.
Sara Ainsworth, senior legal and policy director of If/When/How, explained that state lawmakers have not “passed a law that criminalizes speaking about abortion.” Regarding the guard’s threat to file a criminal charge, the legal director said, “It’s not surprising that someone is misstating the law and using it to threaten someone else when so many people are confused.”
Just before midnight that same day, Harris was moved to a cell on the far side of the segregation unit, away from the other women, with a grim view of barbed wire instead of the prison yard where she enjoyed watching and waving at fellow prisoners walking by. Only by screaming loudly can she now communicate with her former neighbors.
Prison officials never gave her an explanation for the cell change. Unable to identify the guard who wrote her, she says her grievance over the matter has gone nowhere.
Robert Hurst, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) did not answer questions from The Nation about the department’s policies on discussing birth control and abortion.
“That someone is being punished for the content of their speech is thoroughly unacceptable and outrageous,” said Michele Deitch, of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas in Austin.
“For it to be in the context of abortion is downright scary,” Deitch added, “because it suggests that staff can use their own views about what’s acceptable speech and what isn’t to exercise control over people.”
Harris remains fearful that TDCJ officials will cut off calls to her three children. But she also recognizes that her informal punishment reflects the power that a single guard can hold over those in his custody.
Sources: Inside Prison, PEN, The Nation, Truthout, WFAA
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