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Texas Lawmakers Move To Meet Women's Needs In Prisons

Lauren Johnson speaks at a rally for legislation to address the issues affecting women in the criminal justice system.
Christopher Connelly
Lauren Johnson speaks at a rally for legislation to address the issues affecting women in the criminal justice system.

Texas incarcerates more women than any other state. The number of women in Texas prisons has ballooned since 1980, growing by nearly 1,000% – twice the rate of men. 

Still, women make up a relatively small portion of the state’s prison population, and advocates say women’s needs have been unmet by prison policies designed for men. A new law, passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, is meant to change that.

At a hearing in March, women who’d spent time in Texas prisons told lawmakers what it was like. Their testimony came in support of House Bill 650, dubbed women’s dignity legislation. Coretta Brown described indignities she’d experienced, like being watched by a male guard during a strip search. Later, he 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,” Brown said.

The new law restricts male guards from performing strip searches or being in a room where women are undressed.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Formerly incarcerated women and their supporters marched to the Texas Capitol in March to rally for legislation addressing women in the criminal justice system.

There are also provisions ensuring women can get access to an adequate number of tampons, menstrual pads and panty liners. Margarita Luna says many women need more than their monthly allotment.

“I’ve heard officers…whenever girls ask for pads, let me see your pants. When you stain your pants, then we’ll give you some,” said Margarita Luna, who was released from prison in December 2017.

The law sets forth a range of requirements and limitations to address the needs of women who are pregnant or give birth in prison. It ensures pregnant prisoners get proper nutrition and that they aren’t forced to climb onto the top bunk of a bunk bed. Under the law, pregnant women and women who’ve recently given birth won’t be put in solitary confinement. Women who give birth will be given three days to bond with their newborn babies before being separated. And it expands a limitation on shackling pregnant women in prison.

“What I can tell you from my own 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,” says Lauren Johnson from the ACLU, who advocated for the legislation. “And then to try to get in and out of a car to go to a doctor’s appointment is a real challenge.”

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice – the state prison system – says it already has regulations for some of this. State Representative James White says that’s good, but those policies should have the force of law. The Hillister Republican leads the house corrections committee and introduced HB 650.

“Because we’ve seen the spike in female incarceration, my committee and I felt it’s time for us to start addressing how we rehabilitate and reintegrate women back into society,” he said.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Rep. James White, a Hillister Republican who heads the House Committee on Corrections, discusses bills that address the needs of incarcerated women.

With HB 650, women will now be screened for trauma when they’re sent to prison. Michele Deitch is a prison policy researcher at the University of Texas. She says women’s criminal behavior often springs from a history of trauma that led them to addiction, mental illness and poverty. She says prison services should be trauma-informed.

“When those issues are not thought through, then women can be further traumatized by their incarceration because of so many experiences they’ve had in the past regarding sexual assault and abuse,” Deitch says.

The ACLU’s Lauren Johnson sees HB650 is a first step in addressing issues related to women in the criminal justice system. She wants to see fewer women sent to jail and prison, since most women are incarcerated for drug offenses and other non-violent crimes. And she hopes that lawmakers work on legislation next session to increase the amount of time that incarcerated parents are allowed to spend time with their kids during visitation. A survey from the nonprofit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found more than 80 percent of women in prison are mothers. HB 650 sets up a study of expanded visitation for parents.

Still, Johnson says she grateful this first step legislation passed with unanimous support.

“With all of the culture wars that exist in the policy world, I’m really grateful that everybody saw the value in doing this,” she says.

HB 650’s new requirements only apply to the state’s prisons. Legislation to apply similar provisions to jails was also introduced though a handful of bills, which haven’t been as successful but may pass before the session ends.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.