Nightmare on Baker Street—Julia’s Year in the Harris County JailMar 11th, 2010 | By admin | Category: Harris County, Inmate Stories, Women and Jails
Jail is not meant to be a holiday, but one might expect to at least be treated as a human being. What I witnessed, during my time in the suicide watch section and in general population, was a nightmare, not just in terms of myself, but more in how I saw others treated.
My first two weeks in jail were spent in the holding cells for those on suicide watch—where everyone was taking medication or had been given meds upon arrival. These cells were cages and each cage-cell contained about six bunks. We were allowed outside of these cages for one hour a day in a small room, equipped with a T.V. mounted close to the ceiling and a single shower and a few toilets. There were four sections of double cages crammed together for a possible total of forty-eight inmates who took turns throughout the day for that one-hour break.
There are no windows nor were the women ever allowed to go outside or see the out-of-doors. As an inmate with a mental disorder, I was taking medication and in need of special attention but like the others, I was subjected to ignorant and negligent treatment. An example: one woman was made to strip and shower in front of some officers, some of whom were male. When fights or loud arguments broke out, the officers would stand by laughing and watching, as though the fighting were a great source of entertainment. Often they would break up fights only after the fighting had carried on for a dangerous period of time: blood would be shed, heads would be banged against the stone wall or concrete floor, punches would be thrown, hair pulled, threats hollered before one or more officers would finally intervene and place the inmates involved in handcuffs.
This appalled me. Fighting, that put inmates at danger, not just those fighting, but those who were standing by as well, was a joke to these officers, and I witnessed this time and time again during both suicide watch and in general population.
Officers themselves used unnecessary violence on inmates. One woman on suicide watch who was in very poor shape did not respond to the officers who needed to give her an injection. They yanked her mat out from beneath her and she fell from the top bunk to the concrete floor. The male and female officers then held her down, yanked her pants down and forced the injection into her buttock. Another inmate, who came to the suicide tank, was crying and would not stop crying. She was obviously in extreme distress, very depressed, anxious and upset. The officers’ solution was to pull her from her bunk, place her in a tiny room within our suicide room and keep her there for a few days. These rooms did not have bunks; they had small concrete benches with no mats. There was no therapy involved with her “treatment.” The “treatment” was isolation in a tiny concrete room where she was left alone to cry for several days, until she “calmed down.” She was not allowed out of her room to eat; her food was passed to her through an opening in the door. She was only allowed outside of her room to shower and use the toilet.
Next door to our room was another single cell holding an extremely disturbed patient who would yell and scream all night long, every night, keeping many of the inmates awake most of the night, especially if they didn’t receive medication that was sleep inducing. Also, most of the lights were kept on for the night shift officers and they would watched television all night; the television was turned up to maximum volume, much too loudly for us to be able to sleep. Women often complained about it, but the officers or “night guards” did not respond to our complaints about the TV and lights.
I myself hardly slept for the entire two weeks I was kept on suicide watch. During those first weeks, I was subjected to questioning by both a psychologist and a psychiatrist. However, I was not only still in shock from what had happened, I was extremely disoriented and confused. I do not think it occurred to the doctors that the profundity of my grief and shock, the lack of sleep and poor living conditions, along with the gravity of the tragedy that placed me in jail in the first place, was an indication that I needed better care–that in order to be lucid for interviewing/questioning I needed more sleep and serious medical attention (e.g. psychological therapy and sleep). If they did recognize this, they were unsympathetic. I do remember telling the psychologist that I had been getting almost no sleep. He did not respond.
Eventually, I asked to be transferred out, and by the time that happened, I was about ready to collapse from exhaustion, shock and grief. Even though I shouldn’t have been put in general population, they quickly placed me there. I was hoping I would be able to get more sleep there. Sleep is so crucial to one’s health and well being, especially for those who have suffered a shock and who have a mental disorder and can relapse into psychosis. Counseling is also important for one’s mental healing and mental progress, and I assumed that I would continue to receive counseling. But, in general population, neither counseling nor sleep was available. Moreover, the noise level was just as bad and the living conditions—random, nerve-racking “shakedowns,” lack of privacy because of open toilets and a single open shower, the fighting and psychological and physical intimidation by other inmates—were terrible.
Toilets that line one of the walls are just a little out of view from the picket, and officers, both male and female, would come into the tank whenever they wanted, which meant that every time one went to use the toilet one had to hope nobody would come from outside. I was using the toilet once, when a male officer came into the room and decided to give a speech, about what I don’t remember. I was in the middle of a bowel movement. The officer, observing this, could have left and returned for his lecture in a few minutes (giving me a few minutes to finish my business). Instead, he decided to leave me seated on the toilet for the entire length of his lecture, which was meant to humiliate me and it did. When he was done talking, as he was leaving, he said, “What smells so bad? Is it her?” And he thrust his thumb in my direction. I told him he was a pervert. Fortunately, I did not get into any trouble for saying that.
The showers were a nightmare. The shower stalls are coated with black mold all over the inside of the painted cinderblock stall. Inmates have to drape their clothing over the stalls while showering, which means clothing touches the mold. I have allergies and asthma and feared the mold would trigger an attack. We constructed a curtain from garbage sacks in order to provide a little privacy—otherwise, during showers, our naked bodies were totally revealed to the other inmates and officers. There are also only two shower heads in the shower stall in the general population tanks, meaning that in order for everyone to get a shower before bedtime, showers had to be taken throughout the day. The noise from the showers as well as the constant shouting among inmates and the loud volume of the mounted T.V. and the slamming of dominoes onto the metal “picnic” tables, and the slamming of the metal cell doors was unbearable. I never got used to it. Even sitting right next to someone one had to raise her voice to near shouting level just to be heard. I was stressed, grief stricken, in shock, horrified at my living conditions, losing my hair in great quantities, taking medication, minding my own business, yet still forced to live on that floor with those inmates under those conditions. The doctors who had initially interviewed and questioned me had abandoned me completely. I was without counseling and without any hope of being transferred to the psych floor. I had no choice but to endure.
Visitation was another problem. At Harris County Jail, the visitation rooms do not provide telephones; they have plexiglass windows with holes in them through which inmates and visitors have to shout at one another to be heard. It is extremely stressful to receive a visitor because it is so difficult to hear anything over all the shouting that is going on. I finally worked out a system with my uncles, who came to see me regularly, to bring paper and pen and we communicated by writing messages to one another, instead of trying to yell through the plexiglass. We were also allowed only ten or fifteen minutes for visitation. When the ten or fifteen minutes had passed for each group of inmates in the visitation room, an officer would shout out the names of those inmates whose time was up and I mean SHOUT. We were always being treated like cattle or people who needed constant harsh scolding. Thus, even visitation was an unpleasant, inconvenient, stressful event.
Court days were another kind of nightmare. They lasted at least eight hours. It took all day from the crack of dawn–from about 4 AM until sometime in the afternoon. The underground labyrinth of Harris County Jail from the jail to the courthouse is a dirty, grungy, claustrophobic experience. Along the way we were seated on the floor or put into tiny holding cells, squeezed in, shoulder to shoulder, and left for long periods of time, waiting to be moved to the next floor or holding cell. The holding cells were always packed like sardines with inmates and louder (because of all the inmates talking over one another) than one can imagine. Typically we sat in the holding cells for several hours at a time before being transferred to our next station. This would go on and on until we finally reached the last holding cell, usually frigid, where our attorneys would meet with us. It always seemed to me that packing inmates into holding cells the way that they did was dangerous. They locked us in and especially when we were in the cells literally shoulder-to-shoulder locked in I always imagined a fire breaking out and being left in the cell to burn.
Once, when my attorney was unable to meet with me, the bailiff forgot that I was in the holding cell (the other inmates had already begun the long process of returning to their cells) and he left me there for six hours. It’s a very small room with two metal benches, a concrete floor and one toilet. I returned to my cell very late that afternoon, too exhausted to return to medical for another long wait in order to receive my medication.
I will never forget one officer saying to me, during one of my many trips to meet with my attorney on court day–in a joking sort of way–that I was going to be his “next wife.” The other officer, who was working with him at this particular station, announced out loud, for everyone to hear–the other officers and inmates as well–that he didn’t want me for a wife because I was charged with murder. So much for confidentiality. Lack of privacy extended from one’s own body to one’s charges.
When we finally got to a place where there actually were windows, we were not allowed to look out or we would be punished. Staff seemed to believe that incarceration also meant that an inmate should not be able to ever look outside–to the out-of-doors–or through windows to see any activity of the officers. Also, many of the holding cells were freezing cold and sitting in them for long periods of time was not only uncomfortable because of the number of people crammed into them, the noise level and the hard metal benches and concrete floors, but were also uncomfortable because they were kept at too low a temperature. So, not only were court days long and grueling; they were physically uncomfortable and claustrophobic as well. I always felt assaulted, exhausted and demeaned (we were strip searched early in the morning of court days by female officers and at the end of the day upon returning to our cells) by the end of the day. We were spoken to in harsh, foul language, threatened and packed into cells like cattle all day long.
There is, in addition to the psychological stress of the treatment from the officers, the stress imposed upon inmates by other inmates. Commissary gets stolen, pressure is placed on inmates to swipe or sell medication and to share commissary, particularly coffee. I had coffee stolen from me on occasion and found myself unable to say no to most who asked to use my hot pot, simply because I felt intimidated by most of the inmates. I managed to stay out of fights myself, but was tormented by having to witness them time and time again. One fight broke out over someone taking another’s coffee without permission. The person whose coffee had been stolen, stripped down naked, filled a cup up with her feces and urine and poured it on the inmate who had stolen her coffee. Then the naked inmate picked a physical fight with the inmate who had stolen her coffee (I was later told that she had stripped down naked to prevent her opponent from being able to grab hold of her as easily as she might have been able to if she had been wearing her uniform). As usual, the fighting lasted a while before officers came in and handcuffed the inmates engaged in the fight. Then there was the awful stench left in the room from the feces and a big mess that the trustees had to clean up.
In terms of receiving medication, I can recall quite a few times when inmates had to wait several days before medications were changed, either in dosage or type. Sometimes inmates went for days without their medication, for whatever reason. I can recall one inmate reduced to spells of crying and depression because she was not receiving her medication. In jail, the medical staff is in no hurry to assist the inmates (as I knew from my bladder infection experience). The nurse who handed out the meds (the same nurse who would dismiss me for bladder infection treatment) did not respond to inmates who had questions about their medication or special requests. My own experience with being overmedicated on Depakote is an example of gross negligence, in my opinion. When I was moved into general population the other inmates were concerned because they saw me shaking so much I could hardly hold a half pint of milk. Why did the psychiatrist put me on so much Depakote?
At one point, while I was in general population I contracted a terrible bladder infection that was extremely painful. I asked an officer to go to “medical” (as an emergency visit rather than putting in an official request/paper form.) I hoped to be tested for a bladder infection right away, being all too familiar with the symptoms, having had many bladder infections throughout my lifetime, and to get the necessary antibiotics. Luckily, I was sent to medical right away, but the same nurse who had denied me my medication when I missed med pass because I had gone to the gym, again denied me medication. He said I did not have a fever when he took my vital signs and I would therefore need to “drop a form” for any bladder infection testing. When I told him I had the symptoms of a serious bladder infection and was in extreme pain, he literally waved me off. I went back to my holding cell, in general population, and filled out a medical form, asking permission to see a doctor. It took somewhere ten days before I was finally sent to the doctor. By then I was in agony and also very afraid that the infection would spread to my kidneys. I was so desperate, I was selling commissary to another inmate in exchange for painkillers, but the painkillers that I was able to get did little to relieve my pain, as bladder infections cause very intense pain. It wasn’t until after I began taking the long awaited antibiotics that the pain subsided.
A woman with advanced cervical cancer was placed in the overcrowded, general population holding cell in which I was staying. She was incontinent and in diapers, and would lose control of her bowels in the shower, which would cause a terrible odor, pervasive throughout the entire tank. Why she was not in a cell for the terminally ill or very sick is a question I cannot answer. Instead of being allowed a measure of dignity and privacy she was forced to live among a bunch of women in an overcrowded, violent cell. The inmates in this cell found her condition repugnant, bothersome and laughable. Her presence was greatly resented because of the odor she caused and her emaciated, sickly appearance.
Another much older, elderly woman, who was deaf and mute, was also placed in our cell. She was sleeping on a “low rider”—a plastic cot close to the floor. Because of the serious overcrowding, there were many low riders. This woman was picked on by the other inmates. I saw her get shoved on more than one occasion and some of the inmates would mimic and tease her all the time. She was finally moved and placed in the cell next to ours. The elderly and handicapped should be placed in separate cells for their protection and safety. This poor woman had to endure bullying for several weeks before she was finally moved to a different cell.
One night an inmate came to the cell, in general population, and had an asthma attack. The guards in the picket stood by and watched her wheeze and gasp for air. When I realized the guards were not going to help this woman, I got down from my bunk and gave her my inhaler. She took a few puffs and her normal breathing returned. Later, for a reason I do not know, I stopped receiving my inhaler and then I had the worry that I would suffer an attack and be without an asthma inhaler. As I already mentioned, the mold in the shower stalls is excessive and this is potentially dangerous for people who suffer from allergies and asthma.
During the winter the cells were kept at too low a temperature and everyone was miserably cold. When we complained we were told that the cells were kept that way to keep the germ count down. We were not allowed to get under our blankets during the day, so in order to stay warm we would warm up water in hot pots, pour the water into empty water bottles and hold onto the water bottles. One had to keep heating up the water in the hot pots and refilling the water bottles with the heated water throughout the day in order to stay a little less cold.
Inmates are not allowed to wear watches and there are no clocks on the walls in the cells. The only time I saw a clock was on one wall right outside of the holding cell for court days – the last holding cell where inmates meet with their attorneys. I tried to remember to look at this clock every time I went to court so I would have an idea how long I was held in the cell before and after seeing my attorney. It was awful, a kind of psychological torture, not ever knowing what time of the day. Then there was always some conflict over getting enough toilet paper, and when the guards passed out pads and tampons, we were told that if we did not get some when they passed them out we could NOT request any later, even if we got our period after the toiletry pass. Tampons and pads were routinely stolen. Toilet paper was routinely hoarded and hidden by inmates from other inmates.
While jail is certainly NOT an environment conducive to reform or rehabilitation for any inmate, for a mentally ill person, it a special kind of nightmare. The dirty, claustrophobic environment, the noise, the treatment from the officers, not to mention medical staff, as well as from some of the inmates, all contribute to a pen of disturbing, restless chaos. I found absolutely no psychological relief the entire time.
I was initially overmedicated, initially assessed as competent, even though I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, treated with contempt by the medication nurse, ignored for a dangerous length of time when I was quite sick with a bladder infection, and forced to live in an excruciatingly noisy environment for more than a year. I never got used to it. The entire time there was torture.
For sick inmates the chances of their survival depend more on luck than inmate “medical treatment and/or care.” They are routinely ignored and laughed at, picked on by some inmates and left to fend for themselves. I remember a particularly disturbed inmate in suicide watch who was always singing and talking to herself. I noticed that right after she took her medication, she would lean over the toilet (there was one toilet in each cell partition) and spit out her meds, so that she was not properly medicated. Without her medication, she remained delusional. When I brought this to one of the officers attention, she told me this inmate had been incarcerated for a long time in that tiny suicide cell and since the staff made no effort to see that she got her meds, she was well on her way to becoming permanently insane. Given that I was expected to be held in that jail for at least a year, this officer said she expected I would follow in the footsteps of this terribly ill woman.
“I am waiting for you to be just like her,” the officer said to me with a smile on her face. I found this to be a particularly sadistic comment and one I will never forget. Fortunately, I am now living in a place where patients are treated with care and respect. The staff not only makes sure the patients are taking their medication, the right medication and the right dosages are also very carefully and properly monitored. In this environment I am getting better every day and now have hope for a brighter future.
(Texas Jail Project was in contact with the family of “Julia” while she was incarcerated until the end of 2008; she was in Harris County Jail for more than a year. After much reflection, she wrote this account, omitting her own name and the names of doctors, since she is in a state facility.)