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Guest Editorial: “Conditions are Poor in Cameron County Lockup”

Jan 29th, 2008 | Category: Cameron County, Jailhouse Stories

By Diana Claitor, director of the Texas Jail Project in Austin

The Texas Jail Project is an all-volunteer group that formed two years ago to monitor the increasingly bad conditions in more than 260 county jails in Texas. The reports we’ve received on the treatment of women in the Cameron County Jail are some of the worst.

Most people find it easy to turn a blind eye to the misery of some stranger with a no-doubt unsavory past, so instead consider this information as being about your kid sister — the one who made the mistake of hanging out with the wrong people. Like most of her cellmates, Sis is in her early 20s, grew up near Brownsville, works a minimum-wage job and is the mother of two small children. She is no murderer – in fact, she is a generous and sweet person who works hard for a living.

When she was arrested, she was wearing a warm sweatshirt, but the staff immediately removed it; she received the standard thin uniform despite the bonechilling cold of the cells. No blanket. That day was one of many last year when the women’s unit was “out of” blankets as well as soap, toothpaste and even toilet paper. While she eventually received toilet paper, staff informed her and the others that there were no hygiene supplies when monthly cycles occurred.

Soon your sister was finding sores on her arms, but when she requested treatment, her cellmates told her she would get no more help than they had with the same problem. No more than the older woman with the bad cough could get meds or see a doctor.

After the first month, Sis didn’t talk much anymore except to ask after her kids — despair had set in. Your calls to her court-appointed attorney were not returned and you began to get the picture: there is a huge backlog of cases, minimal pre-trial services and a very few, reluctant attorneys willing to take courtappointed cases.

That’s why today, more than half of those held in the jail are “pre-trial detainees,” not yet charged with a crime. Most won’t see counsel or receive advice until the court-appointed attorney shows ups months after incarceration. Awaiting their hearing, some will be locked up for more time than their sentence would run if they did, in fact, get convicted.

In light of that situation, the conditions and environment are especially important. So is there an exercise program and a library with a good selection? Not in Cameron County. They have a TV blaring and a few tattered romance novels. Good books brought in by one inmate last year were confiscated and then “lost,” permanently.

Is there an opportunity to take GED or other classes during these long months? Not in Cameron County. This idleness is not only a terrible waste, it breeds mental and emotional problems that can cause problems for women after they are released.

Finally, for some unlucky women, even freedom holds certain risks. Several have found themselves released from jail at 7 p.m. on the dark county road near Olmito, after the storage room was locked for the night — out there with no ID, money or any jacket or possessions they had when locked up.

The overall picture is one of neglect bordering on abuse — which works against the best interests of the community at large as well as the individual. These conditions also violate state regulations that are mandated under the authority of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

We ask you in Cameron County — county commissioners, sheriff, church leaders and citizens of all kinds — to take a fresh look at the way your lockup is run. Find solutions, recruit volunteers, educate the public how real jail is different from jail on TV. Fight for a realistic budget against naysayers who think each dollar spent on a jail is a dollar wasted.

For example, an excellent way to ensure better conditions is to increase the wages of guards and make sure they get regular training, but that is not happening here.

We realize that the people of Cameron County face unique and difficult challenges, but in the end, it comes down to priorities and something Jesus said: “What you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me.

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