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Chaplain Challenges Citizens of Brownsville

Jan 2nd, 2008 | Category: Cameron County, Women and Jails

I have been a chaplain at the Cameron County Women’s Jail for nearly seven years. All that really means is that once a week I go for an hour to pray for anyone who wants prayer. Sometimes I meet with women privately for counseling and monthly I bring some of my students from Valley Christian High School to pray with me. My girls love the women and often end up singing to them and writing to them later.

I am writing to the readers of the Brownsville Herald because today I came home as discouraged as I have ever felt. (The paper refused to print this letter for fear of repercussions…) The women have again been moved from Detention Center II to the third floor maximum security jail next to the court house. It is a cramped unhealthy environment. Today a cluster of women gathered by the bars and we all joined hands and prayed together. They each told me parts of their stories and after half an hour I felt so overwhelmed with sorrow that I ended up leaving early. These are some of their stories: “I was scheduled for court on October 13th and I was so excited because I miss my four children so desperately, but when I got there, my attorney wasn’t available so my court date was postponed until January 16th.”

Try to imagine how that hits a mother of young children. Think about what that means to her children, especially over the holidays.

Another woman has been waiting for months to get a bed available in a mental institution. She has bipolar disorder and is especially agitated and stressed in the new tighter living arrangements. Her mom is 82 but wants her at home and promises to help her remember her medication. The woman’s social security has been cut off which is leaving her mother unable to pay the bills that they shared. Another woman who was married this year has just suffered a miscarriage of her twins. She told me that she kept calling for help, she was five month pregnant but was not taken to the hospital. Another lady is seven and a half months pregnant and when I called today to find out her court date, they didn’t even have any of her paper work available. She is desperate not to have her baby in jail as they will take the child away from her. Today when I told her that she still doesn’t have a date, her eyes got teary and she shared that she had been bleeding and was scared for her baby’s health.

Another woman, Carla, was riding in the car with her cousin nearly 10 months ago. They gave someone a ride to work. That man murdered someone. Carla had nothing to do with the crime. However, she has been sitting in jail all this time charged with capital murder. I talked to her court appointed attorney. She can’t be bailed out because she is not an American Citizen and she is considered a flight risk. The attorney said her trial has to wait until after the murder trial which is still months away. She also has four young children.

As far as I can see, the concept of a ‘speedy trial’ is a bad joke in Cameron County. I want to scream. Don’t think I do not understand that some of these women committed crimes that deserve punishment. However, the vast majority of them were victims long before they made their wrong choice. I have prayed with murderers and women I would rather not meet in a dark alley, but that is rarely the case. Many of these women have only committed small offenses, sometimes just traffic violations, or they have been with boyfriends or husbands who were dealing drugs.

In all these years I have not talked to one woman who had any money. The reality? We are locking them away because they are too poor to hire an attorney.

I have tried on three different occasions to get the GED program into the jail. I have talked to the administrators for the GED program, hauled boxes of books to the jail and even found some volunteer teachers. But oh no, that is not possible. These women get to do nothing but watch TV, color pictures and sleep. I recently took a former inmate out to lunch and she shared how hard is was to readjust to life outside of jail because of the months in which the days are so mind numbing that sleep is the only escape from the despair. Now she is raising her son and working again and trying to break the terrible habits that jail existence forced on her.

Through the years I have usually been favorably impressed with the guards who work at the jail. Their work environment is not much better than the inmates living arrangements. I know a few attorneys that seem like decent people, but the majority of them will not return my calls. When I do get through to them it is clear that I usually know more about their clients than they do. I presume that none of them look forward to being appointed to a case with just minimal pay. I don’t know where the bottleneck is. Why do these women have to wait often for six to twelve months without even getting a trial? Judges, where are you? Why do they almost never get to talk to their attorney until moments before their case is brought before a judge? Why are their months in Cameron County Jail often not even counted against their sentence?

I could clear out the women’s jail in a week, hearing each woman’s story and deciding whether they should go home or to jail. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to tell which women still need time off the street, which ones need a halfway house and which ones need to go home. I remember a quote I once heard that a society can be judged by how they treat their weakest members. If that is true, then Cameron County Texas is an evil place. Shame on you judges, attorneys, county judges, county commissioners and sheriff. You have knowledge and authority, why won’t you do something? But, if you citizens of Cameron County can read this and feel no compassion for these women, then shame on you.

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