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Harris County Jail: Hell on Earth, 2009

Mar 10th, 2009 | Category: Harris County

Sarah was sentenced to 180 days at the Harris County Jail on a misdemeanor from Family Court. There are two jails in Harris County: Big Baker and Little Baker. Sarah spent time in both and eventually served a total of three months. Big Baker is the housing for inmates who are considered High Risk. She thinks that the maximum number of inmates allowed by the state is 9,300, but they crowd in up to 12,000 at a time. Little Baker is reserved for those who are seen as posing little or no risk.

In the initial holding tank where she spent 24 hours waiting to be processed, Sarah remembers that those who already knew they were going to state prison couldn’t wait to get transferred out of the Harris County Jail. In state prisons, they would have access to some outdoor programs and activities, for one thing, and they could hope that it wouldn’t be freezing cold. The initial holding tank—a big room where everyone who had been arrested was held while waiting to be processed—had two toilets out in the middle and was exceedingly cold. “Johnnies” were the only food: a bologna and cheese sandwich and an oatmeal cream cookie in a bag. After 24 hours, Sarah was given a uniform and sent to her medical screening and a basic check up. Sarah disclosed that she has high blood pressure and kidney disease to the medical examiners and was then transferred to the medical holding tank. She had no idea how bad conditions were in the medical tank or she never would have revealed her medical conditions.

The medical tank was underground and flooded regularly. Sarah counted the cinder blocks while she waited, and measured the room to by 30 cinder blocks long and 27 cinder blocks wide. During her time waiting there, sometimes there were up to 90 people crammed into this small space. A concrete bench that lined the walls filled up quickly, so most people sat on the ground or just stood. The two toilets out in the middle of the room only worked part of the time. The sinks were on the back of the toilets and that was where you were supposed to get your drinking water. There was seldom any toilet paper or feminine hygiene products.

While Sarah was in the medical tank waiting to be seen, she saw one girl who was said to be coming off heroin. She was lying in her own feces, seemingly unconscious, and the other women said she had been there for days. Sarah sat on the floor next to a woman who was pregnant with twins. The pregnant woman waited 4-6 hours before even being seen—cramping, in pain, bleeding through her pants onto the floor and extremely upset. Sarah remembers the woman repeating how scared she was that she might lose her babies. Sarah and other women in the room kept telling the guards to take this pregnant woman first. The guards only replied with things along the lines of “Shut the fuck up, the bitch shouldn’t have gotten herself in here to begin with. This is jail, not a country club.”

“Well, I guess my travel agent sure messed up, didn’t she?” Sarah laughed, trying for some dark humor. After spending more time in Big Baker and learning the ropes, Sarah saw that inmates tried to avoid going to Medical and she herself vowed to never report injuries or sicknesses again.

Sarah was taken into jail on Tuesday afternoon, processed and sent to Medical on Wednesday afternoon, and waited in the Medical holding tank until midnight Thursday evening before she was seen. By the time the medical staff saw Sarah, she had been awake for 36 hours and during that time had only had Johnnies to eat. As a result of that and the freezing cold, she was shaking from the cold. The medical staffer’s first question was “What drugs are you coming off?” Sarah stated that she didn’t do drugs but that she did have prescriptions for high blood pressure and allergies. She was given one dose of each medication and then sent to the next stage of booking where she was issued her wristband. The wristband identifies where you are housed and what your risk level is. She was listed as an L4 or “moderate risk” even though she was only arrested for a family court misdemeanor.

Sarah was sent to Big Baker where the high-risk inmates are sent; women are mostly housed on the 4th floor. There are also women’s tanks on the 2nd and 5th floors for women who are “severely mental.” Sarah said that girls who are under 21 are sent to the “baby tanks” which is just a big open room with stacks of bunks. She said the “baby tanks” are supposedly the worst. The general population goes to the “animal tanks” which contain about six sections separated by bars, and eight beds per section. Some women slept on the floor and so you might see 10 people sleeping in each section. She was in an animal tank for a week. She got a bunk right away, which she later learned was only because the state inspectors were there at the time. Later in her time at Big Baker, when the inspectors returned, women who were sleeping on the floor were hidden in holding tanks so that the inspectors would think each inmate had their own bunk. During her time in the animal tank there was at least one fight a day, which often happened over toilet paper. Each section of 8-10 women was given two rolls of toilet paper for every 24 hours. Sarah said that this became particularly difficult when the women’s cycles aligned, and everyone was on their period at the same time. Women on their periods were given two pads or tampons per 24 hours.

After a week Sarah volunteered to be a Trustee. She became a floor worker and was transferred to a trustee pod. Trustees get single cells with their own bed, sink, toilet, and writing table. This was seen as a great privilege, although they did still share showers and a common room. Sarah stayed at Big Baker working as a Trustee for 65 days and she said the time passed relatively quickly because she worked 8-12 hour days doing physical work. The floor workers were responsible for handing out toilet paper and sanitary products, taking the trash out of the pods, serving meals and other errands the guards sent them on. The guards kept control of the trustees by saying they would cut their wristbands and send them back to general population if they were disobedient.

The most shocking aspect of the job for Sarah was that the floor workers handled biohazard waste and almost never got gloves. For a period of time, Sarah snuck small trash bags to use as gloves, but after almost getting written up for it, she stopped. Sarah remembers that the floor workers often handled red bags that had HIV diapers in them and things of that sort. When they were finished with the trash, they had to go serve food, and they didn’t have access to a good way to wash their hands. They were supposed to get new uniforms twice a week, but twice while she was there they went 10 days without new uniforms. She said after 8 hour shifts handling garbage, human waste and food without being able to change their clothes they started to smell bad, but they weren’t allowed to wash their uniforms and had to keep wearing them.

Sarah said that the initial check-in classification usually put the “severely mental” inmates into the psych pods. That system didn’t always work however, and Sarah saw one woman who should have gone to the psych floor being put in with the general population. Sarah was leaving the pod with the trash as they brought the woman in. The woman ran up to the Plexi-glass and started banging on it and yelling. Then, the woman grabbed a pen and started scratching the plexi glass. Sarah saw “Officer Otto” (a guard who has a reputation as one of the worst staff) say “Oh, goodie,” as he approached the pod where the woman had been placed. He called for another officer and then went into the room, grabbed the woman by the scruff of her neck and dragged her out. The woman slugged Officer Otto in self-defense. Sarah saw Officer Otto grab the woman by the back of her neck again and slam her face into the floor. By this point, Sarah had ducked into a utility closet because “You don’t really want an officer to know you’ve seen them do something like this.” Sarah heard the woman scream at him, “You fucker, I’m pregnant.” When the woman stood up, Sarah saw that her face was all bloody and busted and her braces were hanging out of her mouth. Sarah also saw that the woman was pregnant and showing.

Sarah said the guards’ nickname for her was “the Yuppie,” and they thought it was funny to send her into J-POD where the most violent offenders were housed. In order to be sent to J-POD you had to be accused of murder, molesting, or having attacked a guard. A few weeks after witnessing the incident with Officer Otto, Sarah saw this same woman in J-POD. Sarah tried to talk to the woman and ask her if she was ok, how she was doing, but the woman only stared at the wall. Sarah noticed that the woman was no longer pregnant. Once when Sarah went into J-POD to take out the trash and bring in food, the woman had taken off her uniform, soaked it, and shoved it out from beneath her door. She was sitting naked staring at the wall rocking. Sarah could never get the woman to talk. Sarah remembers J-POD guards were comparatively understanding and let her talk to the women, because these inmates were in solitary confinement all the time. Even when they did get so-called recreational time, they were shackled, handcuffed, and kept in an indoor area with no windows. Sarah would talk with the women and joke with them to try to brighten their days. Sarah did not find out what they had done because she felt that they got judged enough. Once she got out she did look some of them up in the paper, but she never found anything about that pregnant woman. Sarah thinks the only reason she was in J-POD was for hitting the guard. “She wasn’t like the others,” Sarah said. She thought the woman was too medicated or too psychologically damaged by the guards and that’s why she stopped talking. The other girls on the 4th floor treated J-POD women like rock stars because their crimes had made them famous.

Sarah’s 65 days in big Baker passed relatively quickly due to her duties as a floor worker. However, after Sarah filed a grievance she was transferred to Little Baker, where the time passed much slower. Sarah and several other girls filed grievances because even though visitors had come to see them, they didn’t get called because the guard was napping with the phone off the hook. Sarah can’t prove that she was transferred because of the grievance she filed, but she remembers that 3-4 days later she was moved to Little Baker, and since she had never gotten into trouble and all the guards liked her, she believed that had to be the reason. When Sarah was transferred, her risk level changed to L5, which is the lowest risk level, but she also lost her trustee status and was put back with the general population. Little Baker was supposed to be better because they had an outdoor area. That turned out to be a room with a 30 foot high concrete wall all around and a chain link fence over the top, allowing inmate to see straight up, but that was all. The inmates at Little Baker were supposed to get a half hour outside, three times a week, but that only happened twice a week at most.

Sarah noticed that the guards were much nastier at Little Baker. They kept the A.C. cranked up really cold and wouldn’t let you cover up in blankets, or put your arms inside your shirt to hug yourself for warmth. Sometimes the women actually turned blue from the cold. They often had strip searches twice a day. Sarah described them as very embarrassing, full on, “bend and spread them” searches. The guards used them as “behavior modification;” if someone talked back at all they would do strip searches on everyone twice a day. Sometimes three to four days would pass without a search, but if anyone acted up or the guards were in a bad mood, they would start searching everyone. The guards would also make them line up alphabetically in plastic chairs, which sounds simple but isn’t: people were coming and going a lot and many didn’t speak English.

“If they weren’t fast enough or lined up out of order or if anyone spoke, they would order us to sit for hours and hours with our arms behind us in those chairs, freezing cold,” said Sarah.

She decided that the difference between guards at Big Baker and Little Baker had to do with the inmates risk level. At Big Baker, the guards were greatly outnumbered by the inmates, and since it was where the higher risk inmates were held, inmates might hit the guards if they were too harsh. Sarah thinks that made the guards more careful. “They were almost respectful,” she said.

But at Little Baker, they were all nonviolent offenders so the guards were constantly degrading them, calling them bitches, and swearing at them. The guards at Little Baker tried to bully people out of filing grievances. Sarah knew one girl who filed a grievance about toilet paper and was escorted to the grievance board by the guard she had written the grievance about. He sat there in the room the whole time staring at her, trying to intimidate her out of speaking.

Sarah will not talk about her experiences in the Harris County Jail when her children can hear; she says it was traumatic enough for them to have her disappear from their lives with no warning and she wouldn’t want them to realize how bad a place she was sent. She knows about the ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation into this jail but wonders if that will result in any changes in how women and men are treated there. Sarah still puzzles over the mindset of the staff running the jail—how they seem bent on making people who are already miserable even more miserable.

“They were only interested in destroying the small shreds of self esteem these folks have left,” said Sarah..

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