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We Support Small Bills That Make a Difference!

Jul 8th, 2019 | Category: Lead Article

For example, consider Leah, a 24-year-old African American arrested on a minor charge. When she was jailed in a rural jail in Central Texas, Leah was five months into a high-risk pregnancy. Her family couldn’t afford to pay her cash bail, and her court-appointed attorney was never available. Her mother emailed Texas Jail Project after Leah had been incarcerated for six weeks.

In the jail, they don’t listen to her,” wrote her mother, “and now she’s hurting and losing weight. She’s asked to see a doctor three times, but they don’t have one at this jail.”

That’s why we need HB 1651. It requires each jail’s medical plan to include care by an OB-GYN for pregnant prisoners. Pregnant women are often held pretrial for weeks and months, on mostly small, non-violent charges because of cash bail—another facet of our unjust justice system. Lack of action on the part of the court-appointed attorney or a mental health provider can also prolong their cases. (More than 70% of the people in Texas jails are pretrial or not yet convicted.) HB 1651 also requires that the staff of our 241 county jails be able to identify when a pregnant prisoner is in labor and provide appropriate care, including PROMPT transport to a hospital. Why do we need a law stating the obvious? Consider the context.  

The work of a jailer is hard and frustrating and sometimes dangerous. Pay is low and turnover rate is high. Thus, the jailer guarding a pregnant inmate may be a young beginner with no knowledge of pregnancy, and at the same time, distrustful of everything she says. Jailers sometimes order women to quit yelling and crying—and sure, some do yell for no reason—but the default reaction for a woman at term should be a medical assessment and transport.

Our staff has listened to grandmothers and mothers describe the trauma of bearing children on cell floors or inside ambulances—terrible experiences, dangerous for the newborn. A law requiring recognition of labor and prompt transport to a hospital will help prevent those experiences and the tragic deaths like those that have occurred in jails in Ellis, Victoria, Wichita and other counties. The third piece of the bill is the most complicated. Earlier legislation that banned restraint of women in labor, delivery and postpartum didn’t go far enough. This new law continues the prohibition along with exceptions allowed in rare cases, but it also requires jailers to follow directions of a health care professional regarding any restraints, and then requires each jail to issue a detailed report about any shackling of a pregnant woman to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. 

I’m glad to see campaigns about the big problems in our criminal justice system in Texas. Yes, cash bail discriminates against low-income people and must be eliminated. Yes, we must reverse the criminalization of mental illness and homelessness. Yes, we must work to remove barriers for those in reentry, so that formerly incarcerated persons can find work, places to live, and support after release.

But as long as more than one million men and women are booked into Texas county jails each year, we have to push for proper medical care for them. If that takes one small bill at a time, then that’s what we have to do.

Click here for the online version.

During the recent session a state employee with 15 years of experience in the criminal justice system has this to say about TJP’s work:“The Texas Jail Project is doing remarkable work by holding Texas jails accountable and creating legislation that keeps our jail population safe. TJP understand the necessity of jails, but also identifies the need for compassion and safety for our incarcerated pouplation and the staff who cares for them.”

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