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National Support for Tx Jail Project

May 3rd, 2021 | Category: In The News, Lead Article

Blue Tent, March 30, 2021 href=”https://bluetent.us/arenas/policy-advocacy/texas-jail-project/”>https://bluetent.us/arenas/policy-advocacy/texas-jail-project/“

In 2005, four Texas environmental activists participated in a demonstration against Union Carbide. One of the women eventually ended up spending almost five months in jail. The stories Diane Wilson heard there, and the hurdles that her friend, Krishnaveni (Krish) Gundu encountered while trying to advocate for her, inspired the women to do something for people incarcerated in jails across the state.
The result is the Texas Jail Project, a nationally recognized criminal justice reform organization with statewide and even national reach. TJP’s work includes acting as an unofficial citizens’ jail oversight commission throughout Texas, advocating for individuals incarcerated in Texas jails, and working with coalitions that have successfully pushed for legislative reforms. It has even forged working relationships with some Texas jail administrators.
As a result, the project has attracted the support and partnership of high-level national organizations, including Civil Rights Corps, the Vera Institute and The Bail Project. A spokesperson for The Bail Project, which developed a partnership with TJP in the summer and fall of 2020, said that Texas Jail Project does “incredible advocacy work, and we’re honored to be in this effort together.”

If you were following the news in February, you heard or read about the Texas Jail Project. News outlets including the Associated Press, all three broadcast networks and the Washington Post covered the organization’s work advocating for incarcerated people during winter storm Uri and conducted interviews with freezing, thirsty incarcerated people arranged by TJP.
None of TJP’s founders had any idea their small organization would be in this position back in 2006. Other than Wilson’s and Gundu’s experience, they knew nothing about Texas’ jail system. They weren’t attorneys, social workers or professional policy advocates.
For 14 years, they did what they could, when they could, in between full-time jobs and other activism. They didn’t become a full-time organization until the COVID pandemic began in 2020, and this year is their first year with a full-time budget. But even in the beginning, they knew that Wilson shouldn’t have been jailed an additional three weeks beyond her release date because of a clerical error. They also knew that a newborn baby shouldn’t die on a jail cell floor because the baby’s mother is being held in solitary confinement.
Far from a fairy tale, the Texas Jail Project story is full of valuable, practical information for ordinary citizens who want to advocate for change, and professional organizers and funders who want to have a greater impact on the issues they care about.
It started with an arrest
TJP’s current executive director, Krishnaveni Gundu, is an American immigrant who grew up in Bhopal, India, in the aftermath of Union Carbide’s gas disaster. Learning more about what had happened to her hometown as an adult inspired Gundu to leave her work as an advertising copywriter and become an environmental activist.
Gundu’s activism continued after her husband was transferred to Texas. Through that work, she met Diane Wilson, and eventually joined Wilson and other friends in the protest that led to Wilson’s arrest and ultimate incarceration in the Victoria County, Texas jail.
During long, expensive phone calls, Gundu said that Wilson, who is white, told Gundu and their other friends about the women she was locked up with. They were “mostly Black and brown, all poor,” Gundu told Blue Tent, and locked up pending trial because they had no money for bail or an attorney. One of the women Wilson met, Shandra, had also been held in the jail for a few years prior to meeting Wilson.
At the time, Shandra was pregnant. She ended up giving birth in her solitary confinement cell while trying to reach the panic button. Her baby died. “And then, to add cruelty on top of cruelty,” Gundu said, Shandra, who was being held pre-trial, wasn’t allowed to attend her baby’s funeral.
While Gundu and the other friends were hearing these horror stories from Wilson, Gundu stayed on top of the jail system to advocate for her friend. She had to keep advocating, Gundu said, because the release date in the jail’s system was three weeks later than the date of release ordered by Wilson’s judge. The humiliating remarks with which jail staff greeted Gundu were just part of the frustration she faced as, again and again, she was rebuffed. Eventually, a jail administrator realized that Wilson was, indeed, supposed to be released on the earlier date.
“That was really my first chapter of learning how county jails work,” Gundu told Blue Tent.
Collecting stories
In the beginning, the women who founded the Texas Jail Project collected stories from the families of people incarcerated in the state’s jails and took those stories to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards quarterly meetings. Then they started sharing the stories with county commissioners and the courts.
“And then we set up a website,” Gundu said. “And when we set up the website and shared some of these stories, other stories started pouring in. That’s how the work started.”
At the time, though, Gundu and her friends believed that the project would be temporary.
“For a long time we thought, ‘Well, we’ll just collect a few stories and we’ll just give it to the experts and we’ll go back to our lives.’ And that never quite happened. We couldn’t completely go back to our lives. But for a long time, we kept it going as part-timers, as we were working other jobs,” she said.
They also struggled with a sense that they didn’t have the ability to make real change “because we don’t have those letters behind our name (Dr., MSW, etc.),” Gundu said, “So that’s always the feeling of insecurity that we are not the experts.”
In those days, and until Gundu took TJP’s helm last year, journalist and activist Diana Claitor served as the group’s founding executive director. Diane Wilson, whose incarceration helped inspire the project, served on the board until roughly 2014. Col. Ann Wilson, the fourth friend, is a supporter and donor, but doesn’t work with the organization, Gundu told Blue Tent.
A growing venture
Just prior to the COVID pandemic, Gundu had begun actively seeking out allies like the Civil Rights Corps because “I had learned that they were informed and inspired by our pretrial detention stories collection. Once I knew that, I was actively having conversations with them about how this work should grow.” Civil Rights Corps is now a funder and partner of the project. A senior attorney at Civil Rights Corps, Elizabeth Rossi, said that her organization is “thankful for the opportunity to partner with the Texas Jail Project. Our litigation in Harris County is better informed and more connected to the community thanks to the pivotal work of the team at TJP.”
While funding partners have just started coming on board over the past few years, TJP has always worked in coalitions. In 2009, the group worked with organizations including the ACLU and Catholic groups to pass legislation that mandated the counting of pregnant women in state jails and started to recognize their right not to be shackled while giving birth unless necessary for safety reasons.
Gundu gives founding Executive Director Claitor the credit for building those first coalitions and says that the project’s job is to plug their work—the stories of incarcerated people and their families—into these coalitions to strengthen the call for reforms. The group’s “sweet spot,” Gundu said, is that TJP has always stuck to its core mission. “We’ve kept to our niche, and just offered it (the stories) to whoever needs that to work with us.”
In the past few years, though, Kundu began considering taking TJP full-time. The shift began with the 2018 appointment of Kevin Garrett, a formerly incarcerated person, to work as a peer policy fellow through a grant from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, and continued through her conversations with national groups like Civil Rights Corps.
“[We finally found] that what we’re doing is unique and nobody else is doing it. And we are the ones that are listening and collecting and telling the stories. And through stories is healing and empowerment and connections and movement building.”
When TJP made the decision to attack the work full-time, Gundu said, “people saw that commitment [and] the funding started coming in.” For 2021, the project has a projected budget of approximately $480,000, 12 institutional funders including Civil Rights Corps, Arts for Justice, The Simmons Foundation for Houston and Vera Institute of Justice, and approximately $25,000 in contributions from individuals. 
The COVID pandemic was also an “inflection point” for Texas Jail Project. Prior to that, TJP was collecting stories from the families and loved ones of incarcerated people. Realizing they needed to hear from people inside, the project distributed its phone number in the jails.
“Once we put our phone numbers in the jails and we started taking collect calls, that just took [our work to] a whole other level,” Gundu said. By sharing incarcerated peoples’ stories on Twitter, “that just gave us a much wider following, and people really saw our work then, and saw what we were doing, and the value of that.” The group also used its social media to huge effect during February’s winter storm.
Thanks to the new funding, the Texas Jail Project now employs Gundu, two other full-time staff, a part-time employee, and a contractor for casework.
Advice for citizens, funders and established activists
Gundu told Blue Tent that other groups of citizens can get started advocating for change in their communities without waiting for experts to come in and save them.
“I think we’ve realized now that you don’t need to be an expert—you become an expert by acknowledging first that there is a problem, by listening to that problem and then trying to problem-solve it, right?”
She also advises “radical empathy,” whether the situation involves listening to an incarcerated person or an established organization attempting to partner with a small, community-led group.
“You have to listen to them and not treat them like, ‘OK, we’ll come and tell you what the policy is and this is what’s going to fix your life,’” she said.
When it comes to funders, Gundu wanted to focus on the philanthropies that “have really understood the work and are putting themselves behind it.”
If funders want to make an impact, Gundu said, the first step is to spend time listening to the people doing the work and trying to understand it, the challenges involved, and the real needs of the groups they’re funding.
Funders also need to be accessible. “I can text my program officer and say, ‘Do you have 10 minutes to talk?’ And they’ll make time to talk to you,” she said.
Finally, grantmakers need to realize that they can play a real role in creating sustainable programs by educating smaller groups on just what they should be asking for. As an illustration, Gundu shared that when she recently made a proposal to one funder, her program officer gave her a real “dressing down”—because she wasn’t asking for enough money.
“She asked, ‘Do you know what a white organization would have asked for [this] proposal? They would have asked for at least a million dollars—and you’re telling me you can do this work for $200,000! When are [you] going to have a respectable budget and actually pay yourself decently?’”
“This is a problem with small, grassroots groups, which are mostly run by people of color,” Gundu said. “We don’t know what to ask for. We don’t know. We’re constantly undervaluing ourselves. And it comes from the place of thinking we’re not experts.”
March 30, 2021

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