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Building a bottom-up Movement to Fight Texas Jails

September 30, 2022

Across the state, Texas Jail Project staff and community members continue organizing to depopulate county jails and equip incarcerated loved ones with resources and support. This summer, you may have found…

Across the state, Texas Jail Project staff and community members continue organizing to depopulate county jails and equip incarcerated loved ones with resources and support. This summer, you may have found the Texas Jail Project team in local downtowns court-and-jail-watching, at county commissioner’s testifying, at community events tabling, or at the State Capitol testifying.

A growing jail population in Texas–fueled by disastrous bail legislation SB 6–has resulted in a disturbing trend: county governments, at the behest of law enforcement, are seizing the opportunity to invest more in detention. Meanwhile, local jails are as overcrowded and dangerous as ever. Restrictions on pretrial release–mandated by last year’s SB 6– are overwhelming counties as tens of thousands more people are trapped in jail  every year because they’re poor. Read on to see how Texas Jail Project has been fighting back. 

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ORGANIZING TEXAS COMMUNITIES

After Kelly Masten–a beloved daughter and community member–was arrested in epileptic crisis and hospitalized for jail neglect, Texas Jail Project mobilized quickly in support of her and her family. Demanding the resignation of Sheriff Waybourn, TJP brought out dozens of community members and ally organizations in a solidarity rally at Tarrant County Commissioner’s Court.

Just weeks later, we would organize with congregants of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth to mobilize their Social Justice group in testifying to Commissioner’s Court to support our community demands.


For months, our client advocate Goldie has carried out weekly court-watches and canvasses at the Harris County Courthouse, Joint Processing Center, and Jail. Her tireless organizing and outreach has directly resulted in groundbreaking complaints that led to Harris County Jail being found non-compliant. Many of the individuals reached by Goldie in canvassing will be featured in our forthcoming storytelling project: Freedom Stories.

In August, we joined Liberate HTX and the #NationalStopShotSpotter Campaign in a community event with free food, harm reduction resources, live music, and speakers to shed light on the harms of surveillance technology in the Houston area. We tabled at the event, distributing free loaded transit fare cards for attendees, and gathering signatures for the Community Safety Budget–which Texas Jail Project announced this month. Endorsing organizations include Grassroots Leadership, Woori Juntos, MOVE Texas, Tahirih Justice Center, Restoring Justice, Texas Civil Rights Project, Civil Rights Corps and others. At the September 13 Budget Adoption hearing, TJP turned out more than 15 speakers and 30 written comments, united in a shared vision for community safety budgeting in Harris County.


Last month, community organizer Dalila attended the Help, Hope & Healing Mental Health Conference of East Texas, distributing information about our work and educating attendees (including elected officials) on the mental health crisis in Smith County Jail.

This week, Texas Jail Project is supporting the Judicial Commission on Mental Health’s SIM Mapping Workshop in Smith County – an event designed “to tap into community expertise to illustrate how individuals with mental health, behavioral health, and/or substance abuse needs flow through their local criminal [legal] system by bringing together local partners.”

At June’s Grayson County SIM Mapping Workshop, Texas Jail Project facilitated community participation in the event by sponsoring expense and transportation stipends for attendees harmed by the criminal legal system.


After Texas Jail Project rapidly intervened in support of Greg, a Denton community member who lost his arm from medical neglect in Denton County Jail, North Texas Organizer Tamera supported the Denton Community Bail Fund to raise awareness, encourage rally turnout, and garner media attention on Denton County Jail’s systemic failures.

 


 

STAFF SHOUTOUTS & ORGANIZATIONAL UPDATES

  • This summer we welcomed Olivia Ekeke, MPH (above, third from left) as TJP’s new Development Associate. Liv is currently enrolled in her 2nd year of law school; and we’re thrilled she’ll be joining us as a part-time grant writer while she pursues her J.D. degree.
  • At this year’s Vera Institute’s In Our Backyards National Convening, TJP staffer Gabriela (above, second from left) led the breakout panel The Delicate Dance: Civilian Oversight of Local Jails. The session analyzed and compared  models of oversight and prepared organizations to build strategies for monitoring jail conditions, reducing harm, and advocating with incarcerated communities.

Announcing a Four Day Work-Week

After an exciting pilot period, the TJP team has unanimously elected to permanently adopt 4-Day-Work-Weeks for all staff – to more closely align our labor practices with our labor values.

“The four day work week results in reduced stress levels, more creativity, as well as a significant increase in productivity for myself and the team. I can also balance my job and personal obligations.” – Goldie VanZandt, Client Advocate


RAPID REPSONSE ADVOCACY

Monkeypox, Operation Lonestar & Outsourcing Contracts

  • In response to the global outbreak, we consulted with correctional health experts to develop & disseminate jail Monkeypox mitigation recommendations to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and local officials in high-risk counties.
  • We continue to provide rapid response help and resources to people jailed under Operation Lone Star. In the spring, findings of our work monitoring conditions of confinement were used in a class action lawsuit filed by individuals unconstitutionally profiled, kidnapped and detained under OLS.
  • In 2022, TJP has responded to over 1,100 incoming requests for assistance from incarcerated people and their loved ones.
  • For the past ten months, we’ve actively monitored jail outsourcing activity across the State–taking a more active role in analyzing contracts, crafting depopulation briefs as alternatives to outsourcing, requesting public records, fighting for an end to out-of-state transfers, and advocating for individuals affected by them. As of August 1st, 100 local jails are paying to confine people elsewhere–more than 40% of all jails in Texas. 

 

A Look at the Harris County Jail Crisis

  • The Harris County Jail population is higher than it’s been in 11 years.  
  • In the first eight months of 2022, at least 20 people have died in Harris County custody, more than the total number of people who died in the jail in nine of the last ten years.
  • Harris County is spending nearly $40M in contracts with two deadly for-profit prison corporations (LaSalle Corrections and Management & Training Corp) to confine approximately 600 legally innocent people hours away from their community and their counsel. This comes at a time when Harris County is in fiscal crisis, facing a budget shortfall. While the county wastes $40M on for-profit prisons, Harris Health has warned county leaders 10,000 patients face being cut from health services without additional funding.
  • Complaints filed by Texas Jail Project led to an investigation into Harris County Jail’s booking practices, revealing individuals were regularly being confined in holding for days without access to hygiene.
  • Today there are 20 children and 50 pregnant people caged in HCJ. One in ten people confined are there for personal substance use. Eight in ten have a mental health condition or disability.


WHAT CAN YOU DO NOW?

  1. If you have lost a loved one in jail: Have you, or someone you know, lost a loved one in Harris County Jail? Please contact us at help@texasjailproject.org for immediate support.
  2. If you are concerned with jail conditions in your community: Join us at the next Texas Commission on Jail Standards quarterly meeting on November 3rd in Austin. We can help you prepare your comments, provide transportation, and connect you with our peer support network. Contact us!
  3. If you live in Harris CountyRegister to speak at next week’s Harris County Commissioner’s Court Meeting on September 27, 2022 at 10am. In-person and remote call-in available. Find talking points here.
  4. If you are interested in learning more about Bail Reform: Join us this Saturday September 24th in Austin for a free and open-to-the-public panel on Bail Reform in Texas, hosted by Texas Tribune and Arnold Ventures.
  5. If you believe in the work Texas Jail Project is doing: Consider supporting our all-BIPOC-women team with a donation to help us grow the movement in Texas.


Did You Know?

Over 70% of people in Texas jails are legally innocent? The vast majority of these folks are only confined because they can’t afford cash bail.

According to the Office of Court Administration, the most commonly arrested charge resulting in cash bail in Texas is Possession Less Than a Gram.

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