Jane Doe, aka Jenny, and the hellhole that is Harris County Jail (Part One)

Texas built a special hell for women, the Harris County Jail, in Houston, Texas. The story of “Jane Doe”, aka “Jenny”, attest to that, but first some general context. The United States boasts 3,000 counties. Most haven’t executed anyone in the last 40 years. Harris County Jail is the outlier. Between 1977 and 2015, twenty counties executed 10 or ore people. Of the twenty, 14 killed between 10 and 19 people; four executed between 20 and 49; one executed 55 people, and then there’s Harris County Jail. Since 1976, Harris County executed 125 people: “If Harris County, TX, were a state, it would be second only to the rest of Texas in terms of executions.” Now that the use of capital punishment has begun diminish, Harris County is leading the way in life-without-parole sentences. According to a recent report, in 2017, Harris County sentenced 21 people to life imprisonment without parole. The next three counties combined totaled 13.  Harris County is a U.S. chapter in the global labor of necropower: “Necropower … account[s] for the various ways in which … new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead … Under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred.” Welcome to Harris County criminal justice.

Not satisfied to kill and contain for life far and away more people than any other jurisdiction, Harris County has targeted children and the poor. In the rest of Texas and across the United States, juvenile detention numbers are dropping, but not in Harris County, Texas. According to reports this week, the Harris County Juvenile Justice Center, which has been overcrowded for years, is now severely, dangerously overcrowded. Youth crime is down, and yet the detained juvenile population is skyrocketing. Why? Between 2010 and 2017, the average number of detained children charged with minor offenses increased by 64 percent. In 2017, children charged with minor offenses were locked up for close to three weeks, on average. That’s twice as long as the wait in 2010. From 2010 to 2017, the number of “low risk” African-American children held in detention rose by 75 percent. This spike has occurred in a mere seven years, and in a state in which 17-year-olds are sent to adult courts and jail.

Meanwhile, Harris County Jail is equally overcrowded and toxic, and one of the reasons is the cash bail system in Harris County. According to recent reports, Harris County systematically denies poor and indigent plaintiffs access to personal bonds or any other forms of assistance that are supposedly available. To the contrary, judges routinely raise bail precipitously. Consider what happened to Shamira Brown. Shamira Brown, single mother of two, resident of Houston, thought that, during Harvey, her neighbor had stolen her daughter’s iPad. A fight ensued. Shamira Brown was released on an unsecured bond and told to show up in court in a few days. The courthouse had been flooded and ruined in the hurricane. Shamira Brown repeatedly called the hotline for information. No one answered. On September 8, the day of her court appearance, Shamira Brown dutifully took three buses to get to the courthouse. The courthouse was closed. She called the hotline. No one answered. Now, there’s a warrant out for Shamira Brown’s arrest, for failure to appear in court. This is a common story in Harris County, and, since Harvey, the numbers have only grown exponentially. Those who need pretrial monitoring get nothing and then get a warrant served. As Shamira Brown noted, “I didn’t get anything in the mail, no lawyer papers. They just never told me where to go. Y’all wasn’t even doing your part, but you’re quick to put out a warrant for someone?”

According to the most recent report, 78% of Harris County Jail detainees are awaiting trial.

Last week, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis put a name and face to the situation, “Sandra Bland was arrested and kept in jail because she didn’t have $500.” Sandra Bland died, or was killed, July 13, 2015, in the Waller County Jail, not far from the Harris County Jail. Harris County is currently being sued for its “assembly line justice for poor people.” More like sewage line injustice for poor people, people of color, children, women, people living with mental disabilities. This is the context for Jane Doe’s and Jenny’s experiences in the hellhole that is Harris County Jail.

 

(Photo Credit: Houston Chronicle / Eric Gay / STF)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.