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)

They are neither mules nor witches. They are women.

Janice Bronwyn Linden

Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser. Janice Bronwyn Linden. Sixteen elderly women, unnamed.

On Monday, Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser was beheaded by the Saudi Arabian government. The charge was witchcraft and sorcery.

On Monday, Janice Bronwyn Linden was executed, by lethal injection, by the Chinese government. The charge was drug smuggling, of being a `mule.’

On Monday, it was reported that, in one district of one province in Mozambique, from January to November of this year, sixteen elderly women had been accused of witchcraft and then were murdered.

Witches. Mules.

Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser was arrested in 2009. She was in her sixties. The charge was that she engaged in unorthodox healing methods. She charged people as much as $800 a session for … the claim of a cure. There is no way of knowing if this was, indeed, a fraud or if Nasser believed in her methods. She was never given the chance to explain. Instead, she was deemed “a danger to Islam”, and that was that.

Janice Bronwyn Linden was a thirty-five year old South African woman, from KwaZulu Natal, who was arrested in 2008 for smuggling three kilograms of crystal methamphetamine. The South African government tried to intervene, tried to appeal to the Chinese government for clemency. As is the practice in China, Linden was not informed of her impending execution until the morning of the day she was to die. Her family is distraught and despondent. South Africa, at least according to discussions in online forums and newspapers, is divided as to the execution. Many feel Linden deserved her fate. Why? She was a mule. She smuggled drugs into China. She should have known better. She `chose’ her path. She was a mule.

In Mozambique, in the district of Marromeu in the province of Sofala, women elders are under attack. A group of women elders, mulheres da terceira idade, women of the third stage, explained that when young men encounter failure, in work, in school, in life, they blame the elder women, they charge them with witchcraft, and then, filled with righteous indignation, they murder them. The women asked: “Estas situações estão a ser frequentes na nossa sociedade . Será que possuir 50 anos de idade deve constituir motivo para a idosa ser considerada feiticeira e condenada à morte?” “These situations are becoming common in our society. Is being old sufficient reason for being considered a witch and being condemned to death?”

Witches. Mules. These are terms that legitimate the murder of women. And they are terms of the current period, our period. They are the names of what is becoming common in our society. The real story is not crime but women’s power and audacity, “the struggle between orthodox men of the Establishment and an unorthodox woman making claims on forms of social power and authority. Ms. Nasir was low on the social hierarchy but making claims to high status by virtue of magical gifts. She posed not so much a danger to Islam as a danger to the authority of the clerics.”

The real crime is the witch-hunt. Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser. Janice Bronwyn Linden. The sixteen women elders. They are neither witches nor mules. They are women. Remember that.


(Photo Credit: South Africa History On Line)