Tracy Whited and, once again, the hellhole that is the Harris County Jail

Tracy Whited

Welcome to another year in the hellhole that is the Harris County Jail. On Saturday, January 12, 42-year-old Tracy Whited was picked up on a misdemeanor. She had allegedly knifed her ex-boyfriend’s car. She then tried to walk away from booking, and so was hit with a second misdemeanor. When Tracy Whited appear in court, the hearing officer rejected a no-cash personal bond. Instead, Tracy Whited was hit with a $3000 bail, which she could not afford. On Monday morning, Tracy Whited was found, by another inmate, hanging with a bedsheet from her bunkbed. On Monday, after being found hanging and cut down, Tracy Whited was issued a personal bond. She was in hospital by then. On Wednesday, Tracy Whited died. Tracy Whited was the fifth `apparent’ suicide in the Harris County Jail in two years. The Harris County Sheriff says jail conditions are improving. A state Senator says he’s considering putting the Harris County Jail under state supervision, basically putting it in receivership. The two sides argue, and Tracy Whited is dead.

The Harris County Jail has been sued time and again for its violations of prisoners’ Constitutional rights. In the past two years, the Harris County Jail has been found in noncompliance five times. Again, in the past two years, the Harris County Jail has been home to five “apparent” suicides. The jail is overcrowded, fetid, and worse. Who’s overcrowding the jail? People awaiting trial … innocent until proven guilty. According to the Harris County Jail’s most recent reports, this is what the jail population looks like on the last day of typical recent months. On the last day of October 2018, of 9794 inmates, 8301 were pretrial. On the last day of September 2018, of 9804 inmates, 8482 were awaiting trial. In August 2018, of 9677 inmates, 8261 were awaiting trial. The Harris County Jail monthly census report, going back to January 2015 shows that, while the numbers may vary, though only slightly, the percentages stay more or less fixed. On any given month, well over 80% of those sitting, and often dying, in Harris County Jail are pretrial, the overwhelmingly majority of whom are there because they couldn’t afford bail. No. The overwhelming majority are there because Harris County insists that everyone must pay to play. That’s why it’s called criminal justice.

Tracy Whited was only the most recent in this cavalcade of those not rich enough to qualify for something like justice, and so poor enough to be condemned to death. In August 2018, Debora Lyons was picked up on a theft charge. Her bail was at $1500. Within days, she was found hanging from a bedsheet in the Harris County Jail. These deaths are not accidents nor are they suicides. They are a public program of abandonment. Debora Lyons last year and Tracy Whited this year were `left to their own devices’, which means they were left to hang from bedsheets.

In 2013, a women, referred to as Jane Doe, was rapedJane Doe lives with bipolar disorder. In December 2015, Jane Doe testified against the man who raped her. Midway through her testimony, she broke down. Initially, Jane Doe was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward. Once “stabilized”, Jane Doe was sent to the Harris County Jail, where she stayed for 28 days, waiting for the trial to proceed. Jane Doe “was imprisoned in the hellhole of the Harris County Jail for no reason other than being a rape victim who struggles with a mental disability.”

In jail, Jane Doe was assaulted, insulted, verbally abused, demeaned, and worse. She was put in with the general population, even though there is a mental health unit in the jail. She was assaulted by staff who said they were confused and thought she was the rapist. In the end as throughout, Jane Doe cooperated with officials and completed her testimony, in January 2016.

In July 2016 Jane Doe sued Harris County. In July, “Jane Doe” was renamed “Jenny”. Jenny’s mother sued Harris County as she pushed legislators to address the nightmare situation. In April 2017, the Texas Senate unanimously and without debate approved “Jenny’s Law” requires a defense attorney be appointed for witnesses and victims and that would receive a full hearing before a judge could sign a writ of attachment and send them off to jail in order to secure their testimony at trial. Jenny’s mother wrote, “Putting a victim in jail should never be an option. Today Jenny is still struggling with the entire trauma she endured by the rapist and also being re-victimized by the justice system.”

The line from Jenny to Tracy Whited is direct. Tracy Whited is dead because she couldn’t come up with $3000. Debora Lyons couldn’t find $1500. How much is your life worth? Atrocities will continue in the Harris County Jail, and beyond, until the bail-to-prison pipeline is shut down, once and for all. Maybe one day, Texas will enact a Tracy’s Law, ending bail and beginning the long slow walk to justice and healing. Until then, corpses will continue to pile up. It’s in the numbers.

(Photo Credit: Houston Chronicle)

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

Harris County, Texas, is a “special” place for criminal justice. Out of 3000 counties across the United States, Harris County boasts both the highest number of executions, by far, in the past twenty years and the highest number of life-without-parole sentences of any county in Texas, again by far. Harris County Juvenile Justice Center is dangerously overcrowded, largely with so-called low-risk African American children. Harris County Jail is dangerously overcrowded, “thanks” to a vicious cash bail system that dumps the poor into jail and then keeps them there. Harris County, Texas, built a special hell for women. Jane Doe aka Jenny, said NO! Why did she have to say anything in order to receive a modicum of respect and dignity? In Harris County, Texas, criminal justice is truly criminal.

In 2013, in Houston, Texas,  Jane Doe was raped. Jane Doe lives with bipolar disorder. In December 2015, Jane Doe testified against the man who raped her. Midway through her testimony, she broke down. Initially, Jane Doe was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward. Once “stabilized”, Jane Doe was sent to the Harris County Jail, where she stayed for 28 days. Why was Jane Doe sent to jail? The court had a holiday break coming up, and the prosecuting attorney dumped Jane Doe in jail so that she would complete her testimony. Jane Doe “was imprisoned in the hellhole of the Harris County Jail for no reason other than being a rape victim who struggles with a mental disability.”

In her month in jail, Jane Doe was assaulted, insulted, verbally abused, demeaned, and worse. She was put in with the general population, even though there is a mental health unit in the jail. She was assaulted by staff who said they were confused and thought she was the rapist. Apparently, that would have justified the violence. Jane Doe was in the same county jail as the man who raped her: “Her rapist was not denied medical care, psychologically tortured, brutalized by other inmates, or beaten by jail guards.”

After all of that abuse, Jane Doe did as she had done all along. She cooperated with officials and completed her testimony, in January 2016.

In July 2016 Jane Doe sued Harris County, Texas, for the abuse and torture she experienced in jail. In July, “Jane Doe” was renamed “Jenny”, perhaps to distinguish her from all the other Jane Doe’s in Texas, and they are legion. Jenny’s mother sued Harris County as she pushed legislators to do something about the nightmare situation. In April 2017, the Texas Senate unanimously and without debate approved “Jenny’s Law” which would require a defense attorney be appointed for witnesses and victims and that would receive a full hearing before a judge could sign a writ of attachment and send them off to jail in order to secure their testimony at trial. Jenny’s mother wrote, “Putting a victim in jail should never be an option. Today Jenny is still struggling with the entire trauma she endured by the rapist and also being re-victimized by the justice system.”

Jenny’s Law took effect September 1, 2017, four years after Jenny was raped. In December 2017, Jenny’s family sued the local hospital for colluding with the local prosecutor by discharging her when she was clearly incapacitated and effectively sending her into the Harris County Jail. That struggle continues.

Even those who support Jenny’s Law continue to argue that she was “lost in the system.” Jenny was not lost in any system. The system worked exactly according to its design. Why was Jenny in jail? Because her mother couldn’t come up with the $15,000 bail. Why did no one in authority think it wrong to jail a woman suffering a breakdown? Why does it take a law to give a woman due process, as guaranteed by the United States Constitution? Why does it take two years to pass that law? The State of Jane Doe passed Jenny’s Law. The State of Jane Doe is not yet concluded. Texas built a special hell for women inside the hellhole that is Harris County Jail.

 

(Photo Credit: Click2Houston)

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)

The nation-State of Jane Doe: Torture in Texas

Welcome to the nation of Jane Doe, where State violence forces women into anonymity. Last week, two Jane Doe cases garnered national attention. In one case, a rape survivor was jailed for more than a month to “ensure” she would be present at her rapist’s trial. In the second, a U.S. citizen was forced to undergo body cavity searches at the U.S. – Mexico border. Meet Jane Doe; she is the face, body and name of citizenship in the United States today.

Last Thursday, “the ACLU of Texas and the ACLU of New Mexico announced a record settlement in which U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) paid a New Mexico woman $475,000 for illegally subjecting her to vaginal and anal searches after she was detained at the Cordova Bridge point of entry in El Paso … Last year the University Medical Center of El Paso paid the same woman — referred to in the lawsuit as Jane Doe to protect her privacy — a $1.1 million settlement for its collusion in the invasive searches.”

Jane Doe’s story began in 2012, as she crossed the El Paso’s Cordova Bridge from Mexico to the United States. A drug-sniffing dog alerted border agents that Jane Doe was carrying drugs. The agents conducted a strip search at the station, using a flashlight to examine her genitals and anus. Finding nothing, the agents sent Jane Doe to University Medical Center, where Jane Doe was forced to undergo observed bowel movement, an X-ray, a speculum exam of her vagina, a bimanual vaginal and rectal exam, and a CT scan. There was no warrant and Jane Doe never consented to anything. Finding nothing, border agents gave Jane Doe “a choice”: sign a medical consent form or pay for the hospital “services.” Jane Doe refused to sign, and received a bill of $5,488.51.

Jane Doe sued and last week won. According to Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas, “This result could not have been achieved without Ms. Doe’s courage and perseverance. Had she succumbed to the threats of CBP agents and remained silent, who knows how many others might have suffered a similarly despicable experience.”

In another case, in 2013, a different Jane Doe was raped, in Houston, Texas. This Jane Doe lives with bipolar disorder. Three years later, in December 2015, Jane Doe was testifying against the man who raped her. Midway through her testimony, she broke down. Initially, Jane Doe was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward. Once “stabilized”, Jane Doe was sent to the Harris County Jail, where she stayed for 28 days. Why was Jane Doe sent to jail? The court had a holiday break coming up, and so the prosecuting attorney dumped Jane Doe in jail so that she would complete her testimony. Jane Doe “was imprisoned in the hellhole of the Harris County Jail for no reason other than being a rape victim who struggles with a mental disability.”

Jane Doe is suing Harris County, Texas, for the abuse and torture she experienced in jail. During her month in jail, Jane Doe was assaulted, insulted, verbally abused, demeaned, and worse. She was put in with the general population, even though there is a mental health unit in the jail. After all of that, Jane Doe did exactly as she had done all along. She cooperated with officials and completed her testimony in January.

Jane Doe was in the same county jail as the man who raped her: “Her rapist was not denied medical care, psychologically tortured, brutalized by other inmates, or beaten by jail guards,”

This is the State of Jane Doe where two women, all women, become one and the same. Their suffrage and citizenship is violence and torture: sexual, psychological, physical, spiritual, economic, political. Welcome to the State of Jane Doe, no country for women.

 

(Image Credit: Moviefone)