With the end of the Texas legislative session fast approaching, only a small portion of bills have the chance of becoming law. One bill that did pass – it’s already signed by the governor – is designed to help women in prison.
The number of women in Texas prisons has ballooned since 1980, growing by nearly 1,000 %. That’s twice the rate for men.
At a hearing in March, women who’d spent time in Texas prisons told lawmakers what it was like. Their testimony came in support of House Bill 650 – dubbed women’s dignity legislation. Coretta Brown described indignities she experienced, like being watched by a male guard during a strip search.
“And this male officer said ‘Ooh Inmate Brown, you have a big booty.’ He let me know that he was looking through the window as we were stripping and I couldn’t do anything about it,” Brown said.
The bill restricts male guards from being in a room where women are undressed. It also ensures that women can get access to an adequate number of tampons, menstrual pads and panty liners. Margarita Luna says many women need more than their monthly allotment.
“I’ve heard officers…whenever girls ask for pads, let me see your pants. When you stain your pants, then we’ll give you some,” Luna says.
HB 650 also protects women who are pregnant in prison – ensuring pregnant prisoners get proper nutrition and that they aren’t forced to climb onto the top bunk of a bunk bed. It gives women three days to bond with their newborn babies before being separated. And it expands a limitation on shackling pregnant women in prison. Lauren Johnson advocated for the bill for the ACLU.
“What I can tell you from my own personal experience of being incarcerated and pregnant is that when you can’t see your feet at eight months and you’re shackled with leg irons and shackled around your wrists, it’s really hard to maintain your balance, and then to try to get in and out of a car to go to a doctor’s appointment is a real challenge,” Johnson says
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice – the state prison system – says it already has regulations for some of this. State Rep. James White says that’s good, but those policies should have the force of law. The Hillister Republican leads the House Corrections Committee and introduced HB 650.
“It’s very disturbing and because we’ve seen the spike in female incarceration, my committee and I felt it’s time for us to start addressing how we rehabilitate and reintegrate women back into society,” White says.
Because of HB 650, women will now be screened for trauma when they’re sent to prison. Michele Deitch is a prison policy researcher at the University of Texas. She says women’s criminal behavior often springs from a history of trauma … trauma that’s led them to addiction, mental illness and poverty.
“When those issues are not thought through, then women can be further traumatized by their incarceration because of so many experiences they’ve had in the past regarding sexual assault and abuse,” Deitch says.
The ACLU’s Lauren Johnson sees HB650 is a first step in addressing issues related to women in the criminal justice system. She wants to see fewer women sent to jail and prison – and for incarcerated parents to spend more time with their kids. Still, Johnson says she grateful this first step legislation passed with unanimous support.
“With all of the culture wars that exist in the policy world, I’m really grateful that everybody saw the value in doing this. And also it doesn’t hurt to include things about tampons that people don’t want to talk about. I’ve jokingly said that we’re just going to start putting tampons in language of every bill that people don’t want to pass,” Johnson says.