Articles by this Author
June 4, 2009
Being pregnant in a Texas lock up can be hell. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the practice of shackling women during childbirth and recovery is still done in some Texas jails even though the United States Bureau of Prisons has banned the practice. Texas jails are able to use restraints on women as a matter of course regardless of whether a woman has a history of violence (which only a minority have), regardless of whether she has every attempted escape (which few women have), and regardless of her state of consciousness. Hopefully, that will change with HB 3653 which, if signed by Governor Rick Perry when it hits his desk this month, will prohibit the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Youth Commission, and municipal and county jails from using restraints to control the movement of pregnant inmates in custody while the inmate is in labor or delivery, or recovery from delivery. The bill could take effect as early as September l.
A sister bill, HB 3654, requires county jails to have a plan for medical care of pregnant inmates in county jails as well as requiring administrators to include the number of pregnant women in their population reports. Presently there are NO numbers on pregnant inmates or the number of infants born in jail. Also, under current law, there is no mandated medical care or nutritional supplements for pregnant inmates. Diana Claitor, executive director of Texas Jail Project who worked with Texas ACLU staffer Matt Simpson to create the initial drafts for both bills, said many people believe all of the above will occur automatically. But in her experience, unless there is a law on the books, it won’t be considered a priority or even considered at all.
Texas county jails hold up to 80,000 inmates a night and approximately 14% of those are women. Claitor said, "The public has no idea how many young mothers and their babies come out of jail injured or traumatized."
Most jail health-care systems function independently, have no checks and balances, and are isolated from the outside medical community, except for inspections by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards which typically look for problems with male inmate overcrowding and fire exits. It doesn’t help, too, that jail administrators and staff are prone to lump complaining inmates into one big group: whiners, liars, and troublemakers. That’s why an inmate with a serious illness and injury can suffer without treatment, often until they are dying or dead.
Claitor said, “I can say with utter conviction that just because you ask for medical care or even beg for medical care in Texas jails, there are plenty of time when you’re not going to get it. Period. If it doesn’t happen when a person is convulsing in seizures or going into a diabetic coma (see a federal report on Dallas County Jail.) it is certainly not likely to happen when a pregnant woman says she is not getting enough food or that she’s in pain and bleeding.”
The Texas Jail Project, a volunteer jail advocacy group that is based in Austin, became increasingly aware of cases on pregnant women through a ‘listening project’ publicized through their website (www.texasjailproject.org), where families and friends were encouraged to email and phone about problems pregnant women faced in county jails, including shackling during childbirth.
Shacking during labor and delivery can cause intense pain, cramping, swelling, reduction of circulation and increase risk of thrombosis or blood clots. It can interfere with appropriate medical care, be harmful to the health of the mother and infant, and violate the dignity of the pregnant inmate. It is not uncommon for a shackled inmate to soil herself or her bed sheets because she could not get unshackled quickly enough to get to the bathroom.
One such victim of this practice was Shanna (not her real name) at the Lew Sterret jail in Dallas, Texas, in 2009. She wrote an eloquent letter about what it was like to spend a month in Parkland Hospital eight months pregnant and with a staph infection. She was transported to the hospital with chains around her legs, hands, and lower waist, although she was charged with a non-violent crime. When she reached the hospital she was escorted down a long hallway with people looking at her like she had just killed someone. For one whole month, Shanna was without TV, phone, or books and chained to her hospital bed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Even though Shanna’s ankles and feet were badly swollen and she had developed bedsores, the guards refused to allow her to walk around. A doctor had to intercede on her behalf in order for Shanna to be allowed to walk in the hallway, her hands and feet still chained to a long monitoring pole.
An inmate we will call Roberta was a trustee for three months at Harris County’s Baker Unit last year. She described her wait for medical attention sitting on the floor next to a woman who was pregnant with twins. The pregnant woman had waited 5 or 6 hours to see a nurse. She was cramping, in pain, bleeding through her pants onto the floor, and extremely upset. Roberta said she remembered the woman repeating how scared she was that she might lose her babies. Roberta and the other waiting inmates kept telling the guard to take the pregnant woman first, but the guard only replied with something along the lines of, “Shut the f… up!”
Claitor was contacted in March of this year by a woman in Henderson County Jail who said her pregnant daughter had requested to see a doctor four times but had yet to see one. She was having a fever, discharge, swollen glands, and she was six months pregnant. Her daughter ended up in the emergency room where the nurses told her she was dehydrated and undernourished. Luckily, she had only a few days before her release and her mother had her in the doctor’s office the next day. But what if she had another two months to serve?
Women in jails differ from their male counterparts in more reasons than that they get pregnant and give birth. Women's crimes are less likely to be violent and more likely to be motivated by poverty and addiction where drugs are often used to medicate the pain of abusive relationships. Women are seldom drug dealers or traffickers. When they do commit a violent offense, it is often against a man who abused them. They rarely pose a violent threat to the general public. Jailed women also have more challenges to overcome in dealing with their pregnancies and their birth experiences. Their pregnancies are often high-risk and complicated.
Frankie was 24 years old and six months pregnant with her first child when she was picked up on a warrant in Victoria, Texas and thrown into jail. Frankie had a rare uterine condition and so, immediately, she began bleeding. When she notified the guard, the guard demanded that Frankie show her the bloody underwear. Frankie’s condition worsened further: her water broke. But the guard said Frankie was hallucinating and that she wouldn’t have that baby for a month. Then the guards decided that Frankie was faking and a troublemaker so she was put into isolation and threatened with a taser gun if she didn’t go. Frankie proceeded to go into labor in an isolated cell and, with a breech birth, the baby died. Frankie was not even allowed to attend the baby’s funeral.
Last year, 19-year-old Amber was in the Ellis County Jail when she was 10 weeks pregnant. Recently, however, Amber had the satisfaction of bringing her story to the Texas capitol where she helped HB 3654 pass the scrutiny of the House County Affairs Committee. Her voice trembling at times, Amber described her stay at the jail. She said no one seemed to care that she needed prenatal vitamins, the right food to eat, or milk to drink for her baby to grow normally. She never saw an obstetrician or had any prenatal checkups. For several weeks she bled and spotted and she reported that to the guards. The guards in turn would call the nurse who gave her Tylenol. She finally saw a doctor who told her that he did not think she was pregnant or even had a uterus. A nurse listened to the baby’s heartbeat and told her she could not hear the baby’s heartbeat. She thought the baby might have died. Amber called her mother and begged her to do something. She became so upset that the jail put her on suicide watch in an isolation cell where she bled even more. After her release, Amber’s baby, Zannah, was born, weighing 6 lbs and 6 ounces. To this day, Amber said, she still worries that something might not be right with Zannah as she grows older because of the neglect and unhealthy conditions that she suffered in the Ellis County Jail.
Amber summed up her unsettling testimony before the Texas legislature in April by saying, “Babies deserve to be taken care of no matter what
the mother has done. The baby is not responsible.”
These stories are only too common because many jail administrators, without rules and guidelines, fail to do the right thing -- the healthy and humane thing -- for the women in their care and the babies they carry. However, even in the midst of the chaos of a Texas legislative system that was overburdened with bills and dominated by controversy, an unlikely coalition-- the Catholic Conference of Texas, Texas ACLU, Texas Right to Life, and Texas Jail Project -- worked on passing two small bills that may start Texas on a path to more healthy moms and healthy babies.
During the long tedium of one House committee hearing, Representative Valinda Bolten asked a pointed question of Adan Munoz, the director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. He was providing background information when Bolton abruptly asked, “How long have county jails in Texas been housing incarcerated women?” Munoz replied, “As long as jails have been open.” Bolton said, “So ... we don’t really have the answer to why it’s taken till 2009 to address this issue of the medical needs of pregnant women.”
It is a question and answer that is long overdue.
Formosa Plastics: Jewel of the Texas Gulf Coast?
Written by Diane Wilson
October 12, 2005
For being the self-proclaimed "Jewel of the Texas Gulf Coast," Formosa Plastics isn't doing so hot. Lucky for us, Hurricane Rita, initially packing 185 mph winds and headed straight for Formosa's ill-prepared and sprawling 1,800-acre PVC plant in Point Comfort, Texas, decided to turn north at the last minute. Formosa dodged a bullet.
No bullet-dodging last week: On October 6, at 3:30pm and after 30 minutes of obnoxious chemical fumes that drove Point Comfort citizens into the streets to wonder what ill wind was blowing their way, Formosa Plastics blew, sending a Nagasaki-style mushroom cloud and three, four, and five explosions thundering over the blistering Texas landscape. Formosa Plastics and neighboring Alcoa plant workers ran for their lives, many throwing themselves into nearby Lavaca Bay, host to one of the nation's largest underwater mercury Superfund sites. But for those workers, the mercury was the lesser of two evils. The worst was Formosa's explosion, which sent 11 workers to the hospital, two with serious burns.
Formosa Plastics' self-congratulatory "jewelness" has nothing to do with its hourly plant workers or Calhoun County's commercial and sports fishermen or the once jewel-like bays. That's just Y.C. Wang, aka Chairman Wang, aka El Presidenti, patting Formosa on the back. And he can do that because he owns the company, part of his family dynasty dating back to the late '40s and the good ole Taiwan Kuomintang days.
You gotta know that it's important for Chairman Wang to have one "jewel" of a plant, because his other U.S. plants, in Delaware, Illinois, and Louisiana, have either blown up or had serious environmental problems. (In Delaware, the courts finally served a summons by dropping it into the plant from the governor's helicopter; Formosa wouldn't let them onto the grounds to serve the summons.) So for everybody's peace of mind, and chiefly the chairman's, it's important that the parent company claim that Formosa Plastics Texas is "the Jewel" they built from scratch, 'cause the rest of their U.S. plants -- why, those was just junk plants they bought and made profitable.
But high-sounding labels mean nothing in a county that once ranked No. 1 in the nation for toxic disposal, and where the recent explosion is an increasingly familiar sight. Trophies mean nothing, either. In 1991, a few scant months after receiving the "Safest Plant in Texas" award from the Texas Chemical Council, Union Carbide Seadrift (a few miles southwest of Formosa) blew up, killing one worker and injuring 32 others. Debris as big as automobiles was hurled into the night.
Formosa Plastics Texas, the shiny new chemical plant on the block and the pride of Texas politicians, businessmen, and economic development types, was heralded as the county's savior (never mind the tax abatements) when construction got under way on the mammoth $1.3-billion-plus PVC plant. But by the mid '90s it had already earned the rank of worst among a dozen Texas PVC-related facilities. In 1991, Formosa was fined a record $3.7 million by the EPA for hazardous waste violations related to the discovery of massively contaminated groundwater under the facility. Violations included failures to comply with the most rudimentary hazardous-waste regulation -- storing waste in leaking containers, lack of adequate employee training, and illegal discharges of wastes.
In 1990, the company was fined $244,00 for 54 water-quality violations, then again in 1992, after a ten thousand pound release of hydrochloride gas that sent neighbors and cows bawling into the night, Formosa was fined $330,000 for worker-safety violations. OSHA inspection found that vinyl chloride levels were not monitored, flammable liquids were not handled properly, and general procedure for maintenance and repair were not followed.
In July '97, two workers were found asphyxiated and floating in a barge of EDC (ethylene dichloride) at the Formosa loading docks. In December '98, an explosion containing EDC injured 26 workers, rattled windows 35 miles away, and contaminated a back waterway into the bay with levels up to 400 ppm of EDC. In April 2004, Formosa's plant in Illinois exploded, killing 6 workers and injuring many more.
Vinyl chloride causes liver, stomach, and brain cancer. An abnormally high number of spontaneous abortions have been reported among the spouses of workers exposed to vinyl chloride, and increased rates of birth defects have been reported in areas where vinyl chloride plants are located. In spite of those alarming findings, little is done to protect the health of the people. In the '80s, when Formosa released 140,000 pounds of vinyl chloride in one day across the street from an elementary school, the PVC plant received less than a slap on the wrist, fined far less money than one unit made in a single day.
And regardless of Formosa's assurances of "no toxic emissions" to the surrounding community, it is worth noting that in 2000 the U.S. EPA criminal division and the FBI subpoenaed Formosa's wastewater documents for suspected criminal misconduct of the plant's wastewater reports. But I'll be darned if the investigation wasn't suddenly dropped after a record 8,000 pages, 12 years in the making.
Sometimes our so-called "jewels" need the equivalent of a Texas-luvin' death penalty. Adios, Formosa.
THE ART OF MISBEHAVIN’
This piece by Diane Wilson appears in the CODEPINK book Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism.
I went to Iraq with a group of CODEPINK women just before the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Before I left, I had heard a lot about how the Iraqis hated Americans and envied our lifestyle and freedom. With that in mind, I was totally surprised with what I experienced in Baghdad—instead of hatred and suspicion and grudges galore, I met people who were open and curious and generous. When I asked them if they were angry about the Americans on the verge of bombing their country, they all said, “We know it isn’t the American people at fault, but the administration.” Unlike so many people in the United States who think all Arabs are terrorists, Iraqis understood the difference between the American people and U.S. government policies.
Despite their unfailing graciousness, the Iraqis were quite afraid of the U.S. invasion. The waiters in our Baghdad hotel begged us not to leave. The children who met us every morning after our coffee—and who charmed us with their sales of pastries and scarves and shoe shines—hung on to our arms on our last day there and cried tears of desperation. They acted as if somehow, if we remained, the bombs wouldn’t fall.
The Iraqi people had no idea what to do to protect themselves and, in a futile gesture, taped up their windows. It reminded me a lot of what happens in my own hometown when a hurricane threatens the Gulf Coast: it’s almost surreal. A monumental thing is fixing to happen and there’s not much you can do to prepare for it, but you know it’s going to change your life.
Even before I’d arrived in Baghdad, I had been opposed to the war. I was raised in a small coastal fishing town in a state where concealed handguns are legal and hunting is equated with ritual. But I had developed a total aversion to killing. During my time as an army medic in the Vietnam War, I saw firsthand (in a boot camp in Georgia and in a medical ward in Fort Sam Houston) what happens to eighteen-year-old boys conscripted into wartime service: their descent from innocent enthusiasm into a hell of drugs and violence and numbing withdrawal. In the wards where I worked, patients constantly swiped needles to shoot up. A pot haze hung in the air like smoke from a lingering fire. This was a lost generation of boys.
This wasn’t something I wanted to see again. So before the war began, I went with Medea Benjamin to Washington, D.C., and we disrupted a House Armed Services Committee hearing where Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, was stating his case for war with Iraq. It was a spontaneous moment spurred by our wish to do something to stop the war, and it made national news because we did it while the TV cameras in the room were rolling.
One month later, a group of women from across the nation staged a hunger strike and vigil at Lafayette Park in front of the White House. We remained in the park, in the dead of winter, protesting the war and promoting peace for several months. During one protest, I scaled the fence in front of the White House with an antiwar banner and stayed up there for about five minutes until I was shoved to the ground by the Secret Service. For that action, I was arrested, jailed, and banned from Washington for an entire year. The Secret Service felt so threatened by our nonviolent antiwar protests that they even followed me to my hometown in Seadrift!
Still, I felt compelled to do more than just sit in Seadrift and grieve. So on the day before half a million Americans took to the streets of New York and people around the globe protested the invasion, a delegation of CODEPINK women assembled before the UN gate to protest. I climbed the fence and chained myself to it. I was then arrested and sent to trial. Later, back in Texas, two other protesters and I stood in the state capitol and shouted down a resolution supporting the war. For that I got four days in a women’s correctional facility outside Austin.
But still, I didn’t do enough. I don’t think I’ve ever regretted any failure as much. A war rages, children die, families are blown apart—and we are all too well behaved. I’m a fourth-generation commercial fisherwoman, born and raised in Texas and baptized in a river by a Pentecostal preacher. I’ve also been an environmental activist fighting the destruction on the Texas bays for years. My environmental activism flowed into the peace movement, and that flowed into CODEPINK. Just like the ecosystem where I shrimp, it’s all connected. The corporations like Formosa and Dupont and Dow are destroying the Texas bays and killing small communities like my town, and the federal government is bombing a whole country to control its oil. It’s the same destructive mentality at work.
When we say we don’t want war, those can’t just be words. Stopping a war takes a real commitment, and that means putting ourselves at risk. We have to pursue peace as aggressively as others want to make war. In our own American history, people have laid their lives on the line for their beliefs. To paraphrase one of them, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: If you don’t have something in your life that you’d die for, then you don’t have much to live for.
So we need to be bold and imaginative and brave. We’ve got to be heroes.
Diane Wilson is a mother of five and a fourth-generation shrimper from the Texas Gulf Coast. Through hunger strikes and other direct action, she has been putting pressure on chemical companies to stop poisoning the bay. A longtime environmentalist and peace activist, Wilson is one of the founding members of CODEPINK.