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The first time I was in the Harris County jail, Houston, Texas, I was in for five days. I along with 40 fellow inmates was stacked into cold holding tanks for hours upon hours. The room was so packed, that women were forced to sleep on cement floors strewn with trash and waste from backed-up toilets while guards showed up at periodic intervals yelling, “Pigs!” The cells were so cold that women wrapped their feet in plastic sandwich Baggies or toilet paper. One woman shook violently from the cold until finally, not being able to stand it, she went to the overflowing trash can and jerked out the liner and stuck her entire body in the trash liner. As always, the guards will tell you the reason it is so cold is because of the germs. I guess that’s the reason for the overflowing trashcans, stopped up toilets, trash everywhere, and filthy toilets
We were eventually shuffled into the uniform room where we were forced to strip our clothes, parade in our panties, then spread-eagle, naked against the wall. Then we were told to show our most private areas to the guard. I was so upset by this that the guard could clearly see the anger on my face. The guard seemed to delight in this affecting me and targeted me more. It was the most humiliating and disturbing experience of my life. I might mention that these women forced to do this sadistic action were mostly picked up for traffic violations, missing court dates, prostitution, and one woman for not paying her library fine! All of us hadn’t even been in front of a judge, seen a lawyer, and some didn’t even know what they were being charged with. Yet we were being treated like the scum of the earth!
After the strip torture, 70 of us were packed into a 10- x 20-foot holding cell for over an hour. A male guard occasionally opened the door and called us “stupid bitches!” because the noise was loud. Five days later I was transferred to Victoria County jail, where I was kept in a freezing holding tank for over six hours, then put into the cell where I remained for my crime of activism. I had only one thin mat to sleep on a concrete floor. I was not given a blanket or sheet or any type of hygiene kit because I was told there were none available. I never received a blanket from the jail. After 3 days, an inmate who left the cell gave me her blanket. Three days later, I received a hygiene kit so I could finally brush my teeth and comb my hair. All prior requests for a towel or toothbrush were met with “Drop a form.”
My second experience with Harris County Jail was almost identical to the first. For the 5 days I spent there, I didn’t receive water for three days. Harris County does not hand out water. They don’t believe in it. They hand out baloney sandwiches on white bread. Somebody obviously dumped Harris County Jail a warehouse of white bread. The only water to be had is over a dirty metal toilet where there is a tiny spigot that hopefully works. For three days, not one spigot worked. I was on a hunger strike so food and no water either.
The overriding attitude of the guards is that you are stupid, worthless, and obviously deaf because every spoken word is a scream. And if you dare raise an eyebrow you will get a burly sergeant in your face screaming that he doesn’t like you and he can send you to J pod which is very cold for a very long time and then he smiles and says that if he really takes a dislike to you that he will put you on the suicide cell with a paper gown and then you’ll really be cold.
The entire time I was in Harris County jail, it was filled with noise and screaming orders. The cell where I eventually ended with over 40 women was a constant roar. The TV was on the highest volume, the iron doors constantly slamming, and guards randomly entering the cell hollering orders or doing a brutal shakedown, throwing stuff everywhere. It was so loud I couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying.
There’s not much to do in your cell. In fact there’s nothing. No books. No library. No recreation. No sun. Not a single window. Not a single clock. I never knew what day or time it was. Therefore you sleep a lot under your brown blanket. I was constantly freezing and then with the lack of water soon developed kidney pains. I wasn ‘t missing much not eating. The diet consists entirely of white bread (4 pieces at every meal), baloney, and plastic tubes of peanut butter and jelly. Not once was there a vegetable. Once they threw in a carton of milk and was I surprised! They generally give small packets of dry kool-aide. Many girls were eating the dry kool-aide. One of the women next to my bunk told me that her sister had been in Harris county jail and weighed a hundreds pounds and when she left she weighed 200 lbs. What Harris County Jail delivers is probably the empty-calorie, fattening meal in the state of Texas.
Also something needs to be said about exiting the jail. Very recently, and because of legislation proposed to ban the release of women out of jail in the very early hours because of human trafficking prying on women and the number of deaths of women who were either run over or never found at all, Harris County Sheriff stated publicly that he was not allowing women out during those wee hours. I was released on Monday morning at 3:30am with 9 young women.
I consider myself relatively lucky. Because of my activism I have supporters outside who have constantly supported me by calling the jail and sending letters. Most inmates are not so fortunate. This report is partly for them. These women are predominately minorities, young, poor, and their crimes are petty crimes. Two elderly women were jerked out of their homes by police who busted in their door then arrested them because they didn’t have car insurance, or hadn’t paid their traffic tickets. One woman was jailed because she hadn’t renewed her driver’s license. There were prostitutes, too, but as far as I’m concerned they are the victims! One Houston vice cop who had repeatedly (10 years) had sexual relations with a prostitute, picked her up as she was getting pampers for her grandbaby. The woman was in advanced stages of leukemia, and this vice cop set her up by offering 20$!
The injustice that I saw was unbearable and unending. It is said that a civilization is judged by how it treats its weakest members. At this rate, we are going to hell in a hand basket. It is my hope that people will recognize the serious failings of the criminal justice system, particularly Harris County Jail that incarcerates 1,200,000 inmates a year, and respond accordingly.
After being arrested for chaining myself to an oil tanker truck on November 29th at the Valero Refinery in Manchester (a small Houston community surrounded by refineries and other industrial plants) I was taken to the City Jail for booking. I was placed in a “holding cell” with other inmates…there were 35 people in the cell, 29 African Americans and Latinos and 6 Caucasians. During my two day stay in the city and county jails, I was placed in 5 different holding cells. In each case, the number of inmates was approximately the same as previously mentioned and the racial mix was the same. I was led to wonder why there was such a disproportional rate of minorities to the Caucasian population being incarcerated.
I spoke with many of these minority inmates and most indicated that they were “targeted” in their communities. The police patrols which are more concentrated in their communities, resulting in more exposure and harassment by the state. They are more likely to be on foot, walking in neighborhoods, and therefore more susceptible to being stopped, questioned, searched and arrested even if they are totally cooperative. Many feel they are victims of discrimination and profiling. As one inmate told me, “a charge can always be found.”
On the first day of my stay in the City of Houston jail, I was given a baloney sandwich with a half-cup of some kind of pink drink. It was the only meal offered me. The only thing available to drink in the cell is tap water that comes from the same device that acts as a toilet. The water is brackish and has a metallic taste. You can only use your hand to catch a bit of water to drink because the smell when leaning over the toilet is so bad. The toilets are made of metal and are always grungy and filthy. They accumulate waste over a period of time and are rarely cleaned. They are only separated by a low wall from the cell and the stench is constant.
A cement bench is built into the wall around the cell, the only option for inmates who want to lie down someplace other than the highly trafficked concrete floor. With 35 or more inmates, the space is quickly taken up leaving nothing but floor space, which can only be described as filthy. There is no soap in the cell so washing ones hands is impossible.
These conditions were basically the same in both the City and the County Jail, but probably worse in the County Jail because the baloney sandwiches one receives at the County Jail are literally frozen when you get them. The only way for an inmate to eat is to put the frozen sandwiches in their pocket for about a half hour and hope they thaw out. If an inmate is moved from one holding cell to another, which happens often, they will often be searched before being placed in the cell and the food will be confiscated meaning they simply miss that “meal.”
During my one day stay in the County Jail, I received three baloney sandwiches, three packages with an oatmeal style cookie and nothing to drink. So, that’s three sandwiches for daily consumption. No other food was offered. No juice, no fruits, no vegetables, no warm food…just three baloney sandwiches for the day. Since I was on a hunger strike, I gave my sandwiches and cookies to other inmates who were very grateful to receive the extra rations, as bad as they were.
The holding cells have three telephones that the inmates can use to make calls (usually only one of which is in working order). They are mounted on the wall with no instructions as to how they work. There is no receiver, just a couple of holes in the metal phone for hearing and for speaking and a keypad like most coin operated phones. The constant noise from the inmate chatter and the echoes created by the cement walls and metal doors makes it difficult or impossible to hear.
Most of the inmates were simply non-violent offenders, concerned for their own circumstances and offered or asked advice from the others about the jail and legal process. Many offered advice and almost always in a sympathetic way. I saw no racial issues arise between inmates, but I was interested to hear the stories of one inmate who told of the racial gangs he had encountered in prisons in California and Kansas City.
Harris County Sheriff’s Office
713-221-6000 (Non-emergency) 713-755-5300 (Public information) 713-755-6044 (Administrative Services)
Mayor Annise D. Parker City of Houston
3-1-1 or 713-837-0311
City Council: District I (which covers the Manchester area) plus the 5 “Members at Large”
James G. Rodriguez District I 832-393-3011 email@example.com
Stephen C. Costello City Council – At Large 1 832-393-3014 firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew C. Burke, Jr. City Council – At Large 2 832-393-3013 email@example.com
Melissa Noriega City Council – At Large 3 832-393-3005 firstname.lastname@example.org
C.O. “Brad” Bradford City Council – At Large 4 832-393-3012 email@example.com
Jack Christie City Council – At Large 5 832-393-3017 firstname.lastname@example.org
District Attorney Office
District Attorney/General Information: 713-755-5800
First Assistant District Attorney: 713-755-5814
More DA numbers at http://app.dao.hctx.net/OurOffice/Contacts.aspx
Harris County Sheriff’s Office: http://www.hcso.hctx.net/
City of Houston: http://www.houstontx.gov/
Mayor’s Office: http://www.houstontx.gov/mayor/