A Prisoner's-Eye View of Harrowing Conditions in the Harris County, TX Jail

Editor's Note: CODEPINK co-founder Diane Wilson locked herself by the neck to an industrial truck hooked to a pumping station at the Valero refinery in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston to demand that Valero divest from the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Valero has committed to buy 75% of the oil pumped through Keystone and has been poisoning the community of Manchester for over 60 years.  She was immediately arrested and spent 5 days in the torturous and inhumane Harris County Jail where she began a hunger strike.  After her release last night she wrote about the heartbreaking situation in the jail:

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 trash cans, 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 no 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-aid. Many girls were eating the dry kool-aid.  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 3:30 am 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.


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