70 Million

A Pregnancy That Changed Texas Law, Part 1

Episode Summary

Shandra Williams had experienced five miscarriages by the time she and her husband Dawayne became pregnant with their son. Then she was arrested. Reporter Rowan Moore Gerety travels to Victoria, Texas, where Williams’ harrowing story of being pregnant behind bars unknowingly launched a reform movement.

Episode Transcription

Mitzi Miller: 70 million adults in the United States have a criminal record. This is Season Two of 70 Million, an open source podcast about how people, neighborhoods, counties, and cities are breaking cycles of incarceration—starting with the local jail. I’m your host, Mitzi Miller.

Clips: “So I got to experience the uncomfortability of just being stuffed in a cage and all that. It was real scary.”

“They’re keeping people down there with rats, roaches, they got black mold, and we spend $16 million on it every year.”

“We eliminated cash bail bonds in the city of Atlanta.”

“There’s no one who’s been incarcerated, including myself, who has been helped by incarceration.”

Miller: Texas is a big state, with a reputation for being tough on anyone suspected of breaking the law. But what that looks like depends on where exactly you are. Nearly every one of the Lone Star state’s 254 counties has its own jail. From a bare-bones, 3-bed holding cell in Real County, to the 10,000-bed Harris County Jail in Houston, which has education programs and a large medical wing. And each has its own elected sheriff who calls the shots. 

For this episode and the next, we’re bringing you a special two-parter about the potential consequences of such an uneven system, especially for incarcerated people with medical needs. Statewide, there’s no one standard for healthcare behind bars.

We’ll start in Victoria, Texas, an old shipping town on the Guadalupe River between Houston and San Antonio. Reporter Rowan Moore Gerety takes the story from there. 

A note to listeners: this episode includes graphic descriptions of mistreatment and neglect during pregnancy and birth.

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Moore Gerety: When Shandra Franklin Williams met her husband Dawayne in 2001, she wasn’t actually interested in meeting anyone. Shandra was raised mostly by her dad. Her parents split up when she was in middle school, and most of the housework fell to Shandra—cooking, cleaning, looking after her brothers and cousins.

Franklin Williams: I don't know what it is. I think I'm a child magnet. I raise, I helped withArkia’s brother, Arkia, Kesha, Cheree, my two brothers and my goddaughter, Sierra.

Moore Gerety: Shandra grew up in a tightly knit family in Victoria’s black community, surrounded by relatives. At 24, she’d already given up the chance to go to nursing school to stay with her last boyfriend. That hadn’t ended well.

After she used his bank account to buy a brand new car, her boyfriend claimed she did it without his knowledge, and she was sentenced to four years in prison for theft by check. Back home in 2001, she was working as a nurse’s aide in an assisted living facility and trying to move on..But her mom insisted on trying to set her up with someone from church.

Franklin Williams: And she must have called about nine or ten times that morning. 

Moore Gerety: Shandra had just gotten home from working the night shift, and she was trying to get some sleep on the couch. 

Franklin Williams: And my daddy kept bringing me the phone … “it’s your mama, it’s your mama.” And he brought the phone in again, and she said, “I’ll be out there in a little bit.”

Moore Gerety: She was asleep again when she heard the front door open. Her mom was outside—and she wanted her to meet a man.

Franklin Williams: I jumped up, I said “Mama!” I shot through the house, I ran through the kitchen. And I just shook my head. I said, “I cannot believe my mama just did this...brought this guy here and I'm asleep.” I was like, mama, this is embarrassing.

Moore Gerety: Shandra’s mother told her to get dressed, then drove her daughter back to her own house, where she’d been hanging out with Dawayne, the man she knew from church.

Franklin Williams: She was like, well, we're going to go to bingo tonight. And I was like “OK….” She said, well Mr. Dawayne, y’all gonna have to drive your car. And I said, I don’t get in no car with strangers...And she was like, ‘oh, no!’ he’s ok.

Moore Gerety: When they finally met, Dawayne thought they connected. 

Dawayne Williams: I mean, to me, the eye contact thing was going on.

Moore Gerety: But at this point, Shandra was fuming. She couldn’t believe how pushy her mom was being. 

Franklin Williams: He was talking to me, and I wouldn’t even talk, I wouldn’t even say anything.

Moore Gerety: Still, Dawayne was smitten. He couldn’t wait to come back that evening and pick Shandra up for bingo. After they met, he was so distracted he could barely get back into his car to leave. 

Williams: I was fumbling with the door handle just looking at her.   

Moore Gerety: Anyhow, they did go to bingo that night. They had fun. And after that, Shandra says, things just took off. They fell in love and got married the next year. Soon, they started trying to have kids. 

Franklin Williams: We got pregnant again and it's just like every time I dropped, I get pregnant again. Pregnant again. I think I was pregnant with twins…. so it was a total of five miscarriages. So Anthony was our miracle baby.

Moore Gerety: She and Dawayne decided they would name their son Anthony. They called him a “Miracle” because It was the first time one of Shandra’s pregnancies had gone past the first trimester.

Still, it was a really difficult pregnancy. Shandra was in and out of the hospital, and when she was home, she felt so feverish she kept taking cool baths.

Franklin Williams: I couldn’t stay cool…I mean, my body was just hot hot hot. I couldn’t cool off. 

Moore Gerety: The pregnancy and her job were a lot to manage, and she missed a court date for a hearing about her probation. In June 2004, when she was four months pregnant with Anthony, a Sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door of the relative’s apartment where she was staying. 

Franklin Williams: When he came in, he told me to stand up, and he was kind of rough. And 

Dawayne said, ‘Hey, hey! She’s pregnant. Dawayne was very irate that day: “Watch what you do to her—those cuffs not supposed to be behind her. They're supposed to be in front of her. [expletive], I told you, she’s pregnant.”

Moore Gerety: That afternoon, Shandra was booked into the Victoria County Jail. 

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Her husband, Dawayne, was also arrested. It turned out he had a warrant for a bad check, too. In Victoria County, bouncing a check can lead to criminal charges even if you didn’t realize your check wouldn’t clear. 

Dawayne was able to get out on bail a few hours after the arrest. Shandra says she didn’t have that option. Even though her original case had already gone to court, she was arrested on a probation violation, which often means forfeiting the chance at bail. Bottom line: her family couldn’t get her out while she waited to go before a judge again. 

What’s more, the jail had a rule—if a person’s been behind bars in the last six months, even just in a holding cell, they’re not allowed to visit anyone else in the jail. That meant even though he’d paid off his court fees, Dawayne couldn’t come to see Shandra. But he found a workaround.

Williams: Her mom or her dad, mostly it was her dad. And he would go in first and put his ID up on the counter to get her to come out. And when she would come out, I would walk around the corner … I would sneak in to go see her.

Moore Gerety: Shandra spent her days in a cell with a group of about a dozen women. Some came and went overnight. Others had been there for months, in a big, concrete room with no furniture except a bunch of bunk beds and lights and a TV that stayed on 24 hours a day. 

Shandra remembers a small window on one side, papered over so inmates couldn’t tell what time of day it was. The women  never got to go outside. The only way to sense the passing of time was to wait for meals delivered on a rolling metal cart three times a day. 

Franklin Williams: You might be lucky for three hots. You might be lucky, might be lucky. 

Cause sometimes your breakfast is probably boiled eggs. Then you get a Goulash meal for lunch, which is hamburger meat and mixed vegetables.

Moore Gerety: She remembers that some women pulled their shirts over their heads and tried sleeping as much as they possibly could to make the days go by more quickly. Shandra just tried to be friendly.

Franklin Williams: I would just pay attention to everybody, talked to everybody and we would laugh and talk.

Moore Gerety: There are more than 240 jails in Texas. Each one is run by individual county sheriffs, but they’re inspected at least once a year by a state agency called the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, or TCJS. While Shandra was there in 2004, the county failed TCJS’s annual jail inspection because it didn’t have enough staff to manage the facility safely under state law. Women who were incarcerated there not long afterwards say they went months without a change of sheets and wore their clothes inside out when they got dirty.

The Victoria County Sheriff’s office declined multiple requests for an interview for this story. I called and followed up in person to try and set up an appointment with the sheriff, and eventually got an email from the jail administrator that said: “Unfortunately at this time we’re going to decline interviews. Thank you for your interest in our agency.” 

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Moore Gerety: There wasn’t much Dawayne could do for Shandra from the outside. But he tried to be present. 

Williams: So, I did the utmost thing to support her along the way.

Moore Gerety: He and Shandra say they talked on the phone when they could, and had two visits a week with a glass wall between them. Shandra remembers talking through a speakerphone without a receiver, mounted on the cell wall.

Franklin Williams: What did you eat today? Did you, what did you feed my baby? I said, oh, we ate apples or oranges. What are you doing now? Don't be standing up too long. Make sure you drink milk. 

Moore Gerety: As Shandra’s pregnancy went on, it became harder and harder to be apart from her husband. She was in a lot of pain—bad cramps, bleeding—and Dawayne worried she wasn’t getting the medical attention she needed.

Moore Gerety: When she was finally taken to get an ultrasound, he couldn’t be there.

Franklin Williams: He cried on the phone and I cried and then he said, I'm sorry. And I said, you don’t have nothing to be sorry about. It's my fault why we're here.

Moore Gerety:  Dawayne was right to worry. Most jails in Texas don’t have round-the-clock medical staff—many rely on contracts with outside providers. Victoria’s medical unit is staffed by a vocational nurse and a medical assistant whose work is supervised by a doctor in another office.

Shandra’s pregnancy had already been difficult, and after a few weeks in jail, she began to experience complications and bleeding, too. But Shandra was afraid that jail staff would see her condition as a burden, and tried to push through without any treatment. Eventually, though, some of the other women in the cell started to intervene with the guards on her behalf.

Franklin Williams: I would tell them, please don't—because I'm scared what's going to happen. I was just trying to, like, keep it quiet.

Moore Gerety: One day, when Shandra had been there for a while and she was at the end 

of her second trimester, someone pressed a button on the cell wall to call for help. Shandra told the officers what her doctor had said—that if she began to bleed, she should come in right away. Instead, she says they gave her Benadryl and told her to pack.

Franklin Williams: I said, where are we going? They said, just pack your stuff. And I packed my stuff and they put me in a medical isolation.  

Moore Gerety: “Isolation” is another word for solitary confinement. Medical isolation is supposed to be what it sounds like. In Texas, most jails have a few additional cells that are used for one inmate at a time to protect themselves or others. So, if someone is recovering from surgery, or they test positive for tuberculosis, they can be housed in a different part of the building. That also makes it easier to deliver intensive medical care.

But medical isolation is often used for other reasons too—for inmates that are in the middle of a mental health crisis, or on ‘suicide watch,’ when what they really need is psychiatric treatment. And there’s evidence from Texas and from all over the country that it’s sometimes used for punishment, or retaliation.

That’s what Shandra was afraid of. 

Franklin Williams: Because you have to understand when you, when you are constantly bothering them, they're going to do something. They're going to do something to you. You don't know what, but they're going to do something to you. 

Moore Gerety: Shandra couldn’t tell why the corrections officer had put her in isolation — she wasn’t getting any additional treatment or doctor’s visits there. Shandra says she tried to keep it together by praying her way through the days and talking with Dawayne on phone, telling him about their baby. 

Williams: She would tell me, he feels like he's just running all over her stomach and stuff and kicking and raising sin with her and stuff. And how she would sit down, sit at night and sing church songs to him.

Moore Gerety: After two weeks in medical isolation, Shandra says she was finally allowed to go back to a group cell. 

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For a while, she felt like things were actually going OK—she was still anxious to get out of jail as soon as she could, but she spent the afternoons helping out at a GED program, and felt a kind of sisterhood with the other women. A few of them were mothers themselves, and they looked out for Shandra as her pregnancy progressed.

Franklin Williams: You have to understand, I've never have gotten past 12 weeks of pregnancy. So I didn't know what to expect.

Moore Gerety: One afternoon after about four months in custody, Shandra went to use the bathroom after a GED class while two of her cellmates were sitting nearby. At this point, she was within a few weeks of her due date.  

Franklin Williams: Kim and Amber are sitting on the bed, they said, What is that? Shandra, your water just broke! They told me, don't move, don't move. They were banging on the door to get help and when they push the button and finally, the officers came in and they got me and they said, you're going to probably go to the hospital. Get your stuff together, let’s go.

Moore Gerety: But the guards didn’t take her to a hospital. They put her back in medical isolation, in soaking wet clothes, drowsy from regular doses of Benadryl.

Franklin Williams: I remember sitting on the bed. And I remember crying myself to sleep. I didn't even call my husband.

Moore Gerety: She stayed there for more than 24 hours—into the evening, through the 

night, and then through the next morning, when Shandra says the nurse told her she was scheduled to see a doctor that afternoon. But the afternoon came and went. Late the second night, Shandra was in a lot of pain, and she forced herself to get up and try to use the bathroom.

Franklin Williams: I said, “What is going on?” It was hurting. And then, my legs. It's like somebody just took and just stab both of them. And I said, God, what is this? And I started pushing.

Moore Gerety: On the toilet, Shandra could feel that she was starting to deliver her baby.

Franklin Williams: My body was starting to get real, real tight, it's real, real tight.

Moore Gerety: But she couldn’t stand up, or even get back to the bed.

Franklin Williams: I said, I just got to do something. I asked God to forgive me. I said ‘Mama’s sorry, but I'm going to have to do this…’ and I begin to try to scoot, scoot myself across the room…

Moore Gerety: Shandra pressed the emergency button for the third time that day, and a voice came over the intercom.

Franklin Williams: “Yeah, it's back control.” She was already irritated. I said, I am in labor. Ma'am, whenever we get a chance, we're going to send somebody down there. So, I crawled back to bed. 

Franklin Williams: When I propped my feet up, I could hear John screaming.

Moore Gerety: It was another inmate who finally got the guards’ attention. An inmate named John Quintanilla was in an isolation cell nearby, and he started to bang on the door and yell as he heard Shandra’s cries for help. Others followed suit. Alone in her cell, Shandra remembers feeling a rush, and then reaching down to touch the baby’s toes. 

When her cell door opened, she says corrections officers debated which hospital to take her to.

Franklin Williams: And they were arguing, literally arguing over me and I remember saying, 

somebody please help me and my baby. Just help us. And I remember I was saying, “Somebody call Dawayne. Just call Dawayne.”

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Moore Gerety: When the staff finally brought her to the hospital, Shandra recognized the doctor as someone she knew from her work with seniors.

Franklin Williams: I could hear him talking to me, but I just couldn't make sense of what they were saying. And Dr. Hayes took me, took my hand, and he shook it and he grabbed it real tight and he just hugged me. The sheriff's department was already trying to put me in handcuffs. And the lady said, he's gone.

On October 30th. They called it stillborn.

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Moore Gerety: That night, medical staff took Anthony’s body out of the room. 

Franklin Williams: Dr. Hayes told me if they could—when he came in to talk to me the next morning to discharge, “If you woulda got here, he would live.” He was gone.

Moore Gerety: Shandra says she refused any medication that day. All she wanted was to hold her son.

Franklin Williams: I want my baby in the room. And the guards said, “He's dead. Why does he have to be in the room? But that was my baby. That was my son.

Moore Gerety: That night, Shandra was sent back to sleep in the same medical isolation cell where she’d been in labor. 

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Moore Gerety: The sheriff in office today, Sheriff Michael O’Connor, was elected in 2004, just a few days after Shandra lost her child. He declined to talk. I did get a call back from the jail administrator.

Charles Williamson: This is Charles Williamson with the Sheriff’s Office in Victoria, Texas I’m returning your call…

Moore Gerety: Captain Williamson wasn’t working at the sheriff’s office when Shandra was incarcerated, but he oversees the jail now.

Moore Gerety: I wanted to see if I could arrange an interview because I’m working on a story that, broadly speaking, is about pregnancies in Texas county jails, but it does touch on an old case from Victoria from a number of years ago.

Williamson: How long ago was that case?

Moore Gerety: 2004-2005.

Williamson: Hang on just a second, I’m gonna holler at somebody… 

Moore Gerety: Captain Williamson told me he’d get back to me. Since then, I’ve followed up by both phone and email. I asked if the sheriff’s office would participate in fact-checking to corroborate or contradict Shandra’s story, and sent Williamson a list of written questions about the way the jail is run and the treatment of pregnant women there. He wrote, “Again, we are going to decline an interview.”

We also submitted records requests for some of this same information—about medical and emergency procedures, the standard of care in Victoria County—both from the jail and its contracted medical provider, the University of Texas’ medical branch. Both agencies asked the state attorney general’s office to rule on the request. They wanted permission not to release any records.

Shandra also requested a full copy of all her medical and disciplinary records from the jail in April. She hasn’t gotten any records back either.

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Shandra wasn’t allowed to go to her son’s funeral; Dawayne buried Anthony himself in a family plot one county over. 

Franklin Williams: I haven't dealt with it. I haven't. I have not. I have not. It was going to be 15 years this year and I have not. Everybody's always telling me just life goes on, life is. But when you want something so badly and it's taken from you, just my world has fell apart. 

Moore Gerety: A few weeks after her son died, Shandra got a hearing about her probation violation, and she was transferred to state custody to serve her yearlong sentence.

When she got home the following fall, she tried to put her life back together. She went back to the job she loved, working with senior citizens in an assisted living facility, and she stayed active in her church. 

Then, in December, 2005, Shandra was at a gas station one night trying to cash her paycheck. She ended up talking with a sheriff’s deputy who ran her driver’s license.

Franklin Williams: And he said, Ms. Williams, I got some good news and bad news.  

Moore Gerety: The good news was that Shandra was who she said she was—she shouldn’t have any trouble cashing her check:

Franklin Williams: The bad news: You're going to have to come with me.

Moore Gerety: When the deputy ran her license, he found an open bench warrant.

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Moore Gerety: Shandra says she ended up getting released the next day; somehow, she still had an open warrant even though she’d recently gotten out of prison. But that night, just before Christmas, she went back into the group cell she called “the tank.”

This time, one of the other women there was an environmental activist named Diane Wilson. Diane stuck out: she was a white woman in her 50s who had written several books and filed lawsuits against major corporations for pollution along the Gulf Coast. She was serving a five-month sentence for criminal trespass. That charge stemmed from a protest she’d done the year before, sneaking onto the roof of a big chemical plant, dropping a banner over the side, and chaining herself to the railing. 

Diane Wilson: I used the exhaust pipe off my shrimp boat. So I stuck my hands in this stainless steel and, you can't get through that thing.

Moore Gerety: Authorities had to use a crane to get her down. Diane was always pulling stuff like this. 

Wilson: I figured, if I’m gonna have to go to jail, I’m gonna have for a reason.

Moore Gerety: Before she became an activist, Diane ran a shrimp boat on the Gulf Coast, just like the last three generations of her family, in a tiny town called Seadrift. She’s spent her whole life on the water. And that’s what she thought about once she was booked into the Victoria County jail.

Wilson: Probably the best part of the day was when I would literally go into my head and tried to imagine that I was a hawk flying over the bay. And I tried to imagine that it's clear as I could. And that was the way I could escape for a while.

Moore Gerety: She says all the women there had some way of visualizing life outside of jail.

Wilson: It was like a ritual. They'd say, “Now when I get out, I'm going to the front door, I'm on, take off my shoes, I'm going to go in the bathroom and I'm on turn the water on, I'm a go back in the kitchen…” They would go detail by detail, by detail. And they did that all the time. 

Moore Gerety: Diane also wrote to friends who’d never set foot in a jail, outraged by how petty the rules could be.

Wilson: I remember one of the girls had hid a “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” I mean, I mean that what can be more soulful and self help—think about your children,  or think about your good day or think about your religion or your faith. That's all it was. And eventually, uh, the guards came in and confiscated it.

Moore Gerety: By the time Shandra was arrested, Diane was already a month into her sentence, and she’d gotten to be friends with some of the other women there.

Wilson: A lot of them had kids. And a lot of those girls didn't even know what happened to their kids.

Moore Gerety: Diane wrote to friends that she was thinking of doing a hunger strike to try 

and shame the sheriff into improving jail conditions, they told her to try something else. So she started asking the women there if she could write down the stories they told her to try and raise awareness about jail conditions.And then, one night, Shandra walked in.

Wilson: I remember it was Christmas and, and I remember she came in real late at night. 

Moore Gerety: They only overlapped for about 12 hours. But when Shandra agreed to tell her story,  Diane took out a pencil and started taking notes on the back side of an inmate request form.

Wilson: The next day, her family came and picked her up. But I did get her story.

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Moore Gerety: The two of them lost touch after that. This was before most people had social media.

Shandra was trying to put the Victoria County Jail behind her once and for all. Diane was outraged by what she’d seen and wanted to do something to bring attention to the way women were treated there. So her friends stitched together several women’s stories Diane had sent in an open letter addressed to the county sheriff.

Wilson: They took those stories. They sent it to the governor, they sent it to the senators, they sent it to Justice Park. They were sending them to reporters.

Moore Gerety: One of Diane’s friends was a retired army colonel. She delivered the letter to Sheriff O’Connor in person, in her Army dress uniform. The sheriff heard her out, but that’s about it. He didn’t agree to make any changes.

After serving time, Diane picked up her activism along the Gulf Coast again. But she and a few of her friends—the colonel, along with a journalist in Austin named Diana Claitor, and another environmental activist in Houston, couldn’t stop thinking about the Victoria County Jail. 

Diana Claitor: It was an eye-opener. And it was so grim for the visitors that I was shocked at how they treated us. 

Moore Gerety: That’s Diana Claitor, the journalist in Austin. To her it seemed like most of the statewide watchdog groups focused on prisons, not jails. 

A quick reminder here that prisons are run by the state: that’s where you go after you’ve been convicted of a more serious crime: in Texas, the minimum sentence in state prison is one year. At jails, most people have been arrested but not convicted, or convicted of less serious crimes. 

Diana estimates that roughly 4,000 pregnant women pass through Texas jails each year. But when Shandra was incarcerated, the state still wasn’t even keeping track of how many pregnancies or births took place behind bars. It wasn’t uncommon for pregnant women to be shackled during labor and delivery.

Claitor: So we, we decided we would start this group, the four of us.

Moore Gerety: In 2006, Diana put up an ad on Craigslist to get help building a website, and set up an email account with the name “Texas Jail Project.”

Claitor: And right away, pretty quickly, the emails started pouring in. 

Moore Gerety: For the most part, she says, it was people desperate for information.

Claitor: Just wanting to know why nobody at this jail will call me back. Nobody will tell me if my son is getting his seizure medicine.

Moore Gerety: About 70% of the emails were from people writing about male relatives. So before long, the group decided to broaden their focus beyond women, to jail conditions overall.

Claitor:  And since it was mostly altogether me at that point, I just started kind of answering people.

Moore Gerety: The fact that Texas has a state agency that specifically regulates jails is actually kind of unusual. In a lot of states, jail standards are something sheriff’s associations adopt voluntarily. Before the Commission on Jail Standards was created in 1975, Texas had a state statute requiring safe and sanitary jails, but it basically wasn’t enforced. There was actually a provision in state law that prevented the health department from devoting any resources to jail inspections.

Brandon Wood: The original mission of the commission was to ensure that the jails within the state of Texas were providing a constitutional level of confinement.

Moore Gerety: Brandon Wood, the executive director of the Commission on Jail Standards, says that when the commission was created:

Wood: The ten largest counties had either already lost or were in the process of losing court cases brought in the federal courts regarding the conditions of the county jails. 

Moore Gerety: Losing lawsuits gets really expensive. So, legislators and county sheriffs 

decided they would rather have the state set the terms for adequate jail conditions instead of leaving it up to federal judges.

Wood: Operation of the county jail, can easily consume in some counties 20% of the overall budget. And then you also have inmate healthcare,  the courts have ruled on that time and time again. And that's simply one of the things where regardless of whether they want to or not, they're responsible for providing it. 

Moore Gerety: That’s where the jail commission comes in. Inspectors make annual visits to each one of the state’s jails, and follow up if they get serious complaints. But the commission’s annual budget is tiny: less than $2 million to monitor conditions in facilities that house a million Texans over the course of a year.

Wood: We do have four field inspectors and then we have a critical incident inspector, which was a new addition that you know, pretty well handles all the serious incidents, whether they be in custody, deaths, escapes, suicides, assault, uh, we also have a complaint inspector. 

Moore Gerety: So they’re stretched pretty thin. And in 2006, when the Texas Jail Project started fielding complaints, there was a lot of ground to cover.

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Clip: [Beep] You have 7 old messages…

Moore Gerety: Almost 15 years later, Diane’s letter to the sheriff has evolved into a kind of listening post for people encountering problems with jail conditions around 


Montage: “Diana, I spoke with my son’s attorney today and she’s not gonna do it.”

“I’m calling because the public defender said they would have a meeting with the prosecutor and the DA…”

“Yes Ma’am... I just got off the phone with my wife, and uh, things are getting rather nasty.”

“Yes, Yes, my grandson is in the Brazoria County jail—I have tried for four days to reach medical and tell them that he tried to kill himself five times in the past year. He’s bi-polar and he has severe seizures.”

Moore Gerety: Diana Claitor has gotten hundreds of these messages over the years. People call asking about overcrowding, about how to get medication to incarcerated family members. 

In response, the Texas Jail Project calls jails to remind them of their obligations under state law, writes letters to judges, and recruits pro bono lawyers to file motions laying out poor jail conditions. They also try to pass new state laws to improve jail conditions and treatment for people in county jails. The group works out of an office loaned by a law firm—a room in a small bungalow in east Austin. Usually, the budget’s about $30,000 a year. They recently got a grant to hire their first full-time employee.

Claitor: Everything we work on is tip of the iceberg situations.

Moore Gerety: She calls them “iceberg” situations because the Texas Jail Project only learns of the cases people call or write them about, and that’s a tiny fraction of what’s out there. Take pregnant women, for example.

Claitor: I mean, if there's 4,000 a year and we have five cases, you know, we're, I bet you some of those other 4,000 women have some issues.

Moore Gerety: When she started visiting the state legislature, in 2008, Diana says she figured out pretty quickly that it would be hard to get lawmakers to empathize with inmates struggling with drug addiction or mental illness.

Williams: But the one thing they might care about was the fact that there were these pregnant women in there and that Diane had already documented one woman who had delivered at the jail and on the way to the hospital because they wouldn't take her.

Moore Gerety: That woman was Shandra Williams. 

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At first, Diana was just trying to get the Commission on Jail Standards to make some really basic rule changes, like figuring out how many pregnant women were in county jails to begin with. Then, before the legislative session in 2009, she got advice from a veteran advocate around the capitol.

Claitor: She said, “No, you need, you need a bill.” And I said, “Well, I don't know how to do a bill.” And she rustled around and came out with language from a previous bill and she said, read that and substitute what you said just all in the places where there’s content. And that’s how it goes. 

Moore Gerety: So, Diana started filling in the blanks. Two phone calls later, and they had state lawmakers prepared to sponsor the legislation.

Claitor: It was very easy to go into offices and say, you know, “We have two bills. One is to ensure medical care for pregnant women in jails and the other’s to stop the shackling of them while they're in labor and childbirth.” And people would just freeze and say, “Tell me you didn't just say that.”

Moore Gerety: Both of those bills passed and became law in 2009.

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After that, though, Diana had trouble getting traction in the capitol. Texas is a big state, but the legislature only meets for a few months every other year. So there are a lot of bills competing for a little bit of time. It’s like a big funnel, with tons of bills introduced at the start of the session, and a tiny spout for the legislation that passes by the time the session is over. Everything else gets poured out until two years later. The Jail Project tried pushing other legislation without success in 2011 and 2013.


Moore Gerety: Shandra Williams had decided to try for a fresh start at a different church from the congregation she’d grown up in.

Franklin Williams: My original church—I would just say, my heart just didn't feel right no more. She joined St. Peters Baptist, a big A-Frame church near downtown. 

Clips: “Good morning, do you need anything?”

“I’m here for St. Peters…”

“Yes Ma’am, we’re here.”

Moore Gerety: This is from a Saturday Teatime fundraiser for the church women’s ministry. After she joined the congregation, she started spending most weekends there, helping out.

Derek Hunt: She’s a yes person, not a no person, so you’ll find her saying yes to things even when she needs to say no.

Moore Gerety: That’s Derek Hunt, one of the pastors at St. Peters. 

Hunt: That’s what keeps her together—the church. 

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Moore Gerety: Shandra started dancing with a church group, brought her nieces and nephews to Sunday services. She and Dawayne were happy together, and they tried to move on from their loss. Even more than a decade after the fact, Shandra had no idea that her conversation in jail with Diane Wilson had helped change state laws. She was just trying to stay afloat. 

Music break

Miller: Rowan Moore Gerety is a reporter based in New York City. 

Next time on 70 Million, we’ll pick back up in Texas with the story of a mother who wrote the Texas Jail Project in the fall of 2013. 

Her daughter was in jail and pregnant.

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Miller: We’d love to hear about reform efforts in your communities, so please 

email us at hello@70millionpod.com. For more information, our episode toolkit, and to download the transcript for this episode, visit 70millionpod.com

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70 Million is made possible by a grant from the Safety and Justice Challenge at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

This podcast is a production of Lantigua Williams & Co. It’s edited by Jen Chien and Casey Miner and mixed by Luis Gil. Our associate producers are Adizah Eghan and Cher Vincent. Our marketing specialist is Kate Krosschell. Our staff writer is Nissa Rhee, our intern is Emma Forbes, and our fact-checker is Sarah McClure. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is the creator and executive producer. I'm your host, Mitzi Miller.



Moore Gerety, Rowan. “A Pregnancy That Changed Texas Law, Part 1.” 70 Million Podcast, Lantigua Williams & Co., August 26, 2019. 70millionpod.com