Shela Williams stood before the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) Thursday morning holding a little white box of mementos from her son Israel’s funeral in August—a funeral she was not allowed to attend because Israel was born, and died, while Williams was incarcerated in a central Texas jail and in the custody of Travis County sheriffs.
Williams, who lives in Austin, is part of a coalition of reproductive and racial justice advocates who are demanding better standards of care for the 500 or so pregnant Texans—most whom are Black and Latina—incarcerated in Texas county jails each month.
She asked her friend Kellee Coleman to stand with her at the hearing and help tell her story.
“[Williams] was treated very badly,” Coleman told the commission, explaining that Williams, who was 19 weeks pregnant when she was incarcerated on a parole violation, had a high-risk pregnancy. During her two-month incarceration, Williams never received the obstetric care she needed. With the right treatment, Coleman said, Israel might be alive today.
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“Everyone deserves adequate care no matter where they are,” Coleman said. “Babies don’t have to die.”
There are 254 counties in Texas, and nearly all of them have a county jail, though data on birth and maternal outcomes for pregnant inmates is hard to come by. Tracking that data is just one of the things that advocates would like to see county jails do; they presented an eight-point list of recommendations to TCJS that included ensuring that pregnant inmates have access to an obstetric specialist, nurse practitioner or midwife, as well as increased prenatal appointments for pregnant inmates.
They also asked for a prohibition on placing pregnant inmates in solitary confinement. In 2012, a pregnant Wichita Falls woman named Nicole Guerrero gave birth to, and lost, her baby while placed in a solitary cell in the Wichita County jail.
She has filed a lawsuit against the county wherein she says that jail staff “ignored her obvious signs of labor,” and details the night she spent asking staff for assistance delivering her baby, only to be ignored.
The coalition, which includes the Texas Jail Project, Mamas of Color Rising, Mama Sana clinic and Amnesty International, are now working to ensure that what happened to Guerrero and Williams does not happen again, and today’s meeting was just part of their plan.
The coalition during a September conference call presented data on pregnancy care during incarceration to TCJS members, and the TCJS has said that it is committed to working with the coalition to improve standards of care for pregnant Texans in jail.
“It’s a lot of information that we were provided,” TCJS executive director Brandon Wood told Rewire. “We’re still wading through all that.”
Paula Rojas, a midwife and community organizer with the Austin’s Mama Sana clinic, told Rewire after Thursday’s hearing that the lack of services for pregnant women in Texas county jails is “not an isolated issue.”
“It’s the policing of pregnant women,” Rojas said. “Part of the womb-to-prison pipeline.”
Rojas said her group would give the commission 180 days to implement their recommendations before demanding independent oversight of the commission’s efforts.
During the meeting, the Texas Jail Project’s Diana Claitor told the commission members that she has many stories of women who “lost their babies in jail.”
After all, she said, “Most jails are built by men, for men.”
Brandon Wood told Rewire that TCJS “might be able to” issue some “technical assistance” memoranda to jails on finding OB-GYN and midwife resources in their respective counties in the coming months, while other medical standards are reviewed.
The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for February 2015.