Like four out of five women incarcerated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Maggie Luna was a mother when she went to prison. And like most women in prison, Luna also served time for nonviolent offenses — in her case, drug possession and writing hot checks, symptoms of an opioid addiction she’s fought for years to overcome. She’s also among the 62 percent of women who report being physically abused before entering the Texas prison system.
Last week, Luna and other formerly incarcerated women asked lawmakers to pass a series of “dignity” bills aimed at making the state’s prison system more humane for women, the fastest-growing population behind bars. Among other reforms, the bills would expand jail diversion programs for primary caretakers, force the prison system to gather and publish data on parents behind bars, and strengthen rules related to strip searches and the shackling of pregnant inmates. One provision would ensure incarcerated women always have access to tampons and menstrual pads behind bars, which has been a common complaint.
“This is a public health issue for gosh sakes, not to mention a dignity issue,” said state Representative Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation and authored her own bill directing TDCJ to fix deep gender disparities in programs and educational opportunities available in prison.
Women who testified during a House Corrections Committee hearing last week described dehumanizing treatment behind bars. Lawmakers on the panel recoiled when one woman recalled snickering guards ordering her to remove a tampon during a strip search. Luna, who served several stints at the Lucile Plane State Jail, the prison system’s largest female unit, testified that once, when she was taking a diuretic blood pressure pill that forced her to use the restroom more often, guards told her to use her socks whenever she ran out of toilet paper.
“The first time I got out, I felt like a caged animal,” Luna told lawmakers. “I felt like I didn’t even belong in this world.”
Also among the bills is a proposal by Houston Democratic state Representative Senfronia Thompson that directs judges to consider community supervision or deferred adjudication before sentencing primary caretakers to prison time. Many women testified during the hearing that prison had ripped them away from young children. Lauren Johnson, an outreach coordinator with the ACLU of Texas who also served time behind bars, said she can’t forget the sound of women in prison receiving paperwork to terminate parental rights. “I don’t know how many of you have experienced the guttural cry of a woman whose child is taken from her,” she told lawmakers.
Lindsey Linder, an attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said the stories of incarcerated women reveal how simple reforms are still needed, even in a state that’s been lauded for reducing its prison population over the past decade. She pointed out that 64 percent of women in Texas prisons are there for nonviolent offenses.
“I think we haven’t even started picking the low-hanging fruit,” Linder told lawmakers. “So many of these women could have been diverted from going into the system at all.”
Advocates for prison reform hope the women’s “dignity” bills, which appear to have bipartisan support, spur lawmakers to consider more sweeping changes to the entire prison system this session. State Representative Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, is carrying a bill to create independent oversight at TDCJ — a reform that’s taken on greater urgency thanks to scandals that have embroiled the prison system for the past year. State Representative James White, an East Texas Republican who chairs the House Corrections Committee, hasn’t said if he supports Johnson’s proposal, but he met with Johnson last week and later added the bill to this week’s committee agenda.
Luna told lawmakers that she struggled to find stability after leaving prison. In April, she’ll celebrate two years of sobriety. Her mother gained custody of her oldest daughter, who’s 12, and is currently trying to adopt Luna’s youngest child, a 9-year-old boy. Luna hasn’t seen or heard from her middle child, a 10-year-old girl, since another family adopted her several years ago.
“I keep telling all these lawmakers that I’ve already suffered these consequences,” Luna told the Observer. “It’s not about what happens from here on out for me, that’s done. But we have to stop this for other people behind me. This cycle has to stop.”