Some progress on women’s justice in Texas — but more must be done

Female prisoners work outdoors near the entrance of the Murray Unit in Gatesville in October 2016. Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

The number of incarcerated women in the United States has exploded over the past 30 years, growing at nearly twice the rate of incarcerated men. This problem is particularly acute in Texas, which now incarcerates more women than any other state in the country, and where the number of women in prison has risen by nearly 1,000% since 1980. The impact of such high incarceration levels is devastating for families and communities across our state — especially considering that 81% of women in Texas prisons are mothers. And while the number of imprisoned women in Texas has grown, their unique needs have gone unmet.

Limited care during pregnancy, insufficient hygiene products, deterrents when seeking medical services and limited visitation with children are some of the struggles facing women in Texas’ justice system. When we fail to provide women with the health- and family-centered support they need, we compromise their ability to successfully shake the stigma of incarceration, hindering positive reentry into society and jeopardizing long-term community wellness.

In 2018, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition launched the “Justice for Women” campaign to shed light on the unique needs of women in the justice system. Over the next 18 months, we worked with our partners on the Texas Smart-On-Crime Coalition, as well as a statewide coalition of formerly incarcerated women, to press legislators and justice system practitioners to make meaningful changes that would reduce women’s involvement in the system and improve outcomes for women who are ultimately incarcerated. As a result, and through the hard work of countless individuals over the past year, eight new women’s justice bills have officially become Texas law.

Some of the new laws focus on improving confinement conditions for women incarcerated by the state. For instance, the law now requires trauma history screenings, prohibits shackling and solitary confinement of pregnant women and new mothers, and guarantees that incarcerated women have expanded access to free feminine hygiene products. Another addresses significant deficiencies in the number of services offered to incarcerated women by expanding access to vocational, educational and rehabilitative programs that increase the likelihood that women will live productive, successful lives after their release. A third changes the $100 annual medical services fee in prisons to $13.55 per visit, removing a significant deterrent to incarcerated people seeking medical care.

Other new laws focus on local-level reforms, like one that ensures that county jails are addressing obstetrical and gynecological care for women, and limits the use of restraints on pregnant women or those who recently gave birth. Another will  broaden access to quality feminine hygiene products for women in county jails, and improve data reporting to inform future decision-making on women’s services.

Of course, more work remains. This legislative session’s low point for women’s justice was Gov. Greg Abbott’s disappointing veto of House Bill 3078, which would have changed the clemency process to give fairer treatment to survivors of domestic violence and commercial sexual exploitation. The bill, passed unanimously by both the House and Senate, would have made a tangible difference for women who have already experienced significant trauma. Another important proposal would have prioritized probation or deferred adjudication community supervision — rather than incarceration — for women who are the primary caretakers of minor children; that bill failed to get a hearing in the Senate.

Ahead of the state’s next legislative session in 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has formed the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, which has the potential to improve Texas’ justice system and build up community supports outside of it. We hope the caucus will take another look at clemency for survivors, as well as alternatives to incarceration for primary caretakers and similarly take up other issues that will reduce women’s entry into the justice system and improve outcomes for them, their families and Texas communities.

Lindsey Linder

Senior policy attorney, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition