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Texas Lawmakers Want Judges To Send Fewer Moms To Prison

The Texas Capitol
LoneStarMike via Wikimedia
The Texas Capitol

When Mia Greer went to prison, she says she wasn’t the only one who was punished. Her kids suffered too.

“They started failing in school, my son started lashing out,” Greer, a registered nurse from Austin, told lawmakers on the House Corrections committee on Thursday.

Greer served two and a half years at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women for stabbing her abusive husband during a fight. With mom in prison, she says the kids were left alone with him.

“And the abuse that he put on me, because i was the caregiver and i took a lot of things that i didn’t want my kid he started taking it out on my son.”

Over the last decade, the number of inmates in Texas prisons has been on the decline, but there are actually slightly more women in prison here today than there were ten years ago.

According to a study released by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition last year, over 81 percent of incarcerated women they polled were mothers. Forty-nine reported that they never see their children, while 27 percent said they see their kids once a year.

“Children of the incarcerated have higher rates of mental health and behavioral health issues, poorer eating and sleeping habits than their peers, and are more likely to be victims of abuse and human trafficking,” said Rep. James White, a Republican from Hillister who heads the House Corrections committee.

“These children are also more likely to become entangled in juvenile and adult incarceration,” he said.

Two bills focus on trying to reduce the number of mothers who are the primary caregivers for minor children that are being sent to jail or prison.

One, introduced by Houston Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson, would require judges to consider if something other than jail or prison time could be a reasonable punishment, like probation or court-ordered drug treatment and therapy. That kind of sentence would keep the family together.

A bill from Houston Democrat Ana Hernandez would set up diversion programs for first-time offenders who are the main caretakers of young children.

Lauren Johnson from the ACLU of Texas recalled hearing, while she was in prison, the “guttural cries” of mothers who were notified that they’d lost parental rights because of their incarceration.

“These are women sentenced to relatively short sentences, and certainly should be held accountable for the things that they did, but none of them should have a penalty range that includes losing their children,” she said.

Lawmakers are also looking at a range of ways to improve the lives and make changes that would aid rehabilitation for women who are incarcerated.

A comprehensive bill introduced by White would ban the shackling of pregnant women, limit invasive searches, and increase access to feminine hygiene products, though prison officials say both of these are already happening in practice. The legislation would also expand the time new moms spend with their infant kids and up the number of visits with minor children that incarcerated mothers are entitled to.

Another bill White introduced would require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to count the number of parents in the state prison system.

While no one spoke up to oppose these pieces of legislation, it’s no promise any of the bills will make it through the long legislative process and become law.

Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Christopher Connelly is a KERA reporter based in Fort Worth. Christopher joined KERA after a year and a half covering the Maryland legislature for WYPR, the NPR member station in Baltimore. Before that, he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow at NPR – one of three post-graduates who spend a year working as a reporter, show producer and digital producer at network HQ in Washington, D.C.