Letter from Victoria County Jail: Diane Wilson

To:
T. Michael O’Connor
Victoria County Sheriff
101 North Glass St.
Victoria, TX 77901

Jan 20th 2006

Dear Sheriff O’Connor:

I am a female inmate in the Victoria County Jail, TX, though I was arrested on criminal trespass charges in Calhoun County. I was given a sentence of 150 days plus a $2,000 fine for protesting Dow Chemical Company’s refusal to appear in Indian courts in response to charges against its wholly-owned subsidiary, Union Carbide, and its treatment of the survivors of the toxic-leak disaster in Bhopal, India, where a catastrophic pesticide release has killed over 20,000 people to date.

I am a fairly new inmate and have only been here five weeks, since December 10, 2005, yet I have a number of grievances. Many of these come from other inmates and you may ask why they don’t report them themselves. Well, it’s pretty simple: there is absolutely no effective avenue to raise issues and if there is, the inmates have certainly not been made aware of it. There is a standard form that inmates can use to make an attempt at communication, but the response can take anywhere between a week to never.

There is no information available, no pamphlet explaining the procedures or the rights of the inmates or even something as simple as “when is commissary.”

I asked to see the law library since the inmates rarely see legal counsel, but was told that there is not one available. If inmates ask for legal counsel they are told, “You’ll see one when your trial comes up,” and usually that’s ten minutes before one goes to trial.

The women in this jail are predominantly African American or Hispanic and very poor. Most of their offenses are minor, for things like traffic tickets or soliciting or violating probation—nearly all non-violent, yet they are forced to remain in the cell without counsel for long periods of time. I don’t think I am bringing up any issue that you are not aware of. I spoke with someone within the jail system (I will not name him), and he is aware of the length of time inmates have to wait for legal counsel and a trial. He has talked to a judge about the problem and the judge apparently said something along the lines of, “Yes, we got a problem.”

So you can understand my concern to at least have access to a law library. Though jail personnel told me that the only time access to a law library isn’t provided is when legal counsel is available, I have still not had access to either.

When I requested, nonetheless, access to the law library on my title form, a week later I got the answer, “We do not have a WRIT ROOM.” Well, that certainly explains everything. No WRIT ROOM. No Law Library.

Next, I asked for the jail’s standards. These are the minimum standards that jails have to maintain, and inmates have the legal right to request and receive a copy of the standards. When I made my request I got a response a good week and a half later asking, “what’s your concern?”

My concern is that inmates have no voice, no access to legal counsel, no law library, no WRIT Room, no jail standards. That is my concern, but you can bet I didn’t write that on the next form I dropped. I could see I’d be ‘dropping forms’ until this jail went to hell in a breadbasket. So this is partly why I am writing you. I figure that you are next in the chain of command, and I am listing not only permission to see the jail standards for ALL inmates—but other grievances and concerns that have come up in the month I have been here.

Healthcare

I don’t know if you are aware of the series of investigative stories by Mike Ward and Bill Bishop of the Austin American Statesman about the dismal state of health care in the Texas state prison system. What the reporters were able to discover was a systematic neglect and mistreatment of ill prisoners, the use of healthcare as a means of punishment, and stupidly dangerous miss-administration of medicine that can lead to viral and bacterial resistance and potential epidemics—epidemics that will hardly remain within prison walls.

I know that the state prison system is separate from the county jails, but if you haven’t read this report, then you should, because similar neglect is happening in your jailhouse. I have only been here a few weeks, and have collected these three instances directly from the inmates about their experiences with the Victoria County Jail. The cases cover approximately 10 years. So you can see this is a long-term problem and seems to be continuing a legacy that the Texas Prison system has built for itself. It seems to be downright overkill to repeat that, yes, all these girls are very young and poor, and either Hispanic or African-American.

1. Mary DeLeon
Ms. DeLeon was jailed for 18 months in the county jail on drug charges. During this time, she was suffering due to gallstones. The response from the healthcare of the jail was to dispense Milk of Magnesia and tell her to lie down on her cot. Eventually, Ms. Deleon’s condition got so bad that she was shaking and had chills and fainting spells. Again, the response was Milk of Magnesium. Finally, towards the end of her 18-month sentence, Ms DeLeon collapsed in pain and an inmate called the guards. Mary was rushed to Citizens Hospital, where it was found that her gallbladder had ruptured. She was told that they almost lost her. Ms. DeLeon did not file a lawsuit for criminal neglect because she was afraid that she would be punished and lose her position as trustee in the jail.

2. Lacy Leyva
Ms. Leyva had been arrested and jailed for one month. During that time Ms. Leyva was suffering severe pain in her kidneys, but she was only given ibuprofen every 8 hours for the pain. Pain and chills were a steady diet for Ms. Leyva, but she was only given advice to lie down and take ibuprofen. Finally, after one month, Ms. Leyva was discharged and she went to the hospital and was immediately admitted for kidney failure. After Ms. Leyva was discharged from the hospital, she got a call from the jail on her cell phone saying, “Go to the hospital. We believe your kidneys are failing.”

3. Shandra Williams
Ms. Williams was picked up on a warrant even though her file stated that Ms. Williams should not be picked up because she was 6-7 months pregnant and she had a very rare uterine condition. However, Ms. Williams was thrown in jail while pregnant, and her condition worsened. She began bleeding, and the nurse was reluctant to believe her and said, “Show me your bloody pad.” So Ms. Williams was subjected to the humiliation of proving that she was really in pain and bleeding.

Eventually, Ms. Williams was put in isolation where she was removed from contact with people, which Ms. Williams hated. This was her first child and she was very afraid since no medical staff was around. Eventually, to keep her from complaining, Ms. Williams was given Benadryl.

When Ms. Williams was finally returned to the cell, her water broke. She was told that she was hallucinating, that her water hadn’t broken. Then the nurse told her that she shouldn’t worry, she wouldn’t have a baby until a month later. Then they proceeded to put Ms. Williams back into isolation, even though she was frantic not to go where there was no contact with people. Ms. Williams was alarmed about the baby coming early, especially since the nurse had expressed great disdain for even performing a sonogram to determine the baby’s condition.

When Ms. Williams became agitated about going into isolation, the sergeant told her that she was going into isolation “the easy way or the hard way,” and the hard way was being shocked with a taser gun. A female guard was

so alarmed that she grabbed Ms. Williams’ stuff and coaxed her to the isolation room.

Sure enough, Ms. Williams proceeded to go into labor without anyone present and the baby was coming out breach! Worse still, the baby was arriving while Ms. Williams was on the toilet; so to get help Ms. Williams had to crawl approximately 60 feet to reach a button on the wall. After three attempts to call and saying that she was in labor, a female guard arrived. The baby was hanging with its feet first down around Ms. Williams’ knees.

There was pandemonium, followed by a rushed ride in the ambulance to the hospital. The baby was dead and Ms. Williams was handed the dead child in a blanket. She was not told that the baby was dead, and she only realized the fact when she saw on her own that the child was not moving or breathing. No attempt was made to call her husband. When, much later, he got word, he rushed to see his new baby. He was handed the dead baby in a blanket. Ms. Williams was not even allowed to attend the baby’s funeral. Later, Ms. Williams said that you, Sheriff O’Connor, called her into your office and told her that the unfortunate incident was not your fault, but the fault of the jail administration under the previous sheriff, Michael Ratcliff.

Given the long-term consequences and terrible suffering imposed on these women, it is my hope that you will take this situation seriously and give it the consideration it deserves.

Blocked window

Another complaint is that the only window within our cellblock is either covered with a Venetian blind or plastered with paper. We never know the time but are told that we are on ‘short time’ and don’t have need of another. You would think that locking a person in a cinder block cell for months on end for a trespassing misdemeanor is sufficient punishment, but apparently not! I feel that the stress levels of the inmates would be reduced with more visibility through the window, and stress is a real problem here.

Reading Material
This might be a good time to point out the piece of paper plastered to our window. It is a memo to all inmates that, henceforth, no books bought from bookstores will be accepted. This is a jail where the library consists of a single metal cart with about 30 dog-eared romance novels.

In this county jail, few diversions are allowed—I might even say none—and perhaps that is one reason why these women inmates make roses out of toilet paper and create their own stationery out of toothpaste and map colors. I am a little reluctant to tell you this in the fear that the guards will make a run on the roses and confiscate them as “contraband.” We have not been allowed to go outdoors or get any exercise.

What this jail administration hopes to accomplish by refusing reading material or any activity to the inmates is beyond me. It seems counter-productive to any form of rehabilitation and results in anger, behavior problems and depression.

Access to High School equivalency program Since most of the inmates are very poor, young and from minority groups, I was astonished to discover that while GED (high school equivalency program) is offered, it is also used as punishment. A 32-year-old woman in my cell who is struggling to better herself and raise her nine-year-old child, had entered the GED program, but was kicked out because she passed a note in class. This is merely one instance I’ve heard. But I know for a fact that many inmates do not have their GED. I wonder about the jail’s reluctance to encourage the inmates to pursue their GED. It is a well-known fact that a person with a GED receives higher paying jobs than a person who doesn’t, they have more job satisfaction, and they are less likely to get in trouble with the law in the future. Kicking a woman out of a GED class for passing a note sounds totally counter-productive!

Humiliating Treatment
I realize that some of these grievances may not seem like much to you and you may be thinking that the treatment meted out in Texas prisons is nothing like the kind of abuse in Abu Ghraib in Iraq. That’s true, for what it’s worth, but I want to inform you that I’ve read reliable reports and have experienced horrendous treatment that makes me wonder if Texas county jails are dysfunctional.. While I was in the Harris County jail in Houston for five days, I joined fellow inmates stacked into cold holding tanks for hours and hours so that we were forced to sleep on cement floors strewn with trash and waste from backed-up toilets, while guards showed up at periodic intervals yelling “Pigs!” We were eventually shuffled into rooms where we were forced to strip our clothes and ordered to parade in our panties, then spread-eagled on the wall. These were women, some picked up merely on traffic violations, who hadn’t even been produced in front of a judge or seen a lawyer yet! Then 70 of us were packed into a 10- x 20-foot holding cell for over an hour. A guard occasionally opened the door and calls us “stupid bitches!” because the noise was loud.

On December 10th, I was transferred to Victoria County jail, where I was kept in a freezing holding tank for over six hours, then put into the cell where I am currently housed, with only one thin mat to sleep on a concrete floor. I was not given a blanket or sheet or any type of hygiene kit because I was told there were none available. I never received a blanket from the jail. After 3 days, an inmate who left the cell gave me her blanket. Then too, after about three days, I received a hygiene kit so I could finally brush my teeth and comb my hair. All prior requests for a towel or toothbrush were met with “Drop a form.”

In my experiences I consider myself relatively lucky, and because of my activism I have supporters outside who have constantly supported me by calling the jail and sending letters.

Most inmates are not so fortunate.

This letter is partly for them. It is said that a civilization is judged by how it treats its weakest members. It is my hope that you will recognize the seriousness of your job and of the issues raised in this letter and respond accordingly.

Sincerely,

Diane Wilson

CC:
Calhoun County Sheriff
B.B. Browning
211 South Ann St.
Port Lavaca, TX 77979

Tim Smith
Jail Administrator
211 South Ann St.
Port Lavaca, TX 77979

Honorable Judge Michael Pfeifer
Calhoun County Judge
211 South Ann St.
Port Lavaca, TX 77979

Honorable Judge Robert C. Cheshire
377th Judicial District Judge
Victoria County Courthouse
115 North Bridge
Victoria, TX 77901

Honorable Judge Donald R. Pozzi Victoria County Courthouse
115 North Bridge
Victoria, TX 77901

Honorable Judge Joseph P. Kelly
24th Judicial District Judge
Victoria County Courthouse
115 North Bridge
Victoria, TX 77901

Honorable Judge Juergen Koetter
267th Judicial District Judge
Victoria County Courthouse
115 North Bridge
Victoria, TX 77901

Honorable Judge Kemper Stephen Williams
135th Judicial District Judge
Victoria County Courthouse 115 North Bridge
Victoria, TX 77901

Mr. Jerry Julian
Executive Director
Texas Commission on Jail Standards
P.O. Box 12985
Austin, TX 78711-2985

Ms. Terri Dollar
Deputy Director
Texas Commission on Jail Standards
P.O. Box 12985
Austin, TX 78711-2985

Mr. Shannon Herklotz
Inmate Grievances
Texas Commission on Jail Standards
P.O. Box 12985
Austin, TX 78711-2985

Honorable Governor Rick Perry
State of Texas
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, TX 78711-242

8

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500

Office of the Attorney General
P.O. Box 12548
Austin, TX 78711-2548

Greg Gladden
Vice President Houston Chapter
American Civil Liberties Union
3017 Houston Ave
Houston, TX 77009-6734

Jodie Evans
Code Pink
2010 Linden Ave
Venice, CA 90291-3912

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