By Victoria Law / The Nation
Kwaneta Harris typically keeps National Public Radio playing through her headphones. It’s the only way she can block out the incessant noise.
Harris is incarcerated in Texas’s Lane Murray Unit. She’s in segregation, the state’s name for solitary confinement, where she spends nearly 24 hours each day locked in her cell. But although she is physically alone, she is constantly bombarded by noise from the corridor and adjoining cells. To talk with one another, women must yell through the vents connecting their cells or, if their friends are further, through the small window of their cells’ metal doors. It’s a constant cacophony. Hence the headphones.
One Wednesday in mid-April, Harris removed her headphones and heard the younger women shouting through their cell doors. That in itself wasn’t unusual, but the conversation soon had Harris at her own door. They were giving advice about avoiding pregnancy—and all of their advice was wrong.
“You gotta let him in yo butthole before yo biscuit and be a toaster strudel, not a twinkie,” they shouted to a woman who was scheduled for release within a few months.
Translation: To avoid pregnancy, a woman should have anal sex before vaginal sex. She should also be sure that the man ejaculated on her, not inside her.
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Harris had been a nurse before her incarceration. Alarmed at the egregiously wrong advice, she went to her door to make sure that the women were armed with facts rather than myths that would lead to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
Although many of the women who cycled through the segregation unit where Harris has spent the past seven years are in their 20s, many had grown up in foster care. Few had a trusted adult to teach them about their bodies. Texas does not require its public schools to teach sex education. Those that do must emphasize abstinence.
Research has found that states that emphasize abstinence-only education have higher pregnancy rates than the states that emphasize comprehensive sexual health education. In Texas, that could not be more clear: The state consistently ranks among the top 10 states for teen pregnancies.
Furthermore, of the 7,058 women entering Texas prisons in 2022 alone, 98 were pregnant. Seventy gave birth while imprisoned that year. Among the programs that the prison offers to new mothers, including one that allows select mothers to remain with the babiesborn while in custody, none listed birth control or family planning.
“I never understood why everybody was pregnant within a few months of release,” Harris told The Nation. But hearing their advice, she understood—and decided to set their understanding straight.
She started with sex education, and then she moved on to talk about consent, trying to explain what it was—and what it wasn’t. She wasn’t as successful at that, she told The Nation. Many of the young women had already been sexually exploited by adult men in their short lives, she said, but because they had accepted favors or items, or because the person had not forced them into sex, they believed they had consented.
Then, a woman asked about so-called “partial birth abortion,” a nonmedical phrase the anti-abortion movement created to stigmatize later abortion care.
“There’s no such thing,” Harris told them. She explained that most abortions are now medication abortions, meaning that a person need not undergo a procedural abortion to terminate their pregnancy.
That was what drew the ire of the guard on duty—a young man in his early 20s whom Harris had never noticed before. But that day, he made his presence—and his views about abortion—known.
From her cell, Harris could see in only one direction. She did not see the man during the first part of her impromptu sex education discussion. But once she began dispelling myths about abortion, he stormed into view, yelling at her to shut up and threatening not only a disciplinary ticket for violating prison rules but even a new criminal charge, which could lead to additional prison time.
In response, the younger women cursed him out, even telling the officer that he was a “partial birth abortion.”
The officer took Harris’s identification card to write a disciplinary ticket and he threatened to file a new criminal charge against her, Harris said. After he stormed off, Harris began making phone calls from her prison-issued tablet to find out if the state had passed any post-Dobbs laws that might allow new charges to be brought against her.
“The legislature has not passed a law that criminalizes speaking about abortion,” Sara Ainsworth, the senior legal and policy director of If/When/How. Even Texas’s SB 8, which prohibits abortion after six weeks and allows individuals to file civil lawsuits against anyone who “aids and abets” an abortion, does not criminalize abortion itself or talking about abortion.
But, Ainsworth continued, “it’s not surprising that someone is misstating the law and using it to threaten someone else when so many people are confused.”
The legal defense organization receives calls from across the country on its Repro Legal Helpline. In states with stringent abortion bans, callers fear that they are no longer allowed to talk about or share information about abortion. “These are people who are not incarcerated,” Ainsworth noted. “They’re not under the surveillance of the state in the same way, but they still fear the law prohibits them from sharing information.”
At midnight, a prison lieutenant, one with whom she has never had any problems, woke Harris and moved her to a cell on the far side of the unit, away from everyone except a woman who has severe mental health issues. Harris’s new window faces rows of barbed wire rather than the prison yard, where she could watch and wave at people walking by. Only by screaming loudly can she communicate with the women on the other side of the unit.
That is where she has remained since. She never received an explanation for the cell change. The officer was not wearing a name badge, so, while she filed a grievance about his behavior, she could not identify him by name.
Robert Hurst, communications officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told The Nation that he could not give out an individual’s disciplinary history. He did not answer queries about TDCJ’s policies about discussing birth control and abortion.
Michele Deitch is the director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas in Austin. Informal punishment is common in jails and prisons, typically when an incarcerated person has done something to anger an officer, like insult them or file a grievance against them, she said. These punishments can take the form of extra cell searches, destructive cell searches, or denying a person recreation time. “The way prisons operate allow for that level of inappropriately exercised discretion,” she told The Nation.
But she added, “That someone is being punished for the content of their speech is thoroughly unacceptable and outrageous. For it to be in the context of abortion is downright scary, because it suggests that staff can use their own views about what’s acceptable speech and what isn’t to exercise control over people.”
What happened to Harris, she continued, may simply be one rogue guard, “but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t become something more commonplace, particularly if it’s not addressed.”
“If this is just one rogue guard, it’s the responsibility of the prison to handle it—and to make sure there’s no more retaliation over what people say and the content of their speech, especially if the speech is not threatening or violating prison rules,” Ainsworth said.
As for Harris, she remains in extreme isolation. Only a few states limit time in solitary by law (New York and Connecticut) or by prison policy (Colorado and North Dakota). Texas currently has no limitations, although lawmaker Terry Meza recently filed a billto limit it to 10 days.
“I walk on eggshells in fear that they can take the phone and I won’t be able to talk to my kids,” Harris told The Nation. In January, when men in solitary embarked on a 21-day hunger strike, prison staff withheld all mail and e-messages from Harris for the entire month. Now, she is unable to send or receive e-messages on her prison-issued tablet, although others on the same unit have no such problem. Instead, prison staff give her paper printouts of messages that are days old and in tiny print. For three days, she was unable to call anyone. She fears that prison officials could curtail all communication again.
At the same time, she recognizes that her informal punishment demonstrates both the state’s larger politics around bodily autonomy as well as the power that individual prison staff can wield over those in custody.
And the message that her punishment sends to her and everyone else? “Shut the hell up.”
Victoria Law is a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender, and resistance. Her books include Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, Prison By Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms (co-authored with Maya Schenwar), and the forthcoming “Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration.