Texas Prison Guards Put Woman in Isolation for Talking About Abortion

Kwaneta Harris, a nurse, says she's being punished for (correctly) telling other incarcerated women that there's no such thing as "partial birth abortion."

Texas Prison Guards Put Woman in Isolation for Talking About Abortion
Photo:Ali Roshanzamir / EyeEm (Getty Images)

An incarcerated woman in a Texas prison is being kept in isolation and punished for talking to other women about abortion, The Nation reported on Tuesday. The punishment was doled out mid-April, shortly after the woman, Kwaneta Harris, began sharing information about sexual health and preventing pregnancy with other inmates.

Harris told The Nation the ordeal began when she heard several younger women talking about contraceptive methods in a way that was riddled with scientific inaccuracies. As a nurse prior to her incarceration, she began speaking to the women to offer clarification, hoping to protect the women from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. At some point, the topic of abortion arose. When one young woman asked Harris about “partial birth abortion,” an inaccurate and stigmatizing term that anti-abortion activists use to refer to abortion later in pregnancy, Harris said she gave them the facts without realizing a prison guard was in earshot.

“There’s no such thing,” she told them. Harris told the women most abortions are medication abortions and dispelled with anti-abortion myths. At that point, a guard whose name Harris didn’t catch, but whom she identified as a young man in his 20s, intervened, berating the women and “yelling at Harris 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,” The Nation reports.

Shortly after the incident, at midnight, Harris says a prison lieutenant came to her cell and she was taken to a different, isolated cell at the far-side of her unit closed off from the others and facing away from the prison yard. For three days, she was cut off from making any phone calls. She’s currently unable to send or receive e-messages on her prison-issued tablet, forced to rely on prison staff to give her printed out messages that are days old and “in tiny print.” Harris, a mother, told The Nation she fears at any time the prison will cut off her communications with her kids.

To be clear, what Harris did is not illegal in any state. While some states like Texas and South Carolina have floated bills to criminalize “aiding and abetting abortion” and prohibit internet providers from hosting websites with information about self-managed abortion, no laws currently criminalize talking about it. Nonetheless, there’s an overarching culture of confusion surrounding abortion rights post-Roe, which has been exploited by anti-abortion activists—and now, apparently, prisons—to punish people and violate their rights. Local police departments have long exploited confusion and misinformation that equates self-managed abortion with feticide to criminalize pregnant people and those who help them.

Access to sexual health resources like abortion, and even information about these resources, has always been mired in barriers in prisons, where some states even continue to permit prisons to shackle pregnant incarcerated people. Even before Roe fell, one study showed about 70% of incarcerated people didn’t realize they still had a right to abortion. Despite having this right, most prisons made it impossible to access: A study showed the two-thirds of prisons that allow abortions require the pregnant person to pay for all associated costs—an impossible feat considering some prisons pay incarcerated people just $0.08 per hour for their labor.

Harris told The Nation she believes the prison is using her to send a message to other incarcerated people to “shut the hell up.” That sounds about right, to me.

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