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How Texas’ cash bail system and under-resourced jails can wreak havoc on women who are poor

By Madaleine Rubin, The Texas Tribune

How Texas’ cash bail system and under-resourced jails can wreak havoc on women who are poor” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Long before Angela Collier knew why her moods seesawed or her thoughts raced, she knew one thing: Xanax and marijuana seemed to calm her like nothing else.

She had both on her when Huntsville police pulled over her friend for running a red light in March 2020. Officers found the small amount of marijuana Collier had while searching the car. After arresting her for that, they found the Xanax pills while searching her pockets as she was being booked into Walker County jail.

Collier knew it was against the law to have the marijuana and Xanax. But she also knows why she took them.

“To feel better during certain times in my life when I’ve really been stressed and struggling, or going through something and it’s overwhelming for me,” Collier said.

The amounts Collier had on her resulted in misdemeanor charges. And while police initially charged her with a felony for having a controlled substance inside of a police station, Walker County prosecutors later declined to pursue that charge.

But the misdemeanor charges were enough to send Collier’s life into a four-year tailspin that she’s still recovering from — economically, physically and emotionally. Those long term ripple effects are largely because Collier is poor in Texas, a state where people with money have an easier time avoiding long stretches in county jails while they are legally presumed innocent, before their cases are resolved.

Like most states, Texas uses a cash bail system that lets defendants pay to get released from jail while they wait for ​​adjudication. But the price of bail is often an insurmountable hurdle.

Civil rights groups and inmates have unsuccessfully challenged Texas’ use of a cash bail system for years. Lawsuits targeting Dallas and Harris county jails alleged the practice was unconstitutional because it discriminates against poorer defendants. A federal appeals court ruled against the Dallas plaintiffs and the Supreme Court declined to take the case. The Harris suit was tossed.

In 2021, Texas lawmakers changed the state’s bail system, but didn’t forbid a cash bail system. Instead, they required all defendants accused of violent crimes to pay cash for release from jail before their trials. Critics said requiring cash to get out of jail would continue to penalize low-income people and benefit the bail bonds industry.

About three in every four Texans in county jails are awaiting the resolution of their cases, according to data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the state agency that oversees local jails. That number has surpassed pre-pandemic levels and is 14% higher than in January 2017.

For women, the wait can be harder than for men. County jails, meant for short stays, commonly lack resources women need — like pregnancy care and mental health treatment. Women in county jails are also more likely to have mental health needs. And many are mothers separated from their children.

Collier previously worked at Buc-ee’s, but in 2014 became a stay-at-home mom for several years before breaking up with her child’s father. At the time of her 2020 arrest, Collier was living with her father while she was a full-time student pursuing an online psychology degree from Houston Christian University.

Following her arrest, Collier’s combined bond for the two misdemeanor charges was set at $8,000. When she couldn’t afford that, a friend loaned her over $700 to pay a bonds company so she could get out of jail. But two years later, while still awaiting her trial, she missed a required court hearing because she was receiving emergency care for pregnancy complications. A warrant was issued for her arrest in Walker County.

In June 2022, officers from Madison County were sent to her home in Midway for a welfare check because someone reported she was having a miscarriage. When Collier came outside, she told police she was OK, but that she may go to the doctor the next day, according to video obtained by KFF Health News. Because of the Walker County warrants, police arrested her.

Collier said she could not afford to pay thousands of dollars to bail out. Stuck in Walker County jail again, she says she experienced a miscarriage and received little medical attention while she waited a day for another friend to loan her money to pay a bonds company for her release.

Collier later filed a formal complaint with The Texas Commission on Jail Standards about her miscarriage. In a September 2022 letter, the agency told Collier that Walker County Jail had not violated minimum jail standards. According to the commission, records from Walker County Jail show that Collier only submitted one medical request and did not advise jail staff of any other medical issues. Collier claims she asked for help multiple times.

“We haven’t yet gone far enough to meet the needs of women who are in jail at the county level,” said Alycia Welch, associate director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at The University of Texas at Austin, a research center dedicated to incarceration in Texas.

Texas law requires the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to collect and report data on incarcerated women. But the Commission cannot provide the total number of women behind bars and waiting for their cases to be resolved in Texas county jails right now — or any time in the last two years.

Walker County Jail on Monday, March 18, 2024, in Midway, TX.
Walker County Jail on in Midway. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

That’s because the agency is transitioning to a new system that will house data collected from all county jails, a project that began in 2022, according to commission Executive Director Brandon Wood. While the agency knows how many total people are waiting for their cases to be resolved in county jails, Wood said the current system, created in the 1990s, can’t break down how many of those people are women charged with misdemeanors — like Collier.

That makes it impossible to fully keep count of women in jails, sentenced or awaiting the resolution of their cases. The Commission said they expect a new system to be operating by mid-May.

April Towery, a formerly incarcerated woman and advocate at Lioness: Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance, said that incomplete data leaves her nonprofit that supports incarcerated people fighting to help a group they can’t see.

“I would say that’s unacceptable, because how do we know where the needs are and how we can help and serve these women if we don’t have any information on them?” Towery said.

After being released from jail a second time, Collier’s misdemeanor charge for marijuana possession was dropped and she was sentenced to probation for possession of the Xanax. But Collier owed hundreds of dollars in probation fees and money to the bond company. After she violated probation conditions — including leaving the county and failing to make probation payments — she was arrested for a third time in September 2023 on the same misdemeanor charge for having Xanax two years earlier.

As she awaited a hearing on whether her probation should be revoked, the bond to get out of jail was again set at thousands of dollars. Only this time, Collier was out of friends with money to spare.

“I felt like a nobody,” Collier said. “People around me are getting bonded out for more bond, and I’m like, I’m poor, so I’m going to lose all of this. I’m important, too. I should be able to get out, too.”

A devastating miscarriage

In Texas, bail is a form of leverage, meant to ensure defendants show up to their court hearings. Those who do are refunded their full bail amount, which is set by judges and can vary greatly depending on several factors.

In some situations, judges can set a cashless bail. But Texas in 2021 limited the use of that type of bond, meaning most defendants have to pay for their release. While judges are supposed to consider someone’s ability to pay when they set bail, lawsuits — like the unsuccessful one in Dallas County — claim that doesn’t always happen.

If they can afford it, defendants can pay their full bail in cash to get released. Otherwise, they can use a bail bondsman. These companies cover the price of bail for defendants so they can get out of jail — but charge them a smaller fee that they have to pay off.

Release before trial comes with conditions from the court and bail bondsman. These include showing up at court hearings, calling the bondsman regularly and making payments on time. If a defendant fails to meet requirements, their bond is revoked — and they can be arrested.

Between 2014 and 2017, Collier had been arrested and charged with public intoxication and possessing a small amount of methamphetamines. In 2016, she served 97 days for the meth possession charge, a state jail felony.

While some misdemeanor crimes have pre-set bail amounts, Welch said those vary by county and judges can adjust them based on a number of factors. Those include the defendant’s perceived risk to the public, the likelihood of them appearing at hearings, and their criminal history.

After Collier’s second arrest on the 2020 charges, she struggled to manage the grief of her miscarriage, keep up with schoolwork and find money for bond and probation payments. She’d felt anxious before — but panic attacks became a new constant. Even leaving the house felt impossible.

Angela Collier in the home she shares with her father on Monday, March 18, 2024, in Midway, TX. Collier has played the piano since she was four years old when her grandmother paid for her to begin lessons.
Angela Collier plays a piano that was recently given to her at her home in Midway. Collier was forced to sell her previous piano to help pay off some of her legal debts. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

For the first time in her life, Collier sought help. She started talk therapy and received multiple new diagnoses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder — which Xanax, one of the drugs she was arrested for having, is often prescribed to treat.

She was also prescribed medication like Zoloft, a drug with similar effects to Xanax. And she started to make progress — the medications lessened the panic attacks. They eliminated her desire to take other drugs completely.

“I didn’t know that there were medications, or exactly what may have been wrong with me,” Collier said. “I’d never went and talked to someone before. It was really out of desperation that I sought help there.”

By the time of her third arrest — this time for probation violations, including missing multiple payments — she said she was thousands of dollars behind, tired and stressed.

“[It felt like I was] running on a treadmill and falling backwards at the same time,” she said.

Her bond was set at $5,000, and no one in her life could front the money. The running was over — she began the long wait behind bars for a court hearing on whether her probation should be revoked.

“It’s belittling,” Collier said. “There’s people that come in there multiple times and bond right out — the same people. And meanwhile, us people that didn’t have money to bail out are all still sitting there. It’s like we’re a different class of people.”

Living in limbo behind bars

During her first few weeks in Walker County Jail last year, Collier didn’t have the daily medications she needed due to what she said are long wait times to see a doctor. She also couldn’t attend therapy.

Collier said nearly all of the other women in jail were waiting for medications they needed.

According to Welch, with the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab, incarcerated women have higher rates of past trauma experiences than men. That creates a large demand for mental health services in jails, including therapy and medication. And it’s one reason why nonviolent drug and property offenses are the most common crimes women commit.

“Stepping back from it, those are all survival crimes,” Welch said. “They need to make money, they need to cope with an unidentified and unaddressed mental illness, they need to cope with trauma when there’s no other resource or access to services for people to find healthier means of doing so.”

The state does not keep track of mental health needs in county jails, according to Wood, head of the Commission on Jail Standards. But nearly half of all women in Texas prisons received some form of treatment for their mental health in 2023, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported.

Local jails — which are smaller than state prisons and commonly lack the same treatment options — often struggle to meet those needs for women held before their cases are resolved.

“You don’t have a choice but to wait [for your medication], just like everybody else,” Collier said. “It’s so frustrating. It makes you feel irrelevant, like nobody cares about you or your wellbeing.”

Walker County Jail officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In jail, Collier only looked forward to Wednesdays, when the book cart occasionally rolled around. She read everything she could: the Bible, which every woman got a copy of; Steve Thayer’s “The Weatherman;” Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October.”

But she had to pace herself. If she finished a book before the cart came again, she just sat, stuck in a room right next to the one she’d previously miscarried in. Sometimes she watched television.

If she had her school textbooks and weekly therapy sessions, she thought, maybe she could work on herself. Maybe she could get ahead.

“I felt like every day I was falling behind,” she said.

Angela Collier outside of her home on Monday, March 18, 2024, in Midway, TX.
“I felt like a nobody,” Collier said. “People around me are getting bonded out for more bond, and I’m like, I’m poor, so I’m going to lose all of this.” Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Finding a path forward

The ways in which defendants’ underlying issues like poverty, mental illness and trauma are addressed in jail can depend on where they’re locked up.

Some urban counties are spending more on programs and facilities aimed at either keeping people out of jail or reducing the impact of incarceration on their lives. Travis County, for instance, is about to launch a new $23 million mental health diversion program to keep people in crisis out of jail. Harris County last year opened the Women’s Center Jail, which provides mental health care, substance abuse support and job training solely to incarcerated women.

Wood, the Commission on Jail Standards director, said incarcerated women “have different needs without a doubt” than men. But he also acknowledged that jails in less populated counties may not have the resources to address those needs.

“It’s probably just going to be what’s available to all pretrial inmates,” Wood said.

After her third arrest on the probation violation for the Xanax charge, Collier waited 42 days in Walker County jail for a hearing on whether her probation should be revoked. It was and she was sentenced to 120 days in jail.

With time she’d already served, that meant she had to remain in the county lockup for two additional months. She was released in January.

She’s tried to regain some of what she lost. She restarted therapy, and hopes to restart school.

“I’m going to be OK,” she said. “But it set me back mentally in a lot of ways.”

Since her release, Collier has become dedicated to advocacy. She’s now involved with Lioness: Justice Impacted Women’s Alliance, the nonprofit led by formerly and currently incarcerated women that advocates for others in the system.

“Mentally, it’s a whole realization of how important money is, and how I don’t have enough of it, and that in so many different ways, the system is messed up,” Collier said.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/04/01/texas-jails-cash-bail/.

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