By Nick Braune
The South Texas Civil Rights Project sent out a press release this week on a lawsuit filed against Cameron County. The suit contends that the county has retaliated against Gail Hanson, a minister and former volunteer chaplain at the county jail, after she spoke publicly about the conditions women prisoners face at the jail. The suit contends that her free speech rights have been violated.
Hanson, through her church, became an official volunteer chaplain in 2000, and had visited with and prayed with prisoners weekly up until February of 2008, but her visits were stopped after she made the public comments about the jail and criticized the sheriff.
“Preventing someone from volunteering their time to help rehabilitate prisoners because she was critical of the County is outrageous,” said Mrs. Hanson’s attorney, Scott Medlock, quoted in the press release. Medlock is Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s Prisoners’ Rights Program. “Mrs. Hanson should be commended for her dedication to ministering to the women held in the jail, not punished for speaking the truth about what she saw behind prison bars,” he said.
The press release explains that in February 2008, “Mrs. Hanson criticized conditions in the jail at a candidate forum in advance of the Democratic Party primary. Prisoners told her they were denied sanitary napkins, forced to sleep on the floor, given adulterated food with hair and gnats in it, and held for long periods of time without being brought to court for trial.”
The suit is not asking for money but for the simple restoration of Hanson’s access to the jail so she can continue her ministerial visits.
These complaints against the Brownsville facility are not the first. There have been many complaints over the recent years about the county jail there. The press release quotes Hanson, “I just want to make sure these women’s voices are heard. I never thought the County would prevent me from praying with them for speaking about what I saw in the jail.”
I contacted Corinna Spencer-Scheurich from the Texas Civil Rights Project for a quick comment.
Braune: I read a previous article on the Texas Jail Project website, and it sounds to me that the Cameron County Jail is improperly run and is a stressful place for women to be held, particularly stressful for the pre-trial detainees. Do you think what your client has said publicly has hit some nerve? And do you think they revoked her privilege to visit the women in the jail as a message to others to be quiet too?
Spencer-Scheurich: Clearly what Gail Hanson said hit a nerve. And, it is also clear that banning her from the jail was calculated to chill free speech on the issue of jail conditions. One of the purposes of the 1st Amendment is to protect exactly what Mrs. Hanson did — speaking out about injustice that she witnessed or heard about first hand. While there is reason to believe that things have gotten better in the jail lately, protecting Mrs. Hanson’s right to talk about the conditions is almost as important as improving the conditions themselves. Otherwise, the women in the jail would have no one to advocate for them, no one to tell their stories. What kind of society would we be if we isolated these women to the point that they suffer atrocities without us knowing?