How public pressure got two mothers out of jail

    Crowdfunding and social media campaigns have played important roles in getting mothers out of jail. But they are no substitute for abolishing a system that locks people up because they lack options.
    Shanesha Taylor was charged with child abuse after leaving her 2 young children in a hot car while she went for a job interview. (
    Shanesha Taylor was charged with child abuse after leaving her 2 young children in a hot car while she went for a job interview. (

    Jessica De Samito is now allowed to spend the last three months of her pregnancy at home. She will not be forced to give birth with a jail guard watching her. She will not risk having a stillborn baby because the jail denied her medical treatment. If her baby is born alive, she will not be abruptly separated after less than three days together. These are all good things, but the fact that she ever faced these threats should make us pause and ask ourselves why she was locked away in the first place.

    Earlier this month, the 30-year-old De Samito was jailed for violating parole. She is a Navy veteran who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and anxiety. To manage both, she had been using opiates. In 2011, she was arrested and convicted of possession of a controlled substance. In February, she was released on parole. Still struggling with PTSD, she began self-medicating again. But, when she became pregnant, she began searching for a methadone maintenance treatment program.

    According to the reproductive justice organization National Advocates for Pregnant Women, or NAPW, attempting to quit cold turkey can lead to uterine contractions, miscarriage or early labor. Instead of risking the effects of withdrawal, De Samito searched for a program, which is safe for those who are pregnant and have an opiate addiction. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the treatment program improves pregnancy outcomes for people with addictions. However, finding a program was not easy and, in the meantime, De Samito used a combination of methadone and heroin to prevent withdrawal and its possible effects on her pregnancy.

    In June, De Samito failed a drug test, and was scheduled for a parole revocation hearing. Before her hearing, however, she was able to find and begin a methadone maintenance treatment program. Nonetheless, when she appeared before a panel of the parole board, they decided to send her back to jail. Texas’ Guadalupe County Jail has a policy of requiring all incoming people to detox and refused to continue their treatment, increasing the likelihood that De Samito would give birth to a stillborn baby.

    Fortunately, De Samito had the foresight to contact NAPW before her hearing. Knowing the jail’s policy would stop her methadone treatment, she asked for their assistance. NAPW filed an affadavit on her behalf, arguing that denying her treatment would violate De Samito’s constitutional rights as well as the Texas Prenatal Protection Act, which requires criminal charges for third parties that cause injury or death to an unborn child. It also launched a public campaign under the hashtag #JusticeforJessica, urging people to both spread the word about her case and to call the jail. As a result, the jail began allowing De Samito methadone. On July 14, she was released and allowed to return home, albeit under electronic monitoring.

    This was not the only time public pressure has led to the release of a mother who would have otherwise remained in jail. Earlier this year, Shanesha Taylor, a homeless mother in Arizona, had a job interview at an insurance agency. When her childcare fell through, she left her two youngest children, ages two and six months, in the car outside the insurance agency while she went to the interview. A passerby called the police and, as she left the interview and headed towards her car, Taylor was arrested and charged with felony child abuse. Her children, including her nine-year-old daughter who was in school that day, were taken into the custody of Child Protective Services. In an interview with local TV station KPHO, Scottsdale Police Sergeant Mark Clark said, “This is a sad situation all around. She said she was homeless. She needed the job.”

    No one denies that leaving children in a car unattended is not only a bad, but potentially fatal, idea. But, as Taylor’s story spread, people empathized with her predicament — to either forego the job interview that might pull her family out of poverty or to leave her children for an hour and pray for the best — and rallied to her defense. If they hadn’t, Taylor might still be in jail awaiting trial like so many other people across the nation.

    A petition on calling on County Attorney Bill Montgomery to drop the charges garnered nearly 59,000 signatures and an online fundraising drive was started on YouCaring to raise the $9,000 bond required for Taylor’s release. It ended up raising nearly $115,000 instead. Taylor was released from jail pending trial and now has her own apartment. However, Montgomery has stated that he will not drop the charges. Additionally, while a court has finally granted her visitation, she still must fight to regain custody of her children.

    But simply being out of jail while awaiting trial increases her chances of winning because those who are kept in jail pending trial are less able to participate in their own defense. Furthermore, when they are led into court from a holding cell rather than being able to walk in from outside, they are more likely to be viewed negatively by judges and juries. The Pretrial Justice Institute, an organization advocating for pretrial reform, has found that people held in jail are three to four times more likely to be convicted and sent to jail and prison than those who have been released pending trial.

    This past Friday, four months after her arrest sparked outrage, Taylor and the prosecutor’s office reached an agreement: Charges against her will be dismissed if she meets several conditions, including completing parenting and substance abuse treatment programs (although Taylor has no history of substance abuse), and establishing education and child care trust funds for her children. Again, it’s important to recognize that had there not been an outcry of support, she would likely still be behind bars facing felony child abuse charges.

    Nevertheless, just because Jessica De Samito and Shanesha Taylor are out of jail, it doesn’t mean that justice has been served. We should not confuse appealing to mass action in individual instances as a substitution for challenging a legal system that continually punishes certain populations, particularly those who are poor, of color and/or have addictions. Too many other people, whose names we do not know and whose stories we never hear, continue to sit in jail awaiting their day in court. We don’t know how many other women in similar circumstances are jailed and left to navigate the jail and judicial systems on their own.

    Crowdfunding and social media campaigns were important in gaining the temporary freedom of De Samito and Taylor. But we must remember that they are not — and should never be seen as — substitutes for abolishing a system that locks people up because they lack options.

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