AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Marci Marie Simmons says one hug threw her into more than a month without human contact. Consoling a crying inmate violated a policy against touching other inmates, she claimed, and solitary confinement was the punishment.

“She was sitting on the floor crying over some mail that she got. And I reached down and hugged the top of her shoulders. They saw that on camera. And they came,” she recounted. “They came in handcuffed me and took me to solitary confinement. I was there the first time for 34 days over that infraction.”

Marci Marie Simmons during a family visitation. Her standard prison uniform is why formerly incarcerated women refer to themselves as the “women in white.” (Credit: Marci Marie Simmons)

Inside her 9×9 cell, she said, it was common to find blood and feces on the walls, and hear the screams of those who had been isolated much longer than her.

“You hear a lot of ladies crying out at night. It’s very much like a typical movie scene, like you might see in a psych hospital where you hear those desperate cries for help, just the need to be heard need. And it’s heart wrenching.”

She joined women from across Texas at a “Justice-impacted women and girls rally” on the South Steps of the Texas Capitol Wednesday. State representatives Senfronia Thompson, Alma Allen, Josey Garcia, and Toni Rose joined them to protest incarceration conditions on International Women’s Day.

Lioness, an organization for formerly-incarcerated women, and the Statewide Leadership Council are hosting the rally. State representatives Senfronia Thompson, Alma Allen, Josey Garcia, and Toni Rose addressed the crowd.

“The Texas penal institution is not the nicest place in the world. We need to make it better,” Rep. Alma Allen said. She filed a bill to require air conditioning in TDCJ facilities. “Institutions as big as Texas should not be killing people,” she said.

Simmons was sentenced to 20 years in prison for embezzlement in 2011. She was released on parole in March 2021. Never a violent offender in or out of custody, she said, she is one example of an inmate that State Rep. Terry Meza hopes to help with her legislation this session.

Meza (D-Iriving) has been leading the calls for change in the Texas House. she has filed a series of bills to limit the period and pretenses of isolation.

“I just find that it’s a cruel and unusual punishment. Some people have called it torture,” she said. “We actually have hundreds of prisoners who are in solitary confinement for years. Who can come out of that mentally healthy? It’s just not possible.”

HB 480 would prohibit the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from placing an inmate in administrative segregation based solely on their membership in a “security threat group,” or a gang. Under current standards, an inmate can be placed in isolation if they are associated with a gang, even if they have not caused harm to any inmates or staff.

Meza’s bill would require the department to determine whether the inmate presents an immediate threat to the safety of the facility before placing them in isolation.

HB 812 would limit solitary confinement to three days for nonviolent offenders, and ten days for violent inmates.

According to TDCJ, more than 3,000 inmates are currently in “administrative segregation,” or isolation. As of 2021, almost 600 of them have been in segregation for more than a decade, according to a survey of U.S. prisons by Yale Law School.

“Instead of improving their behavior, they behave worse. So there are other methods, better methods to rehabilitate prisoners: anger management, therapy, a lot of other ways to help them out. Solitary confinement just carries them farther down the slope.”