On Jan. 15, 2020, 21-year-old Chasity Congious was having a mental health crisis when her family called the police to have her involuntarily committed at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. She was four months pregnant, and her family feared her episode would harm the child. Instead, she was arrested for what her lawyer says are false charges of causing injury to a minor and remanded to Tarrant County Jail. Congious, who suffers from developmental and moderate intellectual disabilities, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, spent five months at Tarrant County Jail. According to her attorney Jarrett Adams, she did not have a single court date and her condition deteriorated to the point where she was entirely nonverbal.
By May, officials were notified that she would not recognize the beginning signs of labor and should be closely monitored to ensure a safe delivery. Weeks later, she gave birth alone in her cell at the county jail, with no correctional employees in sight. By the time an employee arrived at Congious’ cell, the baby was strangled from the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, and Congious had lost a large amount of blood. The baby, whom Congious named Zenorah, was kept alive for a week solely through intensive support before it was removed on May 27 and she died.
“I’m very heartbroken even today,” Kimberly Hammond, Congious’ mother and guardian said. “It’s something a grandmother can not begin to fathom. Upon hearing everything, I was terribly shocked and that feeling alone is an understatement.”
Now, two national civil rights law firms have combined resources to sue Fort Worth and Tarrant County law enforcement on 12 counts ranging from the denial of medical care of Congious and the wrongful death of Congious’ newborn. Congious’ case follows a grave pattern of neglect and abuse that pregnant people face in county jails across the country, which are notoriously less resourced than state prisons and do not face the same federal regulations regarding maternal health care.
“We are filing this complaint because the public needs to know that this kind of horrendous treatment of people of color must stop happening,” said Adams, attorney to Congious and co-founder of Life After Justice. “It is long past due to hold the police and the enabling penal system accountable.
According to Krishnaveni Gundu, co-founder and executive director of Texas Jail Project, there is no standardized policy and procedure for how county jails are run in Texas. Before she helped start Texas Jail Project, there was not even any data on the number of pregnant people in county jails. There may be minimum standards that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards will try to oversee, but they are not enforceable. If inspectors continuously find a jail noncompliant after an inspection, they can then decertify the jail. After Congious’ incident, Tarrant County Jail was decertified for only six days and placed back in compliance after submitting a “plan of action.”
“To find out that Chasity was a person with developmental disabilities and mental illness, who should never have been charged in the first place, is very concerning,” Gundu said. “Somebody kept seeing her condition and thought it was OK to let her decompensate to the point where she was nonverbal. Every system that was in place to protect her not only failed her, but actively perpetrated harm on her.”
According to Gundu, county jails are one of the largest confiners of people with mental illness in Texas. In 2015, 12,000-16,000 people had mental health disorders at any given moment inside Texas jails. A 2009 study based on inmate interviews in Maryland and New York jails found that 16.7% of the inmates had symptoms of a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, or brief psychotic disorder. In a 2011 study, 44% of people in locally run jails had been told by a mental health professional that they had a mental illness.
Gundu has been working to enforce maternal health care standards in county jails for over two decades. Together with Texas Jail Project, they have advocated for a data bill that counted the number of pregnant people in jails and required correctional officials to publish a statewide monthly report of how many pregnant people were being booked in county jails. They also advocated for a prenatal care bill that included prenatal vitamins and OBGYN visits, and they fought to restrict shackling. However, the bill contains a loophole allowing shackling if the pregnant person is considered to be a danger to themselves or others.
“When you say somebody’s in custody, that means you are responsible for their care and well-being. And what we hear is a lot of medical neglect and medical abuse, and then there’s no recourse after that,” Gundu said. “Suing the jailer who is watching Chasity’s cell that day is not going to change anything. That’s not going to change anything for the three-to-400 women that are pregnant that are booked in county jails every month. We need to really hold the systems accountable, and in Chasity’s case it’s a multi-system failure.”
Congious’ lawsuit was filed by and through her mother and guardian Hammond, who was told to call 911 and ask for them to transport her to the John Peter Smith Hospital so she would not be able to voluntarily leave if she had another crisis. According to Hammond, that is the protocol she followed, but what followed that January morning was “unexpectedly different.”
“When Chasity was arrested, I was concerned because I felt like the officers that responded were creating more of a violent criminal-based situation in which that was not the case,” Hammond said. “We were dealing with a mental health concern as we dealt with several times before.”
In mid-June of 2020, a month after Congious gave birth and just weeks after her daughter died, the local district attorney’s office voluntarily dismissed the false charges against Congious. She was sent to JPS for inpatient treatment and then was released to her mother. Congious, who is still traumatized after the events, occasionally asks for her baby. She undergoes medication and weekly therapy, and she has a strategic support system to continue moving forward. Now, Congious, her mother, and Adams hope their lawsuit will progress and help them find justice and put laws in place to prevent pregnant people from suffering the same loss and abuse as she did.
“Chasity and Zenorah were both let down,” Hammond said. “Chasity nearly lost her life and what was left of her sanity. Chasity feels that winning this case will bring Zenorah back, but it will not. However, it will help heal some hurt.”