GUEST BLOG: Belton, Texas, High School Student Advocates for Incarcerated Women to Have Equal Opportunities to Succeed

Texas 4-H Congress is a mock legislative event that allows young people to experience the process of drafting and passing bills firsthand. Every year, 4-H members from across the state come to Austin and submit over 300 bills for consideration by a mock House of Representatives and Senate, with hopes of the bill advancing to the desk of the 4-H Governor for signage into law.

I was proud to be a Senator in the 2018 4-H Congress. With my legislation, I wanted to address an issue that was personal, yet also one affecting the people of Texas. Popular topics in past years related to education and guns—not much different from the real world. But I was at a complete loss as to what my bill should address.

On April 26, I was watching Spectrum News Capital Report when I learned about a new report released by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. When I heard the host say, “Women incarcerated in Texas prisons have fewer academic and job opportunities than men,” it made me angry. It sounded like a statement from my great grandmother’s generation, not my generation! I went online to read the full report, “A Growing Population: The Surge of Women into Texas’ Criminal Justice System.” I read about how the women’s prison population is growing at a much faster rate than the men’s population. I learned that 55% of the women in Texas prisons have been diagnosed with a mental illness and 81% are mothers. I learned that 64% of the women in Texas prisons are incarcerated for nonviolent offences, mainly drug related. I automatically felt that somehow our society had failed these women.

I researched and discovered that there are many prisons in Texas, but not all provide equal drug and mental health treatment or education and vocational training. In Texas’ public schools, there is a standard for what students must be taught and learn before they receive a diploma. I feel there should be a standard for resources to help people in prison lead productive lives once released. I wrote my bill, the “Equal Uplift Bill,” to create that standard for Texas prisons and ensure that all male and female inmates have equal access to educational and vocational programs, substance abuse treatment, life skills training, and all other rehabilitative programs to better prepare them for release from incarceration.

The arguments from my peers against my bill were very similar to what some adults might say: “Why do the women deserve these resources?” and “Why should my tax dollars go to help prisoners?” I debated that not providing treatment and education will cost Texans security in their communities and even more money when a person statistically reoffends within 1 to 5 years without these resources. Businessman Max Dupree said, “We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are.” Change is necessary.

My bill was featured in the 4-H newsletter, passed out of both committees, and approved on the Senate floor. Unfortunately, it died on the House floor. I was so sad, but this experience has lit a flame within me. I recently visited the staff of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition; it was an honor to meet them, especially Lindsey Linder, the author of the women’s report. The staff took time out of their day to enlighten me on their hard work and passion for fighting for people who cannot fight for themselves. They are real superheroes fighting for justice for all!

About the Author

Grace Pohl

Grace Pohl is a student at 6A Belton High School in Belton, Texas, and a Bell County Ambassador in the 4-H program. She is an athlete that enjoys cross country, varsity track, and varsity golf. Grace is Vice President of the 2021 class Student Council. Education is very important to Grace and she believes it is key to opening doors in her future. She volunteers in her community and teaches others the skills she has learned in the 4-H program.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition is now the Texas Center for Justice and Equity! Learn More