The Burkinabé women’s spatula uprising

Burkinabé civil society, opposition forces, students, youth, workers, and women have been taking to the streets to protest a parliamentary move to extend the president’s 27-year rule. These demonstrations are as much about one-party rule as they are about one man. Since August, youth have been organizing, under the banner of Le Balai citoyen, the Citizen Broom. Many have spent their entire lives under the leadership of one man and they have had enough.

This week, the broom hooked up with the spatula.

On Monday, hundreds of women took to the streets of Ouagadougou. In their raised fists, they carried broomsticks, spatulas, and some carried pestles. Why spatulas?

As one demonstrator explained, “The spatula is the most important cooking utensil for women. It has a symbolic weight in our traditions. When it is used to hit a man, it’s a sacrilege; the consequences are disastrous and irreversible. Hitting a man with a spatula automatically undercuts his power, his virility, which he cherishes above all. This is the reason the women came out with spatulas. Because of the President’s monarchic tendencies, his refusal to hear anyone but himself, the women came with spatulas to warn him, to bring him back to reason.”

According to Juliette Congo, of the Movement of People for Progress, “We came out with our spatulas to give a warning to a man hell-bent on destroying our country … If Blaise Compaoré does not change his tune, the women of Burkina Faso will rise in civil disobedience!”

Cendrine Nama, 28, agreed, “Burkinabé women came out, armed with our spatulas, October 27, to say NO to a constitutional coup d’etat planned by those in power, with the complicity of the Deputies elected to represent the people. I am proud of my people who rise today. It’s time we took an active role in the decisions that affect us, for the people are sovereign.”

Germaine agreed and added, “The time for discussion is over. We want him to leave and leave us in peace. We, the women, we weep for our children, we weep for our nation, we weep for the fate and future of the Burkinabé people. We came out with our spatulas to show him that when a woman comes with a spatula, that says it all. We came into the streets with our spatulas because we are burning inside. The next time we will strip and come naked and cry on the head of Blaise Compaoré.”

On Monday, hundreds of women marched, chanted, carried spatulas, and sparked an uprising, a spatula uprising. On Tuesday, tens of thousands marched in the streets. On Wednesday, a general strike was called. And tomorrow … ?

 

(Photo credit: Fasozine.com)

Being sick is deadly for women

In Algeria, about 4000 women are repudiated by their husbands every year. The reason: they have contracted breast cancer! A third of Algerian breast cancer patients are thrown out and made precarious with no guarantee of treatment as they lose their social coverage. Additionally, they endure severe psychological upheaval.

Hamida Khatab, President of the Association El-Amel, which supports cancer patients, explains that many men refuse to accept the physical changes of their sick wives. She adds that these men consider that they cannot fulfill their conjugal duty anymore. There is a certain code of silence around the condition of women’s dependency. For instance, reproductive rights in Algeria are very limited; access to abortion is restricted to women whose lives are in danger.

Nonetheless, Algeria has been lauded for its progressive Constitution, especially with regards to women’s rights. The Constitution guarantees equal rights, mentions gender and includes a non-discriminatory clause. However, while the Constitution purports to give rights, laws and their application suggest something else. For example, there are no laws to protect women in case of domestic violence in Algeria.

The UN and the World Bank recently published data on women’s rights country by country. Reading the data critically reveals the difficulties of simply summarizing women’s rights. For example, on abortion rights, the data show that the United States guarantees access to reproductive services such as abortion, and yet we know that access is not only difficult to impossible in many states, but also prohibitively expensive.

The World Bank refers to Country as Economy, which makes the financial materiality the “raison d’être” of a country. In that logic, women become even more dependent. In Algeria, for example, women and men do not have the same inheritance rights to property, whether they are daughters, sons or spouses. Seen from the perspective of Country as Economy, the repudiation of women with diagnosed breast cancer is embedded in inequality and discrimination, the Constitution notwithstanding.

Hamida Khatab and her organization have demanded legal protection to shield women with breast cancer from being divorced, thereby maintaining access to free treatment through social coverage.

Meanwhile, in the United States, where profit runs the health system, there is no free treatment for breast cancer patients. Women depend on employer-sponsored health insurance through their spouses or their own jobs. According to a study that considered gender role in “partner abandonment” in the United States, “A married man is six times more likely to separate from or divorce his wife soon after a diagnosis of cancer or multiple sclerosis than a married woman in the same situation.”

Additionally, the out of pocket cost of treatment for insured women can easily reach $6000. For the woman who is uninsured, the numbers skyrocket. The single greatest factor of disparity in survival rates for breast cancer is whether the woman is insured or uninsured, and that is heavily determined by ethnicity, social and immigration status. This disparity is growing.

Women’s dependency is articulated around economic and cultural patriarchal polarities and carries deadly consequences for their lives. In a period of austerity and reduction of public services, women’s precariousness is racially and economically organized. The fight is broad and requires a larger sense of solidarity.

 

(Photo credit: El Mouajahid)

Soni Sori continues to haunt more than India

Soni Sori, an Adivasi woman, was once a primary school teacher in Chhattisgarh. In 2011, she was arrested, in Delhi, on trumped up charges, shipped back to Chhattisgarh where she was subjected to torture and sexual violence in police custody. Two women officers present were threatened to remain silent. After some protest, Soni Sori was finally sent to hospital and then back to prison. In November 2013, she was released on bail. Earlier this year, Soni Sori ran, unsuccessfully, for Parliament, on the Aam Admi Party slate.

On October 10, 2014, a film crew from a German television channel went from Delhi to Chhattisgarh to interview Soni Sori about her experiences of custodial torture. She took them to her village, Palnar, where they met the police. After the interview, Soni Sori returned to her home in Geedam. That night, plainclothes agents barged into her home and interrogated her concerning the identities of the film crew. As noted in a recent press release by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, or WSS: “Soni’s household is an all woman household along with three of her children the eldest of whom is only 13 and the youngest is just 8. While Soni did not recognize all of them she did recognize a few of them as members of the local police of Geedam. Some of the members kept questioning Soni, few of the others barged into the other rooms including the bathroom and started searching and looking around. Despite Soni’s demands asking them to leave her house they continued with the questioning. Furthermore, these persons refused to answer all questions of Soni regarding their identity, but continued their questions regarding the crew. The team then went on to state that Soni should have immediately informed the police regarding the coming of the team and in future she should inform them about any people visiting her and provide details regarding the purpose of the visit. By the time the team left, Soni’s family was quite shaken up, especially her children, as they had thought that the team had come to once again arrest Soni and put her in jail.”

Why can’t Chhattisgarh leave Soni Sori alone? What’s so important about this one woman, surrounded by women, that she’s worth all the investment of broken doors, bones and promises?

Chhattisgarh is rich in resources, forest, tribal people, and women. It’s one of the few places in India where the population is more or less equally divided between women and men. Women have participated in every aspect of agricultural production, of labor, and of public life. With the arrival of the global market, the areas women dominated, in particular that of food security and food sovereignty, don’t carry the same value in a global economy, and now men receive positions of authority, from both multinationals and the national government, in the new local world order where women are meant to become ghosts, reminders of a bygone era that is bought, sold, and gone.

Soni Sori has refused that narrative. When released from prison, she immediately thanked the women’s movements, formal and informal, and prodded them to do more, especially for rural women. She returned, in full force, to the struggle, despite State-run “security campaigns” that wreak havoc on the lives and well being of women.

The State can’t afford autonomous rural, indigenous women, nor can it afford fierce women schoolteachers. India wants ghost women, and is willing to pay heavily to get them. Stop the harassment of Soni Sori, and support the women who refuse to be ghosts.

 

(Photo credit: WSS)

Another Aboriginal woman dies of `natural causes’ in custody

In August, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, called Ms. Dhu, died in custody in Western Australia. She was being held for unpaid parking fines. Ms. Dhu complained, some say screamed and begged, of intense pains. She was sent to hospital twice and returned, untreated, to the jail. On her third trip to the hospital, she died, in the emergency room, within 20 minutes. It is reported that she never saw a doctor. Her grandmother says she “had broken ribs, bleeding on the lungs and was in excruciating pain.” That wasn’t enough.

Ms. Dhu joins a long line, actually a mob, of Aboriginal women who have died in custoday in Australia. In 1982, 40-year-old Nita Blankett was in custody for driving under the influence, a six-month stay. She complained of pain, became distressed, was ignored. Finally, and too late, she was dumped into an ambulance, where she died en route to the hospital.

In 1989, 38-year-old Muriel Gwenda Cathryn Binks died in custody. She was in for non-payment of a $30 fine. She complained of severe pains. No one listened. For 22 hours, she received no medical treatment. Muriel Binks died of multiple organ failure … for thirty dollars. That was the going price for an Aboriginal woman’s life in 1989. It hasn’t gone up.

The stories pile up; the women’s bodies pile up. People gather in protests and demonstrations, as they did today across Australia. The family calls for an inquiry. The State at first refuses, then relents. Elected officials promise action. Everyone is shocked.

Two years ago, Maureen Mandijarra died in custody. As of yet, there’s been no inquest date set. The police report, two years later, was only recently turned over to the coroner.

Meanwhile, Aboriginal women are increasingly destined for incarceration. In the last year alone, incarceration rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have skyrocketed 18%. The government “response” is to cut funding Indigenous legal and family violence prevention services. Aboriginal? Woman? Need help of some sort? Have we got a place for you … prison.

Twenty-five years ago, commissioners looking into Muriel Binks’ death concluded, “the time for tolerance of such official neglect and complacency has passed.” Not.

Australia, like the United States, Canada, others, has invested heavily in the devaluation of Aboriginal women’s bodies and lives. The rising rates of incarceration married to the plummeting budgets for assistance say as much. So do the women’s corpses, decade after decade, year after year. For Aboriginal women, the histories and lived experiences of colonial occupation and violence not only continue to this day. They are intensifying.

A contemporary postcolonial, anti-colonial politics begins and ends with the State murder of Aboriginal women’s bodies, which runs from lack of services and assistance, from cradle to grave, to mass incarceration to dumping into the mass graves of historical amnesia. Another world is possible … and it requires more than an endless cycle of “discoveries” followed by commissions.

 

(Photo credit: Jade Macmillan/ABC News)

Where people’s suffering is a commodity to be sold

Speaking truth to self: in these times of neoliberal careerism, where people’s suffering is a commodity to be sold in the market place of the development industry, what is a politically conscious and ethical thing to do?

Grabbing media headlines is easy and sexy.

What is meaningful solidarity with people who are suffering and in struggle? Where does fetishism end and where does defeatism begin? What would going to Liberia achieve for the dying of Monrovia?

Africans are dying. Some of us Africans are standing on soap boxes talking about and pointing fingers at those not-so-pure or not-so-legitimate ones doing things we should be doing.

What has South Africa done in solidarity with Africa in this case? I’m not even having this conversation. I am a mere bystander observing with my shiny anti-imperialist microscope. Neither is self-flagellation attractive, ethical nor useful.

So, what then? Well, get some fresh air I guess!

 

(Photo credit: Flicker.com, United Nations Development Program)

We had an abortion, we’re fine, thank you!

Making access to abortion more difficult is a way to change the nature of women’s lives. It also unsettles the social position of women in those countries that in the sixties and seventies, after a century or so of illegality, legalized access to contraception and to abortion.

In Texas, a recent court decision authorized HB2, a bill designed to make access to abortion more humiliating and difficult, even impossible for the most vulnerable women. Last week Democracy Now broadcast from San Antonio, “the last outpost for legal abortion in Texas,” in order to focus on this new attack on women’s lives. The shows featured Jeffrey Hons, CEO of Planned Parenthood in Texas, and Lindsay Rodriguez, President of the Lilith Fund, which provides financial support to women in Texas who cannot afford an abortion.

Responding to Senator Wendy Davis’ revelation in her new campaign memoir that she had an abortion, Hons explained, “A woman should be allowed all the privacy to have this healthcare and not have to reveal it to every one and then, at the same time…it’s as though when a woman will have the courage to share a story, that it humanizes it, and it makes everyone realize that these decisions are very complicated, very personal, very difficult…”

It was also very difficult also for a young woman in Pennsylvania to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, because services were too far and too expensive. Her mother went to the Internet and found a way to help her daughter. She purchased mifepristone (formerly called RU-486) and misoprostol pills, which was what she could afford. For that `crime’, the mother was sent to jail. She had no access to suitable services and yet was denounced by the hospital, condemned by the judicial system and pilloried by the media.

In Texas and other places where abortion is formally legal, abortion has remained taboo as if it were an unspeakable last result or an impossible choice for women. Women are meant to be ashamed because [a] they have violated the privacy of the household and [b] they are women seeking reproductive health. In recent years, safety and security rhetoric has led to the re-emergence of the argument that endangering the life of the mother justifies curtailing her right to control over her body.

On September 27, 2014, Sabine Lambert addressed these issues at the “Feminist Struggles and Reflections to Advance Society” forum in Paris. Lambert belongs to the collective group “We had an abortion, we’re fine, thank you” (nous avons avorté, nous allons bien, merci). The group formed to create spaces to liberate women from the politics of guilt and shame regarding their decisions by exchanging stories and insights with other women. Instead of leaving abortion in the private sphere, they present abortion as a possible occurrence in women’s lives that carries no particular shame or guilt. After all a woman spends more time avoiding pregnancy than being pregnant.

In France, abortion is free, a recognized as a right, and still relatively easy to access. Nevertheless, it is often described as a traumatizing event carrying terrible consequences for the mental well being of women. In recent years, these descriptions have become more prevalent. The idea that abortion should be averted by any means has prevailed, despite the fact that abortion has always existed and contraception will never be an absolute means of reproductive control.

In France and across Europe, the notion of post-abortive syndrome has surfaced. This so-called syndrome has no scientific support. Nevertheless, a well known professor of medicine wrote in a popular medical publication that scientific studies should not be necessary to prove that a woman who had an abortion is inclined to psychological distress and extreme suffering. In Texas, a Republican delegate candidate has argued that women who have undergone abortion are prone to drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. Both doctor and delegate are wrong.

Women who have gone through abortions know better. According to Sabine Lambert, we need to go beyond the right to control our body and recognize that our mind is also ours. On her group’s website many women have written that they felt ashamed for not feeling negative after their abortions. Describing their experiences, which were not always easy, the women say they do not regret anything. Many say that in their mind the result of a sexual encounter was not the fetus. Sabine suggested that the image of the monstrous woman underlies the stigmatization of abortion. The woman who had an abortion and feels fine commits a double transgression. First she refuses maternity, and second she’s ok. She deviates twice from the patriarchal feminine social norm.

Sabine’s group organized to demand a woman’s right to abort with head held high. The right to abort should not be limited to begging for the crumbs of tolerance or struggling for a loosening of the noose around the neck. There is no shame or guilt for the women in Texas, Pennsylvania or France. We should demand respect for their decision, as we should recognize their struggle as political, not private.

 

(Photo credit: IVG, je vais bien, merci!)

Suicide Watch in Women’s Prison: Who Cares?

 

On Thursday, September 18, Megan Fritz hung herself. On Monday, September 22, Mary Knight did the same. Both women were incarcerated at Pennsylvania’s York County Prison when they committed suicide. Yet, as clearly indicated in nearly all of the media coverage of the incidents, neither woman was on suicide watch. Why weren’t Megan and Mary on suicide watch when they ended their lives?

One reason could be that what prisons and jails call “suicide watch” is an operating procedure disguised as a ‘prevention program’ implemented to protect facilities from liability. As the National Institute of Corrections notes, inmate suicides are financially, legally, and socially “devastating” for facilities and staff, often prompting lawsuits and negative publicity. Suicide watch is meant to care for prisons, not prisoners. Women behind bars are not ignorant– they are well aware of the negative consequences associated with suicide watch.

First, suicide watch leads to stigmatization for inmates, especially women. When women exhibit suicidal behavior or intention, they are often understood as ‘attention-seeking’ or ‘manipulative.’[1] Thus, suicidal women especially risk being labeled, distrusted, and disregarded. One correctional worker admitted that, “too often we conclude that the inmate is simply attempting to manipulat[e] their environment and, therefore, such behavior should be ignored and not reinforced through intervention.” One instructor of the Suicide Prevention training for correctional employees in Washington, D.C. taught his students that most suicide attempts are simply ways to “seek attention or misbehave.”

Pervasive attitudes like these lead to the poor treatment of inmates and impede care for those who need it.

In Northern Ireland, for example, female inmates at the Mourne House Unit and Maghaberry Prison reported[2] that it was normal for prison staff to bully suicidal women and those who self harmed. Correctional officers were known to taunt and laugh at women on suicide watch, blowing smoke in their faces and calling them names. When one woman felt she was in crisis, she called to ask for help, but the guard replied: “stop ringing the bell and shut the fuck up.” Another woman tried to hang herself twice in one day, yet inmates overheard a senior officer telling a subordinate officer, “don’t be looking in at her. Don’t even look at her. Fuck her.” Suicidal women are shamed, ignored, and persecuted when they express their feelings and needs.

Furthermore, when inmates admit to suicidal ideation or exhibit suicidal behavior like self-harm, they are often subject to harsher punishments as part of standard suicide prevention precautions. Those on suicide watch usually lose basic amenities like showers, bedding, phone calls, and family visits. They can be denied jobs and early release. Often, they are stripped of their clothing and are either left naked or are forced to wear “degrading and humiliating” paper safety smocks. National correctional standards require that they be housed in “suicide-resistant” cells; oftentimes, this means they are sent to solitary confinement or lockdown where they are isolated and deprived of sensory stimulation. In one county jail, suicidal inmates are confined in what they call “squirrel cages”: a 3x3x7 foot box fashioned out of chain-link fencing. Commonly, they are trapped there for more than 24 hours. Other correctional facilities utilize closed-circuit televisions to film suicidal inmates around the clock. Currently, the US Department of Justice is funding the evaluation of a device that “keep[s] track of inmates’ movements and vital signs using Doppler radar.” Being on suicide watch means losing what little freedom and autonomy inmates have. All of these ‘precautions,’ coupled with inappropriate responses from correctional staff, deter those in need from accessing mental health services, instead working as technologies of surveillance and control to further punish them.

Why didn’t Megan and Mary admit to feeling suicidal in York County Prison? Would you?

[1] Jaworski, Katrina. 2010. “The Gender-ing of Suicide.” Australian Feminist Studies 25(63):47-61.

[2] Scranton, Phil and Moore, Linda. 2005. “Degradation, Harm, and Survival in a Women’s Prison.” Social Policy & Society 5(1):67–78.

(Photo Credit: York County, PA, Government)

Florida built a special hell for women, the Lowell Correctional Institution

On October 9, Michelle Tierney, 48, died. On October 1, Latandra Ellington, 48, died. On August 22, Regina A. Cooper, 50, died. On April 30, Affricka G. Jean, 30, died. All four women were inmates at Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution, and they are not the tip of an iceberg. They are just another part of the special hell Florida runs for women, the Lowell Correctional Institution. And they did not “die”. They were killed.

Both Affricka Jean and Regina Cooper died under suspicious circumstances, and both of their deaths are under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Office of Inspector General. They are classified as “active death investigations.” Despite that, neither death raised much of a fuss in Florida or elsewhere, except among the usual suspects. Otherwise, it was just another season in hell, and women’s bodies continued to pile up.

Then Latandra Ellington died … or was killed. Ellington had written her aunt a letter in which she said a sergeant, known as Sergeant Q, had threatened to “beat me to death and mess me like a dog”. A few days later, Ellington was `discovered’ dead in a confinement cell.

Other inmates have written letters, anonymously, in which they describe, in detail, guards’ sexual exploitation, violence, and torture of inmates. They describe a culture of pure sadism, in which women are beaten for sport, and then intimidated into silence. At some level, none of this is surprising. It’s the story of Alabama’s special hell for women, Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, translated to Florida.

The twist at Lowell is that recent evidence suggests that Latandra Ellington’s death, or murder, was part of a power struggle … between two factions of corrections officers. Lowell Correctional Institution is being ripped apart by a gang war between gangs of guards.

Ellington’s autopsy shows blunt force trauma to her abdomen, consistent with having been beaten.

Michelle Tierney, who died last week, was killed slowly. Tierney was scheduled to be transferred to another prison on October 30, in preparation for her release from prison in January. She was so close to getting out. By all accounts, Tierney was a model inmate, a friend to all, a mentor, and a teacher of basic to advanced reading and writing. So, what happened?

For most of her fourteen years in prison, Tierney had been in good health. Recently she started complaining about leg pains. According to a friend of Tierney’s, she said she was suffering from so much pain in her legs that she couldn’t walk and was always crying. She went to the infirmary day and night, and, day and night, was turned away with a “diagnosis” of arthritis, get used to it.

When Michelle Tierney was finally taken to the hospital, her feet were blue, she had cysts all over her body, she was in septic shock, she had a fever and suffered from pneumonia.

That’s how it is in hell. Your choices are a quick tortured death or a slow tortured death, both accompanied by terror, horror and indignity. None of this is new. None of the violence, terror, horror or indignity against these women is new. Maybe, just maybe now, at last, someone, like the Department of Justice, will do something. What they won’t do is bring back the women who have been systematically murdered in the Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida.

 

(Photo credit: Florida Department of Corrections)

From Texas to Paris, women fight for their lives

From Texas to Pennsylvania to France, women’s rights have to be re affirmed. Moreover, the engagement implies defending an idea of society that goes beyond the right to abortion or women’s right to control their bodies.

In September, in Paris’ City Hall, the forum “Feminist Struggles and Reflections to Advance Society” summed up the current need to switch to the offensive. The Deputy Mayor of Paris opened the forum recalling that feminist struggles always upset the men and women who want to go further in social regression at times of economic crisis. Maya Surduts, President of the National Coordination of Associations for the Right to Abortion and Contraception, concurred, “We are at a turning point. The status of women is being called into question in this society.”

Maternity and the right to decide are under attack as is as the conception of women as full citizens, in France and in the United States.

In the United States, two recent cases of mistreatment of women show that an individualistic, utilitarian, patriarchal, neoliberal idea of society normalizes cruelty.

A woman in rural Pennsylvania has been sentenced from 9 to 18 months in jail for providing, through an online vendor, RU 486 to her 19-year-old daughter, who wanted to end an unwanted pregnancy. The nearest abortion clinic is 75 miles away. The woman was reported to the authorities by the local hospital where they went when her daughter had stronger stomach cramps. The details of the story show the intricate manipulations of events that led to the charge that sent this woman to jail. A state senator commentating on the case accused her of endangering the welfare of a child. It is not clear which child he is referring to. In this judgment, the fact that a fetus is not an unborn child fades away along with the acknowledgment that her daughter is a person and not a womb made to carry children.

She was also charged with “offering medical consultation about abortion without a license”. The daughter did not have health insurance, and the mother and the family seemed to have limited resources. The reality is that the mother had no information about abortion and, working in this vacuum of respect for rights to help her daughter, used the Internet to cut costs. The judge ruled, “This was somebody taking life and law into their own hands”. In fact, this situation is created by a system that plays with women’s lives without any respect for the latter. It works by creating a halo of shame and guilt around the woman, a halo that obscures the shame that the state has for not fulfilling its responsibilities.

Meanwhile in Texas last week, a court decision authorized HB2 to go into effect. This bill imposes restrictions on abortion centers, demanding them to meet the standards of hospital surgery departments. There is no medical reason for that requirement. Nevertheless, it forced 13 clinics to close immediately.

Constraints imposed on women who decide to have an abortion are also medically unnecessary. Now, a woman must arrange four visits to the clinic with the same doctor in a very rigorous timing. She must undergo an unnecessary and invasive vaginal probe ultrasound. Then she has to listen to the description of the development of a fetus, completing her physical torture with a psychological one.

With this measure, women from the western part of Texas will have to travel up to 500 miles round trip to an abortion clinic in San Antonio, the last area where the eight remaining clinics are located. The situation’s worse for the large population of people who live in the Rio Grande Valley without documentation or who have work permits that allow very limited travel. Meanwhile, immigrant women will have to go through immigration check points to reach an abortion clinic, basically depriving immigrant women from this area of their rights.

From the United States to Europe, new measures and laws add devastating constraints on women. In Europe, austerity measures stripped women of their way of life, work, and access to public services, most notably in Greece.

Although in France abortion is free of charge and guaranteed by law, a certain rationale of profitability combined with austerity measures has made access to abortion centers and hospitals trickier. Forced restructuration has closed many locations where women had access to reproductive services. While the Pennsylvania and Texas cases would be inconceivable in France for now, Maya sees the attacks on labor laws and on public services as the point of entry to make women the first to be harmed and exploited. She emphasized that immigrant women are always in the forefront. She added that these situations are unacceptable and that it is time to retake the initiative to defend the rights that protect the majority of the population.

How women in jails die: Another world is possible!

Michelle Mata lives in San Antonio, Texas, and she lives with mental illness. Until recently, that meant living with the near certainty that at some time she would need help, and, instead of help, the police, with no training in mental illness treatment or crisis intervention, would be called: “Mental illness is the only disease that when you’re in a crisis, the cops are called. You’re having a heart attack, you don’t call the police … I’m a mother. I’m a sister. I’m a friend. I’m a volunteer. I’m all these people. I contribute to my community, and I have a mental illness. My diagnosis is major depression, with psychotic features, dissociative identity disorder, and panic disorder … I want to be treated the way you want your mother to be treated if she was ever diagnosed with a mental illness. If I’m in a crisis, you know, I’m in a crisis, and I don’t, I don’t understand what’s going on around me.”

It’s a common story, an American story, happening every day across the country, and with dire results. Women in crisis “resist arrest”, are handcuffed, shackled, and sent to jail. And then what?

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report yesterday on mortality in local jails and state prisons from 2000 to 2012: “The number of deaths in local jails increased, from 889 in 2011 to 958 in 2012, which marked the first increase since 2009. The increase in deaths in local jails was primarily due to an increase in illness-related deaths (up 24%) … Suicide continued to be the leading cause of death in local jails”.

Among women prisoners, from 2000 to 2012, suicide was the most common “unnatural cause of death”. In 2000 and 2001, 91 women died in jail. In 2012, 122 women died in local jails. Starting in 2003, the number of women dying in local jails has never dipped below 111. That’s a minimum 22% mortality increase … and rising.

From 2000 to 2012,1457 women died in local jails. Of that number, 312 committed suicide and another 172 died of drug or alcohol intoxication.

On any average day in 2012, 100,000 women were in local jails. That’s up from 68,000 in 2000, and from 2000 to 2005, the numbers stayed well below 100,000. Today, 100,000 is the norm. The “good news” is that the suicide rate among women in jail has gone down from 30 out of 100,000 to 25 out of 100,000. But more women in jail are dying of suicide, and if you throw in drug and alcohol intoxication, it’s a crisis.

Most women in local jails are awaiting trial or are being processed. Twenty some years of zero-tolerance `urban redevelopment’ have combined with the gutting of mental health services to create today’s perfect storm of suicide and self-harm by women being held in local jails.

San Antonio decided to go another way. About a year ago, the San Antonio Police Department instituted a Crisis Intervention Training program for its police officers, and Michelle Mata is one of the trainers. Since the program went into full effect, officers have not used force even once on someone in crisis. People in crisis are going to treatment centers rather than jail. People living with mental illness and people living with people with mental illness report they are leading better lives. Another world is possible. Ask Michelle Mata.