Archives for June 2010

In our community, prisoners die in agony begging for care

In the past five days, there have been two stories about young people in U.S. prisons who died “in agony”.

Adam Montoya was in the Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin, Illinois. Pekin is “a medium security facility housing male inmates.” In May 2009 Montoya pleaded guilty to passing counterfeit checks and cards. He had a history of methamphetamine abuse. He was ordered to stay clean while awaiting sentencing, which he did until mid-June, when he was diagnosed as HIV+. As his father Juan Montoya says, the news “hit him like a ton of bricks.”

Adam returned to methamphetamine, failed a urine test, admitted to using, and was locked up.

In mid-October, he was sentenced to a little over two years in Federal prison. His father thought it was a reasonable sentence, and, reasonably, started planning with his son for a life after prison. People living with HIV live long lives. Adam’s family was supportive. He had a job, a family, much to live for. His father noted that when Adam reached the prisoner transfer center, in Oklahoma, ARVs were waiting for him. He thought 27 months is not a death sentence. He was wrong.

Adam entered Pekin Correctional Institution on October 26. Eighteen days later he was dead: “For days before he died in a federal prison, Adam Montoya pleaded with guards to be taken to a doctor, pressing a panic button in his cell over and over to summon help that never came. An autopsy concluded that the 36-year-old inmate suffered from no fewer than three serious illnesses – cancer, hepatitis and HIV. The cancer ultimately killed him, causing his spleen to burst. Montoya bled to death internally. But the coroner and a pathologist were more stunned by another finding: The only medication in his system was a trace of over-the-counter pain reliever. That means Montoya…had been given nothing to ease the excruciating pain that no doubt wracked his body for days or weeks before death. `He shouldn’t have died in agony like that,” Coroner Dennis Conover said”

Before agony meant extreme bodily suffering, it meant mental struggle and anguish. Adam Montoya suffered extreme bodily suffering. Adam Montoya begged. Adam Montoya pressed the panic button over and over again. No one came. He was a prisoner. He had the right to press the panic button. He did not have the right or power to expect anyone to answer.

Chuneice Patterson was 21 years old when she found out she was two months pregnant. She was in the Onondaga County Justice Center, in Syracuse, New York: “The Onondaga County Justice Center, located in Syracuse, New York, is a “New Generation”, direct-supervision, maximum-security facility designed with state-of-the-art technology. The basic mission of this facility is to safely and securely house arrested, pre-trial, and Federal, State, and County inmates awaiting transfer to correctional facilities with an intention to positively impact those who are incarcerated and, consequently, our community.”

When Chuneice Patterson was processed, on November 10, she complained of stomach cramps. Her pregnancy was noted in her medical record at the jail. In the next day, nurses visited her three times. Although her pregnancy was on the record, no tests were requested: “Around 6 p.m. on November 11, inmates at the Onondaga County correctional facility told officers that Patterson had been vomiting in her cell. A nurse was called to check on her, no vital signs were taken. A few hours later, Patterson was lying on the floor in her underwear complaining she didn’t feel well and was hot. The same nurse was called again, and again she left without following proper protocol for examining a pregnant inmate. For the next nine hours, deputies saw Patterson rolling around on the floor of her cell, making noises and even splashing water from the toilet on her face before hitting the emergency button when she said she could not breathe.”

Here’s how the New York State Commission of Correction concludes the story: “Chuneice Patterson was a twenty-one year old black woman who died on 11/12/09 at 8:30 a.m. from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy while in the custody of the Onondaga County Sherriff at the Onondaga County Justice Center….Had Ms. Patterson received adequate and competent medical care, her death would have been prevented.”

A local news agency reported the same event: “Chuneice Patterson died from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and as the commission’s investigation shows she spent hours in agony begging for care.”

The same thing happened in 1996: “Patterson was the second inmate to die from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy in the past 14 years. In the previous case, the Commission of Correction found that three nurses and a doctor at the jail repeatedly failed to monitor inmate Lucinda Batts’ worsening condition before she collapsed and died from an ectopic pregnancy. Her death in March 1996 could have been prevented with proper medical care at the jail, the state found.”

The Justice Center is the state of the art of community. Chuneice Patterson had an emergency button, which she had the right to press. She did not have the right or power to expect a response.

Adam Montoya and Chuneice Patterson died in agony and left to their parents agony as their estate. These two stories together tell us that we, we who read the stories, we who comment on and discuss and share the stories, and we who choose to ignore the stories, we live in an Age of Agony. It is the state-of-the-art technology of our community. It is how we make prisoners die.


(Photo Credit:


Nascent Collectivities 1

Everlyn Masha Koya

Everlyn Masha Koya, a twenty two year old sex worker-turned-peer-educator from Isiolo, Kenya, recently told a story of the limited work choices that impoverished women face which can lead them to become sex workers and the daily violence they experience from police, from clients, from families and communities.

Ms Koya became a sex worker because her family was unable to afford education fees and her home situation became unbearable once she finished school. She left sex work when she was offered training by government officials to start a small business. She then tried to convince other young women to quit the trade, with limited success. Efforts to persuade women to leave sex work are difficult despite daily violence from clients, the constant threat of incarceration, and the social stigma attached to sex work.

Why is the state interested in helping women leave the sex trade? How might the presence of trade routes and military bases conflict with state efforts to give women alternative employment? How might the expansion of the national “economy” create a situation in which multiple forms of persuasion are not effective? Why is it difficult to persuade young women who have children to leave sex work? These questions suggest a feminist investigation of the nation-state’s dependence upon women as symbols, workers, and dutiful daughters, and the role that women play in the national-economy.

The patriarchal state treats prostitution in two contradictory ways. First, prostitution as female sex work is an aspect of the economy. Prostitution services “what is generally viewed as an incessant and urgent male sexual need…and is therefore to be safeguarded in more or less overt ways for this purpose.” In a situation where nation-state wants to produce and secure livelihoods through active trade routes, sex workers are seen as “necessary” for men to be good workers. In a situation where the state builds military bases to protect the physical borders of the nation-state, sex workers are seen as “necessary” for well-being of soldiers. Thus, the nation state relies upon women to enter sex trade to preserve national economic security and military security. Ms Koya’s statement captures the material situation in which women enter sex work: “Girls are all flocking to Isiolo because there is a ready market for sex work: it has four military camps and a transit route to northern Kenya.”

Second, prostitution serves as an instance of deviant or criminal female sexuality, an activity which the state monitors and controls. The state is interested in producing a coherent population, a “culture,” a “national people” with a shared language, values, behavior, and “history.” This state wants to unify “people” as a national community and to produce citizens in specific ways and in specific roles. It is therefore deeply invested in controlling individuals and populations which exceed norms of gendered behavior. The state demonstrates its authority by placing sex workers under surveillance and controlling sex workers through state institutions, including police, courts, and social welfare-bodies. As Ms Koya says, “Sex work is risky work. I was a frequent visitor to the police station; last year, I spent two months in prison. It is very cold at night, most of the time you go home without getting a client, sometimes you take the risk and allow a customer with good money – KSh500 [$6.60] or so – to sleep with you without a condom.”

Here’s the contradiction: sex workers are “necessary” for the productivity of male workers and stability of military bases. At the same sex workers are vulnerable to surveillance and harassment by the police because they are marked by the nation-state as outside of gender and sexual norms. And, sex workers receive little support or protection from families who see sex work as degraded work.

Ms Koya is caught in this contradiction. Her family is unable to support her education. There are few economic opportunities for her after she leaves school. She enters sex work because there’s a market for it. At the same time, the state, her family, and the community stigmatize women who violate sexual norms by participating in sex work. Meanwhile, women are vulnerable to violent clients, at risk of being infected by HIV/AIDS, and at risk of developing drug addiction. In Ms Koya’s testimony, these risks are part of everyday life, not extraordinary or exceptional, mundane rather than dramatic. The conjunction of these contradictions is epistemic gender based violence – violence of the police, violence of the state, and violence of culture – which appears normal in as much as it does not appear as violence. Epistemic violence is a “logical and consistent and systematic philosophy and world view” which is built into institutions, systems, and structures of society, convergences of rule of law, national identity and citizenship, and rhetorics of ‘protection,’ ‘economy,’ ‘health,’ ‘necessity,’ ‘autonomy,’. This violence limits women’s capacities, opportunities that are available to women for freedom, for safety, for economic self-determination, and health and well-being, and for the freedom, safety, and heath of their families and those who depend upon them.

So, Ms Koya receives a small government grant and training to open a second hand clothing story which enables her to leave sex work. But for women who are responsible for children, the state’s economic modifications are insufficient. And this insufficiency becomes particularly vivid in the context of police violence, the threat of HIV/AIDS, violence from clients, and the dangers of substance abuse. Ms Koya’s failure to persuade women who have children to leave the sex trade can be understood through the contradiction produced by women’s economic responsibilities to their children and reliance of the state on women’s vulnerability and exploitability. As Ms Koya says, “I have tried to get many girls off the streets but it’s really hard. So far I have managed eight, but I am told two have already gone back. Girls with children are the most difficult to convince.”


(Photo Credit: Noor Ali / IRIN)


How the Oil Spill Affects our Perception of Women and Water

Over a month ago BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 people and beginning a month long flow of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  Responses to the disaster were slow at best, with BP’s solutions never succeeding in capping the flow of oil into the ocean.  The result is that people all along the coast of the Gulf who are dependent on the Gulf for food or livelihood are losing out, and the wildlife population that exists in the Gulf is hurt by the crude oil.

For myself, and for many other I’m sure, the outrage at this spill comes primarily from the inability to act and the inability to connect this oil spill with the dangers of both depending on oil reserves and dumping things into the ocean.  The apathetic attitude of people toward the dumping of gallons of crude oil into the ocean is the most alarming part of the disaster.  In my last post, I talked about some of the connections between women and water.  This oil spill displays more of those characteristics.

Before discussing the implication of the oil spill on gender, I should first discuss a little bit about the feminizing of the ocean itself.  The ocean or the sea is referred to as a ‘she,’ like when the sea is referred to as a mistress to sailors, or when religions include a goddess of the sea.

This connection is not so far out of the blue.  The characteristics attached to the sea are often ones similar to those attached to women.  The sea in many religions is considered to be a birthplace of life – similar to viewing women as life-givers.  The ocean is often perceived as having a calming effect – similar to the idea of a mother’s comfort.  And finally, the ocean is said to have a fury and a power that is hidden and to be feared – ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,’ or a fear of women’s power.

Secondly, there is a belief that the ocean has a religious power of sorts to wash away all sins  — the sea can contain or take all that we do to it.  A group of people in Denmark decided to thank the ocean by sinking a huge metal statue filled with bread in the ocean as a sacrifice.  In order to thank the ocean, they had to literally dump more problems into it.  This is similar to how we talk about women, especially women in developing countries or those who have just been through a trauma of sorts – we comment on how strong they are, and how wonderful that they can take so much.

Water is a resource that is essential for all forms of life, yet we privatize it and sell it for immense profits.  The documentary FLOW discusses not only the effects of privatization on water but the similarities between the so-called ‘water industry’ and the oil industry – mainly that both are driving prices up at the expense of people who can’t afford it and the profit of those who don’t need the money.

So what does this mean for the oil spill in the Gulf? The spill happened in the ocean – a ‘feminine’ body of nature.  As such, it can take all that we do to it – like the ideal strong woman who can ‘take’ all that life throws at her.  The ocean can take the gallons of crude oil that are rushing into the waters destroying marine life and coming closer and closer to shore (in fact, it has already hit some islands off the coast of Alabama).  I believe that the driving force behind the fact that BP executives are so slow to act is that they believe that the ocean can take this abuse.  BP CEO Tony Hayward was quoted as saying “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

The sea is tied to feminine ideas, or the feminine principle as Vandana Shiva puts it.  When something is so closely tied to femininity, it is not immune from the reach of patriarchy, in particular the idea of control over the ocean’s resources (which include the crude oil beneath the ocean’s surface).  Not only can the ocean take all that we do to it, but it also is there to be controlled and manipulated by us as humans.  Moreover, the people running BP are predominantly men, making it a situation where men are controlling/manipulating the feminine for their own profit and use.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf is a disaster in so many ways, but it does give us a clear picture of the value that we place on our oceans, and by extension on women.  Perhaps the reason why there is less outrage from the general population about the oil spill is that we don’t place enough value on it – it is expendable in the name of profit, much like the patriarchal view of women.


(Image Credit: Flow)

Those who recall the future were never meant to survive

Marta Candeloro was abducted on June 7, 1977 in Neuquen. She was then taken to the Secret Detention Centre “La Cueva.”

On January 30, 1972, British soldiers opened fire and killed thirteen men in a peaceful civil rights march in the Bogside neighborhood of Derry. That day is called Bloody Sunday. Next Tuesday, thirty eight years later, the British government will release a report that states the killings were unlawful.

Thirty eight years is a long time. Ask the survivors. Ask those who remember.

Ask Kay Duddy. Kay was 25 years old then. Her brother Jackie was 17, a textile worker. He was shot dead as he fled across the Rossville Flats car park. He was the first person killed on Bloody Sunday. “We put Jackie’s 50th birthday in the paper and I thought, `That’s all we can do for you now, a wee memorial in the paper, people will say a prayer for you on your 50th birthday when we should have been out partying with you’. It is the everyday things, the wee family things that get you.”

It is the everyday things, the wee family things that get you.

Ask Regina McKinney. She was the third child of Gerry McKinney, 35, a wrought-iron worker and dance hall manager. He and his wife had eight children. On that Sunday, he blessed himself and put his hands in the air when confronted by soldiers. Then, one of them shot him dead: “Mammy never got over it. It took 25 years for her to even start to come to terms with it.…These men took away everything….My daddy was shot with his hands  up. I was proud the way my father died, that he had his hands in the air, that he had nothing in his hands, that he did not retaliate. To me he was a hero….The only thing I want out of the report now is for the men who were shot to go down in history as innocent. I think that is the only truth we need. The soldiers are going to have to stand before God.”

And ask Kate Nash, now 60 years old. She was the oldest daughter in a family of 13 living in Creggan on Bloody Sunday. Her 19-year-old brother William was shot dead at the Rossville Street barricade. Her father Alex went to comfort his dying son. He was shot and wounded. According to Kate, her mother laid the blame on her father’s shoulders: “She blamed my father because he survived. She wanted my brother back, not her husband. My father accepted that blame and carried it until he died.”

It is the everyday things, the wee family things that get you. Thirty eight years is a long time. Ask those who have waited, ask those who wait. Ask those who remember and those who cannot forget.

Ask Paula Luttringer. On March 31st 1977, Paula Luttringer was 21 years old and pregnant. She was kidnapped by the Argentine police and held, for five months, in a secret prison. While there, she gave birth to a daughter. She was then abruptly released and forced to leave the country immediately or face further violence. She fled to Uruguay and then to France. That was thirty three years ago. Thirty three years is a long time.

In 1995, Luttringer returned to Argentina and began to use photography as a way to explore the memories of the State violence committed against her and other women. El Lamento de los Muros (The Wailing of the Walls) emerged, a photographic essay, an archive of memories. Pete Brook, who has interviewed Luttringer, notes: “I have twice heard people urge Paula happiness in that she survived. Paula is unequivocal; having survived does not make her happy, living in a world in which people didn’t have to be survivors would make her happy. The violence once it is done, cannot be undone.”

The violence, once it is done, cannot be undone. Happiness would emerge from living in a world in which people didn’t have to be survivors, in which people don’t have to remember they were never meant to survive.

Estella Jackson remembers she was not meant to survive. Estella Jackon is 60 years old, a convicted killer, and a prisoner in Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in Oklahoma, the largest women’s prison in the state. Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state in the United States.

Estella Jackson chose when there was no choice: “I didn’t have a choice in what I did. It was either kill or be killed. And I chose to live”. Now the hardest thing now is explaining her life to her grandchildren. She says it’s hard to explain to children that she took a life because there were no choices and because she chose to survive. For Estella Jackson, the hardest thing is the painful memory of her grandchildren’s future, a memory in which it’s not clear they will know she chose to survive.

Herbert Murray remembers he was not meant to survive. Herbert Murray was a young man convicted by a jury for having robbed and murdered a blind man in New York City. The judge thought Murray was innocent, but had no choice, according to the mandatory guidelines, and so sentenced Murray to prison for 15 years to life. That meant after 15 years, Murray could come up for parole. He was denied repeatedly. Why? Because he claimed his innocence, he could not demonstrate remorse and so remained in jail. This is called “the innocent prisoner’s dilemma”.

And what of those who cannot remember?

New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility has the first prison unit for the cognitively impaired. The average age of its residents is 63. Everyone suffers from dementia. Many, maybe most, live with Alzheimer’s. Dr. Edward Sottile directs the center. Recently he was asked how prisoners with dementia, who don’t remember their own histories, can be rehabilitated. Dr. Sottile smiled a Hippocratic smile and replied that he had the same question and his solution is to do the best he can, to provide humane and compassionate care.

Remorse, remorse of conscience, remorse of mind is grief, sorrow, torment, painful memory. Ask those who remember, and those who cannot, they were never meant to survive, for they recall the future.


(Photo Credit: Prison Photography / Paula Luttringer, The Wailing of the Walls)


More than Jamaica is haunted

The burnt-out room at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in St Ann

Jamaica is haunted by the memories of charred prisoners’ bodies. More than Jamaica is haunted by their ghosts.

About a year ago, May 22, 2009, seven girls died in a fire in Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in Jamaica. On May 22, 2010, people around the world gathered to commemorate their deaths and to commit themselves to improving the conditions and situations of State child-care in Jamaica. Those seven girls haunt Jamaica and haunt more than Jamaica. They are part of a global story of the wasting of children and of children’s lives through incarceration, in prisons, detention centers, and `reception centers’, in impossibly overcrowded cells and solitary confinement, in adult prisons and in juvenile detention, in interminable remand or permanent lockdown or else caught in a never ending choreography of revolving doors.

But now another charred body appears to publically haunt Jamaica, that of Lester Coke:

“Wherever Christopher (Dudus) Coke is hiding in the heavily fortified neighbourhood and fief known as Tivoli Gardens, whether he’s surrounded by armed henchmen, ducking in a crawlspace, or peering from a rooftop at the police officers in flak jackets below, Jamaicans are sure of one thing: He’s thinking of his father’s charred corpse. The late Lester Coke, who went by the alias Jim Brown, and his Shower Posse gang ruled Tivoli Gardens with an iron fist – along with the steadfast support of then-prime-minister Edward Seaga – throughout the 1980s. But when he was finally arrested in 1992, and set to be extradited to the United States, a bizarre thing happened in his cement jail cell. He burned to death, despite the absence of flammable materials.”

The stories unfolding in the streets of Tivoli Gardens and across Kingston and beyond, that of the violence by State and by others, that of the bullets and bodies that haunt the nation, and all the rest of the stories, interpretations, diagnoses and critiques, meet in the story and in the ghost of the charred remains of Lester Coke, a violent man, a bad man, a prisoner of State in a global War on Drugs directed from Washington, DC, who met an impossible death.

Memories of those impossibly charred remains of his father haunt not only Christopher Dudus Coke, not only Tivoli Gardens, not only Jamaica. They haunt a world order whose War on Drugs relies on extrajudicial violence in the streets and phantom executions in the prisons. Eighteen years ago, Lester Coke burned to death in a room where no fire could occur. Impossible fires produce eternal smoke. A fire that never happened cannot be extinguished. This is the magical realism of the prison state, and it haunts the world.

Whatever happens next in Jamaica, whatever happens to Christopher Coke, whatever happens to the US government that forced all of this on the Jamaican people, nothing substantive will have happened until the magical realism of the prison state is shut down and replaced with a better story. The story of the lives of the seven girls who died in the Armadale fire is not the same as the story of the life of Lester Coke, but the story of the flames that consumed them is. We must do better than continually raking ashes.


(Photo Credit: The Jamaica Gleaner)