Migrants: We are all children of migrants

Saturday, 5th of March 2011.

Yarl’s Wood continues.

The women behind the fences are saying something about their children, but it is difficult to hear what exactly.  They seem to be shouting something about their right to stay with their children.  Perhaps they are referring to the effects of recent policy changes.

In October, a case was brought forth on behalf of two single mothers and their children who were detained at Yarl’s Wood by UK Border Agency (UKBA) officers after dawn raids on their homes earlier in the year. In December 2010, in response, the government `signaled’ its intention to bring to an end children’s detention. This included closure of the ‘family unit’ at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre and the suspension of children’s detention in any immigration facility over the Christmas period.

In January 2011, a court decision established that the detention of some families, including children in Yarl’s Wood, was unlawful. This decision required the government to bring to an immediate end the detention of children in immigration removal centers. The immediate response from the Home Office was that the detention of families ‘would be kept to a minimum’, while officials drew up ‘alternative arrangements’ to ‘protect the welfare of children without undermining immigration law’.

We demonstrated outside Yarl’s Wood partly to denounce the government’s ‘skillful’ use of publicity about ‘ending the detention of children’ as a way of avoiding talking about the brutal and inhumane detention regime in general. But even among some of the civil society groups that have specifically supported the end of children detention, suspicions remain concerning the government’s version of  “alternatives” to child detention. While the plan does not include any concrete improvement in terms of early access to legal aid for refugee applicants, it does mention the establishment of ‘new family conferences’. These would ‘draw in lawyers, social workers and others’, with the aim of providing ‘realistic advice to people who had been refused refugee status on what their options were’. For those who would not accept voluntary repatriation “it would be necessary to detain them in ‘secure accommodation’ for periods of around 72 hours to ensure that their departure could be enforced’.

Migrant Rights Network argues that the ideas of ‘family conferences’ and a new ‘independent family review panel’ is dangerous.  It is quite easy to imagine that the large-scale detention of families with young children will be simply reproduced in a new form.  Furthermore, these family conferences risk turning exactly those social workers and other experts who should support migrants’ children and vulnerable adults’ welfare in their communities, into immigration control functions. Those who used to work for migrants in our communities will be absorbed into the machine of control and detention, ultimately ‘advocating’ ‘voluntary’ return and deportation.

The rhetoric of the UK government around the economic recession legitimizes increasingly restrictive policies against migrants. This then naturalizes chauvinistic and militaristic approaches towards the ‘management’ of immigration as part of the ‘big society’ discourse about having to ‘share’ the consequences of the economic downturn. Of course, `they’ must pay more than `us’. The politics of racism and gender discrimination are fully at play in this era of mobility restrictions and economic austerity.

Walking back from the fences we discuss the contradiction of today’s migration politics and how grassroots groups should respond to it in practice. Yes, we will probably have to support migrant’s individual demands for regularization but cannot afford to support the whole policy/ing logic based on the continuous differentiation of migrants, the production of multiple divisions, between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, the more and the ‘less vulnerable’, those who ‘deserve’ integration and those who do not, or simply the right to access that which seems to become an ever increasingly ‘precious good’, conceded by national governments in Europe,  that is, the status of ‘legality’.

Many women currently detained in Yarl’s Wood have worked and toiled in this county already for many years. They are fluent in English. They have kids here. Here they have built their lives. This makes us particularly angry and astonished in front of the injustice of their detention, but it does not change the unconditionality of our claim: freedom of movement for all. Everyone, independent off period of stay and status, whether escaping poverty or war, environmental disaster or political persecution, gender or racial oppression, has the right to freedom of movement, and freedom to stay and search for a new life. After all, as we would remind the small group of police engaged in their performance of ‘protecting’ the prison from us, we are all the children of migrants.

Gabriella Alberti gabriellaluce@hotmail.com

Haunts: State sexual violence haunts the world

Eman Al Obeidy burst into a hotel dining room in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday, and struggled to tell the story of how she’d been raped and beaten, for two days, by Qaddafi’s forces. She was then attacked, in the hotel dining room, and carried out. Journalists present were disturbed, as much by the treatment they witnessed as by Al Obeidy’s account. The latest report suggests that she is being held hostage at Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.

Salwa al-Housiny Gouda was one of the proud citizens of Tahrir Square, in Cairo. She was also one of seventeen women, arrested by the Egyptian army, imprisoned, tortured, stripped and subjected to a `virginity test.’

These women’s stories are critical to any understanding of the ongoing struggles in particular places, such as Libya., such as Egypt. They are also part of the treatment of women in prisons around the globe. There are more prisons and jails now then ever before, and women are the fastest growing prison population, globally and in many regions of the world. Across the world, nation states rigorously refuse to address sexual violence. At the same time, across the world, nation states build more prisons in which sexual violence against women intensifies and spreads.

From the United States to Jamaica to South Africa and beyond, rape kits sit unprocessed for months, some times years. In the United States, many cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, have failed to process rape kits in a timely manner … if at all. When called to task for the failure, the administrations stonewall or, if forced to reform, drag their feet. Illinois just this past week passed a law “that will force law agencies to submit DNA evidence for testing.” They had to pass a law to make agencies process DNA. In New Jersey, also last week, the State legislature passed a law banning the practice of charging rape victims for the cost of processing the rape kits.

In Jamaica, rape survivors wait an average of two years for their attackers’ cases to be heard. In South Africa, the State has failed to adequately educate police about the appropriate procedures to follow in cases of sexual violence. Sometimes the training is a pro forma run through, with little follow up or evaluation. More often, there’s no training at all.

This is the state of the world. This state is made most manifest in the asylum and immigrant detentions centers. When the United Kingdom set up its fast track asylum processes, it did so with complete disregard for the women asylum seekers who are fleeing sexual violence. For example, Albertina Ferreira Malungu applied for asylum. She was part of a dissident movement in Angola, had been tortured, raped, and suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome, among other mental issues.  The first official to hear her case, in 2008, decided she was `lying’. She was detained at Yarl’s Wood, despite compelling evidence of both torture and mental illness. All part of the system.

Albertina Ferreira Malungu’s is just one of many such tales. The asylum system has been described as “simply not equipped to handle rape, slavery, the threat of ‘honor killings,’ or other complex claims”. The simplicity of being unequipped is this: the state chooses not to equip, because women, and especially women of color, don’t matter.

At the same time, women prisoners suffer sexual violence at the hands of prison staff. Jan Lastocy is a woman prisoner in the United States, and hers is a typical story. She was raped, repeatedly, by a corrections officer. The warden made it clear that any reports of problems tagged the prisoner as a troublemaker. Lastocy was a few months from release. For seven months, three or four times a week, the prison guard raped Jan Lastocy. Terrified and desperate, she kept her silence. Upon release, she reported the assaults, and now suffers a sense of great and intense guilt for her silence. According to recent US government studies, the vast majority of sexual violence committed in prisons is committed by the staff.

Prison rape is a human rights crisis in the United States today. It is a crisis in juvenile prisons. It is a crisis in women’s prisons across the globe. This crisis is not accidental nor is it exceptional. It is the crisis of predictable consequence. Rape today is being used in Libya as a weapon. That is terrible. Rape has been used, across the globe, as a tool in the construction of so-called criminal justice systems, in the construction of more prisons with more women prisoners. That too is terrible, and to continue to claim shock and surprise at the use of rape is unacceptable. State sexual violence haunts the world.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

That’s how I got caught on it

That’s how I got caught on it
(an ode to Crystal, not the meth)

That’s how I got caught on it
not the Cape’s drug of choice’
tik – methamphetamine –
says Bonteheuwels’ Crystal Cupido
UWC Lifelong Learning Award Winner

Crystal, not the meth
many of us are hooked on
getting high on the drug
and not on the everyday of life

Getting high she did
at the tender age of 6
(courtesy of her mother)
on Bronté’s Wuthering Heights
and other such pleasures

That’s how I got caught on it
literature from long ago
made her want to study English
though she faltered at Grade 12

Crystal, not the meth
from out Bonteheuwel way
where news is habitually bad
(the area once a liberated zone)

She is high on literature
got her chance at UWC when
lots of people closed their doors
(she determined like never before)

So while tik has made it
ruining the lives of many
might Crystal’s perseverance
make it in yours

“Crystal’s resolve has life lessons for all” (Athlone News, March 23 2011)

David Kapp, david_kapp@yahoo.com

Haunts: Deported children haunt the world

A radio broadcast town meeting was held today in Fairfax, Virginia, a community renowned for its public school system, to discuss discipline in the Fairfax County schools. Near the end of the hour-long discussion, the moderator, Kojo Nnamde, presented a scenario based on a recent event, in which a six year old child was found to have brought cocaine into school and shared it with his friends. What is to be done? Should the child be expelled?

Tina Hone, Fairfax County School Board member, responded, “He’s a six-year-old. And what lesson are we teaching a six- or seven-year-old child by expelling him?… It is a six-year-old child. I am not going to label a six-year-old child for the rest of their lives as a drug dealer. I’m not going to do that… It’s a six-year-old child, for God’s sake. I think we need to think about that.”

We need to think about children, because children are being actively forgotten by the State. Children are addressed instead as surplus populations and disposable objects. Nowhere is this more evident than in the willingness of modern so-called democratic nation-States to ship off children, six years old, seven years old, four years old. The line from primary school expulsion to national deportation of very young children is a straight line, and it is the measure of our current historical moment.

Consider Emily Samantha Ruiz.

Emily Samantha Ruiz is four years old, a Long Island tot, a four-year-old little girl, a very little girl. Emily Samantha Ruiz is caught in an immigration snafu or perhaps quagmire. Emily Samantha Ruiz is currently in Guatemala, to which she was deported. Emily Samantha Ruiz is a United States citizen. Her parents are both undocumented residents.

Emily and her grandfather, who has, or had, a work visa, went to Guatemala, to visit family, to get away from the harsh winter and its impact on her asthma. On their return, as they came through Dulles Airport, in Virginia, the grandfather’s name came up at Customs and Border Protection, CBP, as having perhaps committed some immigration infraction twenty some years ago. CBP won’t reveal the exact details. The grandfather was detained. The parents were calling everywhere to find their daughter. They contacted a CPB agent, who asked if either was in the country legally. Mr. Ruiz responded they were not. The agent replied that the options were Emily could go enter the custody of the State of Virginia or return to Guatemala with her grandfather. The Ruizes were terrified that `custody’ would result in adoption. Likewise, they had reason to fear that if they showed up to pick up their daughter, her `custodians’ would arrest them. They `opted’ to have Emily return to Guatemala with her grandfather. The government says it did nothing wrong, played by the book, followed the rules.

What are the rules?

The public discussion of this event has focused, rightly, on the fact that Emily Samantha Ruiz is a U.S. citizen. Her citizenship is indeed important. So is her racial and ethnic status. So is her language.

But let’s not forget, Emily Samantha Ruiz is a four-year-old child, for God’s sake. “I think we need to think about that.” Emily is part of a global phenomenon in which nation-States – in the name of sovereignty, security, protection, even democracy – actively forget their responsibility to remember that children are children. What lesson are we teaching those children? Deported children haunt the modern world.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Migrants: We can’t talk to the imprisoned women, but we can chant with them

Saturday, 5th of March 2011

It is wet and foggy in the fields of Bedfordshire and our shoes fill with mud as we walk away from the group of policemen that have followed us in a circle along the fences of Yarl’s Wood migrants’ detention centre. This Saturday, the 5th March, as women demonstrate in London at the start of International Women’s Week, a group of migrant rights, no border and feminist activists travel to Bedford to bring our solidarity to the migrant women (and men) detained in Yarl’s Wood. We manage to reach the women locked in one of the units. At a distance, we can’t talk to the imprisoned women, but we can chant with them. We cannot hear exactly what they say but one message arising across the barbed wires is simple, loud and clear: ‘freedom, we want freedom’.

Yarl’s Wood is one of the seven privately run ‘Immigration Removal Centres’ in the UK, detaining ‘irregular migrants’ on behalf of the UK Border Agency. Initially the building accommodated 900 people in two blocks, making it the largest immigration prison in Europe. In February 2002 the capacity of the centre was reduced after one of the buildings was burnt down during a protest organized by detainees against staff harassment. At present the centre is composed of 4 units ‘hosting’ about 400 people.

In February of last year, the situation in the removal centre again exploded. The horrible conditions of detention were denounced by migrant detainees as some women decided to start a hunger strike demanding an end to indefinite and abusive imprisonment. In an attempt to end their protest, the management subjected many of the women to violent attacks and various forms of punishment. At that time six women detainees, accused of being ‘ring-leaders’, were moved into isolation and prisons.

On the 25th January, after almost a year in Holloway prison, Denise McNeil, one of the `leaders’, was granted bail at an immigration court. Two women still remain in jail without charge: Aminata Camara and Sheree Wilson. Activists from the campaign to Free the Yarl’s Wood 3, including members of No One is Illegal, No Borders, Crossroads Women’s Centre, Communities of Resistance, Stop Deportation Network and members of the RMT, filled the court for Denise’s bail hearing. They provided an important support and will keep campaigning ‘for Sheree and Aminata and all the people in Yarl’s Wood until the centre will be closed’. (For updates, see Free the Yarl’s Wood 3 campaign Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Free-Denise-Now/174533002581566 and Twitter feed: @freedenisenow. Also see the NCADC site: http://www.ncadc.org.uk/campaigns/DeniseMcNeil.html).

The reasons for the detention of people in centers like Yarl’s Wood are multiple, and sometimes quite different. One of the activists involved in the campaign to support the hunger strikers explained to me that many of the women who end up in detention have already served a prison sentence, often for a minor offence, such as using fake documents to travel or work. Rather than being released, these women are transferred back to detention as a ‘second punishment’ where they wait for their immigration case to be cleared and eventually granted status or deported. They are trapped in an indefinite space of juridical and existential limbo, from one prison to the other, on the grounds that their migration case is still ‘pending’: they cannot be returned to their country of origin (on complex juridical or humanitarian grounds), and yet their status as asylum seekers is not recognized either.

Denise has just been released on bail, and her status, as well as her future stay in the UK, remains uncertain. However, her case shows how important the external support of migrants’ rights activists to sustain legal individual cases can be by helping access legal advice and to build publicity around their otherwise invisible stories.  While it may appear only a small achievement, these forms of solidarity provide the migrant women with encouragement and help instill confidence as they engage in the hard battles for freedom of movement and the right to stay in a country where they have worked and toiled for many years. In many cases the women are ‘caught’ by the UK Border Agency after many years of residence in the country, where they have probably built a family, found work and made a home. This is a typical story for the women detained in Yarl’s Wood.

Gabriella Alberti gabriellaluce@hotmail.com

Haunts: Domestic workers Mwanahamisi Mruke and R Pranathi haunt labor

Mwanahamisi Mruke and R Pranathi are two faces, two names, for global domestic labor. Perhaps they are the same face, the same name.

R Pranathi is a domestic worker in Ennore, a suburb of Chennai, India. For the last four months, she has worked as a household worker in a constable’s family. She comes from a poor family. She has worked in the house and taken care of the couple’s child. Pranathi is known as “a brave girl who would fight eve teasers in the locality.”

Pranathi is 14 years old, and she is dead.

The couple’s story is that the girl suffered stomach pains and hanged herself. People from her hometown and members of the Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers’ Union have a different story: the girl was raped, murdered, and then `translated’ into a suicide.

Whether or not Pranathi’s death was murder, and one suspects it was, the story of domestic workers being killed and then translated into suicides occurs every day, all over the world. Some gain some notice, such as the 31-year-old Nepalese domestic worker Samoay Wanching Tamang, who died by hanging in Lebanon in late February. Others simply vanish into the void. Some deaths are said to be mysterious, others are allegedly clear-cut. What is not mysterious is that domestic workers are dying, at work, across the globe, at an alarming rate.

Domestic labor is a growth industry, but it is also a labor killing field. And the ways of dying are many, some swift, others slow.

Mwanahamisi Mruke suffered the slow death. In October 2006, Mruke left Tanzania for England, where she had been promised employment as a domestic worker. She left her home and homeland for higher wages that would allow her daughter Zakia to attend college. She went to work for Saeeda Khan, a widow with two adult disabled living children, a hospital director with a good job. Khan kept Mruke a slave for the past four and a half years. Mruke’s passport was taken away, she was not allowed to leave the house, she worked from six am to midnight, sometimes more. Mruke was forced to sleep on the kitchen floor. After the first year, Khan stopped paying the worker. She was “treated like a slave.” Slavery, as sociologist Orlando Patterson explained in his magisterial work, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, “the slave’s powerlessness was that it always originated (or was conceived of having originated) as a substitute for death, usually violent death.”

On Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in a groundbreaking case, Saeeda Khank was found guilty of trafficking a person into the United Kingdom for exploitation. Mwanahamisi Mruke is now pursuing a civil suit.

These stories are an intrinsic part of the fabric of global waged domestic labor, one of the major growth industries of the past three decades worldwide. On one hand, they tell the story of terrible employers. Venal, corrupt, violent and vicious. It’s an important story to tell.

But there’s another story as well, that of the isolation, the silence, the exclusion of domestic workers from the world of workers and of labor.

This year, on May 1, 2011, Hong Kong will implement a Minimum Wage Ordinance. The new legislation will apply to full-time and part-time employees, regardless of whether they are employed under continuous employment contracts. Anyone who has been employed continuously by the same employer for four weeks or more, with at least 18 hours worked in each week, will be covered.

Almost anyone, that is: “the MWO does not apply to certain classes of employees, including live-in domestic workers, certain student interns and work experience students.”

In British Columbia, in Canada, this week, the minimum wage has been increased for the first time in ten years. This is good news, but does it cover domestic workers? Jamaica awaits a government study on livable wages. Will the study consider domestic workers?

In June 2011, the International Labour Organization may adopt a Convention on the rights of domestic workers. If so, it would aim to strengthen legal protection for the billions of paid domestic workers around the globe. The ILO Convention could be an important step. But it depends on the language of respective member countries’ labor laws.

Until the trade union movements formally include domestic workers in every worker protection campaign, in every campaign and action, billions of paid domestic laborers will remain super-exploited and under a death sentence. Employers have indeed been known to isolate, imprison, torture, and even kill domestic workers. But the rest of us, in our day-to-day failures and refusals to see domestic workers as real workers, and domestic labor as real labor, exclude, silence, and isolate precisely those workers.  Mwanahamisi Mruke and R Pranathi haunt us.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: Sendai, Fukushima, and the narrow road to the ancients

The road to the ancients, this week, is a narrow path to the north. It is composed of the dead, the suffering, the children and the elders and the pregnant women. It began with crushing noise followed by obliterating silence, and now … the return of black rain.

In Port-au-Prince, this week, people shudder, look at one another and whisper, “Nous sommes tous Japonais.” We are all Japanese.

We are not all Japanese, but we are all stunned. What are we to say, to think, to feel, to do as the images continue, as the news worsens, as our heads continue to shake in disbelief and our tears continue to sting?

The evacuation proceeds. Some say the evacuation is too cautious, too reactionary.  When nuclear reactors are threatened, when there is a danger of radiation leakage, as clearly there is in Fukushima, remove the pregnant women, remove the children, remove the elders.  Do it whether or not the reactors have blown, exploded, ignited. Do it in advance. That is a lesson of Chernobyl, especially for pregnant women. That is a lesson of Three Mile Island, especially for children.

The elders suffer particular hardships in the disaster in Sendai. First, Japan is the most rapidly aging country in the world, with the longest life expectancy. Women live to 86 years old, men to 79. More than 20 percent of Japan’s estimated population of 127 million is over 65 years old. 20 percent of Japan’s elders live in poverty. Elder care has been a crisis for some time now.

Second, Sendai is an area with many elders. Some came for the `peaceful’, and less costly, life. Others have lived their lives in the Tohoku region, in the northeast of Japan, and have watched as the younger generations moved south, to better jobs, to the metropole.  The tsunami struck an area with a higher proportion of elders.

The earthquake, the tsunami, the flames and the radioactive leaks struck at the most vulnerable. They came down, and continue to come down, on the deep north of the country, which is also the interior, the inner recesses, even the dead-end.

On the 16 May 1689, at the age of 45, the poet Matsuo Basho set off, with a companion and friend Sora, to walk to Oku, on the island of Honshu. His travel journal, if it can be called that, Oku no Hosomichi, is said to be one of the most revered literary texts in Japanese history. Its title is variously translated as The Narrow Road to the Deep North, The Narrow Road to Oku, Narrow Road to the Interior. Upon his return to his home in Edo, Basho spent the next three years editing and revising the journal, which he completed in 1694. Then he died, and the book was published posthumously.

The journey began: “Days and months are travelers of eternity.  So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives, travelling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road.”

At one point, Basho and Sora arrive at Sendai. It was a day of celebration, in which residents tied blue irises to the eaves and roofs of their homes and prayed for health. The travelers stayed for a few days, prayed, relaxed, sought out a famous painter Kaemon, and then moved on. They followed a map drawn by Kaemon and came to a monument, over a thousand years old, and paused:

“In this ever-changing world where mountains crumble, rivers change their courses, roads are deserted, rocks are buried, and old trees yield to young shoots, it was nothing short of a miracle that this monument alone had survived the battering of a thousand years to be the living memory of the ancients. I felt as if I were in the presence of the ancients themselves.”

On the road leading out of Sendai to the deep north, the poet Basho came face to face with time, with timelessness, and with the ancients. And he knew joy.  What would he know today?

This week, the road to the ancients is once again a narrow path to the north.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

In the steam room: not the cricket thing to do

This may be surprising but the topic of sport can easily raise the temperature in the steam room.

Yep, we talk about sport in there and it’s usually when one of two extremes happen: we won or we lost. Imagine that!!  There’s not much focus on amazing agility or magical manoeuvres. It’s all about whether our team did us proud or not. And the code of sport is not really of consequence. But this Sunday things got a bit hazy in there. Yep we beat India in the cricket match when there seemed little hope of winning. But the glory of this victory was clouded by the previous loss against England.

As I watched wicket after wicket fall in the SA vs England game, my other fallen hero, Hansie Cronje, then captain of the South Africa cricket team and who had confessed to match fixing and taking bribes, came to mind. In the glory days after apartheid I believed he was the role model of sportsmanship, of integrity and doing the right thing on the sports field. But then my hero went up in flames when his crooked ways came to light, this being followed by his plane crashing against a mountain.  Talk about divine justice. Sadly the apologies and explanations of being led by the devil did not heal my broken heart. And making a movie about it all seemed like just another get rich ploy.

Today our newspapers are filled with stories of struggle heroes and comrades getting sickeningly rich through tenders to build national highways and collecting tolls. On the one hand we cannot build roads at the expense of the national treasury. We are not a socialist state and we have to live in the real world.  And of course we cannot become a ‘welfare’ state. Let’s forget for a moment that the state is  the main source of sheltered employment (those endless circles of de ja vu are driving me batty). Someone must pay for the roads. Forever. On the other hand let’s nationalise the mines. After all we professed socialism. Mmmmm impending implosions?? And for whom do these bells now toll?

So we girls added more lavender to the steam, waddled over to our bits of colourful towels, and found momentary solace in the professed peacemaking of lavender. Somehow Cosmo seemed more plausible than anything in the real world at this moment.

Venitha Pillay, Venitha.Pillay@up.ac.za

Zimbabwe Voices: ALICE: That bullet is yours

ALICE: a former organizer, cross-border trader and domestic worker, aged 42, interviewed in a safe house.

In winter it gets dark early. It was some time after six p.m. and it was dark. Three cars full up with people drove up to my house. This was the 7th of June, 2008. When I heard the sound of cars, I looked through the curtain and saw that it was bad. There was nowhere to run. They were wearing army uniforms, not the militia uniforms of the Green Bombers8 but camouflage, the Zimbabwean army uniform, and they were armed with guns. They all got out of the cars. Some jumped over my gate. They found my stepson and started beating him, because he could not get the door of my bedroom open. He was trying to insert the key but I holding the key on my side. When I realized that they were beating him, I came out. I said, Please don’t beat up my son. He has done nothing wrong. I am the problem because I am a member of MDC. They said, Are you showing off with your MDC?

They went into my bedroom and started searching. They found MDC posters and flyers and T-shirts. They told me to carry all the stuff out of the house. They left my stepson and took me in their open truck, a cream Mitsubishi. I was sitting in the back, in the middle, and they were surrounding me, sitting on the sides. They were all beating me, kicking me and hitting me with sticks and fists. Some were saying that they wanted to throw me into the dam. Another car stopped and someone inside said, Did you find her? and they said, Yes, we did.

They wanted me to tell them where the MDC MPs lived, the MDC youths’ houses, the councillor’s house. That’s why they were beating me up—because I was refusing to tell them. They were saying, So you are be-ing like Jesus, who died for others? And now are you going to die for those people? I said, No. Whoever showed you my house should have shown you all the other houses. They said I was rude. They beat me up so badly. After that they said, Take off your clothes.

When I removed my clothes, just before we got to the Methodist church, they stopped the car in the dark and there they raped me. There were many soldiers. I don’t know how many raped me. I saw the first eight men who raped me but then I became unconscious.

I think they threw water on me because I became conscious just before we got to the police station. They said, Put on your clothes. I refused. They said, You don’t listen. In the end, I put on my clothes. When we got there, they said, Get off and carry your stuff. I got off the back of the truck but I couldn’t even walk. I fell down and they said Get up and I did.

Inside, when they got behind the counter in the police station, they threw a bullet at me and said Kiss it and I did, and they said, That bullet is yours.

Annie Holmes, annieh.pemba@gmail.com

(Annie Holmes and Peter Ortner edited Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (McSweeney’s, 2010), the fifth volume in the Voice of Witness Series. Thanks to Voice of Witness for sharing the excerpts in this series.)

Haunts: Black women prisoners haunt International Women’s Day

Stacey Lannert grew up in the middle of the United States, in Missouri. Her father sexually abused her, starting when she was eight years old. On July 5, 1990, at the age of 18, Lannert walked into her father’s bedroom and shot him, twice, killing him. The `final straw’ was her father raping her younger sister. Two years later, in December 1992, Lannert was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In January 2009, at the age of 36, Stacey Lannert was released, thanks to the outgoing Missouri governor, Matt Blunt, who commuted her sentence: “After eighteen years, I was allowed to be Stacey Ann Lannert instead of Offender #85704. I’ll never completely shed the number, but I did start over.”

Wilbertine Berkley would like to start over as well, but the State of Florida has other plans.

In the United States, over five million people cannot vote because of past criminal offenses. One million of those people live in Florida. In one state alone, a million people who have served their time are disenfranchised. Of that million, almost 300,000 are African American.

Wilbertine Berkley is a Black woman in Florida who struggled with drug abuse, spent time in jail, turned her life around, joined a program, got clean, went to college, and gave back to the community in volunteer work. She was awarded the Presidential Volunteer Award. She did everything she was supposed to do and more, and the State response has been to `alienate’ her, to identify her as frozen in the past. Her good work counts for nothing.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, March 9, 2011, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency will vote on whether to make it even more difficult for former prisoners to be re-instated. The proposed change would include a five-year mandatory waiting period before being able to apply for `clemency’. Florida’s Attorney General sees this as a fight against entitlements: “I believe that every convicted felon must actively apply for the restoration of his or her civil rights and that there should be a mandatory waiting period before applying. The restoration of civil rights for any felon must be earned, it is not an entitlement…The burden of restoring civil rights should not fall on the shoulders of government, but rather it should rest on the individual whose actions resulted in those rights being taken in the first place.”

Wilbertine Berkley wants and deserves respect for who she is today, for who she has become, for what she has made of herself and of her world. She made a mistake. She worked hard. She paid her debt.

But for Black women, the debt of incarceration is the gift that keeps on giving.

Ask BobbyLee Worm. BobbyLee Worm is a 24 year old aboriginal woman prisoner in the Fraser Valley Institution, a Canadian federal prison that describes itself as “a multi-level facility for women…. Programs focus on the particular needs of women offenders, including Aboriginal inmates and those with psychological problems or learning disabilities.”

One of these particular programs is called Management Protocol.

Management Protocol is “a special program for handling women prisoners who have been involved in a major violent incident or threat of incident while in the system.” Established in 2005, seven women prisoners have been on Management Protocol. All seven have been aboriginal women.

Management Protocol is open ended, unrestricted solitary confinement. Twenty- three hours a day for as long as the prison deems `adequate’ and `necessary.’ How does one leave Management Protocol? One earns one’s way out. How does one earn? What are the wages? No one knows.

BobbyLee Worm entered prison June 7, 2006. She is a first time offender, sentenced to six years, four months. She has spent the majority of her time in segregation, paying off the debt of years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and trauma. For Black women, the debt of incarceration is the gift that keeps on giving.

These stories are typical of the conditions of women, and girl, prisoners around the world. Girls whose only `crime’ is being the daughters of asylum seekers, or of being born into oppressive communities, are stuck into detention centers, such as the Inverbrackie Detention Center in Australia. Once there, they suffer nightmares, turn violent, and refuse to eat. What is their crime, what is the debt to society that must be paid? They were born in Iran, they sailed to Australia.

Around the world, women of color, Black women, and their daughters, sit in prisons. Their debt grows incrementally by the second. Their numbers grow incrementally by the day. Today is March 8, 2011, International Women’s Day.  These women prisoners haunt International Women’s Day.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com