Archives for July 2011

Ashley Smith: a death somewhere between tragedy and travesty

Ashley Smith

Ashley Smith was 19 years when she was allowed, or encouraged, to die, alone in a fully monitored prison cell. On October 19, 2007, Smith was a prisoner of the Grand Valley Institution for Women, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. Seven guards watched her die, and did nothing. Or rather, seven guards followed orders, and did nothing. Then, when they were sure she was dead, they rushed in.

Some called her death inhumane. Others said, or hoped, that Ms. Smith’s death would haunt Canada. In fact, her death is the common death of the prisoner, and so it was human all too human.

In May 2011, almost four years after Ashley Smith’s death, which was not a suicide but a call for help, the State coroner’s court finally, finally began its inquest.

This week, two months later, the Ontario Health Professions Appeal and Review Board finally rendered something like an opinion.

First, the Board cleared two doctors of wrongdoing in the “care” they provided.

Second, it asked the key, critical and painfully obvious question: “From our perspective, it is difficult to understand how the resources of Correctional Services Canada and the numerous health professionals who were involved with (Smith), particularly in the last year of her life, could not have, somehow, appropriately treated her admittedly severe behavioural problems.”

In other words, “How was an obviously troubled 19-year-old inmate left so long without proper treatment?

Third, it rendered a genre decision: The Smith case “lies somewhere in the spectrum between a travesty and a tragedy.” What’s that you said about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, and thereafter as farce?

Wherein lies the travesty? In the redundancy. “Ashley Smith” is produced every day in prisons across Canada, across the United States, across the United Kingdom. Every day, prisoners, and women prisoners in particular, are “somehow” denied access to life saving health services. How many times must Ashley Smith “commit suicide” while actually asking for help?

Meanwhile, the coroner’s inquest was postponed yet again, and won’t begin again until September. Some describe the inquest as delay-plagued. They’ve never been to prison. This inquest isn’t delay-plagued. It’s just doing time as it always does.


(Photo Credit:

Women haunt the `crime’ of seeking haven

A group of migrants welcomed in Riace.

When did haven become a crime? How did seeking shelter or asylum come to identify a person as a criminal? Since women and children are the face, and multitudinous faces, of today’s refugee, when did the State choose to identify those seeking haven, women and children, as criminals?

In 1999, Nell Toussaint, a Grenadan, entered Canada on a tourist visa, and stayed. She lived in Toronto, apparently without disturbing anyone’s peace. Then in 2006, Toussaint developed a kidney ailment. This involved blood clots, diabetes, tumors. Faced with mounting health debt, and with death, in 2008 Toussaint applied for permanent residency. She applied, but did not pay the fees. So, she was not considered for application.

She applied for health care coverage, and was turned down. She went to court. Last Friday, the Federal Court of Appeal unanimously rejected her application. The Court decided that as an undocumented resident, Toussaint did not qualify for coverage … even though it agreed that her medical condition could result in death if not treated.

But there is a principle higher than that of life and death: “If the appellant were to prevail in this case and receive medical coverage under the Order in Council without complying with Canada’s immigration laws, others could be expected to come to Canada and do the same. Soon … Canada could become a health care safe haven, its immigration laws undermined.”

Canada could become a health care safe haven. Haven is the menace, and haven is the crime committed by Nell Toussaint. If Nell Toussaint dies for the cause of eliminating the Caduceus Crime of health care safe haven, that’s fine.

But that’s not fine.

Riace, a town in the south of Italy, was suffering population loss. Maybe that’s the reason it opened its doors, “huge heart”, and more, to refugees like Helen, an Ethiopian who arrived two years ago. But Riace did more than just allow refugees to settle. The townspeople created opportunities, economic and cultural, for mutual integration. When the national government was too slow in providing funds for the refugees, Riace invented its own local currency, the Euro-Riace, acceptable at all the finest, and funkiest, local shops.

Riace is not heaven, and its motives are in no way pure or angelic. Indeed, they’re pragmatic. No matter. The town, together, agreed to the policy and practice of haven. The town, together, now supports Città Futura, the City of the Future, the single largest employer in Riace.

The State can opt to become a haven. People can choose to embrace and live courageously, with huge heart, with the vulnerable and the stranger. Right now, the world lives with the highest number of refugees and displaced persons in decades. The majority of refugees are women and girls. Haven is more than a women’s issue. Haven is a women’s world. Women haunt the `crime’ of seeking haven.


(Photo Credit:

Do nothing (for 67 minutes)

Do nothing (for 67 minutes)

Do nothing
for 67 minutes
in defiance
of the call

Do nothing
for 67 minutes
out of the glare
of the public eye

Don’t abuse
your partner
or even your pet

67 minutes
of doing good
in honour of an icon
(there are but a few)

Do nothing
for 67 minutes
around and about
your usual everyday

Don’t smoke
cuss and curse
or spit in public
(be soft and gentle too)

(Might you apologize
for the inconvenience)

Do nothing
for 67 minutes
nobody will know
but it might tell

It might be an end
to woman and child abuse

Now go and do nothing

We are asked to give of ourselves for 67 minutes.


(Image Credit: O-blog-dee-o-blog-da)

The low spark of high-heeled African women farmers

Esnai Ngwira in mucuna field

The planet of slums is fed, clothed and sheltered by continents, and oceans, of farms, many of them small farms. Many small hold farmers are women. This is the case in China. By focusing on women farmers, China, with 10% of the world’s arable land, now feeds 20% of the world’s population.

And now, according to reports, China is turning to Africa, not in a land grab but rather in skills sharing and capacity building. China “seeks to show its trading partners in Africa that feeding their populations is only possible when women are empowered.” China is pushing for land rights for women farmers and for investing in women farmers. A key problem, however, is “the low skill base of Africa’s farmers, who are mainly women”.


The clause concerning “low skills” is slipped in at the end of an article, but it’s actually a bombshell. The reason “Africa” is hungry is that its women are “low skilled”?

This would come as a surprise to those, such as Andrew Mushita and Carol B. Campbell, who have argued, “Most often, women are the keepers of the seeds, tucked away among the beams in the thatched roof, protected from pests by smoke from cooking fire. Others are stored in tins in another location. Villagers volunteer labour to build storage buildings for seed banks, protecting the treasure within the public trust.”

For centuries, and more, women farmers have tended to the seeds, nurtured biodiversity, sustained communities, developed new, and successful, medical treatments, and more.

Esnai Ngwira, a 57-year-old farmer in Ekwendeni, northern Malawi, would be surprised to hear she has a low skills base. Ngwira has been working with a program that builds social ecology in sustainable ways. Rather than using fertilizer, for example, Ngwira uses crop residue. She gets a better maize harvest, helps the soil, helps the earth. Esnai Ngwira is considered “a star innovator.”

Marie Johansson and Victoria Mulunga, of the Creative Entrepreneur Solutions (CES) in northern Namibia, would also be surprised. They, and the other women in their group, are fusing farming practices, gender-responsive environmentalism, and women’s market practices into a sustainable agricultural political economy. They haven’t done that by relying on a “low skill base.”

Likewise, in Kenya, Joyce Odari, an elderly subsistence farmer, was once arrested by forest guards for having cut down trees in a public preserve. She turned her imprisonment into a women’s sustainable agro-forestry operation, that now involves over 200 women in her region.

There are other stories, other women, other names. In the Gambia, women farmers are using simple store-powered dehydrators and dryers to preserve mangoes, which, as dried fruit, they sell to local schools. The mango is a key source of Vitamin A, and its season is short. By drying and distributing them the women farmers are combating blindness, providing extra nutrition in their own homes, and securing extra income.

The stories are everywhere because the women farmers, everywhere across the African continent, are doing what they do. Storing. Sharing. Experiment. Farming. Sustaining. Experimenting some more. Sharing some more.

The first problem for women farmers, on the African continent as elsewhere, is access. Access to land, access to market. Access to resources, access to decent and equal pay. Access to education and then more education. The second problem is security. Land tenure security, market access security. The third problem is autonomy. Global systems of exchange have no respect for the local “customs”, much less the biodiversity that women farmers have created over centuries through open and principled sharing.

“The low skill base of Africa’s farmers, who are mainly women” pretends to focus on women as it obscures the actual lives that women, in this instance women farmers, lead. Not women farmers’ low skill but women farmers’ access to real power haunts a world teetering on the brink of famine. That’s our world.


(Photo Credit: / soilsandfood)


Apartheid haunts domestic work

In Los Angeles County, there is one bus route, the 305, that directly links the low- and no-income residents of the southern suburbs to the wealthy homeowners of the West Side. Millions rely on the 305. Millions of employers, millions of workers. The 305 only exists because of decades-long struggles by people of color, in the streets, in the courts, in the corridors of power, in the living rooms and kitchens of neighbors and family. And after all that struggle, there’s one line. And that line is about to be closed.

It’s called an efficiency. Close the one line that actually serves low-income workers of color, and replace it with `a hub’. How’s that worked for the airline industry? Not so well, but that makes little to no difference. After all, what’s a few more unpaid, and costly, hours in transit in the daily lives of workers of color? It is estimated that the hub system will double the length of commutes and triple the price. Los Angeles doesn’t allow for free transfers from one line to another. It’s called efficiency.

Who are these workers? Janitors, nannies, maids. Women of color, women of color, women of color. Women of color with names. Guadalupe Lopez. Ana Hernandez. Marina Tejada. Silvia Conjura.

Every day hordes of `colored’ and Black women board the buses, and travel for hours, to tend to the needs, desires, idiosyncrasies, and mess of wealthy, more-often-than-not White individuals, families, households, neighborhoods, communities. Every day, women workers of color pay more and get less. Every day their debt increases. Every day their own families, households, neighborhoods, communities suffer the irretrievable lose of time. Every day.

And every day, the State figures out a new way, through efficiencies, of seizing yet another dollar, yet another hour, from the pocket, purses, bodies, and days and nights of these women of color. If this sounds familiar, it should. It was the logic of `public’ transport under the apartheid regimes in South Africa.

For coloured and African women workers, the State made transportation impossible and necessary, unaffordable … and required. It was a clear weapon in the war of some against the many. To this day, the country still struggles with the apartheid geography of impossible and unaffordable transport. As one writer noted yesterday, commenting on the death of his own nanny, Florence Mbuli, “You can now easily replace the word `Bantustan’ with `township’ or `informal settlement’”.

Yes, we can.

Across South Africa, women workers organize daily on the trains that take them to work. They organize domestic affairs, they organize political interventions, as women workers, as women of color. In Los Angeles County, the same is true. Women workers, every day on the bus, are organizing, organizing information, organizing domestic affairs, organizing political interventions.

Florence Mbuli lived to see the apartheid regime end. She lived to see her children grow up into “very successful people”. But the trains remain, the buses remain, the collective taxis remain, because the distances between home and work, the distances created by an apartheid logic of efficiency, remain. In fact, in many places, most notably the Cape Town metropolitan area, the distances have grown greater since 1994.

Today, Florence Mbuli rides with Guadalupe Lopez, Ana Hernandez, Marina Tejada and Silvia Conjura. Together they measure the time, the cost, the distances. Together they organize. The State can claim to reconcile individuals, even communities, but it can’t reconcile space. It can’t reconcile distances. From Watts to Westwood, from Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain to Claremont and Rondebosch, and beyond, apartheid haunts domestic work.


(Photo Credit: Monica Almeida / The New York Times)

Women prisoners. What do they want? Justice. When do they want it? Now.

Alabama is one of the epicenters of imprisonment in the United States. The government calculates rate of incarceration as the number of prisoners sentenced to more than 1 year per 100,000 U.S. residents. The national rate of incarceration is 502. Alabama’s is 650. The national rate of incarceration of women is 67. Alabama’s is 95. Where the national rate of incarceration women dropped by a little over 1% in the last year, in Alabama, it rose by 9%.

Alabama has one prison for women, the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, located in Wetumpka, Alabama. The prison was built in 1942, and designed to hold at the very most 370 women. In 2002, it held over 1,000 women prisoners. That’s when the prisoners sued the state, in what became the Laube v. Campbell case. The women won, District Court Judge Myron Thompson declared the prison “a time bomb ready to explode facility-wide at any unexpected moment”. Judge Thompson found the overcrowding to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

So, what did the State do? It started shipping women out of State, particularly to the South Louisiana Correctional Center, in Basile, Louisiana. Where Alabama’s rate of incarceration is 650, Louisiana’s is 881, the highest in the country. Where Alabama’s rate of incarceration of women is 95, Louisiana’s is 113, second only to that of Oklahoma. But hey, at least they’re not `overcrowded’.

Women would be moved three and four times, without prior notification, in the middle of the night, and without any apparent concern for their situation. Pregnant women were moved, women in rehab programs and educational programs were moved, women in medical treatment programs were moved. The South Louisiana Correctional Center is a for-profit, run by LCS Correction Services. The women who were moved found lots of correction and little to no service. For those in programs, such as educational or treatment programs, time in Basile was time lost, and thus time added on to their prison stay. None of that mattered. What mattered was `reducing the prison population’. What mattered was accounting. The prisoners were numbers, not people, not humans, not women. Just numbers.

That shell game didn’t work, and so now Alabama is experimenting with something called Supervised Reentry Program, which, it is hoped, will reduce the number of women prisoners in Alabama in a more reasonable and sensible way. Basically, the program takes `good prisoners’, and especially those who are in for non-violent offenses, and puts them in supervised residential programs, offers training and counseling, and tries to create a pathway for `reentry’.

If the State had consulted with the women right away, they would have come up, right away, with a more reasonable and sensible program.

Erline Bibbs was one of the women in the Laube v Campbell class. She then became a founding member of the Longtimers/Insiders. The Longtimers/Insiders were women prisoners from Tutwiler who had been shipped to Basile. With the help of the Southern Center for Human Rights, they studied and learned. In Bibbs’ words, the women learned “to organize and … how to make a difference in the right way.”

The women prisoners of Alabama want to see women helped rather than locked up. For themselves, and for other women prisoners, they want to be in the processes of decision-making concerning their own lives. For example, they want to face their victims. They want “the opportunity to present to the parole board in a face-to-face hearing our real selves and how we have changed through the years. We believe our obligations are with the victims’ families, not professional victims’ groups or politicians who use victims for their own gain.”

The women’s class action suit against Alabama charged the State with indifference. These women are the difference. They are the ones to tell the stories of their lives. They must be the authors and the judges of `prison reform’.

What do the women prisoners of Alabama want? Justice. When do they want it? Now.


(Photo Credit: Justice for the Women of Tutwiler: