Women prisoners haunt the modern era

President Obama decided not to release all of the torture pictures, but that’s already old news. What was the big deal, anyway? We already knew that torture happened; in fact, we signed on to that program a long time ago. It’s the story of our modern era, a story haunted by women prisoners.

The Women Behind Bars website shows a picture of a smiling, healthy young woman: “Gina Muniz, in 1998, before she was incarcerated in the LA County Jail and the California state prison system for her first arrest, related to the theft of $200 related to a rapid onset of drug addiction-in the aftermath of her father’s death. The theft was bizarrely classified as a carjacking, although no one was harmed, and no car was stolen. Muniz received life in prison; her lawyer told her she was agreeing to seven years when she pled guilty.” Her mother, Grace Ortega, took the photo. It must have been a happy occasion. Six months after Muniz was arrested, she was dead: “Gina Muniz, September 2000, handcuffed to her deathbed and under 24-hour-guard in Modesto Community Hospital. Next to her is her daughter Amanda. Gina suffered horribly for six months from diagnosed but untreated cervical cancer. When it was diagnosed in L.A. County Jail, early and aggressive treatment would more than likely have saved Gina’s life. Grace Ortega, her mother, was finally able to win compassionate release for her daughter two days before her death, so that she could die at home”. Her mother, Grace Ortega, took the photo. Compassionate release.

Today is June 3, 2009. Yesterday, “Texas carried out its 200th execution under the eight-and-a-half year governorship of Richard Perry on Tuesday. Terry Lee Hankins, 34, was executed by lethal injection shortly after 6pm Texas time. He had been sentenced to death in 2002 for the murder of two of his wife’s children in 2001. Terry Hankins was the 16th person to be executed in Texas this year, out of a national total of 30. This was the 1,166th execution to be carried out in the USA since judicial killing resumed there in 1977, with Texas accounting for 439 of them. Another five men are currently scheduled to be put to death in Texas by mid-September….Texas is home to about seven per cent of the population of the USA and is where fewer than 10 per cent of the country’s murders occur. The state accounts for 37 per cent of the USA’s executions since 1977, and 41 per cent since 2001.”

In America, bad men wear pink underwear. In Texas, bad men are executed. Bad women, too, like Frances Newton. In 2005, “40-year-old Frances Newton became the third woman to be executed by the state of Texas since 1982 (and the first African American woman in the modern era) despite the strong possibility that she was innocent.” What exactly is this modern era? Francis Newton was “only the third woman executed by the state of Texas since 1982, and the first black woman executed since the Civil War. Unique in that historical sense, in other ways the Frances Newton case is painfully unexceptional.” Since the Civil War, since 1865? Francis Newton was the third woman executed in Texas since 1982, and the first Black woman since the mid 1800s. Francis Newton is the modern era, and the modern era goes way back.

On May 20, 2009, the New York State Legislature passed Bill S01290A, which “Provides for the care and custody of pregnant female inmates before, during and after delivery; prohibits the use of restraints of any kind from being used during the transport of such female prisoner to a hospital for the purpose of giving birth, unless such prisoner is a substantial flight risk whereupon handcuffs may be used; prohibits the use of any restraints during labor; requires the presence of corrections personnel during such prisoner’s transport to and from the hospital and during her stay at such hospital.” It’s called an anti-shackling measure: “the new law will make New York one of just  four states in the country that restrict the use of restraints on incarcerated women during pregnancy or childbirth. California and Illinois were the first to put any legal limits on the practice — in both cases, after a series of lawsuits forced the states to overhaul their disastrously inadequate prison healthcare systems. Before the restriction, in Illinois, it was standard practice to chain female inmates to their hospital beds before, during and after the births of their babies. As one advocate told the New York Times, “What was common was one wrist and one ankle.” (A policy that, frighteningly enough, looks positively benevolent compared to Kansas’s, North Carolina’s and Washington’s, which allow women to be locked in belly chains and leg irons while they’re in labor, according to a 2006 investigation by Amnesty International.)” Four states restrict shackles for women prisoners during childbirth. Four. That leaves 46 states to go.

Women prisoners haunt the modern era: some die of lethal neglect, others die by lethal injection, others in shackles bear children. We signed on to this program a long time ago.

(Photo Credit: California Coalition for Women Prisoners)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.