Three years on, still no justice for Ms. Dhu, her family, or Aboriginal women generally

Ms. Dhu, who died in police custody, August 2014

In Australia, for Aboriginal women and their families, the wheels of justice do not turn at all, but they do try to grind the people into dust. On August 4, 2014, 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 screamed of intense pains and begged for help. She was sent to hospital twice and returned, untreated, to the jail. On her third trip to the hospital, she died within 20 minutes. Reports suggest 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. In her death, Ms. Dhu joined a long line, actually a mob, of Aboriginal women who have died in custody in Australia. Ms. Dhu’s family joined a longer line of Aboriginal family members seeking justice. Three years later, Ms. Dhu’s family still struggles for peace and something like justice concerning the circumstances of their loved one’s death. To make matters worse, the statute of limitations is running out soon, and so Ms. Dhu’s mother, Della Roe, and her brother, Shaun Harris are preparing to sue the State, not because they want to but because the State has pushed them to this moment. As Della Roe explains, “I want justice and someone pay for what they did to my baby. They need to be accountable for it.”

The State did its own accounting, and that’s why, and how, Ms. Dhu died. Like the United States, Canada, and others, Australia 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.

Della Roe, Shaun Harris, and the spirit of Ms. Dhu are represented by George Newhouse and Stewart Levitt, prominent human rights attorneys. According to George Newhouse, “It’s three years since her death and time’s up. Time’s up. These reforms need to take place and I’m hoping that the case will lead to real reform in WA.” Stewart Levitt adds, “It’s been like hell. How else can I explain it, you know? No-one’s been accountable for it, it’s terrible. The last three years has been like hell.”

Ms. Dhu was murdered by State systems of accounting. She was in jail for $3,622 in unpaid fines. The jail staff and the hospital staff decided she wasn’t worth believing or treating. She wasn’t worth the bother. And so Ms. Dhu died and remains dead. No amount of accounting will bring her justice. And her mother and uncle and kin and community are left to struggle with the State systems of accounting that value their lives as beneath assessment. What would justice for Ms. Dhu mean today? To begin, stop sending Aboriginal women to jail and prison. Stop the slaughter now.

Ms. Dhu’s mother, Della Roe

(Photo Credit 1: ABC) (Photo Credit 2: Huffington Post Australia)

Our continuing investment in the mandatory minimum sentencing and tough on crime failure

Why do neoliberal so-called democratic nation-States continue to invest, and heavily, in the failed policies of mandatory minimum sentencing and tough-on-crime policies? Today we learn that women are at the center of the United States’ mandatory minimum sentencing `experiment’ and of Australia’s `tough on crime’ adventure.

According to family research scholar Joyce Arditti, “An examination of their family backgrounds and social environments suggests that mothers involved in the criminal justice system are perhaps the most vulnerable women in the United States.” These most vulnerable women then become the most extremely vulnerable women, `thanks’ to the theft of their social and legal parental rights.

According to Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment, a report released today by the Human Rights Law Centre and Change the Record, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population. At the center of that largely unacknowledged growth is women’s vulnerability: “`Tough on crime’ approaches also tend to rely on stereotyped ideas of who offenders are, with little consideration of who else may be affected – the most vulnerable members of our community, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, are unfairly swept up into the criminal justice system.”

In 2014 22-year-old Ms. Dhu, died in custody in Western Australia. She was being held for unpaid parking fines. Ms. Dhu screamed of intense pains and begged for help. 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. She never saw a doctor. Her grandmother says she “had broken ribs, bleeding on the lungs and was in excruciating pain.” Her death was deemed tragic, but not enough to change policy.

In July 2016, Ms. M, a young Wiradjuri woman and mother of four children, was walking home, when, a little after midnight, police picked her up, and threw her into a cell. At 6 am, Ms. M was “found dead.” In New South Wales, if an Aboriginal person is arrested, the police are supposed to use the Custody Notification Service, which immediately contacts the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS). This system is a modelNo Aboriginal person had died in police custody since 2000 … until Ms. M. But Ms. M was never arrested. She was thrown into the cell because she was said to be drunk. The police were “protecting” Ms. M, and so she died in their custody. Many, such as Gary Oliver of the ALS, believe that if the police had contacted them, “there may have been a different outcome. Fundamentally this is a process that has failed because a police officer has not followed a procedure.”

Today, former U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner noted “that roughly 80 percent of the sentences she was obliged to impose were unjust, unfair and disproportionate. Mandatory penalties meant that she couldn’t individualize punishment for the first-time drug offender, or the addict, or the woman whose boyfriend coerced her into the drug trade.” Today, social justice advocates Vickie Roach described Australia’s tough on crime approach, “The criminal justice system …  punishes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women for actions that are the consequence of failed child removal and forced assimilation policies. If we are truly concerned about justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women however, we should be asking ourselves and our governments how we as a society have so badly failed these women.”

We invest in mandatory minimum sentencing and tough on crime policies because they succeed in intensifying the vulnerability of the most vulnerable: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Australia, women of color in the United States. Vulnerability is big business. Increased vulnerability produces increased indebtedness. The more vulnerable and indebted women become, the more they are told to shoulder responsibility, individually and as a group, for all the wrongs that have been inflicted upon them, body and soul. Women die in protective custody, and it’s their fault. Mandatory minimum sentences are cruel and ineffective, especially for women, and that’s just fine. Tough on crime is destroying indigenous women and families, and that too is just fine. Our investments are doing just fine.

 

(Photo Credit: Echo)

Why does Australia criminalize psychiatric and cognitive impairment? Ask Rosie Ann Fulton

Rosie Ann Fulton

Rosie Ann Fulton, an Aboriginal woman living with fetal alcohol syndrome, lives in Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory of Australia. In many ways, she is the embodiment of the State’s criminalization of psychiatric and cognitive impairment. This abuse is particularly addressed to women, and even more intensely so Aboriginal women. Rosie Anne Fulton has spent much of her adult life in jail for no reason other than her intellectual disability. After a mighty campaign was waged, she was released and agreements were made. Today, her custodian says the support, such as it was, has collapsed and Rosie Anne Fulton is “back on the streets, taking drugs, being exploited and is at serious risk.” This is what the State of Abandonment looks like. At the end of November, a Senate committee issued its report, “Indefinite detention of people with cognitive and psychiatric impairment in Australia.” Rosie Anne Fulton is typical of hundreds.

In March 2014, media uncovered that then 23-year-old Rosie Anne Fulton had spent 18 months in Kalgoorlie Jail without a trial or conviction: “The magistrate in her case declared her unfit to plead because she is intellectually impaired – a victim of foetal alcohol syndrome – and has the mental capacity of a young child. Her legal guardian, former police officer Ian McKinlay, says Ms Fulton ended up on a prison-based supervision order because there were no alternatives in the area at the time. `At the moment this outcome is almost entirely reserved for Aboriginal, Indigenous Australians,’ he said.” The State “explained” that no other options existed. Three options were available: first, a “declared place”, designed for precisely this kind of case; second, an authorized hospital; third, prison or juvenile detention center. Although the Act authorizing “declared places” had passed 15 years earlier, none actually existed. Hospitals could only admit someone who has a “treatable” mental illness, which did not fit Rosie Anne Fulton. And so the only available option was prison … according to the State.

That was 2014. In 2016, Ian McKinlay reported to the Senate Committee on Rosie Anne Fulton’s condition: “[Rosie Anne Fulton] was born with fetal alcohol brain damage, and this was compounded by a life of abuse. She was dumped by NT health after she ended up in indefinite prison-based supervision in Kalgoorlie. She was forced back into the NT health domain by a media and public outcry. This clearly caused resentment. It was reflected in the denial of a transitional support plan earlier discussed. Instead, she was placed under a clearly designed-to-fail support plan, which has seen her under conviction for 70 per cent of the time since her return to the Northern Territory. She has now lapsed into full-blown chemical addiction, and to all intents and purposes she is back on the streets and at serious risk. Yesterday I found her drunk with facial injuries; she was again bashed overnight and she appeared in court today. This support hides behind a pretence of freedom of choice values that contradicts repeated guardianship court findings that she lacks decision-making capacity. The external pressure needed to compel NT Health to accept responsibility for Rosie Anne has also been needed to maintain even tokenistic levels of commitment, the latest re-engagement prompted by monitoring by the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet plus the current Don Dale media coverage.”

What crime did Rosie Ann Fulton commit? She has committed the crime of survival, a crime she commits every second of every day, and so she, and all her kind, must be punished. Do not build a “declared space” where she might live with dignity. Do not open a mental health institution that might accommodate her not so unusual circumstances. Build more prisons, fill them up with Rosie Ann Fulton and her sisters, then throw away the keys, and call it democracy in an indefinitely austere world.

 

(Photo Credit: ABC Australia)

Kinew James? Maureen Mandijarra? Just more Aboriginal women’s deaths in custody

Kinew James

Kinew James and Maureen Mandijarra were two Aboriginal women who went into custody and never came out. They are part of the Commonwealth of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. Canada killed Kinew James; Australia killed Maureen Mandijarra. And the abuse of these two women doesn’t end with their death. Kinew James died in January 2013, and her inquest is finally going to take place in April 2016. Maureen Mandijarra died in custody in 2012, and her inquest is only now taking place. The State honors Aboriginal women with brutality.

Kinew James was a “troubled” young woman. She entered prison at 18, sentenced to six years. That doubled to twelve, thanks to “misbehavior” and to her deteriorating mental health. Subsequent years were a blur of self harm and attempted suicide; frequent relocation as one institution after another failed to help her; and long and frequent periods of solitary confinement.

But she was improving. Kinew James succeeded in graduating from high school while in prison, and, at the age of 35, was looking forward to getting out and moving on. On Saturday, January 19, 2013, Kinew James talked with her mother, and all seemed well. By evening, she was complaining of pains. That night, moaning and crying, she pressed the distress button … five times. The guards ignored her pleas, and are reported to have turned off or muted her alarm. After an hour, a nurse finally went in, and found Kinew James unresponsive. The nurse then waited 12 to 15 minutes to declare a medical emergency.

James died in the hospital, but she was killed long before the ambulance took her away.

Maureen Mandijarra was arrested for public drinking on the evening of November 29, 2012. She died in police custody the next day. Mandijarra was 44 years old. The police brought her in and dumped her on the floor in a police cell. She lay there perfectly still for at least six hours. She never moved, and no one, other than a cellmate, noticed, because no one ever checked. Over three years later, the inquest is now taking place. It’s taken so long because provincial and local police dragged their feet for years, and never provided any reports until recently.

Kinew James’ and Maureen Mandijarra’s stories are not the same story. What is the same narrative is that of State abuse of Aboriginal women. Like the United States, Canada and Australia have 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. Since the 1990s, the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia has skyrocketed, through one Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody after another.

State practices and policies generally criminalize mental illness, alcohol abuse, and poverty; and add additional punishments if the subjects at hand are women. For Aboriginal women who live with mental illness, alcohol or drug dependency, poverty, the sentence is death.

(Photo Credit: CBC News

Canada must stop sending Aboriginal women to prison!

Canada is addicted to the incarceration of Aboriginal peoples, and in particular Aboriginal women. According to a recent report by Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, for the first time ever, more than 25% of inmates in Canadian federal prisons are Aboriginal: “In federal corrections, 25.4 per cent of the incarcerated population are now of aboriginal ancestry.” Sapers describes the number as “quite shocking.” No one is shocked. None of this is new.

Nationally, 3723 of the 14624 prisoners are Aboriginal, but that doesn’t tell the real picture. In the Prairie provinces, 48.62% of prisoners are Aboriginal, and in the Pacific provinces, 31.09% of prisoners are Aboriginal.

For women, the situation is predictably worse. Of 683 women prisoners, 248 are Aboriginal. Over 36% of women prisoners are Aboriginal.

None of this is new. The State need to cage Aboriginal women is longstanding and publically acknowledged. Study after study, book after book has said as much. The State has tinkered with criminal codes, settled with individual prisoners, given lip service to the ongoing ravages of colonialism. All the while, the State continues to disappear Aboriginal women and girls into prisons where they are routinely tortured.

The line of incarceration of Aboriginal people, from 1996 to 2016, is one of almost unbroken ascendance. Thirty years ago, Aboriginal people comprised 10% of Canada’s Federal prisoners. Then the numbers began rising and never stopped: 1996-1997,14.6%; 1997-1998,15.7%; 1998-1999, 16.9%; 1999-2000, 17%; 2000-2001, 17%; 2001-2002, 17.6%; 2002-2003, 18.3%; 2003-2004, 18.5%; 2004-2005, 18.2%; 2005-2006, 18.7%; 2006-2007, 19.6%; 2007-2008, 19.6%; 2008-2009, 19.7%; 2009-2010, 20.6%; 2010-2011,21.5%; 2011-2012, 22%: 2012-2013, 23%; 2013-2014, 22.8%; 2014-2015, 24.4%; 2015-16, 25.4%.

Year by year by year, the State has stolen Aboriginal women’s lives. Aboriginal women are “over-represented” in Federal prisons as they are in maximum security and in solitary confinement. Aboriginal women are the citizens of over-representative democracy. It’s time, it’s way past time, to end the carnage. Canada must stop sending Aboriginal women to prison!

 

(Image Credit: Flat Out)

Black women prisoners still haunt International Women’s Day

Around the world, women of color, Black women, Aboriginal women languish in solitary confinement. Many die there. Their numbers grow incrementally by the day. BobbyLee Worm, an Aboriginal woman prisoner in Canada, refused to become another abject statistic of prison morbidity and mortality.

In 2006, BobbyLee Worm, 19 years old, entered Edmonton Institution for Women. Shortly after, she was moved to Fraser Valley Institution. The Fraser Valley Institution described 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 was called Management Protocol. Established in 2005, Management Protocol was “a special program for handling women prisoners who have been involved in a major violent incident or threat of incident while in the system.” By 2011 seven women prisoners had been on Management Protocol. All seven were Aboriginal women.

Management Protocol was indefinite and unregulated solitary confinement. Twenty- three hours a day for as long as the prison deemed `adequate’ and `necessary.’ How did one leave Management Protocol? One earned one’s way out. To this day, how one earned an exit visa remains a mystery.

BobbyLee Worm entered prison June 7, 2006. She was a first time offender, sentenced to six years, four months. She spent more than three and a half years in solitary confinement: 23 hours a day in a cell 10 by 8 feet, with no meaningful human contact. For months on end. She was 19 years old.

With the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, or BCCLA, BobbyLee Worm sued the State for violation of her constitutional rights. Two days after the lawsuit was filed, BobbyLee Worm was removed from Management Protocol. Soon after, the Correctional Service of Canada, or CSC, announced it would shut down the Management Protocol program. In May 2013, BobbyLee Worm and the Canadian prison state settled the suit out of court. According to all reports, BobbyLee Worm was pleased with settlement.

This is a story of State investments and of women’s resistance and refusal. Who was BobbyLee Worm? According to her former attorney, “She was a teenage runaway living on the street, she was addicted to drugs, she was a survivor of serious childhood abuse and trauma and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and from depression. She had never had the opportunity to have any sort of trauma or abuse counselling, which she desperately needed. And the response of corrections was to subject BobbyLee to one of the harshest and most psychologically damaging punitive measures that they have available to them. And I think BobbyLee’s story is, sadly, not atypical. This happens to hundreds of prisoners across the country every day.”

This happens to hundreds of prisoners across the country every day, and in particular to Aboriginal women and girls.

What was the Management Protocol? For the CSC, it was a major commitment: “When the protocol was designed in 2003, experts advised the CSC that it was illegal. CSC leadership implemented it anyway. In 2008, the Office of the Correctional Investigator recommended that the program be rescinded, and CSC’s own review agreed that the protocol was dysfunctional. But it was only when the BCCLA filed suit that the CSC cancelled it … The law that allowed the management protocol remains on the books.”

The CSC wanted Management Protocol … badly. It wanted cages for young Aboriginal women, especially those desperately in need. Aboriginal women, Black women, women of color who live with that kind of desperate need are told they owe a debt to society, and prison is not enough. They must go into the hole, they must be tortured.

After the settlement was announced, BobbyLee Worm explained, “There were times when I lost all hope. Solitary confinement does one thing. It breaks a person’s will to live. Being locked up like that you feel like you’re losing your mind. The only contact with another human is through a food slot. Days turn into nights and into days and you don’t know if you’ll ever get out.” Debra Worm, BobbyLee’s mother, commented, “As a mother, that’s the worst feeling in the world to know your child is being broken apart but not being able to do anything to save her.”

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada recently filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the laws governing solitary confinement. Sunday, March 8, 2015, is International Women’s Day. In 2011, Black women prisoners haunted International Women’s Day. In 2015, they still do. And next year?

 

(Image Credit: Erin Marie Konsmo, Media Arts Justice and Projects Coordinator, Native Youth Sexual Health Network)

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 custody 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.

Ms. Dhu, who died in police custody, August 2014

 

(Photo credit 1: Jade Macmillan/ABC News) (Photo Credit 2: ABC)

Stop sending Aboriginal women to prison!

Canada’s federal prisons hold more prisoners than ever before. The provincial prisons are also full to the brim. What’s going on? Crime is on the decline. The White prison population is also in decline.

Last Tuesday, Canada’s Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers issued his annual report. The picture is both grim and not surprising. There’s a `boom’ in prisoners, and it’s made up of people of color. Aboriginal people make up around 4 per cent of the population, and close to 25% of the Federal prison population.

Black prisoners are “over-represented”, especially in maximum-security prisons. Black prisoners are also “over-represented” in solitary confinement. Black prisoners disproportionately face the “use of force” from guards. Black prisoners also face discrimination in prison jobs employment and in parole release.

Meanwhile, the prison staff remains overwhelmingly White. The Fear of a Black Planet continues to this day. To no one’s surprise.

For women in the system, the rates of incarceration far exceed those of men. Since 2003, the female prison population increased by over 60%. One in three women the federal prison system is Aboriginal. Since 2003, the Aboriginal women’s federal prison population has increased by 83.7%

Why are Aboriginal women being imprisoned at such high, and higher, rates? What happens to Aboriginal women when they enter into the prison system?

In September 2012, an independent review commissioned by the Department of Public Safety entitled Marginalized: The Aboriginal Women’s Experience in Federal Corrections was released. The external report examined the reasons behind the over-representation of Aboriginal women in federal penitentiaries, revealing a depressing picture of dislocation, isolation, violence, poverty, victimization and discrimination. It examines several themes that are consistent with the Office’s own findings and recommendations in this area of corrections: over-classification of Aboriginal women inmates; high prison self-injury rates among Aboriginal women; lack of culturally appropriate programming; and limited use of CCRA [Corrections and Conditional Release Act] provisions to share care and custody of Aboriginal offenders with Aboriginal communities.”

Aboriginal women are “over-represented” in solitary and maximum security. Force is used on Aboriginal women prisoners at an extraordinarily high rate. But the highest rate is that of self harm. From 2011 to 2012 Aboriginal women accounted for almost 75% of self-injuries among women prisoners. More often than not, self-injury results in charges being filed, solitary confinement, and security reclassification. If an Aboriginal woman hurts herself, it’s a crime. Instead of help, counseling, anything supportive, she’s sent into the hole.

Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers concluded, “You cannot reasonably claim to have a just society with incarceration rates like these.” Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney replied, “The only minority I would say we are interested in are the criminals.”

 

(Photo Credit: flickr / Vice)