Elizabeth Seitz, Mersiha Tuzlic, Riva Depasse, Jill Hendricks, Kiari Day say NO! to being tortured

“The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.” Charles Dickens

Allegheny County Jail, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, routinely throws pregnant women into solitary confinement, for days on end, for minor offenses and less. Five women – Elizabeth Seitz, Mersiha Tuzlic, Riva Depasse, Jill Hendricks, Kiari Day – have refused to accept the injustice and  indignity. Yesterday, December 19, their attorneys went to Federal Court to sue the Allegheny County Jail. This is Mersiha Tuzlic’s story, and it’s happening in jails across the country.

On May 27, 2016, Mersiha Tuzlic, was thrown into solitary. On June 18, she wrote a handwritten request to the warden, Orlando Harper, dated 6 -18 -16, which reads:

“Dear Warden,

I’ve been put under Inv. Status on 5-27-16 for allegedly smoking crack! I’m 3 months pregnant and hand no problem giving a urine specimen. It was clean. I don’t understand why I’m still locked up and the other inmate that refused the urine test is free??? I’ve been extremely compliant and haven’t complained – even though I’ve only received 1 hour of rec and 1 shower this Entire time. I feel really grimy and unsanitary. I’m pregnant, restless, neurotic and emotional. The captain who put me in inv status isn’t responding to my inquiries. I don’t know what else to do. I just want to sit in the gym for a while. I’m claustrophobic, and it’s getting to me. If there’s anything you can do at all — anything — please consider helping me! I’m high-risk pregnancy as is, and this is driving me nuts. Thank you for listening.

Ma and baby 🙂 “

The Warden responded to the plea for help: “IF THIS IS A PROBLEM, DON’T COME TO JAIL”

Welcome to the Commonwealth of Petty Dictators, where throwing pregnant women into solitary confinement for no reason at all isn’t enough of an assault on their dignity. When they ask for help, find ways to further diminsh them. Show these women how really powerful you are. The god of small things battles the devil of small men, and in Allegheny County, for too long, the devil has been winning.

In 1842, Charles Dickens visited Pennsylvania, saw the new system of solitary confinement, and called it out: “Very few … are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree.”

Tell the warden of Allegheny County Jail that torturing women is no joke. Write to the Allegheny County Jail here or call them at 412-350-2000. Stop the torture of women in jails.

(Photo Credit: ACLU of Pennsylvania)

Life without parole: The staggering work of heartbreaking

Two recent reports, taken together, describe a United States in which the violence of mass and hyper incarceration has become an intrinsic part of the contemporary American project. As at least one writer noted years ago in a different context, the rule of law is the force of law. And that force is coming down on Black populations with particular intensity.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s report, A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses, has attracted attention and sparked conversation, although thus far not beyond the circle of usual participants. The ACLU findings, while horrible, are not all that surprising. The so-called War on Drugs has fueled the life without parole, or LWOP, economy. Pretty much any hint of `drug involvement’ can land a person in jail for life without parole. Most of the LWOP prisoners are first-time drug offenders.

Here’s the heart of living-death: “There is a staggering racial disparity in life-without-parole sentencing for nonviolent offenses. Blacks are disproportionately represented in the nationwide prison and jail population, but the disparities are even worse among the nationwide LWOP population and worse still among the nonviolent LWOP population. Based on data provided by the United States Sentencing Commission and state Departments of Corrections, the ACLU estimates that nationwide, 65.4 percent of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 17.8 percent are white, and 15.7 percent are Latino. In the 646 cases examined for this report, the ACLU found that 72.9 percent of these documented prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 19.8 percent are white, and 6.9 percent are Latino.”

Staggering? Yes. Surprising? Not at all.

According to the ACLU, 3, 279 people are serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes. Of that group, 2,074 are in federal prisons and jails. Of the 2074, 1757 are Black. That’s 60%. 91.4% of Louisiana’s LWOP prisoners are Black, and so Louisiana wins the Race Race to the Bottom.

The individual stories are heartbreaking… and not surprising. Life without parole is a death sentence. It emerges not only from the War on Drugs, but also from a national belief that rehabilitation does not work, that `criminals’ are not human and so must be caged.

As the Sentencing Project report, Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America, suggests, the initial impetus for the LWOP was the elimination of the death penalty. So, state-by-state, over twenty years, the `nation’ replaced the instant of death with a lifetime of dying.

The Sentencing Project findings, while useful, are also not surprising. Serious crime is down, and the number of LWOP prisoners, in the same period, has more than quadrupled. Last year, over 159,000 people were serving life sentences. Close to 50,000 were LWOP.

One in nine prisoners is in for life, and, as the Sentencing Projected documented earlier in the year, this includes an increasing number of juveniles, of children. Around 10,000 people have been sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent offenses. Almost half the `lifers’ are Black. Nearly 10,000 people have been sentenced to life behind bars for crimes that occurred before they turned 18. Around 2,500 of that 10,000 were sentenced to life without parole. Children waiting to die.

More than 5,300, or 3.4%, of prisoners sentenced to life are women.

According to the Sentencing Project, the United States boasts 5,361 women serving life sentences. That’s up 13.2% since 2008. Who are these women?

Women serving life sentences often have particularly tragic histories. Among the females serving LWOP for offenses committed in their teenage years, the vast majority experienced sexual abuse in their childhood. Among women convicted of intimate partner violence-related homicides, the majority have been battered. This is even more evident among women serving life sentences. Statistics from nationally representative inmate survey data show that 83.8% of life-sentenced women were sexually or physically abused and that abuse is significantly more common among female lifers than male lifers or female prisoners not serving life sentences.”

Who are the women serving life sentences, and even more those serving life without parole? They are the abandoned. Growing up in a period in which public and social services, caring services, were slashed, growing up in a time and place in which needing help was criminalized, as girls they were left to fend for themselves. Today, they are the fantastic products of a national social factory, one that stretches from `Welfare Queens’ to `Drug Mules’.

There is no surprise in this, and there is no `genius.’ There is only the staggering work of heartbreaking.

 

(Photo Credit: ACSlaw.org / lawanddisorder.org)

Forty abducted women prisoners haunt New Jersey

 

In March 2007, forty women were abducted.

The New Jersey Department of Corrections is made up of thirteen centers, facilities and prisons. The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, EMCF or EMCFW, is the only women’s prison in the state of New Jersey. The New Jersey State Prison, NJSP, is a men’s maximum-security prison.

These two prisons are night-and-day different. EMCFW has programs for survivors of domestic violence, parenting skills programs, and family unity programs, which include greater opportunity for family visits and contacts. EMCFW offers free phone calls to family members. A phone call from NJSP costs $25. Before March 2007, the difference between the two prisons was clear and stark. And then night and day were one:

In March 2007, approximately forty women, the majority of whom were classified as medium-security prisoners, had excellent disciplinary records, and/or held paraprofessional job assignments for months or years while at EMCF, were abruptly transferred to a maximum-security housing unit in NJSP. No notices, hearings, or other procedures preceded these transfers. …

“The mass transfers of women occurred on two separate occasions. On each occasion, women held at EMCF were locked in their cells without explanation. A convoy of trucks arrived and guards in full riot gear carrying batons, mace, and other weapons descended on the women’s quarters and took women from their rooms. Each woman was taken to a separate room and stripped naked while guards, including male guards, observed her and filmed her with a video camera. When the strip searches were complete, the women were handcuffed and shackled, then loaded onto a bus and taken to NJSP.

“During these chaotic and terrifying transfers, women panicked in their cells and wept hysterically. Because many of the women held at EMCF have experienced sexual and physical abuse by men prior to and in some cases during their incarceration, they were extremely frightened by the procedures employed during the transfers and the prospect of transfer to a men’s prison. Nursing and psychiatric staff had to be called to attend to the panic-stricken women, and many women were medicated or received increased dosages of medication. NJDOC has informed the women that their placement in NJSP is permanent.”

The conditions in the New Jersey State Prison were bad for men, and worse for women. The women were confined to their housing units and prohibited from moving about the prison. Their cell windows were painted over, leaving them in perpetual semi-darkness.

The women were denied psychiatric counseling and medication in their unit. If they requested psychiatric care, they were threatened with, and sometimes sent to, “Unit 1GG”, a “stabilization unit” famous for its degree of filth, danger and degradation. Women were denied access to adequate medical care. Medical examinations, such as they were, were conducted in the open area of the housing unit, in the presence of guards, including male guards.

Women were denied legal access, especially access to the prison’s library. Women were denied access to educational programs. They couldn’t get decent work, couldn’t exercise, and couldn’t take care of their personal hygiene. And throughout, women were denied any privacy.

The women found themselves in practical lockdown and almost complete isolation.

Why? What had these women done to deserve this? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Forty women were treated, dragged about, as forty sacks of nothing.

Kathleen Jones, Sylvia Flynn, Helen Ewell and Lakesha Jones had been model prisoners. Through the ACLU, these four women sued the State “on behalf of themselves and all individuals similarly situated.” They charged the State with “violations of their due process and equal protection rights, their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and their right to privacy.” They protested the “restrictive, inhumane, and physically and psychologically damaging conditions”. Finally they noted, “The Department’s ill-considered measure is also symptomatic of its general failure to plan for the women in its custody.”

In the first week of September 2008, nine months later, the forty women were returned to the not great conditions of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. Then, for another year and a half, the women fought to make the State accountable for its actions. Last week, the women won. It was a victory “for civil rights, justice and common sense.”

What happened in New Jersey? The State now says EMCFW was overcrowded, and so it moved 40 women. What system of reason moves 40 women model prisoners into an all male supermax holding 1800 some prisoners? There were other prisons in the state, and there were other options. Model women prisoners could have been given early release. No one sought an alternative, because women prisoners counted for and as nothing.

There was no mass transfer in March of 2007. There was abduction. In the middle of the night, groups of men, armed to the teeth, faces covered, rounded up forty unarmed women. The women were stripped naked, prodded, shackled, and carted off to parts unknown, where they were then abused. What is that called? Call it terrorism.

Kathleen Jones and daughter

Sylvia Flynn

 

(Photo Credit: Jerry McCrea/Star-Ledger) (Photo Credit: ACLU)

Because they are still human

James Kessler is a justice architect. That means he works in criminal justice architecture. He is a senior principal at Hellmuth, Obata + Kassebaum, Inc, better known as HOK, one of the largest architectural firms in the world. Here’s how they describe justice architecture: “As an integral part of society and a component of contemporary life in our cities and states, Justice Architecture is a powerful symbol that serves to define the image of justice in every community.”

In a profile this week, Kessler talked about women prisoners in the United States: “Incarcerated women, for example, are more likely to change, or want to change, Kessler said, noting “an incredibly high percentage – more than 50 percent – have been abused as children.” Statistically they also have more health issues than men, and 75 percent are mothers with the added burden of being away from their children, exacerbated by having been abandoned by their own parents in similar situations….In the past, and sometimes at present, Kessler said parity issues arise vis-à-vis men’s prisons, with fewer opportunities and programs available to women who comprise a much smaller percentage of the prison population.…One of the goals during incarceration, Kessler explained, is to ameliorate the anger that defines inmates. According to Kessler, because research has determined women have a much greater need for privacy than men, requiring them to live in open dormitories would very possibly build on that anger rather than helping to relieve it.”

Women prisoners’ anger, women’s anger, creates a different space and inhabits a different architecture than the anger of men.

The profile concludes with Kessler’s reflection: “As architects, we have social responsibilities and certain sensitivities, perceptions and skills to deal with unusual situations for the people that work in them, the people that visit them and for the people that are in them, because they are still human.”

Because they are still human. What determines the humanity of a prisoner? The architecture? The design elements? Such as shackles around the ankles and waists of women in labor and delivery?

In Rhode Island, pregnant prisoners are handcuffed and shackled. Earlier this month, the Rhode Island chapters of the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union find this “troubling” and “unnecessary”. Rhode Island Department of Corrections officials see shackling as striking “a balance between the need for security and the interests of a pregnant inmate.” How is being shackled in the interests of a pregnant woman? She is still human, isn’t she?

In California, the ACLU is challenging the same “balanced” shackling of pregnant women: “In California, we currently shackle pregnant women. In jails and prisons, women are forced to walk with shackles around their swollen ankles, chains around their middles, and handcuffs behind their backs. They walk through downtown city blocks chained to one to another, trying their best not to lose balance”. The ACLU thinks this is cruel and unusual punishment, not a balance struck in the interests of pregnant women. But then, perhaps the interests of pregnant women and those of pregnant prisoners are not the same. Does “security” define reconstitute pregnant women prisoners as other than human? Is that the “balance”? What is the name of the different space created by shackled pregnant women walking, stumbling, falling?

In a couple weeks, the Governor of California will have the opportunity to strike a new balance, limiting the use of restraints on pregnant women who are prisoners.

In Texas this month, the ACLU and the Texas Jail Project have charged the Dallas County jail and others in the state with shackling prisoners during labor and delivery.

This week, the U.S. government submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council. This is the first time the US has ever reported on its own human rights situation. Prison is included in the report. It appears in Chapter III, “A Commitment to Freedom, Equality, Dignity.” Prison is in the third section, Dignity. There are safeguards for dignity in law enforcement and criminal justice, dignity and incarceration, dignity and criminal sanctions, dignity and juvenile offenders. Dignity abounds. There is no mention of dignity and women. There is no mention of the shackling of pregnant women prisoners.

It is August in America. Pregnant women prisoners across the country are being shackled. Even though they do not appear in the report on human rights, they are still human, they are still women … aren’t they?

 

(Image Credit: RadicalDoula.com)

The rule of lawless

The United States immigrant detention system has been called a gulag. The California state prison system has been called a golden gulag. Millions of women, children, men inhabit severely overcrowded, ferociously under-resourced, rigorously unmonitored and opaque `centers’. This gulag has been likened to sites of bare life where national sovereignty is articulated by the power and capacity to kill and to reduce life to physical survival, and less. These descriptions are accurate, but they miss something. It turns out that the U.S. immigration detention system is just the most recent articulation of the rule of lawless.

The rule of lawless haunts the rule of law. In fact, when the rule of law looks in the mirror, it’s the lawless it sees, and then quickly names as dangerous other. This became clear this past week, when the Obama administration announced its intention to overhaul the immigrant detention system.

National Public Radio reported, “The Obama administration is planning to overhaul the nation’s immigrant detention system.” According to The New York Times, “The Obama administration intends to announce an ambitious plan on Thursday to overhaul the much-criticized way the nation detains immigration violators, trying to transform it from a patchwork of jail and prison cells to what its new chief called a `truly civil detention system.’” The Austin American-Statesman called it a larger and then, the next day, a broader “overhaul of the nation’s immigration detention system”.

Everyone cried overhaul. Overhaul, to change significantly, abruptly, swiftly, with force or violence.

The first site of this supposed overhaul is the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, in Taylor, Texas, a notorious private prison, run by the Corrections Corporation of America, and just down the road from Austin.

Hutto came to public attention over the past few years for its abysmal treatment of children and women. The ACLU, the Women’s Refugee Commission and others weighed in and waged mighty campaigns. Now, children will no longer be sent to Hutto. In fact, `families’ will no longer be sent to Hutto. They’re going to the Berks Family Shelter Care Facility, in Leesport, Pennsylvania.

But Hutto will stay open, as an all-women’s immigration detention center. Michelle Chen, of RaceWire, wrote a terrific piece, “New Direction for Detention?”, that explains in great detail what Hutto means for women, what immigrant detention has meant for women. It’s been terrible, and there’s no reason to think it will improve.

At the same time, and here’s where the rule of lawless kicks in, many think the only way to overhaul the system would be to actually overhaul the system. NPR reporter Michelle Brand interviewed NPR reporter Daniel Zwerdling on the overhaul. Zwerdling reminded Brand that immigrant detainees are “civil detainees”. They are charged with having broken civil, or administrative, laws, “like overstaying a visa”, but are housed with “regular criminals”, and so are treated accordingly: beaten, overcrowded. Many die for lack of medical care. Treated like prisoners in the U.S. system. Ask California, under order to release 43,000 prisoners. The difference is that the immigrants are, again, civil. As Zwerdling explained, “government officials have told me that 90 percent of the immigrants they detain never have a lawyer. So they can’t really even challenge their own detention.”

Why don’t they have lawyers? Because constitutionally, they don’t exist.

“Zwerdling: ` lawyers say the best way to make sure the jails treat immigrants humanely is to pass a law that requires it. Period.’

Brand: ` So, wait, there’s no law that says treat detainees humanely?’

Zwerdling: ` No, absolutely not. The detention standards are legally just guidelines, you know, so nobody can actually force the government and the jails to obey them.

And now some members of Congress have introduced bills that would turn those standards into law. And I asked the Homeland Security spokesman today, will you support that? And he said, no. And I said, why? And he did not give me an answer.’”

That, in a nutshell, is the rule of law. If no law says your category must be treated humanely, you have no legal, juridical protection. Period. And you will not get an answer from members of State about that. More accurately, radical silence shall be your answer.

According to Michelle Brané, Director of the Detention and Asylum program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, when it comes to immigrants, “Our current laws are unforgiving and unrealistic.” Yes, but our current system of non-laws is lethal.

This legal system is one of negation. Everywhere, this negation, this system of absence-of-law, this reliance on written law as the only means of preventing abuse and atrocity, as the only means of `protection’, this is the rule of lawless. The rule of lawless haunts the rule of law, and it targets women. Don’t send women to Hutto. Shut it down.

(Image Credit: WomensRefugeeCommission.org)