Turn “Jeff Davis” into Arthur Ashe. Do it now!

IMG_3775

If you live in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, California, or Washington, you might live near Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. That’s right. From sea to shining sea, from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border, Jefferson Davis is “honored” and, presumably, you are honored to drive in his memory.

In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy designed, planned and sponsored the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway system, which was to extend from Washington, DC, to San Diego. Their plan was to overlay the Confederacy onto the map of the United States, an ocean-to-ocean highway that would compete with the Lincoln Highway. While the coordinated highway system no longer exists, in each of the states mentioned above, parts of it survive, and under the name Jefferson Davis Highway.

In 2002, when Washington State Representative Hans Dunshee proposed changing the name of Washington’s Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, he ran into a whirlwind of opposition, because nothing says the Pacific Northwest like … the Confederacy and the war to preserve slavery. As Dunshee noted, “People are saying, ‘Oh, Jeff Davis was into roads for the Northwest.’ That’s their cover. But let’s be clear. This memorial was not put up by the AAA. It was put up to glorify the Confederacy.” The president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy weighed in, complaining that the change would “cause more hard feelings and certainly will not unify our country.”

When Dunshee first discovered the presence of the Confederacy in his home state, he said, “I was astonished that it was there. And then I was disgusted.” Disgust is a good response. Dunshee’s disgust only deepened, once he received calls telling him “to go back to Africa and take all of his kind with him.” Hans Dunshee’s “kind” would be German and Irish.

Nine years later, in 2011, in Arlington, Virginia, the Arlington County Board renamed a part called the Old Jefferson Davis Highway. It’s now the Long Bridge Drive. Why the name change? As then-County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman explained, “I have a problem with ‘Jefferson Davis’ [in the road’s name]. There are aspects of our history I’m not particularly interested in celebrating.”

While the “Old Jefferson Davis Highway” was part of the original Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, it wasn’t included in the Commonwealth’s 1922 designation of the Jefferson Davis Highway, and so Arlington County could change the name, once it convinced opponents that perhaps the real “importance of history” is not its repetition but rather its analysis and critique.

Meanwhile, the rest of Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in Virginia falls under the Commonwealth administration, and so any change there must go through Richmond.

The lesson of history has to be that people can change their histories and themselves for the better; that we don’t happen upon progress, we make progress happen. From Washington, DC, to Charleston to Washington State, make freedom ring. Move from astonishment to disgust to astonishment. Tear down the flag; rewrite the name. In Virginia, turn “Jeff Davis” into Arthur Ashe, a proud son of Virginia of whom we are all proud. Do it now. It’s the least we can do.

 

(`Jeff Davis’ Photo Credit: author’s photo) (Arthur Ashe Photo Credit: Charles Tasnadi / Associated Press)

Alabama built a special hell for women, the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women

 

Thanks to an ongoing investigation, the news is beginning to seep out that Alabama has built a special hell for women, the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

A 36-page letter of findings laid out a gut wrenching picture of sexual violence at Tutwiler: “For nearly two decades, Tutwiler staff have harmed women in their care with impunity by sexually abusing and sexually harassing them. Staff have raped sodomized, fondled, and exposed themselves to prisoners. They have coerced prisoners to engage in oral sex. Staff engage in voyeurism, forcing women to disrobe and watching them while they use the shower and use the toilet. Staff sexually harass women, subjecting them to a daily barrage of sexually explicit verbal abuse. Tutwiler has a toxic, sexualized environment that permits staff sexual abuse and harassment… Prison officials have failed to curb the sexual abuse and sexual harassment despite possessing actual knowledge of the harm, including a federal statistical analysis identifying sexual misconduct at Tutwiler as occurring at one of the highest rates in the country. Prison officials discourage prisoner reporting of sexual abuse due to actual and perceived retaliation against individuals who make allegations. For example, immediately after making allegations, Tutwiler often places women in segregation and gives them lie detector tests. In some instances, reporting the sexual abuse of one staff member results in additional abuse from other staff members. When confronted with allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, Tutwiler fails to adequately respond or investigate… Systemic deficiencies at Tutwiler directly contribute to staff and prisoner sexual abuse and staff sexual harassment that injures prisoners, and creates a substantial risk of further harm.”

While the intensity of the violence may surprise some, the fact of immediate physical and structural violence against women at Tutwiler has been known for a long time. In July 2011, we wrote about structural violence and overcrowding at Tutwiler and again in June 2013, we wrote about violence against older women at Tutwiler. Historically, the media have been prohibited. But prisoners have reported, both formally and informally, the hell that Alabama had built specifically for women. Women former prisoners talked of rape and of children born of rape. Did the State prosecute the fathers of those children? Occasionally. Did the State force the fathers to pay child support? Seldom, and only when pushed … hard. Who listened? Not the State, not the general citizenry, not the world.

The State built for women a house of horror, but the `free world’ did not feel horror. The State built for women a universe of fear, and the `free world’ felt neither fear nor terror. Why does it take a Federal investigation to pry open, a tiny bit, a prison system that is unconstitutional, terrorist, and evil? Why does the fate and why do the lives of hundreds and thousands of women lie, abandoned and worse, in a mass torture chamber? Why does `the world’ not care?

The Federal government is now investigating the mental and medical `care’ of prisoners at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. They will find more violence, horror, and damage … again.

 

(Photo Credit: Equal Justice Initiative)

But some of us are older women prisoners

A new infographic, Aging Behind Bars, focuses attention on the grim realities of the graying prison nation: “Between 2007 and 2010, the number of state and federal prisoners age 65 or older grew 94 times faster than the overall prison population. Between 1981 and 2010, the number of state and federal prisoners age 55 and over increased from 8,853 to 124,900. By 2030, that number is projected to grow to 400,000, an increase of 4,400 percent from 1981.”

Thanks to three-strikes policies and other aberrations, prison is not only the national mental health institution. It’s also fast becoming the national senior “care” facility, except without the care. Elder women live poorly and die hard in those “care facilities”. For example, in California, a few years ago, Helen Loheac, 88 years old, nearly blind and deaf, suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s and in the very last phase of kidney failure, applied for compassionate release. She had a place waiting for her… for ten years. But she was denied parole because she would be a risk to public safety. And so on January 5, 2009, Helen Loheac died of pneumonia in a hospital near the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla. She died shackled at her waist and ankles, two guards at her bedside. It’s called “care.”

In California, elder women prisoners call themselves Golden Girls and they’re organizing. Elder women prisoners in Alabama, residents of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, are organizing as well. Some of them, like Erline Bibbs, are members of the Longtimers/Insiders. For over a decade, they have been pushing, through the courts and through collective advocacy and activism, to have a role in prison reform. They understand, with their bodies, that the women’s prison population is too large and that there have to be better conditions for women prisoners and for women, more generally. This means building identifying low-risk women prisoners and “sending them out the door”; building more work-release sites, rather than bigger prisoners, so that women prisoners could stay connected with the so-called free world and could have some savings when the get out; building and sustaining well-run drug facilities that would actually pay attention to the particularities of women’s lives, and especially of the lives of women of color and of low income women.

Eleven years ago, Bibbs and others sued the state of Alabama and won. Their overcrowded prison was found to be in violation of the Constitution. The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women was designed to hold at most 370 prisoners. In 2002, it held a thousand.

So where are the women prisoners of Alabama today, and in particular the elder women prisoners?

Last year, Equal Justice Initiative investigated and found the following. Women prisoners are raped, sexually assaulted, and sexually harassed by the staff. Officials systematically under-report sexual assaults. Women prisoners who report sexual assault are punished, which creates a climate intimidation. Male staff members continually view nude women prisoners, despite the rules, and are never punished or disciplined.

The Federal government sent in an investigative team, and they found the level of sexual violence, harassment, and intimidation [a] as high as ever, [b] pervasive and part of the fabric of the place, [c] part of the physical architecture of the prison. According to the federal investigators, the spatial and architectural “inducements” to sexual violence could be fixed, and at very little cost.

But what is very little cost when talking about women prisoners, and especially older women prisoners? We know that elder care is costly, and yet the numbers continue to grow. We know that sexual violence preys on the vulnerable and does not discriminate among age groups. None of this is new, and none of this is hidden or esoteric knowledge.

In Alabama, some officials and some newspapers are “appalled” by the “shameful”. After over a decade of women prisoners organizing, advocates winning case after case, the Federal government intervening time and again, the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women is one of the ten worst prisons in the United States. At Tutwiler, all the prisoners are women, most of them need help rather than imprisonment, and some of them are older.

 

(Photo Credit: Ron Levine/http://sowkweb.usc.edu)

Alabama’s shame is the United States’ shame

Last week, five women from Bessemer and Birmingham met outside the Hugo L. Black U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Birmingham. They look like a pretty diverse handful of women. They stood there, alone, with their children and their placards, and explained that they are all U.S. citizens, that their children are U.S. citizens, and that their partners are undocumented residents. They appealed to the better conscience and the better consciousness, not to mention the common sense, of the State and of the Court to overturn HB56. They explained that without their partners’ income, they would face desperate times: “If you don’t want to pay for our kids, repeal HB56.”

Quite a few women in Alabama are expressing similar concerns. Lana and Jamie Boatwright run a tomato farm on Chandler Mountain, in Alabama. The tomatoes are ready for picking, but the workers have fled, mostly to Florida where the fieldwork is better and, thus far, the laws are less hostile.

And it’s not just farmers who are suffering, already, from the culture of the law. Contractors, already squeezed by a deep and long recession, now can’t find workers. Teachers, school nurses and school systems report that the children are beginning to disappear. Foley Elementary School, with a 20% Latina/o population, already reports absences, withdrawals, and, even more, a climate of fear, sorrow, pain and suffering, trauma. Those are children. Not that it should matter but it needs to be said, those are children who are mostly U.S. citizens. What is the name for that curriculum, the one these children experience and study?

And the mothers are gathering and organizing, as they do. Mothers who are undocumented residents, like Trini, Erica Suarez, and so many others, are organizing power of attorney for their kids, should “the worst” occur. Mothers with proper papers or with citizenship, women like Rosa Toussaint Ortiz, are agreeing to take care of the children, should “the worst” occur. And activists, women like Monica Hernandez and Helen Rivas, promise to continue to take care of the women, men, children, not to forget, to continue the struggle.

The situation is shameful.

Alabama’s shame is the United States’ shame, and it has a familiar ring to it. What is the name of the shameful system that is emerging in Alabama? First, terrorize a racially or ethnically identified minority population. The terror did not begin with the passage of the law. The terror began with the first mention of its possibility. Then criminalize that population. Then put the “newly minted” criminals in prisons, and if those prisons could be private, as they will be in Alabama, all the better. Then, and here’s the kicker, when businesses, and in particular when farmers and contractors “discover” that the labor well has gone dry, provide them with prisoners, at rock bottom prices, of course. That’s what John McMillan, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, suggested. The State is looking into short- and long-term solutions to the labor problem and is feeling “optimistic.”

Optimistic?

What is the name of that system of shame that Alabama is dutifully re-enacting? Some call it slavery, and perhaps they’re right. What would you call that shame, that shameful system, which haunts the United States?

 

(Photo Credit: al.com)

 

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: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Justice-for-The-Women-of-Tutwiler/337065583030228)

 

How the Oil Spill Affects our Perception of Women and Water

Over a month ago BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 people and beginning a month long flow of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  Responses to the disaster were slow at best, with BP’s solutions never succeeding in capping the flow of oil into the ocean.  The result is that people all along the coast of the Gulf who are dependent on the Gulf for food or livelihood are losing out, and the wildlife population that exists in the Gulf is hurt by the crude oil.

For myself, and for many other I’m sure, the outrage at this spill comes primarily from the inability to act and the inability to connect this oil spill with the dangers of both depending on oil reserves and dumping things into the ocean.  The apathetic attitude of people toward the dumping of gallons of crude oil into the ocean is the most alarming part of the disaster.  In my last post, I talked about some of the connections between women and water.  This oil spill displays more of those characteristics.

Before discussing the implication of the oil spill on gender, I should first discuss a little bit about the feminizing of the ocean itself.  The ocean or the sea is referred to as a ‘she,’ like when the sea is referred to as a mistress to sailors, or when religions include a goddess of the sea.

This connection is not so far out of the blue.  The characteristics attached to the sea are often ones similar to those attached to women.  The sea in many religions is considered to be a birthplace of life – similar to viewing women as life-givers.  The ocean is often perceived as having a calming effect – similar to the idea of a mother’s comfort.  And finally, the ocean is said to have a fury and a power that is hidden and to be feared – ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,’ or a fear of women’s power.

Secondly, there is a belief that the ocean has a religious power of sorts to wash away all sins  — the sea can contain or take all that we do to it.  A group of people in Denmark decided to thank the ocean by sinking a huge metal statue filled with bread in the ocean as a sacrifice.  In order to thank the ocean, they had to literally dump more problems into it.  This is similar to how we talk about women, especially women in developing countries or those who have just been through a trauma of sorts – we comment on how strong they are, and how wonderful that they can take so much.

Water is a resource that is essential for all forms of life, yet we privatize it and sell it for immense profits.  The documentary FLOW discusses not only the effects of privatization on water but the similarities between the so-called ‘water industry’ and the oil industry – mainly that both are driving prices up at the expense of people who can’t afford it and the profit of those who don’t need the money.

So what does this mean for the oil spill in the Gulf? The spill happened in the ocean – a ‘feminine’ body of nature.  As such, it can take all that we do to it – like the ideal strong woman who can ‘take’ all that life throws at her.  The ocean can take the gallons of crude oil that are rushing into the waters destroying marine life and coming closer and closer to shore (in fact, it has already hit some islands off the coast of Alabama).  I believe that the driving force behind the fact that BP executives are so slow to act is that they believe that the ocean can take this abuse.  BP CEO Tony Hayward was quoted as saying “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

The sea is tied to feminine ideas, or the feminine principle as Vandana Shiva puts it.  When something is so closely tied to femininity, it is not immune from the reach of patriarchy, in particular the idea of control over the ocean’s resources (which include the crude oil beneath the ocean’s surface).  Not only can the ocean take all that we do to it, but it also is there to be controlled and manipulated by us as humans.  Moreover, the people running BP are predominantly men, making it a situation where men are controlling/manipulating the feminine for their own profit and use.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf is a disaster in so many ways, but it does give us a clear picture of the value that we place on our oceans, and by extension on women.  Perhaps the reason why there is less outrage from the general population about the oil spill is that we don’t place enough value on it – it is expendable in the name of profit, much like the patriarchal view of women.

 

(Image Credit: Flow)