Seclusion rooms, prisons, jails: The empire strikes back

In schools across the United States, seclusion rooms exist as a “last resort” practice for educators to restrain and lock “misbehaving” children in isolated rooms. This practice criminalizes behavior at an early age and normalizes the use of solitary confinement. Data on the use of seclusion rooms is often underreported or nonexistent, making them hard to regulate. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for example, there were over 930 reported instances of seclusion reported in Hanover County in 2019. The school district failed to include protocols for these seclusion rooms as well as a crisis management plan on how to meet the needs of children in their yearly handbook. A lack of accountability accompanies these failures. How often does absence of data excuse action? 

With seclusion rooms currently under the spotlight, there have been efforts across the United States to control their use through legislation. On March 4th, Missouri legislature made strides in a House Bill (HB 1568) that would establish a ban on seclusion and restraint rooms “except in cases where there is imminent danger to the student or others”. Who decides the exception?

Recently, it was reported that high schools in Leeds, England place students in isolation rooms for doing as little as forgetting books or wearing earrings. How does punishment for actions as minor as this in the education system set a precedent for how individuals are treated by the state as adults? 

While legislation to address the use of seclusion rooms is a step in the right direction in terms of initiating conversations and setting precedent, it does not ensure they won’t continue to be used and abused. This exception is seen in cases facing the courts in the United States right now that impact women, such as the recent prosecution of Harvey Weinstein. His sentencing may have shed light on the issues of sexual harassment and misconduct, but it isn’t a cure-all for the deep rooted problem of why it exists and persists. Loopholes and justifications of abuse will continue, especially against women and people of color. How can we make sense of that and move forward knowing that most women behind bars have been victims of physical and sexual violence or other trauma? 

How much persistence does it take to dismantle structures and systems? 

The Atlanta City Detention Center, a Georgia jail for minor violations such as walking in the roadways or shoplifting, was shut down in May 2019 following years of organizing efforts by Women on the Rise. Led by women impacted by the criminal justice system, Women on the Rise spent years organizing to prevent and repeal legislation that funneled many into the jail. Built in 1996, the jail was intended to hide undesirable residents including the homeless during the Olympics, a testament to how individuals in the city were/are grouped and deemed disposable. 

Across the country, 75% of people housed in jails aren’t convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial. If women are the fastest growing populations behind bars, and women of color make up approximately two-thirds of that population, what impact does that have?

The prison system doesn’t function like a recycling center, but a garbage dump. Actions and behaviors of individuals are not assessed for mitigation but deemed unworthy of salvaging. Even short jail time puts individuals, particularly women of color, at risk of losing the security of their jobs and their homes both in the present and the future. It’s a branding that lingers through the presence of the checkbox on job applications and federal documents that accompanies the question: “Do you have a criminal record?”

Why is it okay to uproot someone from their community without justifiable means, assuming their life is expendable? So many individuals with low income jobs worked their way to be where they are. They can’t afford to spend time in jail, and they can’t afford to miss work. 

Now in a sudden global health crisis with the novel coronavirus outbreak, it is predicted that the lack of paid sick leave in the United States will make the epidemic even worse. What happens to single moms with multiple jobs and lower incomes that can’t work remotely or afford to take off work? These systemic issues are manifesting into health concerns, but it isn’t anything new. Roughly 25 percent of workers in the United States do not have paid sick leave. On top of that, no federal legislation has ever been passed for paid family leave. What impact does that have on women? Job security in the hands of the employer leaves workers with little or no choice.

It’s almost as if these issues are being brought to light not out of concern for those impacted by them, but out of concern for the well-being of the rest of the population. They are a threat. It’s as if the argument is being raised that in a wealthy democracy, there should be a mandate for paid leave…but not because it’s the right thing to do, but for the public safety of everyone else. It’s a protection of the empire. 

(Photo Credit: Workers World / Women on the Rise) (Image Credit: Communities Over Cages: Close the Jail Atlanta)

How many children die as a result of a parent, and especially a mother, being incarcerated?

Last week former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg made claims as part of his 2020 presidential campaign to tackle racial bias in the criminal justice system and lower the prison population. In his plan, released on February 18th, Bloomberg promised to “end the era of mass incarceration, ensure fairness and equality in our criminal justice system, and shift its focus from punishment to rehabilitation.” At the same time, he received criticism for his previous support of stop-and-frisk policing that disproportionally targeted people of color during his tenure in New York City. 

If going through the courts is a necessary step to address the criminal justice system, what do these alleged promises mean in a time when the Trump administration has worked to appoint conservative judges? Bloomberg states that as President he would support legislation to make changes for federal officers, pledge money to reforms, and end federal cash bail. While he’s getting pushback for his positions on social issues, it’s worth noting that he spent more than $41 milliontowards campaigns in the 2018 midterm election that would later help elect 21 Democrats to the House. 

Bloomberg’s allocation of wealth raises the question: if wealth and positions of power created the unjust systems that exist today, is wealth also needed to dismantle them? Is it enough to have people with good morals taking initiatives on criminal justice reform, or do you need to have accomplices in positions of power of wealth? In the case of Bloomberg, his contradictory actions bear assessment

Bloomberg claims he will invest $1 billion in programs to support young men of color, but what about young women of color?

This past week, a California lawmaker proposed bill AB 732, also known as the “Reproductive Dignity for Incarcerated People Act” to improve treatment of incarcerated pregnant women. This followed a 2016 ACLU report exposing the abhorrent conditions for pregnant women in jails, and a class action lawsuit after there were three miscarriages and inmate Candace Steel was left alone for hours in her isolated jail cell without care during the labor and delivery of her child in 2017. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office disputed her account, but a federal judge believes otherwise. Steel was one of 28 other women since 2014 who sued for civil rights violations, medical malpractice and emotional distress. This is just one example of an incident that could have been avoided if proper attention was given to the needs of women. 

Surveillance video released this past week reveals Damaris Rodriguez, a mother of five, suffering from starvation and psychological behavior in a Washington state jail cell before dying from a treatable metabolic condition. 

What is wrong with this sentence: “Since this incident, our employees have received comprehensive training in crisis intervention”. It is all too common: proposed action after a lawsuit. Why? Because we are living in a carceral world where mental and physical health is policed before it is assessed and treated. Will this ever be corrected if poor training is used as a loophole for the state? 

Last week, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, local rights group Licadho asked prison officials to investigate the death of a five-month-old baby living with its incarcerated mother during her pre-trial detention for possessing $2.50 of methamphetamine. According to a statement issued, the baby had been taken to the hospital for a hip fracture in late January of 2020, where it was denied the ability to spend the night for observation. Upon returning to prison with its mother, it began experiencing medical complications. Only after the baby’s condition worsened was it taken back to the hospital, where it eventually died from pneumonia and severe malnutrition. 

A Prison Department official blamed the child’s death on the mother and denied the baby suffered from malnourishment. Since 2017, there has been mass incarceration of Cambodians as part of the country’s “war on drugs”. The local rights group is bringing this to light in the hope that all pregnant women and mothers in prison with their children serving pre-trial detention will be granted bail before International Women’s Day on March 8, 2020. 

Would this sort of promise be possible in the United States? How many children die as a result of a parent, and especially a mother, being incarcerated?

(Image Credit: Johns Hopkins Medicine)