Across the United States, children living with disabilities face the torture of school seclusion

In Loudon County, Virginia, 13-year-old Gigi Daniel-Zagorites lives with Phelan-McDermid syndrome, “a disorder that hampers her ability to speak.” In her middle school, one day in September, a fellow classmate took a picture of Gigi being “secluded”. Someone, teachers presumably, took a bookcase and a cabinet and built an enclosure in the corner of the classroom. Gigi was dumped in there, and two adults stood, or sat, guard. In the picture, Gigi is trying to get out or at least see over the barricades. Months later, her mother, Alexa Zagorites, is still asking questions and still getting no answers. Gigi Daniel-Zagorites and her mother are objects of the national pogrom against children living with disabilities. Like so many others, both Gigi and her mother refuse to be or become the victims that national policy intends for them.

Earlier this month, the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center released a report concerning the abusive seclusion and restraint of a 14-year-old child, called Zach, at the Sununu Youth Services Center. First, Zach was dumped into seclusion which led to two staff members throwing Zach to the ground and “restraining” him face down there. The staff fractured the child’s shoulder blade. Despite New Hampshire law, the restraint and, even more, the injury was not reported for two months. Months later, the Sununu Center continues to withhold information. New Hampshire has “restraint and seclusion” laws, but they all rely on the staff to self-report. The levels of violence form a network of threads of immediate, intimate violence and those of structural violence, all held together by the violence and suffering of family, friends, and community.

Similar stories have been recently reported in IndianaIowa, Florida, and Arizona, to name a few from only the last month or so. Across the country, children in school learn that living with a disability is a crime. It must be a crime, otherwise why would the adult staff members be punishing them so?

Last month, U.S. Department of Education released a report on school climate and safety for 2015 – 2016. It found that Iowa rates had just about doubled. For example, in 2013, 23 school districts in eastern Iowa had 2514 reported instances of seclusion or restraint. In 2015, that number rose to 4,904. A recent Iowa State report describes Davenport as in “systemic non-compliance” of Federal laws concerning the education of students living with disabilities. According to the report, the situation for students of color in Davenport is particularly dire, systemically so. Both of Iowa’s U.S. Senators are calling for a Federal investigation into the use of seclusion rooms. Davenport’s U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack has called for a ban on seclusion rooms.

The report on school climate and safety merely confirmed what we already know. In a nutshell, students living with disabilities constituted 12% of all students enrolled. 12 percent. That very small sector of students living with disabilities constituted 71% of all students restrained and 66% of all students “secluded.”

What crime have these children committed? What is their terrible sin? Why do we continue to send these children into solitary confinement? Why do we continue to torture those who are most vulnerable? When will we stop this practice? What do you think we’re teaching children, all the children in all the schools, when we torture their classmates and then call it “seclusion” and “restraint”?

 

(Infographic Credit: U.S. Department of Education)

In jails and schools across the United States, children suffer solitary confinement

The isolation cell in the juvenile pod at Onondaga County Justice Center

Across the United States, children in elementary schools are being placed in what are called seclusion rooms, a euphemism for solitary confinement. Across the United States, children in juvenile detention are also regularly placed in solitary confinement. Recently a parent in Phoenix, Arizona, expressed dismay at a “seclusion room” in her son’s elementary school. At the same time, in upstate New York, the Onondaga County Legislature voted unanimously to ban youth solitary confinement across the county criminal justice system. While the decision of the Onondaga County board is welcome news, it came as the result of years of organizing from civic and community organizations. Why are we so comfortable with dumping children into boxes, and who are we, who do we become, if we continue to let the practice continue and become every day more normal?

The Phoenix story is both straightforward and bent. Stephanie Vasquez picked a bilingual language immersion school with a good academic reputation for her son. One day, while taking her son to his classroom, she noticed a child, sitting in a windowless room, or closet, that was partially painted black, and had only a desk and chair. Stephanie Vasquez had worked for years as a middle school teacher and then worked as a volunteer teacher in a local women’s prison, and so she recognized the scene: “I was a little taken aback at first. Psychologically, I can only imagine what it does to a young child. It’s solitary confinement, just on a child level … The school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing to me. Having been a teacher for eight years, and then going to Perryville — the correlations between the two are eerie.”

Stephanie Vasquez asked the school about the space, and she was referred to their website, where she learned that those punished for “disruptive behavior” are sent to the room for a maximum of 15 minutes, to which Vasquez responds, “I don’t think it should happen at all … How long should they really even be in a confined black space? Probably never.”

It’s eerie … and altogether commonplace.

The Onondaga County Justice Center opened in 1995, and from its inception to today, the County has described the jail as a “state-of-the-art” facility. Community activists have differed with that description. They pointed to the agonizing death of Chuneice Patterson, in 2009.

Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York filed a suit against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office practice of placing 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement at the Justice Center.  They charged that between October 2015 and August 2016, the Onondaga County Justice Center dumped 80 teens, mostly youth of color, into solitary confinement. In January, the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice gave formal support to that lawsuit. In February 2017, a Federal judge ordered a halt to the practice. In June, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York arrived at a settlement with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, and in September, the Legislature voted unanimously to ban the practice.

Why does it take so much time and energy to stop torturing children? Stephanie Vasquez saw a child in a closet and knew it was solitary confinement. Others saw “the box” at Onondaga and knew it was a cage. Stephanie Vasquez knew children were being treated as prisoners; and others knew child prisoners were being treated as animals; and the sequence of alchemical transmutation continues straight to hell. In both Arizona and New York, the specific institutions claim to be state-of-the-art, and they are. They were designed by the best in the field. What does that say about our art? Where is the art in dumping children into closets, boxes, and cages? How long should a child be in a confined black space? Never.

Those in isolation are allowed one hour a day in this `recreation’ space.

 

(Photo Credits: Syracuse.com)

What happened to Mariam Abdullah and Rebecca Maher? Just another death in custody

Mariam Abdullah, on Facebook and in custody

Mariam Abdullah, on Facebook and in custody

Barely eighteen years old, Mariam Abdullah died, July 19th, while in solitary confinement at the Perryville Prison in Arizona. Rebecca Maher, 36 years old, died, July 19th, while in police custody in the Maitland police station, in New South Wales, in Australia. Though the two never met, the circumstances and date of their deaths joins them in a tragic tale of State negligence and refusal. Both women deserved better, and in both instances, we all share the shame of their deaths and the manner of their deaths, for both of them needed help, and the State refused. Both of them were meant to be protected by State law and policy, and yet, on July 19th, both Mariam Abdullah and Rebecca Maher died … or were killed.

In June 2014, Mariam Abdullah, 16 years old, was arrested. After a year in the Estrella Jail, where juveniles charged with adult crimes are `kept’, she agreed to a plea deal that would result in three years imprisonment. From the moment she entered Estrella, Abdullah was in and out of trouble, which meant in and out of solitary confinement. According to her attorneys and to advocates who met with her, her mental health deteriorated perceptibly. Then she turned eighteen, and was moved to Perryville, and again to isolation. Six weeks later, she wrapped a bed sheet around her neck and strangled herself to death.

On numerous occasions, Mariam Abdullah asked, both in writing and in conversation, to meet with mental health staff. She knew she was [a] having problems and [b] deteriorating. She said so. Other than her lawyers and supporters, no one listened. Prison Law Office attorney Corene Kendrick wrote to Arizona’s Attorney General with concerns about Mariam Abdullah’s situation, noting that the State’s abuse of Abdullah was in violation of earlier court orders, the law, and human decency. Kendrick never received never received a response. Kendrick noted, “She [Mariam Abdullah] just seemed very sad and very isolated [and] was clearly traumatized when I talked to her. She’s a child, and she was being held in isolation conditions worse than what the adults were being held in — not that it’s okay for anyone to be held in isolation, but all of the best practices say to stop using isolation on children.”

Peggy Plews, of Arizona Prison Watch, added, “She was no angel — she’s the first to admit that. [But] she was a sweet kid, wanted to be a firefighter and save other people someday. Instead, we just threw her away. We all broke that kid long before she killed herself.”

Rebecca Maher, Aboriginal, mother of four, was walking home drunk when the police picked her up, ostensibly for her own good, and threw her into a cell, a little after midnight. At 6 am, she was “found dead.” Her death and the last hours of her life are shrouded in confusion and controversy. 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 model. No Aboriginal person has died in police custody since 2000 … until Rebecca Maher. But Rebecca Maher, though in police custody, was never arrested. She was thrown into the cell because she was drunk. The police were “protecting” her from herself, and that is the problem. 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.”

Family friend Kathy Malera-Bandjalan asks, “How do you take someone into custody who’s legally done nothing wrong, then detain them in a cell then they’re dead in four hours. Rebecca’s death is not going to be in vain.” According to Kathy Malera-Bandjalan, the family was never notified of Rebecca Maher’s detention and was notified of her death many hours later.

What happened to Mariam Abdullah and Rebecca Maher? Absolutely nothing, and that’s what killed them. Arizona has specific policies, forced upon it by court decisions that should have ensured Mariam Abdullah’s survival and well being while in custody. Arizona refused to follow its own policies. New South Wales has specific policies that should have ensured Rebecca Maher’s survival and well being while in custody. New South Wales refused to follow its own policies. It wasn’t one staff member here or one there. It was the State that decreed, and decrees that what happens in custody stays in custody, and whatever vulnerable woman happens to fall into custody can expect to suffer and die in custody. That’s the rule of law when the custodians are told they have no custodial responsibilities to care for their residents. So, rest in peace Mariam Abdullah; rest in peace Rebecca Maher. You deserved better. We all do. Instead, we all broke you and just threw you away.

Rebecca Maher

Rebecca Maher

What happened to Loreal Tsingine? Just another Native woman killed by police

 

Loreal Tsingine leaves behind a nine-year-old daughter

On March 27, 27-year-old Loreal Juana Barnell-Tsingine, a petite Navajo woman, was shot five times by a police officer in Winslow, Arizona. Loreal Tsingine is the fourth Native American woman to be killed by police this year. In January, in Washington State, Jacqueline Salyers was killed under disputed circumstances. In February, in Alaska, police shot and killed Patricia Kruger. In the same month, in Arizona, Sherrisa Homer was killed by police. Last year, police did not kill any Native American women. This year, it’s fast becoming the new normal. Of 277 people killed this year by police, 6 are Native Americans. That means Native Americans, at 1.57 deaths per million, top the charts on police killings. Again, of those six, four were women.

The killing of Loreal Tsingine took place in broad daylight. Police heard that a “Native woman” was shoplifting at a convenience store. According to police, Loreal Tsingine “fit the description.” They say they tried to arrest her, she resisted, she showed them a pair of scissors, and so a police officer fired at least five shots into her body. She fell to the street. A passerby rushed up to offer help: “I told the officer, `I know CPR, I can help her,’ but he told me step back, sir, and he pushed me.” According to local Navajo leaders, Loreal Tsingine died there and then, and was left on the sidewalk for hours.

Locally and nationally, Native American communities and their supporters are organizing under the banner #JusticeforLoreal and, once again, #NativeWomenMatter. On Saturday, Loreal Tsingine’s family joined with The Red Nation to hold a vigil. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said, “We as a nation demand justice.” Loreal Tsingine’s family said, “She was loved by so many. There are no words to describe the pain in our hearts.” And Red Nation organizer Melanie Yazzie explained, “She was executed in broad daylight. This officer did this because he knew he could do it with impunity.”

Part of the impunity is the widespread national silence. Have you heard of Loreal Tsingine’s death? Did you know that this year has already exceeded last year in police killings of Native women, and it’s only April? How many Native women have to lie dead, for hours, on the streets before their lives and deaths become newsworthy?

As Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye explained, “We hear about these types of shootings happening across the country.” Do we? #JusticeforLoreal

Loreal Tsingine

 

(Photo Credit 1: 12news) (Photo Credit 2: Indian Country Today Media Network)

Reproductive Choice and Prison as Punishment: A Tale of Two States

Out West in California, incarcerated women are sterilized without their consent. Over in the Northeast in Pennsylvania, a mother was incarcerated for helping her daughter end an unwanted pregnancy. While these two stories may seem unrelated, at their intersection are important issues of freedom, choice, and women’s bodies.

As described in Women In and Beyond the Global last week, many women prisoners in California have been stripped of their reproductive freedom. The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that California prisons had been illegally sterilizing female inmates either through coercion or without informed consent, using procedures such as tubal ligations. While it is encouraging that in light of this horrific finding the governor signed a bill prohibiting forced sterilization, the fact remains that these women will never again be able to choose to become pregnant. That choice was already made for them by prison authorities.

Across the country, authorities sent a woman to prison for supporting her daughter’s reproductive choice. Jennifer Ann Whalen’s 16-year-old daughter was pregnant, but she didn’t want to be. When they looked up their options, the mother and daughter found that they didn’t have many. From where they lived in rural Pennsylvania, the closest abortion clinic was 75 miles away. According to state law, Whalen’s daughter was required to receive counseling at the clinic and then wait 24 hours before returning for an abortion. Furthermore, without health insurance, the procedure would cost more than $300. They were unable to make the trip because they couldn’t afford the cost, the fact that their only car was shared with Whalen’s husband who was unaware of the pregnancy, and because Whalen couldn’t miss multiple days of work. Without any other options, they decided to induce a miscarriage themselves. So Whalen ordered abortion pills online and her daughter took them. She had no serious complications or side effects, but they worried when she experienced stomach pains and bleeding. They went to the hospital, where Whalen was arrested, and ultimately charged with a felony for performing an abortion without a medical license. Whalen will serve 12-18 months in prison. If her daughter had access to a safe, legal, and affordable abortion, Whalen would not be behind bars today.

Some women are punished by prison and consequently denied reproductive choices; others are denied reproductive choices and consequently punished by prison. Both of these scenarios illuminate the various ways that women in America are denied the freedom to control their own bodies and, ultimately, their own lives.

 

(Photo Credit: Care2.com)

America’s seclusion rooms form a landscape of atrocity

Recently, legislators in Oregon, Arizona, and Indiana began to address so-called seclusion rooms. Seclusion rooms are solitary confinement cells in schools. They’re also called `isolation booths’, `isolation boxes’, and `behavior support’. George Orwell is alive and well, and apparently in charge in the schoolhouses of the United States.

Jared Harrison is now 12 years old. He went to primary school in Eugene, Oregon. According to his testimony, for four years, starting in first grade, he was forced into a seclusion room pretty much every day, often for hours. Further, his parents were never informed. Ever. As his mother, Jennifer Harrison, explained, “”I was never notified. I didn’t know it was happening until I walked in and found him screaming facedown on the ground with two adults sitting on top of him.”

Parents have notified the State that they’re considering a lawsuit.

Parents in Arizona are also suing the State for having put their child in seclusion for hours on end. When the child asked, begged, to go to the bathroom, he was refused. And so finally, he urinated in the cell. The boy’s mother, Leslie Noyes is quite clear on at least one point: ““It’s like five by six, padded walls, no windows.  It is definitely like a cell.” Don’t call those rooms `seclusion rooms’, don’t call them `cool-down’ spaces, and certainly don’t call them `open air rooms’. Call them prison cells.

In Indiana, parents and advocates are also saying those prison cells are not “quiet rooms” or “safe rooms.” They’re specifically not safe because no one monitors the child while she or he is in the cell. They’re simply left there, absolutely alone. That’s not quiet, that’s not safe, and that’s not education. That’s violence.

Repeatedly, the story of violence is at least twofold, and each fold intensifies the other. First, there is the forced seizure and abandonment of a child into a cell for an extended period of time. Second, there is the discovery by the parents of what has been going on. The parents and the children share in the tragedy. When the children testify, the mothers, such as Jennifer Harrison, listen by their side and weep. The violence doesn’t stop once the door to the `seclusion room’ has been opened.

This is a tale of atrocity: “[M]ore often than not, [contemporary psychiatric]’medicine’ is a complete atrocity-comparable only to the history out of which it grew: is four-point restraint-being tied down at the wrists and ankles-an improvement over being bound with chains? Is the cage inhumane whereas the seclusion room is not?”

Speak the truth fearlessly. Solitary confinement in our prisons is torture. Seclusion rooms in our schools are an atrocity. The solitary confinement of seclusion rooms comprises the social human landscape of the United States today. Close the seclusion rooms. Do it now.

 

(Video Credit: Dan Habib / Vimeo)

We want our revolution NOW

 

In many parts of the world, prisons have become the principal sites for people living with mental illnesses. In the United States, jails and prisons increasingly house the mentally ill. It is estimated that, in the United States, for every person living with severe mental illness in hospital, there are three currently in prison or jail. In Arizona and Nevada, the number is ten mentally ill people in prison and jail for every one in hospital. For women, the numbers are worse yet. For women living with mental illness in the United States, prison is the new pink. The final coup de grace is when the inmates living with mental illness are described as putting a strain on the prison system. It’s their fault … of course. The same story occurs elsewhere. In Canada, for example, mentally ill prisoners are said to flood the system. Apparently, this is what democracy looks like.

But what happens when people living with mental illness end up in prison? What exactly is their treatment `protocol’? Too often, it’s long term solitary confinement. Colorado may be the solitary confinement capital of the world. In Colorado, it’s customary to lock up mentally ill patients … for their own good. Of those in solitary confinement, it’s estimated that four out of every ten is living with developmental disability or with mental illness. Despite that arithmetic, reformers have yet again failed to persuade the Colorado legislature that perhaps, just maybe, another prison is possible. The madness continues.

Mary Braswell knows something about this form of State, and corporate, madness. Braswell is grandmother to Frank D. Horton. She is also his `conservator’, or legal guardian. Frank Horton is an African American adult living with mental illness, who has had a number of run-ins with the law. At one point, he missed his parole appointment, and so was taken to prison, specifically to the Metro Nashville Detention Facility, run by Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. That’s when things went from bad to worse to near fatal.

According to Horton’s attorneys, his intake papers suggested a history of psychological and mental illness, with a likelihood of schizophrenia. The system `recognized’ the symptoms. And so what happened? Horton was put in general population, where, within a month, he started fighting, or attacked, his cell mate, and was placed in solitary. His cell mate said Horton was hearing voices.

Once in solitary, not surprisingly, Horton’s condition deteriorated … rapidly. He began refusing to leave solitary. Soon, he was allowed to stay in solitary, permanently. This meant nine months without a bath or shower, nine months with no one cleaning his cell. Nine months.

Nine months of guards walking past, knocking the door, asking if he was still alive, and then moving on. Nine months.

Finally, in January 2008, a guard, Patrick Perry, realized what was happening, stepped in and informed the Metro Public Health Department: “Patrick Perry, an officer at the detention facility from August 2006 to January 2008, began to notice that something was wrong late in 2007. In January 2008, Perry attempted to communicate with Horton, but Horton was speaking “gibberish.” Perry testified that Horton’s cell was filthy, that there were several food trays on the floor and bacteria growing in the toilet, that Horton’s beard and hair were “matted” and “out of control,” and that it appeared Horton had not washed himself or had his cell cleaned for months.”

For nine months, Frank Horton was left to live, or die, in filth that grew worse and worse, until, for some, he became indistinguishable from his surroundings.

Frank Horton was removed to a special facility in April 2008. Patrick Perry was fired immediately, on that day in January. Horton’s grandmother, Mary Braswell, has struggled for three years to get some kind of accountability, some element of responsibility, for the abuse into which her grandson was dumped. Two weeks ago, at last, she was given permission to proceed. CCA, no doubt, will appeal that decision.

On one hand, Frank Horton’s story is a common one, and sadly so is that of Mary Braswell, the story of prisoners living with mental illnesses and of the women, grandmothers, mothers, who try to care for them. At the same time, the story of prison driving people into deeper mental illness is also all too common. Young women and men, largely of color and largely low- to no-income, enter into prison, and when they come out, their minds are never the same.

And they call it democracy, this universe of systematic deprivation and devastation of minds and bodies. Rather call it Charenton, the Bedlam where the patients sing: “We’ve got Human Rights, we’ve got the right to starve; we’ve got jobs waiting for work; we’ve got Brotherhood, we’re all covered with lice; we’ve got Equality, we’re equal to die like dogs ….

“Marat, we’re poor, and the poor stay poor.
We want our rights and we don’t care how.
We want our revolution NOW”.

 

(Image Credit: Goldberg & Osborne)