Landmark cases: In Massachusetts, Nebraska, Black women demand housing justice for all!

Two “landmark cases” hit the news this week, both involving the rights and dignity of Black women. In Massachusetts, Mary Louis, of Malden, and Monica Douglas, of Canton, both Black women with housing vouchers, sued SafeRent and Metropolitan Management Group in US District Court for applying racial discrimination in their tenant screening software. This week, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Housing filed a statement of interest in support of Louis’ and Douglas’ claim. In Nebraska, Teresa Holcomb, a Black resident of Omaha, faces eviction, filed by NP Dodge Management. Ms. Holcomb’s attorneys, from Legal Aid of Nebraska and Nebraska Appleseed, are arguing that Ms. Holcomb has the right to a trial by jury. The Nebraska Supreme Court began hearings on Wednesday.

On May 25, 2022, attorneys representing Mary Louis, Monica Douglas, and the Community Action Agency of Somerville filed a lawsuit, in federal court, arguing that SafeRent, a national tenant screening provider, had been violating the Fair Housing Act for years by consistently giving low scores to Black and Latino rental applicants holding federally funded housing vouchers, causing them to be denied housing. This week, U.S. Attorney Rachael S. Rollins for the District of Massachusetts explained, “Algorithms are written by people. As such, they are susceptible to all of the biases, implicit or explicit, of the people that create them. As the housing industry and other professions adopt algorithms into their everyday decisions, there can be disparate impacts on certain protected communities. Stable and affordable housing provides a unique pathway to success, opportunity and safety. We must fiercely protect the rights and protections promulgated in the Fair Housing Act. Today’s filing recognizes that our 20th century civil rights laws apply to 21st century innovations.”

SafeRent Solutions used to be called CoreLogic Rental Property Solutions. CoreLogic was sued, in Connecticut, “for violating the Fair Housing Act by discriminatory use of criminal records as rental criteria.” That court ruling is pending.

On Wednesday, January 11, Nebraska’s Supreme Court began hearing NP Dodge Management Company v. Holcomb. Teresa Holcomb got into an argument with two other tenants in a common area. NP Dodge Management Company filed for eviction, claiming Ms. Holcomb had violated the crime-free housing clause by threatening residents. Ms. Holcomb disputed that claim. The original court found in the landlords’ favor. Ms. Holcomb appealed, arguing that she had a constitutional right to a trial by jury to determine whose narrative, the tenant’s or the landlord’s, should prevail. In an Amicus brief, the local ACLU and NAACP opened their arguments in support of Teresa Holcomb, “This appeal puts before the Court a historical issue of the right to a jury trial on factual issues in an eviction trial, a matter of special importance to women, especially Black women, and their children, as well as people with disabilities.”

Last year, 9.3 million people in the United States received housing assistance. Of households receiving public housing assistance, 75% were female-headed. From discrimination in credit screening to discrimination in court, eviction, the right to decent and secure housing, and justice in housing are a matter of special importance to women, especially Black women, and their children, as well as people with disabilities.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Silver State Fair Housing Coalition) (Photo Credit: WNYC / Michael Dwyer / AP)

For counties with higher proportions of Black and women renters, eviction is a death sentence

If you’re a Black woman in the United States, your chance of being evicted is higher than any other demographic.

News Medical reports, today, “U.S. counties with more evictions have higher mortality rates, study finds”. Earlier in the week, Newswise reported “Mortality rates are higher in U.S. counties with more evictions, UTSW researchers find”. Both reports are based on a study, published in early November, “Association of US County-Level Eviction Rates and All-Cause Mortality”, which looked at 2016 data from 686 U.S. counties “to evaluate the independent association of county-level eviction rates with all-cause mortality in the USA”. The researchers found “county-level eviction rates were significantly associated with all-cause mortality with the strongest effects observed among counties with the highest proportion of Black and women residents.” More Black, more women, more eviction, more death. Again, this is neither tsunami nor wave nor is it particularly surprising, even if horrifying. This is a national pogrom, and, remember, this data is from 2016, in the Before Times, when everything was “normal”

In “normal” times, women were more likely to be evicted than men: “eviction rates were four percent higher for black women than among black men and nine percent higher for Latinx women relative to Latinx men”. That was then, and it still is now, or worse.  In the “normal times”, the times we are told we all want to return to, eviction, pandemic in Black and Brown communities, targeted Black and Brown women. Now we know the fatal consequences of that campaign.

The county-level study found “the relationship between eviction and mortality was strongest in the subgroup of counties with a proportion of women above the median (high), among whom mortality rates were 13.19 deaths (per 100,000 individuals) higher for every 1% higher eviction rate, representing a more than fivefold difference compared to counties with a lower proportion of women.” The same was more or less true for counties with equivalent proportions of Black residents. Again, for every 1% increase in eviction rate, 13 women died.

In August 2021, we noted, “We `learn’ this week that in Virginia, the Virginia that has improved on its shameful history of mass evictions, high eviction rates, and easy eviction procedures, in that Virginia, “Black women … are disproportionately evicted.” We “learn” this week that in New York, the New York that only recently started distributing any rent relief funds, Black women make up nearly two-thirds of those applying for rent relief. Again, that relief has only now started, barely, reaching people.” This week, we `learn’ that Black women being disproportionately evicted is a death sentence. Eviction is an existential crisis, both for those being evicted and for the community. It is a matter of life and death, at the center of which are Black women.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Ariana Torrey / USA Today)

(Infographic Credit: Journal of General Internal Medicine)

From Yvonne Farrell to Nzinga King: The State’s war on Black women bodies continues

Nzinga King

In July 2021, 19-year-old Nzinga King was taken into custody in rural Jamaica, pepper sprayed, and then, while in custody, was forcibly subjected to having her hair cut. After some public outcry, an internal investigation was launched … sort of. The results came out this past week. According to the Director of Public Prosecution, it was all fine. In August 2018, 50-plus-year-old Yvonne Farrell was in her partner’s car in Stevenage, about a half hour north of London, when the car broke down. When the police arrived, with the tow truck, Yvonne Farrell refused to give her name. She saw no reason to. The police took her in. Since she didn’t give her name, they stripped her naked and left her on the cell floor for three hours. Yvonne Farrell sued, and last. Week, the police apologized and paid £45,000 in damages: “I accept that you should not have been arrested. I am extremely sorry for any injuries that you suffered as a result of the actions of Hertfordshire Police. On this occasion we got it wrong. I apologise unreservedly.” Nzinga King and Yvonne Farrell are Rastafarian women … unreservedly.

Nzinga King was travelling with friends in a taxi. Some were not wearing masks. Nzinga King was wearing a mask. The police stopped the car to question those not wearing masks. The police pepper sprayed some in the car. Nzinga King got out and started arguing with the police. She was arrested for disorderly conduct. On July 22, she received a $40 fine or 10 days in jail. She couldn’t pay the fine, and so went to jail, where a police officer cut her hair. As Jamaican journalist Emma Lewis noted this week, Nzinga King “had several counts against her from the start”: She is young. She is Black. She is poor. She is Rastafari. She is a woman. She is a rural dweller. With all that, Nzinga King should consider herself lucky to have been `merely’ humiliated. Right?

Yvonne Farrell is not young, poor or a rural dweller. She is Black. She is Rastafari. She is a woman. And she knows that and she knew that, and she knew that to be criminalized for the nexus of Black, Rastafari, woman is unjust. As Yvonne Farrell explains, “I could have been a Jewish woman. I could have been a Muslim woman … That just shows they wanted to humiliate me – they did humiliate me.” Yvonne Farrell has since `relocated’ to somewhere in the Caribbean.

Two years ago, in 2020, in London, Ruby Williams won an out-of-court settlement of £8,500 for the abuse she suffered, for wearing her hair in an Afro, for Being Black, from the age of 11 years old on. Two years ago, in 2020, Jamaica’s high court ruled that a school was within its rights to tell a 5-year-old girl student, identified as Z, that she must cut her dreadlocks or leave school.  By all accounts, she was an excellent student. By all accounts, she had not in any way prevented others around her from pursuing their education. To the contrary, she was described as an ideal student and learner who helped her fellow students. But Z’s desire to learn was deemed Constitutionally inferior to the politics of Black girls’ hair. Two years later, Yvonne Farrell and Nzinga King lock arms with Z and Ruby Williams. Compensation is not enough, apologies won’t do. Meanwhile, the State-sponsored war on Black women bodies continues.

Yvonne Farrell

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

 

(Photo Credit 1: Petchary’s Blog) (Photo Credit 2: BBC)

How School Dress Codes Disproportionately Target Black Women

The implementation of dress codes within American public schools has been used to police young women’s bodies in order to maintain power over them, impacting their psychological well-being. Dress code policies within American public schooling system aims to specifically target Black women, assigning them the negative consequences of promiscuity and over-sexualization, leading to a disproportionate psychological impact. The upkeep of these regulatory dress codes furthers systemic white privilege within American public schools. Research conducted by the National Women’s Law Center shows that “among 29 D.C. schools, majority-Black high schools on average [have] more dress code restrictions than other high schools”. Additionally,  “Black girls are much more likely than other girls to be cited for infractions such as dress code violations”. School dress codes typically enforce their ‘acceptable’ standards of dress from associations typically linked with the white middle class. This inherently promotes ideas linked with ‘whiteness’ and discourages ideas linked with ‘Blackness.’

Black women face double the judgement when met with these standards. Not only are their bodies deemed problematic simply because they are female, they are also deemed problematic for their Blackness. Black women have been assigned consequences through public schooling dress code policies which inherently and severely objectify and sexualize them: “Repeated exposure to sexual objectification experiences is linked to low self-esteem and high levels of anxiety, which affect women’s psychological well-being”. Black women are more prone to sexualization and objectification, as shown by the increased rate at which Black women in public schooling institutions receive dress code violations as well as by stereotypical media portrayals within popular culture. It is relatively easy to assume that Black women are then also more likely to experience the psychological downfalls associated with sexualization and objectification in response to these experiences. 

Dress codes which discriminate heavily against Black individuals also prohibit the flourishing of self-esteem within Black females, as well as in Black youth in general. The enforcement of these dressing policies cast a shadow on the ability for the individuals to obtain a strong positive association between their race and their identity, effecting their psychological well-being and self-value. Rather than regulating female bodies, school environments should teach self-control. Rather than regulating Blackness, school environments should provide a safe place for cultural differences and promote inclusivity with faculty that is diverse and representative. In order to eliminate the incessant focus on controlling Black female bodies, the code which heavily regulates them needs to be removed. These dress code guidelines distract from the importance of intellectual growth and learning for Black youth within our public schooling systems. Clothing is not an indicator for success or failure. As long as dress code policies continue to exist, Black women will continually be targeted and placed at a disadvantage. 

 

(Image credit: National Women’s Law Center)

 

By Molly Wilhelm

(Molly Wilhelm is a feminist and human rights activist based in Maryland.)

What are you doing to empower Black women?

Before I begin I would like to have a moment of silence to acknowledge the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the  Manahoac, Nacotchtank, Piscataway and Patawomeck First Nations tribes on which we are standing, working, and learning in today.

Please bow your heads.
Thank you.

We are bystanders to Black and Native women being raped, killed, and tortured every day with no search parties in place. 

Black and Indigenous women are the most oppressed, and we must amplify our voices. 

In so many ways we are still enslaved in this country.     
I know it is hard to swallow, but it is true.
We are legally free but are our minds and body free? 
I mean truly free and protected? Are our children free to do the things that white children can do? 
The answer is NO!!!
We are still seen as disposable.
Our women are still being raped and murdered,
 Literally and figuratively.
Just like how my and many others great great great grandmothers were raped to provide more slaves for masters.

Black women are still being made to conform to white supremacy.
By burning our crowns, dimming our light and hiding our heritage every day.
We are still not seen as beautiful.
Black women are the core of the world and of our communities.
We nurture everyone but are never nurtured.

As Dr. Bettina Love said 
When Black women “lead movements we are so inclusive because we know what it means to be marginalized in so many places.”

In order to be empowered, we need everyone’s voice at the table. 

We will not be free until straight, queer, rich, poor, Muslim, Christian, and other women of color are free. 

As a Black bisexual student activist, I choose to spend a lot of my time and energy uplifting others and being inclusive in the work that I do.

Whether welcoming people of different backgrounds into a conversation or hyping up beautiful Black Queens on Instagram, I feel it is my duty to uplift and reassure Black women. And continue to shine the light on the amazing women around me who are doing great things.

The question is who else is doing this for Black Women?????

This is a constant need as 
Black women are still seen as objects.
We continue to suffer from self-hate.
Which leads us to  
Not be heard 
And to be at-risk 
And to repeatedly be silenced at every turn.
We continued to be killed, harassed and raped.

But then again it seems to me that the country was created to be this way.
and It seems to me that the country and world were created to treat our women this way.
But I guess that that is the white man’s best kept secret 

Although Black Women created this world as it is today, we cannot save it alone. We need white allies to recognize their role in contributing and dismantling racism.

Black Women
are expected to protect everyone but no one wants to protect us.
Black Women
are expected to be the most durable,and then are left to die in hospitals after birthing Black babies.
Black Women
are repeatedly denied our rights no matter our identity.


We Black women
Need to start protecting all of our sisters.
We Black Women
Need to remember we are not alone.
We Black Women 
Need to protect our young girls.
We Black Women
Need to stand up for ourselves.

Many of us already do that every day, and the sad thing is that we have to because no one else will. We are alone but we are alone together. We are everywhere and in everything. In every country and across every sea.

I just pray one day we will be seen because…

Black Women are the strongest. We’ve been forced to become strong and we will continue to stay strong to hold our people together wherever we are. Such as right here in Fairfax County where Black girls are being subjected to self-hate by the systems in place around them.

If you still can’t believe that there is self-hate and racism right here in our county let me tell you a short story about my friend who goes to Thomas Jefferson High School.  She explained at a school board meeting on Thursday (and I quote) “How am I supposed to cope with the fact that my decision to go to TJ will haunt me for the rest of my life” “I am still embarrassed to be Black, I have never had the confidence to wear my hair naturally this is the first time I have worn it natural in 5 years.” 

So my question is what are we doing to our girls right here in Fairfax county….what are we doing to uplift our Black girls?
AS A COMMUNITY we continue to tear down Black girls by expecting them to conform to white supremacist ideals.
AS A COMMUNITY we spread the infectious disease of self-hate to every type of Black woman everywhere.

And if Black woman overcome the self-hate and push through and speak up and have confidence
We are 
The “angry Black woman”
We are “too bossy”
We are “the oreo”
We are “not like the others”
Or better yet they are surprised at our eloquence and say
“Wow you are very articulate”
Or “You don’t talk Black”

This is all happening right here in the notorious “liberal” northern Virginia. This has happened to me.

After creating the first equity team in Fairfax County Public Schools whose goals are to amplify the voices of students and teachers of color, I was invited to join a panel with many girls of color in FCPS to share our experiences with teachers.

It’s alarming to hear the horrific stories of other youth advocates like me who suffer from their white peers and teachers harassing them. Whether it be a white teacher forcing a young Black girl to stand for the pledge of allegiance or boys in class laughing at a dark skin girl and calling her ugly. Right here in our county. 

As I talk to more students it is clear that black boys and girls are being targeted and harassed in the hallways and outside of school every day at every school. And I wonder if that would change if we didn’t just recruit teachers and principals from JMU but from HBCU’s.

Black children need representation in their schools. We deserve to be led and taught by people who look like us. Last fall I was blessed with the wonderful opportunity to join the campaign of Ricardy Anderson for School Board.  Dr. Anderson is an example of a Black female leader who is out here every day making a difference for our community. She taught me how to be heard and constantly takes the time to value student’s voices.

It was also during this time that I learned a lot about local politics in this so-called “liberal” county. 

Before quarantine, I was constantly surrounded by “liberal white people” who think that they are good people but really are racist. 
They still take the time to 
Be a feminist, but only for white women.
They take the time to
Touch their Black students hair every time she changes it.
They take the time to
Compliment a Black student when they do anything that they thought only white people could do, like speak proper English.
They take the time to sexualize Black girls and dress code them in the hallways.

How about, instead of taking the time to be racist and remind us of our exclusion, these people who claim to be “liberal white people” take the time to advocate for an antiracist curriculum.

How come they do not take the time to
Speak out against the disproportionate discipline against Black students.
They do not take the time to 
Speak out against their racist white peers and family members.
They do not take the time to 
Uplift Black and brown youth and adults.
They do not take the time to
Stop their students and families from saying the N-word.

So please do not say you care about our Black girls while standing by and watching them be torn down from Pre- Kindergarten to 12th grade and beyond.

Microaggressions and insults go unchecked every day in the halls of our schools. For me it started in elementary school when my classmates would put me down for being Black. And I was ignored by my teachers and administration when I told them that kids called me the “N” word in class, and they tried to silence me in middle school when I tried to organize a club to support Black students.  Like many of you, I learned early how Black people are seen in this country and what we are up against. 

The tearing down of Black girls is something that I and many other women such as Sandra Bland know all too well. Sandra Bland was an activist who spoke out against racism in her community before being brutally murdered.

Before she was murdered, Sandra Bland bravely used her voice to share her story and then died while still sharing her story.

You know someone else who shared their story?
Oluwa “Toyin” Salau. Toyin was a BLM activist who was murdered after bravely sharing her sexual assault story of being raped on social media.

Women like Kira Johnson and Stephine Snook Black and Native women who were both silenced and killed while giving birth.

And the beautiful Breonna Taylor who was shot at least 8 times in her own home.

As well as beautiful Trans Black women like Monika Diamond, Paris Cameron, Dominique Fells,and Riah Milton, Michelle Washington, just some of the Black trans people recently murdered in hate because of the misogynistic, racist, trans/homophobic society we live in. 

Right here in Fairfax County Natasha McKenna was brutally murdered on video by the Fairfax County Sheriff Department Police 5 years ago. 

These are all things that Black girls open their phones to see every day. We look like them. We are them. We know them. And It’s traumatizing.

What are you doing to empower Black women? What are you doing to protect the future of Black Children?

If you are in a position of power are you going out of your way to hire and promote Black women?


Are you listening to Black women and their perspectives? Or are you interrupting Black women and the progress that we are trying to make?


If you are a Black man, when was the last time you told a Black woman or girl that she is beautiful? If you are a black man, have you ever talked bad about dark skin women? Please take a step back and think about your voice and what you are using it for. 


If you are a human? Do you hear anti-black or anti-dark rhetoric? Do you call it out? If not, you need to 
CALL- IT -OUT – IF you are human support, fight and uplift Black Women.

If you are 18 or over 18… put your efforts into electing Black women like Delegate Carroll Foy. Not just for the sake of Black women but the future of this nation. I want young girls to grow up in a nation where they know that a seat at the table is reserved for them and they can envision themselves in it. 

If you are a Black girl or woman…
Are you doing self-care? When was the last time you stepped away and took care of yourself?
The world can wait for you, you are more important. 
We have important work to do and we need to be at our best to keep fighting!

Thank you all for listening to my truth! 

 

(Image Credit: AAPF)

Despite restrictions and voter suppression, African Americans carry Alabama forward

There was a morbid thought during the special election on December 12th, that Alabama would elect an accused pedophile, anti-gay and anti-abortion as Senator to replace Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions. As election results trickled in, it seemed that Alabamians would do just that; but in a surprise upset, Doug Jones won a senate seat that has not been occupied by a Democrat since 1992, and that was all thanks to Black women and Black men.

To say that African Americans faced an uphill battle getting to the polls is an understatement. As the election wore on, reports of voter suppression came in droves. By 3:24 pm, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law voter hotline had received 235 calls. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund began collecting reports about people being put on inactive status, and either prevented from voting or given provisional ballots to cast their vote. To deter people from voting, police began showing up at polling stations, most notably in Montgomery, where in previous elections police checked voters for outstanding warrants.

Those were just the obstacles on election day. In 2011, Alabama passed one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. Voters must have at least one of several specific kinds of photo ID to cast their ballot, including;

  • Driver’s License;
  • Non-Driver ID;
  • US Passport;
  • Student or employee ID at a college or university in Alabama; or
  • Military or Tribal ID

Under the guise of stopping voter election fraud, which rarely occurs, these laws disproportionately impact Black voters, who are often likely to have the means to obtain a voter ID. Since 25% of Alabama’s electorate is Black and Black residents tend to vote Democrat, having proper IDs was going to be crucial in this race. In a close election, the turnout that is impacted by voter ID laws, reducing it by a percentage point or two, could have swung the race.

Despite restrictions and reports of voter suppression, African Americans went to the polls, and gave Jones the votes he needed to eke out a victory over Moore. Over 98% of Black women and 93% of Black men voted for Jones, It was Black women and Black men who handed Jones his victory. Despite his anti-gay, sexist, racist, and homophobic rhetoric, despite multiple women accusing him of molesting them when they were teenagers, Moore was still able to capture a very sizeable portion of the white women vote.

White women, at this point we need to decide, right now, whether we want to join Black women and men and fight back against racism and sexism in politics, and everywhere, or continuously fight to maintain our white privilege in the face of rising gender inequality. We should not be fighting to put a child predator in the Senate; there shouldn’t have been a chance that would have happened. The fact that some women had to struggle, internally, to vote against Moore is egregious. And yet, here we are.

To the Democratic Party, there needs to be some serious discussion on how to give full representative voices to African Americans and minorities other than praying that they pull through during elections and save us from falling further away from common decency. We only give our thanks and strength to minorities when it benefits us politically; we are no closer to passing a clean DREAM Act, despite the fact that Democrats overwhelming voted to fund the government while undocumented minorities face the threat of deportation. Black communities are still reeling from mandatory minimums and three strike laws that were a part of Democratic President Bill Clinton’s “Tough on Crime” agenda, ballooning the already rising prison population and moving us into being one of the largest jailers in the world, and those incarcerated are disproportionately African American women and men. If you want to thank a Black woman or Black man for their part in the defeat of a child molester (especially since white men and women weren’t motivated to do so), start by addressing the damage that has been done to Black communities, and work to give back to them.

Today, we should be feel victorious. Tomorrow we need to work harder.

Lisa McNair, sister of one of the four girls killed in the 1963 church bombing, hears the news

(Image Credit: The Washington Post) (Photo Credit: The Root / Mickey Welsh)

The shaming of Black Women’s bodies cannot continue to be a casual matter

 

Pretoria Girls High. A disgraceful bastion of White privilege and ongoing violence against the Black psyche. It joins University of Free State, Rhodes University, Stellenbosch, Wits and so many other historically White institutions that remind us and now our children that we are visitors to our own country and extras in the imperial imagination. As a mother of two dreadlocked/braided teen girls, I salute these girls aged 12 to 18 who are rejecting the body shaming that insists that afros, dreadlocks and braids are ”dirty and messy” and the cultural genocide that does not want African pupils to speak African languages to each other at school, the criminalising of their movements that surveys Black girls when they are in groups of more than 2.

I recall being body shamed all through High School because of my baby fat and beautiful African bum. It was brutal. The shaming of Black Women’s bodies cannot continue to be a casual matter. It is violent. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Racist South Africa where White minority imagination is resisting the liberation project and where the revolution IS being televised. Just like 1976, language and Black being are sites of contestation. This Women’s Month is far more meaningful and has done far more to honour the spirit of the 1956 Women’s March than the pointless, vacuous , de-radicalised , ”soft and fluffy” celebrations of the past 15 years. Thank you Khwezi 4, thank you Marikana widows, thank you Caster Semenya and thank you Pretoria Girls High.

Black Girl – you MATTER. Your HAIR matters, your LANGUAGE matters, your CHOICES matter and your VOICE matters. In case I haven’t told you today – you are valuable, loved, precious and powerful. Speak even if your voice shakes and fight even while you are scared. I LOVE you Black Child, Black Girl, and I stand with you. You give me such hope and courage. #Racism and imperialism ARE falling #Afros and Dreadlocks are Rising.

What happened to Sarah Reed? The routine torture of Black women in prison

Sarah Reed

On January 11, Sarah Reed, 32 years old, Black, living with mental health issues and drug addiction, the victim of a famous police brutality case, was “found dead” in her cell at Holloway Prison, north of London. Her death went relatively unreported for almost a month, until the family managed to contact Black activist, Lee Jasper, and so now the reports of “failings” begin. There was no failure. The State got what it wanted: Sarah Reed is dead.

In 2012, Sarah Reed was viciously attacked by a Metropolitan Police officer. The attack was caught on camera, and, in 2014, the officer was dismissed from the force.

In October 2014, Sarah Reed was in a mental health hospital when she allegedly attacked someone. Her family says she wrote to them saying she had acted in self-defense. On January 4, Sarah Reed was shipped over to Holloway Prison, to await trial. While there, according to her family, she received no mental health treatment.

Prison authorities have claimed that Sarah Reed “strangled herself” while in her bed. Her family doubts that narrative. Further, they say they were called to the prison to identify Sarah Reed and then were prevented from seeing her body and were treated “in a hostile and aggressive manner.”

None of this is new, and none of it is surprising. Holloway Prison, the largest women’s prison in western Europe, is slated to be closed, precisely because it is unfit for human habitation. As outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, noted, “Holloway has a fearsome reputation.” When Holloway’s imminent closure was announced, some hoped that the closure would begin a “prison revolution”, but they had forgotten that Holloway had already undergone its revolution. From 1971 to 1985, it had been “completely rebuilt”, and yet it remained a fearsome, loathsome place.

That’s where the State sent Sarah Reed. There was no failure. The State wanted Sarah Reed dead, and Sarah Reed is dead. What happened to Sarah Reed happened to Sandra Bland happened to Natasha McKenna happened to Kindra Chapman happens. Rebuilding the prison never ends, or even diminishes, State torture of Black women. Shut it down.

 

(Photo Credit: Lee Jasper / Vice)

Shonda Walter, a 36-year-old Black woman on Pennsylvania’s death row

Shonda Walter, 2005

Shonda Walter is one of two women who currently sits on Pennsylvania’s death row. Pennsylvania has two women’s prisons, Muncy and Cambridge Springs. Muncy is both maximum security and the intake prison for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania. Muncy also houses Pennsylvania’s death row for women. Every woman prisoner in Pennsylvania first comes to Muncy, where her `security level’ is assigned, based on an assessment of criminal record, medical, mental health, and substance abuse. Lower security prisoners are sent to Cambridge Springs; the rest stay at Muncy. The question of how Shonda Walter’s ended up on death row may be the final nail in the coffin of the death penalty in the United States. Shonda Walter’s story hinges on the State-allotted destiny for young, low and no-income, Black women.

Shonda Walter was tried and convicted for murder. At the time of the murder, Shonda Walter was in her early 20s. At her first trial, Shonda Walter’s lawyers were a hot mess. They freely conceded her guilt to the jury, and they never presented her, or the jury, with any options or explanations. In her appeal, the judge described her attorney as “unintelligible.” The Pennsylvania appeals court found that Shonda Walter had indeed had terrible representation, and then went on to uphold the conviction and sentence.

Shonda Walter is a 36-year-old Black woman, and that is where the Constitution ends.

Shonda Walter has new attorneys who have filed a brief with the Supreme Court. Her attorneys argue that the ordinariness, the typicality, of Shonda Walter’s case, or pre-ordained fate, means the death penalty is unconstitutional. The adjudication of death sentences is capricious, arbitrary, and bears more than a `taint of racism.’

In an amicus brief, a group of social scientists zeroed in on Pennsylvania’s racist patterns: “Social science researchers have … turned their attention to Pennsylvania. One study on the role of race in capital charging and sentencing found that African Americans in Philadelphia receive the death penalty at a substantially higher rate than defendants of other races prosecuted for similar murders.”

Further, across the country. African Americans are systematically removed from capital offense juries. In Pennsylvania, “prosecutors struck on average 51% of the black jurors they had the opportunity to strike, compared to only 26% of comparable non-black jurors.”

As Shonda Walter’s attorneys’ conclusion suggests, none of this is new: “There is a palpable inevitability to the demise of the death penalty in this country. Whether it be now or in the future, the cast of its last libretto will be a familiar one: an innocent victim senselessly murdered, a psychologically damaged defendant, a lawyer with at least one foot on the disfavored side of Strickland’s Maginot line. And, as here, the case will have progressed through a system overshadowed by interminable delays, arbitrary and discriminatory application, and the now inescapable conclusion that too often we err in a way no court can mitigate.”

Too often we err in a way no court can mitigate. Another world must be possible.

 

(Photo Credit: The Marshall Project / Bill Crowell / The Express / AP)

Pennsylvania built a special hell for women living with mental illness

Pennsylvania has a special treatment for those living with severe mental illness: torture. If someone who’s been arrested cannot assist in his or her own defense, the judge orders competency restoration treatment. If the defendant’s competency is restored, the case goes forward. If it is not restored, the case is dismissed and the person either is released or “civilly committed.” That’s what is supposed to happen. In Pennsylvania, there’s a third way, a purgatory of uncivil commitments. In Pennsylvania, people sit in county jails, more often than not in solitary, for months and years, waiting for a bed. In recent years, at least two people have died while waiting. They may have been the lucky ones.

Last week, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed suit on behalf of eleven plaintiffs, whom they describe as part of “hundreds of people with severe mental illness who have been languishing in Pennsylvania’s county jails.” The lead plaintiff, J.H., is a homeless African-American man in his late 50s from Philadelphia who suffers from schizophrenia. J.H. was arrested for having stolen three Peppermint Pattie candies. For that crime, he has been sitting in the Philadelphia Detention Center for over 340 days, waiting for treatment. What becomes a dream deferred? “J.H.’s mental state has visibly deteriorated over the past eleven months in jail. Prior to his most recent detention, J.H. never displayed hostility, was relatively engaged during conversations, and was willing and able to answer simple questions. Now, he is visibly agitated, hostile, and unable or unwilling to engage in conversation.” The rest is silence.

Federal courts have decided that any delay longer than seven days between a court’s commitment order and hospitalization for treatment is unconstitutional. In Philadelphia, the average wait is 397 days. From January to September 2015, 23 individuals arrested in Philadelphia entered into restoration treatment. Of that group, three waited more than 500 days, one of whom waited 589 days. What do you think happens to someone living with severe mental illness who “awaits transfer” for 400 and more days?

Of the eleven plaintiffs, seven are African American. Two are women, both of whom are African American.

L.C. is a Black woman in her mid-20s “who suffers a mental impairment.” She’s been in and out of the criminal justice system. On November 13, 2014, L.C. was found incompetent to stand trial. After not becoming competent at the Philadelphia Detention Center, the court committed L.C. to competency restoration treatment on February 12, 2015. “L.C. has been detained for more than eight months (over 250 days) in the Philadelphia Detention Center since the order, awaiting an opening for treatment.”

What is like to await an opening? “L.C.’s mental state has deteriorated substantially during her stay at the Philadelphia Detention Center. In November 2014, L.C. was not competent but she was conversant with her public defender. In December, L.C. was screaming answers to questions, seemingly trying to talk over whatever she was hearing. By February 2015, L.C. had declined severely. She still screamed answers to her lawyer’s questions, but now the answers did not make sense. She also could not remain seated. In early June, she refused to see her lawyer at all. By late June, she sat through an interview sucking her thumb, refusing to make eye contact, and staring blankly. In late August, L.C. would not respond to any questions from her lawyer.”

On June 26, 2014, Jane Doe, in her early 40s, was found incompetent to stand trial. 480 days later, nearly 16 months, Jane Doe is still awaiting transfer: “Jane Doe’s mental and physical health has deteriorated in the nearly 16 months she has been waiting. She has lost noticeable weight. Prior to her most recent confinement at the Philadelphia Detention Center, Jane Doe would have discussions with her lawyer about her case. For the past year or more, she has refused to discuss the case and instead talks about having aliens and space ships in her body, and about being married to Jesus Christ. She has become much more delusional.”

According to ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Witold Walcak, “Our clients in this case are the forgotten among the forgotten. Most of these people have no family, friends or champions in their lives, and no one listens or understands them; they truly are voiceless and defenseless, unable to challenge their unjust and blatantly illegal imprisonment.”

Jane Doe, L.C., J.H. and all the others are now voiceless and defenseless. They weren’t when they were arrested. They were all at varying levels of discursive competence. Each could talk with his or her attorney. They simply needed help, treatment, and the embrace of the human. Instead, they were cast to the Commonwealth rung of hell, a factory that crushes bones, souls and minds in order to produce anguish, delusion, silence, after which all is blank.

(Photo Credit: Stephanie Aaronson / Philly.com)