In the California Institution for Women, women are dropping like flies

 

Stephanie Feliz

Last week, California Department of Corrections officials “discovered” a crisis. In the past eighteen months, four women prisoners at the California Institution for Women, or CIW, in Chino killed themselves … or were killed by willful neglect. On February 17, 2015, 73-year-old Gui Fei Zhang killed herself a day after being released from suicide watch. Weeks later, on March 6, 2015, 34-year-old Stephanie Feliz hanged herself. Feliz had attempted suicide before and had sought emergency mental health the day she died, according to sister inmates and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. A year earlier, on February 24, 2014, 31-year-old Alicia Thompson killed herself, and a few months later, on July 30, 23-year-old Margarita Murguia hanged herself. April Harris, a sister prisoner in CIW, explained Margarita Murguia’s death, “She was there for her own protection, not because she did something. Apparently her mom was dying of cancer and they refused to let her see her mom. She tried to kill herself with every denied request. She finally did it.”

She finally did it. A woman hanged herself that night? No, a woman was hanged. When does the count of women prisoner suicide reach crisis? What is California’s policy?

After Stephanie Feliz’s death, April Harris, a CIW prisoner, wrote, “We have women dropping like flies, and not one person has been questioned as to why … I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever.”

California has touted its California Institution for Women as a model, because once, over a year ago, it received a passing grade for its mental health care provision. But that was, or may have been, then, and this is now. Now, CIW is overcrowded. Designed for 1398 prisoners, CIW houses 1833 women. According to the California Department of Corrections, CIW is at 131.1% capacity, down from a peak, in May, of 131.7% capacity. Its suicide rate is more than eight times the national rate for women prisoners and more than five times the rate for the entire California prison system.

Mental illness “haunts” women’s prisons, nationally as well as locally. According to some estimates, 60 to 70 percent of women prisoners, against 30 percent of men prisoners, have recently experienced mental illness. Prisons report that around 30 percent of women prisoners have been diagnosed with severe mental illness, and 30 to 60 percent are living with drug addictions. One third of women prisoners “experience recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal impulses, and to have made prior suicide attempts.” How do states respond to women’s high and higher levels of complex mental illness and suicidal impulses and attempts: “Women are less likely than men to receive psychiatric treatment in correctional settings, despite their high incidence of mental illnesses.”

Women prisoners and supporters, such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, know these numbers in their bones, and they have not been silent. They have continually and loudly denounced the conditions and called for a thorough overhaul, beginning with releasing most of the prisoners. When the women of the California Institution for Women participated in last July’s statewide hunger strike, they called attention, with their bodies, to the State assault on their bodies, minds and souls. They identified a crisis of health care and a crisis of caring in Chino, and the State looked the other way. How many women have died in State custody and how many more will die before the `crisis’ is `resolved’?

(Photo Credit: California Department of Corrections / AP)

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

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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)

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)

A time of challenge and opportunity for U.S. domestic workers

The past few months have been marked by both progress and setbacks for domestic workers in the United States, especially those who provide in-home care to seniors, people with disabilities and others in need. The developments have made it increasingly evident both that there is much work to do to generate the policy and cultural changes U.S. domestic workers need and deserve – and that now is the time to make it happen.

Home care is one of the United States’ fastest-growing and lowest-paying industries. More than 90 percent of U.S. home care workers are women, more than half are people of color, nearly a quarter are foreign born, and more than half rely on public assistance. The vast majority are also paid through public funds, primarily from Medicare and Medicaid. When combined with misguided views of women’s work and caregiving, these factors have long made the workforce especially susceptible to cutbacks and exploitation.

A major recent setback happened this June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn that 26,000 Illinois home care workers are only “partial” public employees because they provide in-home care for private clients through a publicly funded state home care program. As a result, according to the ruling, these workers are no longer entitled to the same labor protections and union representation as other workers, specifically those who provide care outside of a private home.

The decision brings to light notions of both the home and the workplace that are routinely used to justify the devaluing of women’s labor: The home is not a workplace and, therefore, even basic labor protections do not apply to it or those who work within it. This is the same flawed rationale that resulted in home care workers being classified as “companions” and denied minimum wage and overtime protections under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1974. That classification isn’t supposed to change until next year.

Another setback came a few weeks ago. In what should have been a monumental victory for working families, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the nation’s second statewide paid sick days law, which will guarantee an additional 6.5 million workers the right to earn paid sick time. But, just before the bill passed, the governor negotiated an amendment to exclude one critical group from its protections: 400,000 workers who provide in-home care through the state’s publicly funded home care program.

Governor Brown’s actions may not surprise some. The first two times the state’s domestic workers’ bill of rights came across his desk, he vetoed it. He eventually signed the law – the nation’s third – in 2013. He also previously sought hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the state’s home care program. This time, the governor cited cost as the reason to exclude home care workers from the new paid sick days law. Viability of that concern aside, there is simply no excuse for making cuts or special exceptions at the expense of the workers who can least afford it, and whose health and well-being have such a widespread impact.

So why did the governor of one of the more progressive states in the country do it? Because he can. Home care workers are still positioned as easy targets in the United States, and it is not unusual in the nation’s history (or globally) for women’s work to be undervalued and excluded from even the most basic protections. That is part of what makes the most recent potential setback so disappointing.

In 2013, in a major victory for domestic workers, the Obama administration announced official changes to the classification of home care workers under the FLSA that would extend minimum wage and overtime pay protections to two million home care workers. It also gave employers and states at least 15 months – until January 1, 2015 – to prepare. Now, some state and private home care industry officials are lobbying for more time. If they are successful, it will mean that the needs of home care workers will come last, yet again.

The good news is that workers, unions and advocates are pushing back, and there are reasons for U.S. domestic workers to be hopeful. Despite the Harris ruling, the union of home care workers most impacted by the decision says 10,000 workers have signed up. Just two months after the decision, thousands of Minnesota home care workers voted to unionize. And Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was recently awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ of $625,000 to support organizing and policy advocacy efforts.

So, at a time like this, when there is a tremendous amount of great work happening to elevate and address the needs of U.S. domestic workers, the challenges and opportunities made clear in the last few months are a reminder that workers, advocates and organizers must remain vigilant. The United States cannot afford to take steps backward and further ingrain archaic and inexcusable understandings of domestic labor and women’s work, especially with such great progress on the horizon.

 

Update: On October 7, 2014, the U.S Department of Labor announced that the rule extending minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers will be implemented on January 1, 2015, as planned. However, it also announced that it will not enforce the changes for six months, followed by another six months during which enforcement will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Although the move does not technically delay implementation of the long overdue rule, it will mean that some U.S. home care workers will have to wait at least a year before receiving the pay protections they deserve.

 

(Photo Credit: Melody Gutierrez, The Chronicle)

What do you mean, sterilized without consent?

Last week, California formally banned forced and coerced sterilization of women prisoners … again. Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill No. 1135 into law. The bill reads, in part: “This bill would prohibit sterilization for the purpose of birth control of an individual under the control of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or a county correctional facility, as specified.” Not forcing sterilization on women prisoners seems pretty straightforward. Some would even say a no-brainer.

And yet, this law took a lot of brains, and muscle and organizing and history.

The quick story is that the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed, last year, that the California prison system had coerced women prisoners into 4sterilization. Lawmakers, and in particular the California Women’s Legislative Caucus, called for an investigation. A State audit showed that between 2005 and 2013, 144 tubal ligations were performed on women prisoners. At least 25% of these had no evidence whatsoever of informed consent. Most of the others were dicey. 88 of the women were Latina or Black, and 6 were “other”. All of the women, one hundred percent, had been jailed at least once.

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson wrote the bill. She worked with Cynthia Chandler, co-founder of the prisoners rights group Justice Now. They worked with former prisoners, such as Kelli Dillon, who could confirm the allegations and, more importantly, put a human face on the story. When the bill was presented, it passed unanimously, thanks to the great work of great investigative reporters, community organizers, legislators, and current and former women prisoners.

The law’s back-story raises many concerns. Between 1909 and 1964, California had compulsory sterilization laws that targeted people of color, the poor, the disabled, those living with mental illnesses, and prisoners. About 20,000 men and women were sterilized without any pretense of consent. Forced sterilization laws were officially banned, by the California legislature, in 1979.

Prison doctors and administrators found loopholes in the ban, and they were back in business, and the only possible witnesses are `unreliable’. After all, they’re repeat offenders, many with low levels of formal education and many with “too many children.” And they’re women, mostly women of color.

In Maryland, when State Delegate Mary L. Washington discovered that women prisoners were being shackled in childbirth, she replied, “Wait. What do you mean, shackled?” When she learned that shackled meant shackled, she launched what she figured was a no-brainer, a ban on shackling women prisoners in childbirth. It took two years of lots of brain and brawn to get that no-brainer passed.

These crimes by the State succeed because the population at large has been persuaded, for decades, that these women are the problem, and it’s best to leave the problem to the experts, prison doctors and prison guards. That’s how we’ve ended up in a world of what-do-you-mean.

In California, members of Justice Now are organizing an education campaign for current women prisoners and another for former prisoners. We all need that education. What do you mean, sterilized without consent? What do you mean, shackled?

 

(Photo credit: CDCR via Common Dreams)

Cell extraction: Torture from sea to shining sea

 

From Tennessee and California, this week, people and groups are charging, in court and in the streets, that something called “cell extraction” is killing and torturing prisoners, children, loved ones: “In the insular world of correctional institutions, it is known as cell extraction, the forcible removal of a prisoner from a cell by a tactical team armed with less-lethal weapons like Tasers, pepper spray and stun shields.”

On one hand, standard “cell extraction” becomes particularly problematic when so much of the prison population is living with mental illness and so few, as in practically none, of the prison staff is trained to recognize, much address, a mental health episode. The story of Charles Jason Toll is a case in point.

Charles Jason Toll was 33, diabetic and living with mental illness. One hot August night, in Riverbend Maximum Security, in Tennesse, where Toll was in solitary confinement, guards rushed into his cell, pushed him to the floor, handcuffed and shackled him. When he repeatedly begged, “I can’t breathe”, he was told, “You wanted this.” A little while later, he died.

Charles Jason Toll was in prison for a parole violation. Why was he in solitary? Why did no one in charge know his medical history?

Part of Charles Jason Toll’s story is the vindictive system in which a slip can send you down a hole from which there is no escape, and that’s the plan.

Toll’s mother, Jane Luna, is suing Tennessee for having killed, and tortured, her son. Jane Luna didn’t even know her son was arrested until she received notice of his death.

Meanwhile, “Videos made public in California last fall showed corrections officers at state prisons dousing severely psychotic inmates with large amounts of pepper spray before forcibly removing them from their cells, images that a federal district judge, Lawrence K. Karlton, who ordered the release of the videos, termed `horrific.’”

Earlier this week, ten civil rights groups filed a complaint concerning the San Diego juvenile detention centers and their use, especially during cell extraction procedures, of pepper spray.

One story involves a girl who reported, to her attorney, that she had suicidal inclinations. “The girl sat on the bunk in her cell in one of San Diego County’s female juvenile-detention units as staff members explained that she was being placed on suicide watch. They told her she had to strip naked in front of them—including in front of a male staff member. She refused, twice. So, they sprayed her in the face with pepper spray, then shut the door to her cell. Two minutes later, they asked if she was going to cooperate. She refused, and they sprayed her a second time and again shut the door. Minutes later, they opened the door and sprayed her again. She vomited. They then sprayed her yet once more. After the fourth blast of pepper spray, the girl finally submitted. Probation staff ordered her to crawl out of the cell, where they handcuffed her, forcibly removed her clothing, cut off her shirt and bra, strip-searched her, put her in a gown and placed her in solitary confinement for 48 hours.”

There is a special punishment, a special hell, for girls and young women who refuse the advances of the State.

 

(Image Credit: San Diego City Beat)

Dehumanization beyond cruelty: women’s mass incarceration

When it comes to women, the shame of neoliberal policies knows no limit. In California women in prison have been sterilized as a way to save welfare money. Tennessee passed a bill making pregnant women who had drug addiction problems eligible for prison time, and thus less valuable than the fetus they carry.

Sterilization has been a weapon of conquest used against American Indian women. It has been a weapon of control over the Black body during and after slavery. Now it has become a weapon for controlling the future of indebted Latina and African and Native American women in California and in Tennessee.

In California, from 2006 to 2010, over 150 incarcerated women were sterilized without consent. Doctors say that they have not forced them and the women say that the pressure was constant and they could not escape it. Although the procedure had a cost about $147, 460, doctors said that the money was well spent and the cost was not significant compared to the money saved on welfare if these women had more children. The majority of women were Latinas and African Americans. The state has the legal authority to sterilize without consent based on a Supreme Court decision allowing “forcible sterilization” in jail (1927). In 1927, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

In recent decades, welfare evolved from being a support system against the adversities of life in an industrial society to a debt that poor people of color incur. For poor women of color, their bodies are both collateral and ransom.

Once, the racialized woman’s reproductive body was a source of profit and accumulation of wealth. As Thomas Jefferson argued: “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable that the best man on the farm…what she produces is in addition to the capital while his labors disappear in mere consumption.”

Today, that reproductive body has to be locked up.

For one year, Tennessee experimented with a more inclusive approach, The Safe Harbor Act. Its idea was simple: drug dependent mothers need support more than prison. The act was a step toward better care for pregnant women, arguing that they would seek help if medical confidentiality was respected. That approach was given a mere year, nowhere near enough time to reach its goal.

Last week, the Tennessee legislature overwhelmingly passed a new bill that empowers police to investigate drug-taking pregnant women. The bill was justified by the high level of Tennessee babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which is treatable and does not leave any long-term damage on the child. Sending the child’s mother to jail, however, will undoubtedly have a long-term effect on the mother and the child.

The bill had bipartisan support. From both sides of the aisle, legislators showed no understanding of the process of drug addiction, its biological reality as a chronic relapsing disorder that often emerges from today’s political and social disorder. Loss of jobs and cuts on public services has produced a parallel drug economy. Women of color are more likely to be affected by the reduction of public services. Furthermore, according to Tennessee’s commissioner of health, in 60% of the cases the mothers in question had a prescription for the drugs in their bodies.

With this bill the fetus carries more rights than the living mother to be. The value of the fetus is only there to negate the humanity of the woman, who, as a Virginia state senator stated recently, is less than a full being. But that’s only as a fetus. Once born, that child joins the army of the poor in Tennessee or in California. Poverty for children of color has intensified and expanded. According to a recent Annie E Casey Foundation report, minority children trail behind white children on every social account measured. If children’s safety motivates this bill, then since African American, Latinos and American Indians are way more likely to live in areas where industrial pollution is harmful for their health, why not punish the “polluters” instead of poor women? Clearly, when the child is born, protection of life takes a different meaning according to class, race and ethnicity.

In both states, the war on drugs has targeted women of color. The recent announcement of clemency for inmates that have spent at least ten years in jail for nonviolent drug offenses, is hardly an act of clemency, especially for women, in particular for women of color and poor women whose bodies are again going to be channeled to jail.

In Europe, the debt economy has used austerity measures in Greece to send people to jail for debt. In the United States, the debt economy has used racial discrimination inherited from slavery and genocidal policies to achieve the same level of success through impoverishment.

Martin Luther king once said, “Central to democracy is the fundamental belief that one belongs and one’s voice matters…” These women have no say. They are flesh and bones with reproductive capability devoid of rights. After strict State surveillance, they are to be culled from the herd, neither citizens nor humans.

These policies go beyond cruelty. They institutionalize and normalize mass dehumanization.

 

(Image Credit: Slate / Kostsov / Thinkstock)

A specter haunts California

 


At some point California dreamin’ and going back to California turned into Golden Gulag California. One day, the gulag too shall pass. After the gulag, what will emerge, and who shall write that history? Today marks the second day of the California prisoners’ hunger strike. Some 30,000 prisoners have laid down their tools, in this instance their bodies, in what is reported to be the largest hunger strike in state history. Prisoners across the state have put their lives on the line.

The core demands are straightforward and eminently reasonable: end group punishments; abolish the whole gang identification and `debriefing’ apparatus; end long term isolation; provide adequate and nutritious food; expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for those placed in indefinite solitary confinement in what California calls “secure housing units”. A secure housing unit is a warehouse of pain, suffering and slow death.

Indefinite solitary confinement is torture. Being buried alive is torture. But this hunger strike is about more than that. It’s about the future as well as the present. It’s about who will write the history, and what master narrative will rule that roost. It’s about being human

Solitary cells of America are filled with people living with disabilities. Prisoners, like Prisoner #6 in Pennsylvania SCI-Muncy, are depressed, live with mental disabilities, act out, try to commit suicide, and they are thrown into the hole and abandoned there. And then die horrible deaths.

But that’s not good enough for California. California has Secure Housing Units in which “security” means indefinite and long term isolation, and debriefing means coerced reporting on gangs, even if one is not in a gang.

Meanwhile, in the ordinary and everyday world of California prisons, until fairly recently, women prisoners were tricked or coerced into sterilization. 66% of the guards inside women prisons are male; most of the rapes inside women’s prisons are at the hands of male prison staff.

When the Valley State Prison for Women, VSPW, was closed, to turn it into a men’s “facility”, and the women were shipped to the already crowded Central California Women’s Facility, CCWF, what happened? Overcrowding, antagonism, tension, violence … and segregation and isolation. Take the case of Prisoner T: “T. has been incarcerated for 30 years, with a parole date in late 2014, and was among the women transferred from VSPW after 25 years of violation-free programming.” Twenty-five years without a violation. Because of CCWF circumstances beyond T’s control, T is segregated and will probably stay in segregation for the entire year, until she’s paroled. According to T., “It’s disheartening to be in Ad Seg as I am locked up in a cell 24 hours a day. I only receive six hours of exercise a week, which consists of a small fenced in cement yard that has no place to sit except on the cement floor. I just go out for the fresh air.” Fresh air. To get fresh air, T. is stripped naked and spends her hour in that cement yard completely naked and completely alone. When she returns, she is strip-searched. When she goes to shower, she is handcuffed behind the back. She is allowed to shower three times a week. T. is not in segregation for disciplinary reasons, and yet she is treated as if she were.

Meanwhile, in the “free world”, in California developmental centers, the in-house police do less than nothing to protect residents and patient, or to investigate incidents of abuse. According to a report today, “dozens of women were sexually assaulted inside state centers, but police investigators didn’t order `rape kits’ to collect evidence. Police waited so long to investigate one sexual assault that the staff janitor accused of rape fled the country. The police force’s inaction also allowed abusive caregivers to continue molesting patients – even after the department had evidence that could have stopped future assaults.”

The California prison hunger strike is about being-human. Across the state of California, people in prison are regularly abused, humiliated, tortured, and worse. Women are regularly attacked as women. Indefinite solitary confinement, “debriefing”, group punishments, toxic food regimens, denial of basic services and programs, forced sterilization, routine sexual violence, these are all public policies. They are not incidental nor accidental. The struggle taking place right now in California is for the soul of humanity, for that remote possibility that after the Golden Gulag, something human will emerge. A specter haunts California.

 

(Photo Credit: The Examiner)

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)

California’s cruel and usual prisons: who cares?

Exercise cages for prisoners at California State Prison, Corcoran

The Supreme Court handed down its decision this week on the California prison system. The decision, by Justice Anthony Kennedy, and the dissenting opinions, are riveting reading, from beginning to end.

The decision involves two cases. The first, Coleman v. Brown, concerns prisoners with serious mental disorders. The second, Plata v. Brown, concerns prisoners with serious medical conditions. The Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a lower court decision that mandated California reduce the size of its prison population should stand. By a 5 – 4 vote, the Court decided it should.

Many issues are engaged here. Is overcrowding the primary cause for the longstanding “needless suffering and death” that occurs in a system that has double the residents it is designed to hold? If California were not mandated to release prisoners, or otherwise reduce the prison population, would it do so on its own? Is the relief sufficiently `narrow’ to meet the legal requirements of `narrowly drawn’ and `no further than necessary’? Are the remedies imposed overly intrusive?

The public discussion has focused on overcrowding, but consider the grammar of Justice Kennedy’s argument. Here’s an example: “Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets. A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic.  Prison officials explained they had `no place to put him.’ Other inmates awaiting care may be held for months in administrative segregation, where they endure harsh and isolated conditions and receive only limited mental health services. Wait times for mental health care range as high as 12 months. In 2006, the suicide rate in California’s prisons was nearly 80% higher than the national average for prison populations; and a court-appointed Special Master found that 72.1% of suicides involved some measure of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention, and were therefore most probably foreseeable and/or preventable.’”

The situation for prisoners with serious medical illness is equally dire and cruel.

Overcrowding in California prisons has led to “serious constitutional violations”. But overcrowding is not the crisis. Overcrowding is the symptom. The two cases, Coleman v. Brown and Plata v. Brown, speak to the responsibility of the State to take care of the most vulnerable.

“A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. If government fails to fulfill this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation.”

The California prison crisis is not overcrowding. The crisis is not the sum total and ratio of human bodies to square feet, of good and `bad’ beds to properly residential spaces, of toilets to hundreds of individuals, of medical care providers to mentally and medically ill. The crisis is human dignity. The crisis is sustenance. The crisis is responsibility. The prison crisis in California is a crisis of State and a crisis of society. It is a crisis of care. Care haunts the Plata v. Brown decision. Care haunts California. Care haunts us all.

 

(Photo Credit: whatthefolly.com)