The State `honors’ mothers while abusing their children

Yesterday, Sunday, May 8, 2011, was Mother’s Day in many parts of the world. Mothers were celebrated and honored. How does the State `honor’ mothers?

According to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, inequality among OECD countries is rapidly growing. Starting in the 1980s, the United States and the United Kingdom led the way in growth-through-inequality. Then the movement spread. Today, it rules the vast majority of OECD countries. Those are countries identified as wealthy and developed. Growing structural inequality has come to mean developed.

How are women honored in this development model? “Since the mid-1980s, women’s employment has grown much more rapidly than that of men. But many women work part-time and earn less which explains part of widening earnings gaps among the workforce. On average across the OECD, the share of part-time employment in total employment increased from 11% in the mid-1990s to about 16% by the late 2000s”.

Women have entered or been forced, or some combination thereof, into the jobs market. Many countries have followed the United States model in which public assistance, or welfare, has been cut and limited. There’s less money and the restrictions, especially the time restrictions, are severe. This toxic storm strikes single mothers particularly hard. Remove all supports and then create a labor market in which those with low or limited educational qualifications must work part-time for practically nothing. Eliminate public services, such as childcare and extended school programs. Even out-of-school suspension policies assault all working mothers, and particularly low- and no-wage mothers, and particularly single mothers.

If the women complain or try to unionize, they are reminded that there’s no assistance out there, that all the jobs available for `people like them’ are pretty much the same, and that they are women, mothers especially, who have near catastrophic household, and community, responsibilities. They are not reminded that, in the United States, union women earn 34% more than nonunion women.  That information wouldn’t be prudent.

The same period, early 1980s to the present, has witnessed increased incarceration of children. In Australia, the immigrant and asylum detention centers have been  “factories for producing mental illness”, and have been broadly criticized for caging children of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, sometimes for long periods. What is the State response? Cover-up. Privatize. Outsource.

In the United Kingdom, children in custody die as a result of constraint methods.  One popular method is the tantrum hold, sure to result in injury 9 out of 10 times. In 2004, fifteen-year-old Gareth Myatt died of asphyxiation after being `tantrum held.’ Finally, an investigation into the constraint methods was conducted. That report was completed in May 2008 and presented to the government. What was the State response? Silence? Actually, it was worse in that it was more active. The State suppressed and hid the report. This Wednesday, three years later, the report will be made public.

In the United States, eleven states treat 17-year-olds charged with felonies as adults.  Illinois is one of the eleven states. A recent study of convictions in Illinois suggests that only 25% of the youths convicted with gun charges were ever actually identified as having the gun in question. In fact, of the cases studied, only 46% of them had any gun recovered.  Children were sent to adult prisons for gun possession in cases in which no gun was ever found, in cases in which the children in question were never identified as holding the gun in question. How does the State respond? The State legislature is debating a bill, right now, to reduce the age limit from 17 to 15 and 16, if convicted for gun possession. In Illinois, this is considered inclusion.

From Australia to the United Kingdom to the United States and beyond, the State incarceration of children and the State abuse of child prisoners is a direct assault on their adult guardians. Overwhelmingly, that assault targets women. Mothers. Grandmothers. Aunts. All of these women are mothers,  `a woman who undertakes the responsibility of a parent towards a child.”

Nation-States designed, or bought, economic development models that targeted vast numbers of women and children. The same States designed, or bought, justice programs that targeted vast numbers of women and children. Those State economic and justice models have devastated communities of color and low-income communities generally.

And yesterday those States honored women and celebrated mothers and motherhood? Rather call those State festivities `honor celebrations’, and invite them to sit at the same family table as honor killings. Mothers, and their children, can sit at other, better tables.


(Photo Credit:

Black women prisoners haunt International Women’s Day

BobbyLee Worm

Stacey Lannert grew up in the middle of the United States, in Missouri. Her father sexually abused her, starting when she was eight years old. On July 5, 1990, at the age of 18, Lannert walked into her father’s bedroom and shot him, twice, killing him. The `final straw’ was her father raping her younger sister. Two years later, in December 1992, Lannert was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In January 2009, at the age of 36, Stacey Lannert was released, thanks to the outgoing Missouri governor, Matt Blunt, who commuted her sentence: “After eighteen years, I was allowed to be Stacey Ann Lannert instead of Offender #85704. I’ll never completely shed the number, but I did start over.”

Wilbertine Berkley would like to start over as well, but the State of Florida has other plans.

In the United States, over five million people cannot vote because of past criminal offenses. One million of those people live in Florida. In one state alone, a million people who have served their time are disenfranchised. Of that million, almost 300,000 are African American.

Wilbertine Berkley is a Black woman in Florida who struggled with drug abuse, spent time in jail, turned her life around, joined a program, got clean, went to college, and gave back to the community in volunteer work. She was awarded the Presidential Volunteer Award. She did everything she was supposed to do and more, and the State response has been to `alienate’ her, to identify her as frozen in the past. Her good work counts for nothing.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, March 9, 2011, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency will vote on whether to make it even more difficult for former prisoners to be re-instated. The proposed change would include a five-year mandatory waiting period before being able to apply for `clemency’. Florida’s Attorney General sees this as a fight against entitlements: “I believe that every convicted felon must actively apply for the restoration of his or her civil rights and that there should be a mandatory waiting period before applying. The restoration of civil rights for any felon must be earned, it is not an entitlement…The burden of restoring civil rights should not fall on the shoulders of government, but rather it should rest on the individual whose actions resulted in those rights being taken in the first place.”

Wilbertine Berkley wants and deserves respect for who she is today, for who she has become, for what she has made of herself and of her world. She made a mistake. She worked hard. She paid her debt.

But for Black women, the debt of incarceration is the gift that keeps on giving.

Ask BobbyLee Worm. BobbyLee Worm is a 24 year old aboriginal woman prisoner in the Fraser Valley Institution, a Canadian federal prison that describes itself as “a multi-level facility for women…. Programs focus on the particular needs of women offenders, including Aboriginal inmates and those with psychological problems or learning disabilities.”

One of these particular programs is called Management Protocol.

Management Protocol is “a special program for handling women prisoners who have been involved in a major violent incident or threat of incident while in the system.” Established in 2005, seven women prisoners have been on Management Protocol. All seven have been aboriginal women.

Management Protocol is open ended, unrestricted solitary confinement. Twenty- three hours a day for as long as the prison deems `adequate’ and `necessary.’ How does one leave Management Protocol? One earns one’s way out. How does one earn? What are the wages? No one knows.

BobbyLee Worm entered prison June 7, 2006. She is a first time offender, sentenced to six years, four months. She has spent the majority of her time in segregation, paying off the debt of years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and trauma. For Black women, the debt of incarceration is the gift that keeps on giving.

These stories are typical of the conditions of women, and girl, prisoners around the world. Girls whose only `crime’ is being the daughters of asylum seekers, or of being born into oppressive communities, are stuck into detention centers, such as the Inverbrackie Detention Center in Australia. Once there, they suffer nightmares, turn violent, and refuse to eat. What is their crime, what is the debt to society that must be paid? They were born in Iran, they sailed to Australia.

Around the world, women of color, Black women, and their daughters, sit in prisons. Their debt grows incrementally by the second. Their numbers grow incrementally by the day. Today is March 8, 2011, International Women’s Day.  These women prisoners haunt International Women’s Day.


(Photo Credit: British Columbia Civil Liberties Association)

Child prisoners in Pennsylvania haunt the United States

In 2003, children started disappearing in Luzerne County, in northeastern Pennsylvania. By 2009, over 5000 had vanished, or more precisely had been disappeared. They were sold into juvenile prison system in what some call a kids-for-cash scam. On Friday, February 18, 2011, Judges Mark Ciaverella  and Michael Conahan pled guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud.

In a nutshell, the story is that two private juvenile prisons, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, paid the judges to send children to jail. Over 5000 children. In a five or six year period. In one county. Many were first time offenders. Many are today still in prison. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court voided almost all the juvenile convictions from 2003 on. Senior Judge Arthur Grim has the task of adjudicating the mess.

But what exactly is the mess? Ask the mothers of the children, ask the children themselves.

Erica Michaliga’s son damaged the hood of the family car. She called the police, to “put a good scare into him.” Once in, her son spent four years in prison. “Not only is this kids for cash, this is kids forgotten.”

Thirteen-year-old Alissa Conahan got into an argument with her grandmother. The family called the cops, to put a good scare into her. She spent most of four years, from the age of 14 to 18, in prison: “He ruined my life, so I don’t care what happens to him.”

At the age of 12, Eric Stefanski took his mother’s car and went on a quick joyride. No one was hurt. Eric ran over a barrier, smashing the undercarriage. In order to get insurance to pay for the damage, his mother, Linda Donovan, had to file a police report. She thought appearing before the judge might also “give him a little scare.” Eric Stefanski was shackled then and there, and spent the next two years in prison.

Edward Kenzakoski was 17 years old, a good kid with a bright future, a high school senior, a wrestler who was `expected to take state in his high school’. Edward looked forward to college scholarships based on his athletics, good record, and general life story. Edward started hanging out with `a different crowd, sneaking out at night.’ So, his mother called the police. She found out he was at an underage drinking party, and she asked the police to intervene, to help, “to put a little scare into him.” The police thought that’s what they were doing. Helping.

His mother, Sandy Fonzo, remembers and re-lives the rest: “Before we knew it, he was shackled, and he was taken. And I just remember his face looking at me. And it was just – it was horror. It was almost like—you know, he’s my kid, and I had just no control. They actually—at one time, while they had him in that juvenile center, he called me the next day. He’s in some place hours away. They needed a bed to fill for somebody else, so they moved him in the middle of the night, pouring down rain. I didn’t even know where my 17-year-old son was. I was having like a nervous breakdown. This whole thing has been nothing but a nightmare, and it just has never ended. It never ended. And now I live with this nightmare the rest of my life. And I just want him to at least pay for what he’s done. I mean, these people are to protect our kids. He was the adult here. He made these kids all think that they’re such bad kids. And, you know, it’s just terrible the way he beat them down. They’re not bad kids. I want them to know: it wasn’t them, it was him. They’re not bad. I want them to heal and go on with their lives so nothing happens to them like it did to my son.”

Edward committed suicide last June.

What runs through these stories? Efficiency. Child care.

According to Judge Grim, the average court proceeding for these children was “a minute and a half to three minutes.” It took that long to weigh the value of a child, of a child’s life. Judge Ciavarella was acting efficiently. Otherwise, how did this horror continue for six whole years?

Children make mistakes. In Luzerne County, families, mothers and grandmothers in particular, called on the police, called on the State, to put a scare into their kids. They called for help. In an economically devastated area, like that of Luzerne County, like that of Wilkes-Barre, that long ago lost its industrial, economic base, this is child care. There are few, if any, public services for children. There are few, if any, public services for families. The public juvenile detention centers have been closed and replaced with privately owned and operated ones, with names like PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care.

Five thousand children disappeared in a six year period, from 2003 to 2009, in a small place called Wilkes-Barre. Their mothers watched, helpless, as they were shackled and disappeared. Five thousand families suffered the disappearance of their children. The children haunt Pennsylvania. The mothers and grandmothers haunt Pennsylvania. The six years haunt Pennsylvania. Loss haunts Pennsylvania. The horror haunts Pennsylvania.

And Pennsylvania haunts the United States.

(Photo Credits: Kids For Cash) (Video Credit: Juvenile Law Center / YouTube)

The orphan children of asylum seekers haunt Australia

Seena weeps at the funeral of an eight-month-old baby, drowned on the rocks of Christmas Island

On Wednesday, December 15, 2010, a wooden fishing vessel carrying an untold number of asylum seekers and refugees, thought to be Iranian and Iraqi Kurds, crashed off the shores of Christmas Island. The residents watched in horror, the nation watched in horror. Some of the dead were fished out of the rough seas. Others were never found. Estimates suggest that 50 people perished that day.

The survivors were either sent to hospital in Perth or sent to detention centers on Christmas Island. Prime Minister Gilliard called the event a `terrible human tragedy’.

Yesterday, Tuesday, February 15, 2011, two months to the day, eight of the dead were buried in two separate funerals in Sydney. Twenty-one survivors were flown in from Christmas Island and Perth, where they have been detained for the last two months.

Among those survivors was a nine-year old boy named Seena.

Seena lost both of his parents in the tragedy. Seena’s brother drowned that day as well. His father’s body was fished out of the waters. His mother was never found. Seena spends every day staring and waiting for new boats to arrive, for his mother to arrive. At the funeral, Seena said, “Leave me alone. I just want to go to my father. I just want to see him, I just want to see him.” According to one cousin, he wanted to be “buried with his father”.

Seena is nine years old. He has cousins, aunts and uncles, who live in Sydney. They have begged the State to let the child stay in Sydney, where he has an extended family network, where there are mental health providers ready to attend to him. “We are more than happy to take responsibility for him,” his cousin explains.

They are more than happy to take responsibility.

The State however is not happy to take responsibility for this nine year old child. The State initially planned to ship him back, with the others, back to Christmas Island, back to isolation, back to desolation, back to endless and daily waiting for his mother to arrive. If Seena is returned to Christmas Island, who will take care of him? His aunt, who is also a prisoner there. His aunt, who is in even worse psychological condition than he is.

Tonight, Seena is at Villawood Immigrant Detention Centre, outside of Sydney, … again. Seena spent the day before his father’s funeral in Villawood. When ten relatives came to see him, his spirits lifted. Seena is a nine-year old child. Of course, seeing his relatives cheered him up.

Seena is meant to be flown back to Christmas Island tomorrow, Thursday, morning. Perhaps he has been, perhaps not. The State now says it will consider the family’s request.

What does it take for the nation-State to be happy, more than happy, to take responsibility for the children in its midst?

Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child reads, in part:

“No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment….Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age.”

Australia ratified that ConventIon in December 1990, twenty years almost to the day of Seena losing his family and being sent to Christmas Island. More countries have ratified the Convention than any other human rights treaty in history. If there is anything like a global consensus, it is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

And yet … protecting, securing and sustaining the rights of the child and the rights of children is viewed as a bureaucratic obligation. Which nation-State is more than happy to take responsibility for the child?

Seena is nine years old. Seenah haunts Australia. The orphan children of asylum seekers haunt the world.


(Photo Credit: Sydney Morning Herald / Getty Images)


The child prisoners of St. Patrick’s haunt Ireland


In Ireland, today, Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan issued a report, entitled Young People in St. Patrick’s Institution. St. Patrick’s is a men’s, and boys’, prison for children and adults between the ages of 16 and 21. It is the only place in Ireland that `accommodates’ male prisoners aged 16 and 17, whether they have been sentenced or are awaiting trial. The boys of St. Patrick’s come from all over the country.

The report describes St. Patrick’s Institution as follows: “St. Patrick’s Institution is a closed, medium security prison managed by the Irish Prison Service, which holds remand and sentenced young people between 16 and 21 years of age. Adjacent to Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, the Institution’s main buildings are part of a Victorian prison complex dating back to 1850 and were the site of the women’s prison before becoming a place of detention for young offenders.” Women and children first, or, in this case, women first, then children, both subjected to a male adult prison regime.

As is so often the case with Victorian prisons still in use, St. Patrick’s has been criticized for a long time, for decades. The 1985 Whitaker Report called for St. Patrick’s closure, arguing that it was too old and dilapidated to repair, arguing further that it contributed to further juvenile delinquency rather than rehabilitation. That was over 25 years ago. In July 2007 the Irish Penal Reform Trust issued a new report, The Whitaker Committee Report 20 Years On: Lessons Learned or Lessons Forgotten? It described the earlier report as  “the most detailed and thoughtful analysis of Irish prisons to date”. There was much discussion of lessons learned, forgotten, suppressed, ignored. The 200 Years On analysis described deteriorating conditions. The prison was going from very bad to much worse.

Today, Wednesday, February 9, 2001, that prison still houses child prisoners, still does harm to them, their families, and their communities, still defines the Irish state.

According to today’s report, every aspect of St. Patrick’s denies and offends the particularities of the prisoners as children. For many, contact with family is difficult because the prison is far from home, and so getting there is expensive and time consuming. Remand prisoners are allowed five fifteen-minute visits per week. Sentenced prisoners are allowed two half-hour visits. Imagine the family that will travel hours for a fifteen-minute `interview’. Then imagine the child.

Meanwhile, maintaining and developing healthy relationships with family and friends is made almost impossible by visiting conditions and regulations that prohibit intimacy or privacy.

Children can’t be children, parents can’t be parents.

When the children’s wing, the B-Wing, is overcrowded, either the boys are dumped two to a bed, or they’re moved to C- and D-Wings, where adult prisoners are kept. Again, this includes children who are remand prisoners.

The food is terrible, the educational facilities are outmoded and archaic, the health facilities are decrepit, there is little attention to rehabilitation and reintegration in any way that is attentive to the needs of children, of adolescents. The boy’s in jail, he’s treated like a man.

Finally, there’s `the pad’, or special observation cell. The prison administration claims this is only used to protect the prisoners. The prisoners see it as solitary confinement: degrading, punitive, silencing. Putting an adult in long term solitary confinement is torture. Placing an adolescent in a `seclusion room’, without explanation, without … anything, is as well. `The pad’ teaches the young that they must not complain, they must not whimper, they must just tough it out and get through. If they have problems, especially mental health problems, they must be silent. They must not seek help. They must learn to shut up. That is the lesson of solitary confinement when administered on the young.

None of this is new and none of this is news. The conditions of St. Patrick’s have been known for longer than any of these children have walked the earth. This is what it means to be a child in the care of the modern State.



(Image Credit: The Ombudsman for Children, Ireland) (Video Credit: The Ombudsman for Children, Ireland / YouTube)