Covid Operations: In prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, the United States refuses to address Covid

In June, the Florida Department of Corrections ended all Covid-related pandemic emergency protocols. This includes reporting, and so now, although cases increase and people behind bars are dying, the state issues no reports. It’s none of your or our business. Go away. Florida is not an outlier. The whole country has refused do care for people behind bars. According to the most recent Prison Policy Initiative analysis, the United States gets an F, the Federal Bureau of Prisons gets an F. 42 state prison systems get F or F+. The highest grade went to New Jersey, C. Another study, looking at jail populations, finds that one of the best forms of Covid mitigation – along with vaccination, mask mandates, social distancing – is jail decarceration: “The globally unparalleled system of mass incarceration in the US, which is known to incubate infectious diseases and to spread them to broader communities, puts the entire country at distinctive epidemiologic risk …. Public investment in a national program of large-scale decarceration and reentry support is an essential policy priority for reducing racial inequality and improving US public health and safety, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity.” As to immigrant detention centers, “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has proven itself ill-equipped to manage the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in its detention facilities.” This applies as well to the “nongovernmental detainee facilities across the country”, such as the Otay Mesa Detention Center, site of the largest Covid outbreak among detained migrants … thus far. Say what you like about Florida, when it comes to concern for the vulnerable, for care of those people living and suffering in prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, it’s just one of the guys.

As the Prison Policy Initiative analysis suggests, this shouldn’t have been so complicated or difficult. Reduce the prison population. Reduce infection and death rates behind bars. Vaccinate everyone living behind bars. Address basic health and mental health needs through easy policy changes: waive video and phone call charges; provide masks and hygiene products; suspend medical co-pays; require staff wear masks; require staff be tested regularly. That’s it. It’s not complicated. It’s not hard. Everyone failed. I know … New Jersey got a C, California a C-Everyone else got a D or F.New Jersey vaccinated and released many living behind bars, but New Jersey’s infection rate in prisons was almost four times higher than the state COVID infection rate, and the prison Covid mortality rate was almost double that of the state.

Four states – California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey – made significant efforts to reduce prison population, partly through early release, early medical parole, suspension of incarceration for technical violations of probation and parole. Even with that, no state actually passed: “the nation’s response to the pandemic behind bars has been a shameful failure.” The response is shameful because there has been no response, and here I don’t only mean on the part of prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers. Where is the outrage? Where is the attention? Other than the usual suspects, who really cares? The failure is shameful because it is part and parcel of the national project. This is us, brutal and bankrupt in our lack of concern.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Infographic Credit: Prison Policy Initiative) (Photo Credit: The Guardian / Tannen Maury / EPA)

We criminalized and demonized relief for forty plus years: Of Eviction

The U.S. federal government released $45 billion for rent relief. What happened? On one hand, a great deal … for those lucky few who received the money. But they are the lucky and they are the few. Otherwise, the money has mostly sat in the proverbial vaults. Why? Many policy analysts, activists, advocates and just plain folk have looked at the situation and concluded that many, actually most, states and localities created impossibly cumbersome processes that tenants often found inscrutable, if they found the process at all, and landlords found, or claimed to find, too `burdensome’? While the analyses are informative and hopefully will help streamline programs, significant questions remain. Why did states and localities design such difficult processes for relief? If you were standing on the deck of a ship and saw someone drowning in the water, how many preconditions would you lay before throwing the person a lifeline?

First, as eviction researchers, anti-eviction activists and advocates, and anyone who’s ever been in an eviction proceeding concur, eviction processes in the United States have long been weighted heavily in favor of landlords. Typically, 90% of landlords show up with attorneys, while 10% or fewer of tenants have any legal representation. Then there are arcane processes no one really understands, except that they make it almost impossible for tenants to get anything like justice. For example, Nevada has something called summary eviction process in which a tenant receives a seven-day eviction notice for non-payment of rent. If the tenant doesn’t file an affidavit in court within seven days, the landlord receives automatic approval to evict the tenant. No summons, no complaint, no hearing. The tenant must sue in order to be sued to be evicted. If your head is spinning, call it property vertigo.

Many localities and even some states have passed or are considering right to counsel that would begin to readjust the imbalance and injustice. That would be an important step.

At the same time, questions remain. Are all situations of non-payment really the same? Is there any concern for those who suddenly lose their jobs, fall sick, live with someone who falls sick, and the list goes on? The answer, bluntly, is No. And that No is our national policy of relief.

Since 1980, every national government has demonized and criminalized those who need, and deserve, relief and assistance. From Welfare Queen to Ending Welfare as We Know It, the focus of the assault has been on Black and Brown women. What’s been good for the national goose has been even better for the state and local ganders. Funds for public services were cut, deeper and deeper, in successive decades, those who in any way relied on those funds were criminalized and demonized further and further.

And so here we are, in the second year of a pandemic with its consequent economic crisis, and we’re somehow shocked that states put security before relief. Why is self-attestation such a difficult point for states and localities? Because they fear fraud. Why do they fear fraud? Because those who seek help, who need help, are, by definition, demonic and criminal. Ignore the history of banks in creating the last recession. Too big to fail, too big to jail. Ignore the history of corporate landlords abusing eviction processes to harass tens of thousands of tenants. Ignore the recent history of corporate landlords `finding loopholes’ in the CDC moratorium to continue their practices of mass eviction. Focus instead on the possibility of fraud and create processes that are so difficult, so burdened with evidence, that really no one is meant to apply. And that qualifies as success, by the metrics of the last 40 some years.

This is not even about putting people first, although we should. A government and a country that cares about people at all would set up structures to help them immediately and then worry over the details later. $45 billion would go a long way, but instead it sits in the proverbial vault. If you are standing on the deck of a ship and see someone drowning in the water, do not delay, do not lay preconditions, throw the person a lifeline. Anything else is a crime.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Fresno Bee / SW Parra)

Missouri regulates the use of seclusion rooms and restraints … finally!

A “blue room” seclusion room in Missouri

American education remains haunted by inhumane treatment of children, especially those living with disabilities. Yesterday, Saturday, August 28, a new law went into effect in Missouri regulating and, in some instances, curtailing the use of seclusion rooms and physical restraints in all public, private and charter schools in the state. This is a welcome move, won by long hard struggle of children, parents, allies, advocates. Why is it so difficult to abandon practices that are clearly harmful and inhumane?

In May 2009, the Missouri state legislature passed a law giving school districts two years in which to devise written policies governing the use of seclusion rooms. Before that, there were no policies, only the practice of solitary confinement of school children without a single written guideline or rule. Nothing came of that. Nothing happened as a result of this non-compliance.

Eleven years later, in January 2020, 11-year-old Ryphath Knopp stood before a committee of the Missouri state legislature and described being put into solitary confinement in the Columbia, Missouri, school system. Knopp told the legislators he lives with autism, anxiety, and depression. He described beings placed in a small padded room “almost all day, every day” until his parents took him out of school and homeschooled him. Knopp called seclusion rooms “an adapted version of solitary confinement, which was a form of torture, may I remind you.”

Mothers of other children in the Columbia school district recounted similar experiences. Shawan Daniels described the room her fourth-grade child was locked into: “These rooms didn’t have vents in them, water, or anything.” Another mother said the isolation had caused her son emotional trauma, asthma attacks, and head injuries. Both used the same phrase to describe Columbia schools’ treatment of their children: being “thrown into a box.” At that point, Missouri had no rules and no oversight over the use of restraint or seclusion in its schools.

In March 2020, Missouri legislators passed House Bill (HB 1568) that would establish a ban on seclusion and restraint rooms “except in cases where there is imminent danger to the student or others”. Who decides the exception? No guidelines were provided, and besides, it didn’t really matter. Apart from completely discretionary guidelines, Missouri still had neither rules nor oversight concerning the use of restraint or seclusion in schools.

All that changed, for the better, yesterday. In its latest session, the Missouri legislature passed House Bill 432, which regulates and codifies the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. Missouri now has actual guidelines for the use, and not, of restraint and seclusion rooms. The guidelines include rules on documentation of any use of seclusion or restraint, annual uniform training of faculty and staff concerning the use of seclusion or restraint, and new protection for whistleblowers.

Ryphath Knopp attended school in Columbus, Missouri. Frankie Bono attended school in St. Charles, Missouri. According to his mother, “My son was locked in a closet. He didn’t have the skills and ability to appropriately communicate what was really happening at school. We were driving in the car recently and a song came on the radio, and he just started sobbing. That was a song that had been playing in the room, one of the times they had tackled him, held his face against the cold floor, grabbed him by the hair and dragged him into the seclusion room.” Frankie called it “the blue room”.

According to the most recent federal data, in school year 2017 – 2018, 50.9 million students were enrolled in public schools. 101,990 were subjected to physical or mechanical constraint or seclusion. 27,538 were subjected to seclusion. In that school year, 13% of the students enrolled were classified as living with disabilities. Of those subjected to physical restraint, 80% were living with disabilities. Of those subjected to mechanical constraint, 41% were living with disabilities. Of those subjected to seclusion, 77% were students living with disabilities.

This is a war against children, and exactly what crime have these children committed? Why do we routinely send children into solitary confinement? What are we teaching children, all the children in all the schools, when we torture their classmates and then call it “seclusion” and “restraint”? How many more children must suffer the “blue rooms” of torture? Perhaps Missouri will shed a light on that cold floor.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune / ProPublica)

In the name of dignity, North Carolina is about to limit shackling pregnant incarcerated women!

Three years ago, March 26, 2018, the North Carolina Director of Prisons responded to SisterSong and other members of the Coalitions to End Shackling in North Carolina and officially ended the shackling of incarcerated women in childbirth. It was a momentous occasion and, in its way, a joyous and hopeful day. For the past three years, North Carolina legislators have tried to expand on that decision and now, finally, it seems they are ready to move forward. Yesterday, August 25, 2021, the Senate voted unanimously to approve a partial ban on pregnant women serving time in North Carolina prisons. The House had unanimously passed a similar bill in May, and now looks set to pass this bill, probably unanimously, and then pass it on to the Governor for signature. As Senator Natalie Murdock, Democrat from Durham, noted, “This is just transformational work. Folks have been in talks about this for years.”

While state prisons were already limited as to when a pregnant woman could be shackled and were banned altogether from shackling a woman in childbirth, the rules were both too vague and too often ignored or “left to the discretion” of staff. This bill codifies, in law, the rules. It limits shackling during the second and third trimesters, labor and delivery, for a six-week postpartum recovery period. If a staff member decides restraints are required, those restraints can only be wrist cuffs and that decision initiates a report to the warden, who then sends all the reports, on a determined regular basis, to the Department of Public Safety Leadership.

While the matter of staff compliance remains, as it always does, the transformational unanimity of the legislature suggests that, at least for the foreseeable future, there will be eyes on the prisons, at least in this matter. Additionally, by insisting on making explicit in law the appropriate treatment and care for women, the North Carolina legislature is demonstrating the conclusion recently reached by researchers of carceral pregnancy and childbirth: “Incarcerated pregnant people and their babies deserve better care that is codified in policy”.

Along with constraint limitations, the bill says newborn babies must remain with their mothers after delivery; mothers must be incarcerated within 250 miles of their babies until the children reach one year old; mothers must have two visits weekly with their children. Pregnant women must be allotted bottom bunks or beds no more than 3 feet off the floor. Guards can’t conduct body cavity searches on pregnant women.

At another time, the question of why it takes three years to arrive at a common sense, clear policy will be debated. For now, though, a celebration is in order. Yesterday’s Senate vote was a unanimous affirmation of the original House bill, House Bill 608, “An Act To Promote The Dignity Of Women Who Are Incarcerated.” Let us all celebrate the promotion of women’s dignity, everywhere, always. That would be just and transformational work.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Radical Doula)

 

 

We must address the racist cruelty: Of eviction

Standing outside a Virginia courthouse, waiting for justice

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”
Heather Heyer

The pandemic turned the economy upside down and inside out, or so we are told. We are also told, still, that `we are all in it together’. Welcome to the place where the theater of cruelty merges with the wretched of the earth, and, through the cataclysmic changes, the worst remains the same and absolutely ordinary. We are talking, once more, of eviction. Two reports appeared today, both focusing on Georgia. In one, we learn that, among African Americans, youth and housing insecurity are primary causes of “vaccine hesitancy”. In the other, we learn that, in the Atlanta metro area, evictions are concentrated in low income and Black, Indigenous, People of Color, BIPOC, neighborhoods. At one level, we learn that we have learned nothing, since, as both reports suggest, these patterns preceded the pandemic and have `simply’ continued. What are we to do with that `simplicity’, with the persistence of systemic racism in the real estate industry as in the courts? And what is to be done?

According to a study of “vaccine hesitancy” among African Americans in Georgia, “COVID-related housing insecurity—difficulty paying the rent or mortgage or even eviction—increased the odds of vaccine resistance sevenfold”. Actually, housing insecurity increased those odds by 7.3-fold. Why does housing insecurity increase those odds so dramatically? According to the report, those living with `housing insecurity’ tend to live in highly segregated neighborhoods, are low wage essential workers, and have little to no access to health care systems. They’re not `hesitant’, they’re excluded. For “highly segregated neighborhood”, read “ghetto”. For “low wage essential worker”, read “indebted servant” or, better, “serf”. Again, that’s not hesitation. That’s feudalism.

According to the second report, five counties make up 63% of the Atlanta metropolitan area population and 74% of its occupied rental units. During the pandemic, eviction filings continued, especially in “hotspots”, census tracts that were below 80% of the Area Median Income, or AMI, and were 50% or more Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. These hotspots were not a surprise to the researchers, since, prior to the pandemic, the same neighborhoods were eviction hotspots and the same patterns devastated those neighborhoods, communities, families and individuals. As the authors note at the outset of their report, “An eviction marks a crisis point of housing instability that ripples into nearly every facet of a person’s life and harms future chances of housing security …. With the added urgency of a global pandemic, the impacts of eviction mushroom and tighten the nexus between individual outcomes like an eviction and community-level harm.” In the Atlanta metro area, as across the United States, evictions are working as planned, condemning majority BIPOC communities, especially low- to moderate-income BIPOC communities, to a certain death sentence. None of this is new, even if its context makes it seem worse than before.

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.

In light of the new CDC Eviction Moratorium, and the challenges to it which are currently being argued before the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court that barely kept the last CDC Eviction Moratorium going and, with a single vague sentence, tried to gut the New York State Eviction Moratorium, the Eviction Lab took a look at the first iteration of CDC Eviction Moratorium. Here’s what they found: “A large number of eviction cases originate from a relatively small number of Census tracts … Neighborhoods with high eviction filing rates prior to the pandemic continued to see the highest rates during the CDC moratorium … Neighborhoods with high eviction filing rates prior to the pandemic continued to see the highest rates during the CDC moratorium … Prior to the pandemic, Black renters received a disproportionate share of all eviction filings: they made up 22% of all renters in ETS sites, but received 35% of eviction filings. They continued to be over-represented during the CDC moratorium period, receiving 33% of filings.”

What they found is that we have learned absolutely nothing. Where is the outrage at the predictability of these findings? Around the country, activists are pushing, often with success, for right to counsel, where every tenant would have an attorney present and engaged, long before every going to court; Just Cause restrictions, which would require that landlords give just cause before not renewing a lease; sealing eviction records; mandatory mediation; and more. Those are all important policies. At the same time, we have a reckoning due. Where is the outrage at the loss of life, the devastation, the twenty first century version of feudalism? Why does it take a plague for people to begin paying attention to our neighbors, and have we actually begun paying attention, if, in the end, each study concludes that the present and the past are one and the same.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: ABC News / AP / Ben Finley)

We must address the spectacular, and spectacularly ordinary, cruelty: Of eviction

Cori Bush

“The Mafia is not an outsider in this world; it is perfectly at home. Indeed, in the integrated spectacle it stands as the model of all advanced commercial enterprises”
Guy Debord: Comments on the Society of the Spectacle

At midnight Saturday, as July turned into August, the CDC moratorium on evictions ended. On Tuesday evening, the CDC announced a new set of protections from evictions for those living in communities suffering substantial to high incidences of Covid. This is a 60-day reprieve for which we all owe Representative Cori Bush more than a great deal of thanks. She lit a path out of the darkness, in more ways than one. Cori Bush taught us humanity matters, Black women matter, Brown women matter, Black and Brown children and communities matter, humanity matters. We need that lesson, desperately, as we slog, drenched, in a national theater of cruelty. Consider what happened between midnight, Saturday night, and Tuesday evening. Consider the spectacular, and spectacularly ordinarily cruelty, that greeted and awaited the most vulnerable among us.

St. Louis already had 126 eviction orders pending, and more promised, lots more. In response, St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts announced that he would triple his eviction crew. Sheriff Betts hoped to conduct as many as 30 evictions per day, starting August 9. He explained, “Right off the bat we want to clean up that 126 evictions.” Removing people from their homes in the middle of a pandemic has become an act of cleaning up, if not cleansing.

In New Orleans, located in the epicenter of the current Delta variant crisis, Constable Edwin M. Shorty Jr. issued an order. In order to facilitate the anticipated heavy eviction workload, all full-time and reserve deputies had to be vaccinated by August 16. On Monday, New Orleans’ busiest housing court 58 eviction filings, up from the pandemic moratorium average of one a day. The headline more or less says it all: “New Orleans landlords take advantage of eviction moratorium’s end, file to eject dozens”.

Lest anyone feel geographically smug, on Monday landlords rushed to file evictions in Rhode Island, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. In Idaho, where judges had never recognized the moratorium, it was eviction business as usual. In Connecticut, eviction orders spiked: “Before the federal order was reinstated Wednesday, judges in Connecticut signed a surge of orders that allow state marshals to remove tenants and their belongings from their homes….The 154 families that judges gave the nod to be evicted Monday and Tuesday is double the number of evictions that were being granted in recent weeks. It also mirrors pre-pandemic eviction levels.” Look in that mirror, do not look away. In Delaware, “new eviction filings … spiked to a level not seen since March 2020.” Is this the much heralded return to normal? In Pittsburgh, “on Monday, a day after the federal eviction moratorium ended, court filings to evict people increased 420%.” In Harris County, Texas, there have been 254 eviction filings, between Monday and Thursday of this week. What eviction moratorium? What tenant protections? Where? Not here. Not wherever you’re sitting right now, reading this.

In Georgia, on Friday, July 30, hours before the CDC moratorium would end, faced with 145 writs of eviction and 1650 writs pending, DeKalb Chief Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson signed a new emergency order creating a ban on evictions throughout the county for another 60 days. In her order, Judge Jackson noted, “Without an eviction moratorium, many DeKalb County residents face imminent dispossession of their residences due to widespread arrearages owed to landlords. It is estimated that DeKalb County tenants owe approximately $50,000,000.00 in rent arrearage to landlords. Many of the landlords owed will be legally entitled to proceed with dispossessory actions once the eviction moratorium is lifted. Evictions can have long-lasting consequences for families and individuals, potentially disrupting school and education, worsening health, displacing neighborhood networks of support, and making it more difficult to find safe, affordable housing in the future. Perhaps most importantly, a lack of stable housing directly increases the risk of contracting COVID-19.”

Some people prepared by increasing their eviction crews, others by telling them to `man up’ and take the jab, others by pushing paper as quickly as they could. Other people, like Cori Bush and Asha Jackson, looked at the need, despair, pain, suffering, fear, terror, destruction, they looked at the human tragedy unfolding and they said NO to the inevitability of power, NO to the Mafia model governance, and YES to humanity. Which side are you on?

DeKalb Chief Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit 1: Matt McClain/The Washington Post) (Photo Credit 2: Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

We must address the cruelty: Of eviction

At midnight last night, the CDC moratorium on evictions ended. Despite the Delta variant of Covid raging through the country, and the certainty that eviction increases the incidence of Covid. Despite billions of dollars in rent relief sitting idly, criminally, in state coffers, frozen because no one could figure out that for people in distress to have to go through intricate application processes would be both inhuman and futile. Despite the knowledge that the first to suffer, and the ones to suffer most deeply and for the longest period, will be children, especially children of color, children in low to moderate income households. Children. Despite the knowledge that single mothers, which means children, will be the ones to suffer. Despite months of mounting debts, of mounting certainty of imminent eviction once the moratorium ends, despite months of stasis, now, at whatever follows the eleventh hour, now the agencies are `scrambling’. Where were they, where was everyone, for the past six months? We must address the cruelty of this moment. We must address the cruelty of eviction.

Over $40 billion has been allocated for rent relief. That money has been sent to state and local governments, who were supposed to pass it on. Most haven’t. As of now, $3 billion has been distributed. State and local governments `explain’ that there was so much to do, so much money, so many applicants, so much staffing, so much so muchness. Many state and local governments didn’t open their application processes until June. They knew when the moratorium was set to end. State and local government after state and local government now `urges’ and `encourages’ tenants and landlords to apply. Even though, as in Louisiana, of 24,000 tenants who already applied, only 3,000 have been approved. That’s 24,000 households, of which 3,000 have been approved. Those 3,000 don’t necessarily have checks in hand, but they do have approval. For the others, the line has gone dead. And for the other others, the ones who waited to apply or didn’t know, the sky has fallen, as the hospitals in Louisiana fill to overflowing. 

This was all decreed decades ago, with the decision to finance everything with real estate taxes, giving corporate landlords complete and total dominion. They used eviction filings as a routine means of threatening tenants. They continued to do so during the moratorium, and with impunity. Only now, Congress is just beginning to investigate major corporate landlords who routinely  violated the moratorium as well as the rights and lives of thousands of people across the United States.

And what about the children? Children will be the first and last to suffer, and by all accounts, we just don’t care. Or worse. We take pleasure in the suffering of children, other people’s children. In July, Spain extended its eviction moratorium until the end of October. Specifically, Spain extended its eviction for vulnerable people, including children, minors, dependents, and survivors of sexual violence. Spain has also provided additional support, financial and otherwise, to those who have suffered economic distress due to and during the pandemic. Why does Spain cherish its children more than the United States?

Cruelty occurs when people commit violence because they’re indifferent to the pain of others or they take pleasure in inflicting pain on others. The cruelty of eviction addresses our system of disposable populations, whole Black and Brown neighborhoods and communities, all trying to make it through another day, all told, “Too bad. We tried. The check is in the mail, but you won’t get it. So sorry.” The eviction moratorium ended last night at midnight. The check is in the mail. 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: The New York Times / Sally Ryan)

Sierra Leone abolishes the death penalty and offers the world a new decolonizing dawn!

Wrongly convicted of capital offense, MK spent six years in a small, dirty cell, which had a capacity of 300, then housing no less than 1400 inmates.

On Friday, July 23,2021, Sierra Leone’s Parliament voted unanimously to abolish the death penalty. Unanimously. While the outcome was pretty much expected, the unanimity of Members of Parliament is worth noting and celebrating. Parliamentarians joined advocates and others in decrying the inhumanity and barbarity of executions and of the entire apparatus attached to the death penalty. Equally, Members of Parliament joined advocates and others in declaring that vote to end the death penalty was another phase of the decolonization project. As Sabrina Mahtani, co-founder of AdvocAid, a leading Sierra Leonean organization opposing the death penalty, noted, “The death penalty is a colonial imposition, and these laws were inherited from the U.K.” It’s time, it way past time, for all those who suffered colonialism, who continue to struggle with the legacy and imbedded consciousness of colonialism, to decolonize, to abolish the death penalty and much more.

Sierra Leone is very clear about at least part of the “much more”. In principle, Sierra Leone has stopped executing people since 1998, but it has continued to segregate those convicted of capital offenses to death rows, where they sit and wait … for nothing or worse. Along with eliminating executions, the new legislation eliminates mandatory life sentences. This is particularly important for survivors of sexual violence, predominantly women and girls. According to Sabrina Mahtani, “This will allow judges to have judicial discretion to take into account all the circumstances of a case, such as a history of gender-based violence or mental illness, and hopefully prevent the injustices that have happened in the past.” 

Since its founding in 2006, “AdvocAid has actively campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty and provided free legal representation for women and men on death row to challenge their convictions and death sentences. AdvocAid has secured the release of six women and three men on death row through appeals or presidential pardon applications.” Here’s the story of one of those women, call her Aminata.

In 2009, Aminata was a 17-year-old girl living in Kenema, in the eastern part of Sierra Leone. She was an orphan who had little or no formal education and could not read or write. She had been in a relationship with someone who was abusive, and so left him. Or better, she left the relationship. The young man was the son of the landlord of the compound in which Aminata lived, and so, despite her having ended their relationship, what did not end was the physical violence. He continue to beat Aminata. Finally, one day, while being beaten with a rubber pipe, Aminata picked up a knife and defended herself. She was arrested and tried … sort of. Sort of because, although Aminata was 17 years old and therefore a juvenile, she was tried in adult court because [a] she had no birth certificate and so [b], despite her protestations, the police registered her age as 18. Aminata was shipped off to the maximum security prison in Freetown. In 2010, Aminata was sentenced to death. AdvocAid appealed. The case was not heard for another four years: “Finally, 9 years after she was sentenced to death, her appeal was granted and her sentence was quashed …. Sadly Aminata’s story is not uncommon.”

While the British were not the first to conduct executions on African soil, they did bring and institutionalize the notion of “capital punishment … as not just a method of … punishment, but an integral aspect of colonial networks of power and violence.” As Aminata’s story shows, those networks of power and violence continue, in Sierra Leone as elsewhere, until they are rooted out. AdvocAid’s Legal Manager, Julia Gbloh said: “The death penalty is the act of legalizing murder and its abolishment highlights a new dawn in our nation.” It is a new dawn for Sierra Leone and hopefully for the world, including the United States. As Sabrina Mahtani explained, “Here’s a small country in West Africa that had a brutal civil war 20 years ago and they’ve managed to abolish the death penalty. They would actually be an example for you, U.S., rather than it always being the other way around.” 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: AdvocAid)

In Australia, Aboriginal women and girls disproportionately sent to prison and jail are disproportionately strip-searched. We know. What are we going to do about it?

The Alexander Maconochie Centre 

Excessive strip-searching shines light on discrimination of Aboriginal women in the criminal justice system”. An article with that headline appeared yesterday. While the research and argument of the article is unimpeachable, one wonders about the shining light. The discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women by and in the Australian so-called criminal justice program is a longstanding open secret. In 2018, Human Rights Watch issued a report, which noted, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population, and 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous peers.” A version of that statement, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population”, had appeared in major reports in 201020112012201320142015,2016, and 2017. Now it’s 2021, and where are we … and who are we?

Last year, the Redfern Legal Centre reported that police in New South Wales continued to strip search children, some as young as 11 years old. In one year alone, NSW police conducted 96 strip searches of children. To no one’s surprise, those strip searches disproportionately assaulted Aboriginal children. This was no surprise, because strip searches generally target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and especially women and girls. Not only was the practice continuing, it was actually rising in number for Aboriginal children. Redfern is pursuing a landmark class action suit against the New South Wales police. While that would be important, these searches have occurred, for decades, in plain sight. Where are we … and who are we?

In January of this year, former Western Australia and New South Wales police came forward to discuss their experiences as police officers. They described a routine, and cynical, process of boosting arrest numbers by targeting Aboriginal communities, and especially children. Although strip searches are supposed to be only for “exceptional and extreme circumstances”, Aboriginal children were routinely strip searched. Their crime, their exceptionality, their extreme circumstance, was their bodies, their culture, their identity. One police officer remembered that strip searching a 10-year-old Aboriginal child was “one of the worst moments” of his eight-year career as a police officer. What was that moment for that 10-year-old child, one wonders, and where is he … and who is he now?

In March, it was reported that, earlier in the year, a 37-year-old Aboriginal woman was strip searched by four guards, in riot gear, in front of male detainees. Why? Because. This occurred at the Alexander Maconochie Centre, in the Australian Capital Territory. The Australian government boasts that the Alexander Maconochie Centre is “a human rights compliant” facility. Aboriginal leaders disagree. So does the woman, who wrote, “Here I ask you to remember that I am a rape victim, so you can only imagine the horror, the screams, the degrading feeling, the absolute fear and shame I was experiencing.”

Here I ask you to remember. 

In the first week of July, the Human Rights Legal Centre reported that from October 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021, there had been 208 strip searches conducted on women detainees at the same Alexander Maconochie Centre. Of those, 121, or 58%, were performed on Aboriginal women. At that time, Aboriginal women comprised 44% of the women held at the Alexander Maconochie Centre. Just being Aboriginal women made them exceptional and extreme. Again to no one’s surprise, of the 208 searches, three resulted in the discovery of contraband. The others were the price Aboriginal women pay for being Aboriginal women in Australia.

The lack of surprise is the point. In 2003, Debbie Kilroy, Director of Sisters Inside Inc, wrote, “Prisoners are strip-searched because it is a highly effective way to control women … Routine and random strip-searching is conducted in order to punish women and to control them.” The strip searching of women in Australia’s prisons is routine, but hardly random, in that it targets Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls, who are sent in disproportionate numbers into “human rights compliant’ prison and jail hellholes. We know. We’ve known for a long time. What are we going to do about it?

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Andrew Finch / City News)

Women dying in jails across the United States: This is what catastrophe looks like

Tomorrow, Sunday, July 18, the United Nations will celebrate Nelson Mandela International Day. With that in mind, on Friday, July 16, the United Nations released its first global research data on the state of prisons over the past twenty years. It’s predictably grim, especially for women. Globally, one in three incarcerated persons has not been found guilty by a court of justice. Either they are awaiting trial or they are simply being held. This means overcrowded conditions, which means spikes in covid, as we’re seeing this week in Missouri’s prisons. A surge in prison population = a spike in covid. For women, this means a global war on women and girls. From 2000 to 2019, the number of prisoners worldwide increased by more than 25 per cent. During that period, the number of women in prison increased by 33% while the increase for men was 25%. According to the UN, “the female share of the global prison population has increased, from 6.1% in 2000 to 7.2% in 2019.” What does this trend look like in the United States? Catastrophic, and especially so for women being held in jails.

According to the latest jails report from the U.S. Department of Justice, from 2008 to 2018, the female jail population increased by 15% while the male population decreased by 9%. From 2005 to 2018, the female incarceration rate rose by 10%, while the male rate of incarceration dropped by 14%. Between 2008 and 2018, the female jail population rose by 15%, the male jail population dropped by 9%. In terms of criminal justice systems and, specifically, policing and incarceration, the past twenty years have been catastrophic for women globally and nationally.

What does catastrophe look like? According to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice report on mortality in jails, “In 2018, females held in local jails had a higher rate of mortality …  than males.” Chronic diseases, especially respiratory infections, cancer, heart disease; suicide; drug and alcohol related problems are `credited’ as cause of death, but the cause of death is jail itself. While the pandemic has exacerbated the situation, the United Nations report covers two decades, 2000 to 2019, and this is only the second time since 2000, when the Department of Justice started reporting on the situation in jails across the United States, that women had a higher jail mortality rate than men, and that was in 2018, before the pandemic.

Tomorrow, July 18, is Nelson Mandela International Day. Earlier this week, July 13, marked the sixth anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland, in a jail in Texas. Since then, the situation for women in jails across the United States has only worsened. The UN report concludes: “Measures can be taken to counteract the relative increase in the female prison population, including the development and implementation of gender-specific options for diversion and non-custodial measures at every stage of the criminal justice process. Such measures should take into account the history of victimization of many women offenders and their caretaking responsibilities, as well as mitigating factors, such as lack of a criminal history and the nature and severity of the offense.” In other words, find and enforce ways of keeping women out of jail. How many more women must die before we hear and act on this common and evidence-supported sense? 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Infographic Credit: Prison Policy Institute)