Youth has constitutional significance: Ending life without parole

Sharon Wiggins died last year. Wiggins was a 62-year-old Black woman living with serious health problems. But it wasn’t her health that did her in. What killed Sharon Wiggins was the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Sharon Wiggins died behind bars at SCI-Muncy, the maximum security and intake `facility’ for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania, as well as the site of its death row for women.

Wiggins entered Muncy at the age of 17, convicted initially to death and then to life without parole. She spent 45 years behind bars. When she died she was the oldest and the longest serving woman prisoner in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has more prisoners who began as juvenile lifers than any other state in the Union. This means Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any place else in the world. It’s the Pennsylvania way.

South Carolina has a better way.

A couple weeks ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court took the United States another step towards ending life without parole, LWOP, for those convicted of having committed crimes while juveniles. The Court’s decision in Aiken et al v Byar has been described as “notable for its breadth” and “groundbreaking.” It could be.

Fifteen South Carolina prisoners, including Jennifer L. McSharry, petitioned the Court to reconsider the constitutionality of their having been sentenced to life without parole, to death-in-life, when they were children. The Court largely agreed with the fifteen, arguing, “Youth has constitutional significance. As such it must be afforded adequate weight in sentencing.”

The Court’s judgment is based on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v Alabama, which decided that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. That decision built on, and expanded, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v Florida, which found that life without parole for juveniles who had not committed murder was unconstitutional. Each decision has expanded the space for decency, common sense, and humanity, and these from a Court not renowned for any of those qualities.

The South Carolina Supreme Court had to decide on whether Miller v Alabama was retroactive. That is, if it’s wrong today, does that mean it was wrong before we came to our senses? The Court answered decidedly Yes: “We conclude Miller creates a new, substantive rule and should therefore apply retroactively. The rule plainly excludes a certain class of defendants— juveniles—from specific punishment—life without parole absent individualized considerations of youth. Failing to apply the Miller rule retroactively risks subjecting defendants to a legally invalid punishment.”

Sentences have consequences, and they too must be subjected to at least a constitutional review. There’s more to the South Carolina decision, and it all expands the application of Miller v Alabama. Would that earlier courts had decided that perhaps the impact of punishment should be thrown into the equation, rather than rely on mandatory sentences. Would that earlier courts had decided, and long ago, against a system that cared more waging a war on this and a war on that than it cared about the actual individuals and whole populations thrown into increasingly overcrowded, underfunded, toxic environments. Would that all of this had never had to come to courts at all.

Would that this had all happened long before Sharon Wiggins ever entered prison. Since 2008, the number of women sentenced to life without parole has risen precipitously, and who are they? “Among the females serving LWOP for offenses committed in their teenage years, the vast majority experienced sexual abuse in their childhood.” They are the abandoned, the sacrificed. But the end may be near. For Jennifer L. McSharry in South Carolina and thousands of women across the land, a change could be coming. They stand a chance, a bare chance, of not becoming another such sacrifice.

 

(Photo Credit: TakePart.com)

My name is Erwiana Sulistyaningsih

Over the weekend, hundreds of feminist and women’s rights organizations and networks gathered in Bangkok, Thailand, for the Asia Pacific Civil Society Forum on Beijing+20. Participants strategized, organized, talked and listened. They listened to former domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih. Here’s what Erwiana said:

“My name is Erwiana Sulistyaningsih. I am 23 years old, and come from a poor peasant family of Indonesia and am a former domestic worker from Hong Kong. I did my high school and then wanted to go to the University, but because my family had no money for this I started working as a restaurant service worker in Jakarta. The pay was very low. I still dreamt of going to the University because with a graduation degree it would be easier for me to find a good job. As I really wanted to bring a change in my life, and the pay in Jakarta was not enough I decided to be a migrant worker abroad.

“I chose Hong Kong because it is said to be a safe country and I had heard no news about migrant workers being abused there. So I applied through a private recruitment agency and I stayed in a training centre for 8 months and finally I flew to Hong Kong in 2013. When I arrived in Hong Kong all my papers, such as my passport and employment contract, were taken by my agency and I began working as a domestic help. My employer was very rude, beat me up, would only let me sleep only for 4 hours a day and did not give me sufficient food to eat. I was not allowed to go out or speak with other people or use the telephone. So I decided to run away from her. I called up the agency in Hong Kong for help. But they told me to go back to the employer’s house. 8 months of abuse and torture left my body badly bruised and in pain. So one day she decided to send me back to Indonesia. She brought me to the airport, helped me check-in, and then left. She threatened to kill my family if I ever spoke of my plight to any other person. Abandoned at the airport and unable to walk, I luckily met an Indonesian lady who not only helped me reach home but also took a photograph of my injuries and posted it on her Facebook.

“Finally my case was taken up by the Indonesian Network of Migrant Workers and Asian Migrant Workers’ Coordinating Body to fight for justice for me. Around 5000 people marched on the streets of Hong Kong demanding justice, and finally the Hong Kong government took up my case. My case is under investigation and the trial will be held in December next month (December 2014) in Hong Kong.

“The system enforced by my own government and Hong Kong government has made me suffer this way. In my orientation done at the training centre I was not given any information about my rights and about the justice system in Hong Kong. There is no direct hiring and we are given only 14 days to stay after visa termination and have to leave to re-apply if we want to find another job. These unjust government policies damage our lives as migrant workers. It is not only me who has suffered exploitation, but there are thousands of migrant workers who get into similar situations and are forced to stay in silence”.

“My case was finally exposed because of the unity of the migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong. I am happy that through my case more such cases of exploitation are being exposed and given more attention. I hope that both—the sending as well as receiving governments– will give more attention to the protection of migrant workers. I hope there is no more exploitation against migrant workers, against women and no more cases like me”.

When Erwiana left Hong Kong, she weighed around 55 pounds. She was covered with burns and scars. She was so weak and injured she couldn’t walk. How could an injured, incapacitated woman pass through immigration without any officer wondering about her condition? The Immigration Department’s Director explained: “It is difficult to judge whether there were injuries because of her complexion. We cannot blame the officer.”

We cannot blame the officer … because of her complexion. This is the complexion of violence against women workers that empowers employers to torture and inspires the State to pretend to look the other way while academics and pundits go on about the `invisible workforce.’ There is no invisible workforce. Women workers are part of an altogether visible and public regime of violence that airbrushes the scars, bruises and burns, and then declares itself blame free. The women know better, and that’s why they flooded the streets of Hong Kong and will do so again.

 

(Photo Credit: Nora Tam/South China Morning Post)

Chhattisgarh is everywhere: The global state of forced sterilization of women

The news this week from Chhattisgarh, India, is tragic. At latest count, 15 women have died in a `sterilization camp’. Fifty others are in hospital, with at least 20 in critical condition. At first the operations were widely described as `botched.’ After only preliminary investigations, the response moved from `botched’ to `criminal’ and `corrupt’. Finally, the reporting has landed on how Indian this all is. It’s not. Forced sterilization of women is a global phenomenon, actually a global campaign, and it needs to be addressed, immediately. The women, all poor, of Chhattisgarh are part of a global public policy in which women’s bodies are, at best, disposable and, more often, detritus.

Consider the last two months from the perspective of forced sterilization of women.

In November, the Namibian Supreme Court upheld a 2012 High Court decision that health workers sterilized HIV-positive women without their consent. Switzerland was called upon to consider compensation for survivors of its “contract children” program, which included forced sterilization of girls.

In October, Belgium faced UN scrutiny, under the CEDAW procedures, concerning forced sterilization of women living with disabilities. Women in Peru complained that, eighteen years after the formal cessation of forced sterilization programs, they have seen no justice. Promises, yes. Justice, no. North Carolina began paying compensation to survivors, poor and minority women, of its forced sterilization program. After much debate, the California legislature passed a bill formally banning the forced sterilization of women prisoners.

And this doesn’t take into account ongoing inquiries and discussions of forced sterilization of Aboriginal and Indigenous women across the Americas as well as Australia. This list is not even the tip of the global iceberg.

And so the charge of coercion, as raised by Kerry McBroom, director of the Reproductive Rights Initiative at the Human Rights Law Network in New Delhi, comes as no surprise. That the coercion flows through cash incentives to desperately poor women rather than cudgels and batons is merely a facet of the current world order. There is no informed consent in so-called sterilisation camps. There are quotas, cash incentives, and the occasional pile up of women’s corpses. Monetizing and incentivizing the assault on women’s bodies is key to the modern democratic nation-state, thanks to the Washington Consensus.

Along with local investigation into the individual cases, as in Chhattisgarh, what is called for is immediate global action to change the global public policy that trashes women’s bodies and lives. The global state of forced sterilization of women is dire, and it’s expanding. It’s past time to address the global crisis of forced sterilization of women: impose an immediate moratorium on all programs of mass sterilization, everywhere; codify just compensation for survivors of such programs; pay just compensation to survivors of such programs; and establish serious global structures to enforce informed consent. Remember, Chhattisgarh is everywhere.

 

(Photo Credit: Indian Express)

In Namibia, a victory for HIV-positive women, for all women, everywhere

Pushed by women’s organizations, by women organizing, courts and legislatures around the world are forcing the end to coerced sterilization of women. A little over a month ago, the California legislature finally outlawed the forced sterilization of women prisoners. This month, Namibia’s Supreme Court upheld a 2012 High Court ruling that health workers sterilized HIV-positive women without their consent. As Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director, noted, “This is a great victory for all women in Namibia and the world. This decision reinforces the right to sexual and reproductive health for all women, irrespective of their HIV status.”

This latest chapter began, formally, in 2009, when three Namibian women sued the State. They claimed they had been forcibly sterilized and that they had been sterilized because they were HIV positive, and so were victims of discrimination. Three separate women, ranging in age from 20s to 40s, at the height of labor, were presented with the sterilization `option’. In one case, the woman had been in labor for over four days and was in severe pain. She was led to believe that her caesarean could only take place if she signed the form. In such circumstances, what is the gender of informed consent?

In 2012, Judge Elton Hoff took two hours to read the decision. He argued there was clearly no informed consent. He noted that the women were Oshiwambo-speaking and that none of the health staff spoke Oshiwambo. He further noted that the forms the women signed were filled with acronyms no one, other than a specialist, could be expected to understand. In all three cases, the women only discovered the meaning of “BTL”, bilateral tubal ligation, long after they had undergone the surgery. Judge Hoff concluded, “There could not have been counselling in those circumstances.” When, after two hours, Judge Hoff looked up from his papers, he faced a courtroom packed with women in black t-shirts that read, “Non negotiable: my body, my womb, my rights”.

The three women are members of the Namibian Women’s Health Network. During a routine inspection of post-treatment papers, Network members started noticing BTL on members’ treatment cards. No one knew what BTL was, and absolutely no woman knew that this had happened to her. The women then hooked up with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, and in particular with Priti Patel, then deputy director and HIV program manager, who managed the case.

According to Jennifer Gatsi-Mallet, Director of the Namibian Women’s Health Network, “The three women at the heart of this case are just the tip of the iceberg. We have documented dozens of similar cases of women living with HIV being sterilised without their informed consent. This judgment presents the strongest possibility that the Government of Namibia will be held to account for subjecting HIV-positive women to coerced sterilisation,” said Mallet.

Priti Patel added, “Monday’s decision will have far-reaching consequences not only for the three women at the heart of this case, but for the dozens of other HIV-positive women who have been subjected to coerced sterilisation in Namibia and throughout southern Africa.”

This victory in the Namibian Supreme Court extends beyond hospitals and prison and before human rights to women everywhere organizing to sustain their dignity as women, and in so doing, pushing the State to do more than pay lip service to women’s rights and equality. This is a victory for women’s autonomy and power, everywhere. The State, and not just Namibia, did more than fail to stop forced sterilization. The State engaged for decades, and centuries, in medical pogroms against women. It’s way past time for the State to be held to account for violence committed against women across the African continent and around the world.

 

(Photo Credit: Classic105.com)

The Burkinabé women’s spatula uprising

Burkinabé civil society, opposition forces, students, youth, workers, and women have been taking to the streets to protest a parliamentary move to extend the president’s 27-year rule. These demonstrations are as much about one-party rule as they are about one man. Since August, youth have been organizing, under the banner of Le Balai citoyen, the Citizen Broom. Many have spent their entire lives under the leadership of one man and they have had enough.

This week, the broom hooked up with the spatula.

On Monday, hundreds of women took to the streets of Ouagadougou. In their raised fists, they carried broomsticks, spatulas, and some carried pestles. Why spatulas?

As one demonstrator explained, “The spatula is the most important cooking utensil for women. It has a symbolic weight in our traditions. When it is used to hit a man, it’s a sacrilege; the consequences are disastrous and irreversible. Hitting a man with a spatula automatically undercuts his power, his virility, which he cherishes above all. This is the reason the women came out with spatulas. Because of the President’s monarchic tendencies, his refusal to hear anyone but himself, the women came with spatulas to warn him, to bring him back to reason.”

According to Juliette Congo, of the Movement of People for Progress, “We came out with our spatulas to give a warning to a man hell-bent on destroying our country … If Blaise Compaoré does not change his tune, the women of Burkina Faso will rise in civil disobedience!”

Cendrine Nama, 28, agreed, “Burkinabé women came out, armed with our spatulas, October 27, to say NO to a constitutional coup d’etat planned by those in power, with the complicity of the Deputies elected to represent the people. I am proud of my people who rise today. It’s time we took an active role in the decisions that affect us, for the people are sovereign.”

Germaine agreed and added, “The time for discussion is over. We want him to leave and leave us in peace. We, the women, we weep for our children, we weep for our nation, we weep for the fate and future of the Burkinabé people. We came out with our spatulas to show him that when a woman comes with a spatula, that says it all. We came into the streets with our spatulas because we are burning inside. The next time we will strip and come naked and cry on the head of Blaise Compaoré.”

On Monday, hundreds of women marched, chanted, carried spatulas, and sparked an uprising, a spatula uprising. On Tuesday, tens of thousands marched in the streets. On Wednesday, a general strike was called. And tomorrow … ?

 

(Photo credit: Fasozine.com)

Soni Sori continues to haunt more than India

Soni Sori, an Adivasi woman, was once a primary school teacher in Chhattisgarh. In 2011, she was arrested, in Delhi, on trumped up charges, shipped back to Chhattisgarh where she was subjected to torture and sexual violence in police custody. Two women officers present were threatened to remain silent. After some protest, Soni Sori was finally sent to hospital and then back to prison. In November 2013, she was released on bail. Earlier this year, Soni Sori ran, unsuccessfully, for Parliament, on the Aam Admi Party slate.

On October 10, 2014, a film crew from a German television channel went from Delhi to Chhattisgarh to interview Soni Sori about her experiences of custodial torture. She took them to her village, Palnar, where they met the police. After the interview, Soni Sori returned to her home in Geedam. That night, plainclothes agents barged into her home and interrogated her concerning the identities of the film crew. As noted in a recent press release by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, or WSS: “Soni’s household is an all woman household along with three of her children the eldest of whom is only 13 and the youngest is just 8. While Soni did not recognize all of them she did recognize a few of them as members of the local police of Geedam. Some of the members kept questioning Soni, few of the others barged into the other rooms including the bathroom and started searching and looking around. Despite Soni’s demands asking them to leave her house they continued with the questioning. Furthermore, these persons refused to answer all questions of Soni regarding their identity, but continued their questions regarding the crew. The team then went on to state that Soni should have immediately informed the police regarding the coming of the team and in future she should inform them about any people visiting her and provide details regarding the purpose of the visit. By the time the team left, Soni’s family was quite shaken up, especially her children, as they had thought that the team had come to once again arrest Soni and put her in jail.”

Why can’t Chhattisgarh leave Soni Sori alone? What’s so important about this one woman, surrounded by women, that she’s worth all the investment of broken doors, bones and promises?

Chhattisgarh is rich in resources, forest, tribal people, and women. It’s one of the few places in India where the population is more or less equally divided between women and men. Women have participated in every aspect of agricultural production, of labor, and of public life. With the arrival of the global market, the areas women dominated, in particular that of food security and food sovereignty, don’t carry the same value in a global economy, and now men receive positions of authority, from both multinationals and the national government, in the new local world order where women are meant to become ghosts, reminders of a bygone era that is bought, sold, and gone.

Soni Sori has refused that narrative. When released from prison, she immediately thanked the women’s movements, formal and informal, and prodded them to do more, especially for rural women. She returned, in full force, to the struggle, despite State-run “security campaigns” that wreak havoc on the lives and well being of women.

The State can’t afford autonomous rural, indigenous women, nor can it afford fierce women schoolteachers. India wants ghost women, and is willing to pay heavily to get them. Stop the harassment of Soni Sori, and support the women who refuse to be ghosts.

 

(Photo credit: WSS)

Florida built a special hell for women, the Lowell Correctional Institution

On October 9, Michelle Tierney, 48, died. On October 1, Latandra Ellington, 48, died. On August 22, Regina A. Cooper, 50, died. On April 30, Affricka G. Jean, 30, died. All four women were inmates at Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution, and they are not the tip of an iceberg. They are just another part of the special hell Florida runs for women, the Lowell Correctional Institution. And they did not “die”. They were killed.

Both Affricka Jean and Regina Cooper died under suspicious circumstances, and both of their deaths are under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Office of Inspector General. They are classified as “active death investigations.” Despite that, neither death raised much of a fuss in Florida or elsewhere, except among the usual suspects. Otherwise, it was just another season in hell, and women’s bodies continued to pile up.

Then Latandra Ellington died … or was killed. Ellington had written her aunt a letter in which she said a sergeant, known as Sergeant Q, had threatened to “beat me to death and mess me like a dog”. A few days later, Ellington was `discovered’ dead in a confinement cell.

Other inmates have written letters, anonymously, in which they describe, in detail, guards’ sexual exploitation, violence, and torture of inmates. They describe a culture of pure sadism, in which women are beaten for sport, and then intimidated into silence. At some level, none of this is surprising. It’s the story of Alabama’s special hell for women, Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, translated to Florida.

The twist at Lowell is that recent evidence suggests that Latandra Ellington’s death, or murder, was part of a power struggle … between two factions of corrections officers. Lowell Correctional Institution is being ripped apart by a gang war between gangs of guards.

Ellington’s autopsy shows blunt force trauma to her abdomen, consistent with having been beaten.

Michelle Tierney, who died last week, was killed slowly. Tierney was scheduled to be transferred to another prison on October 30, in preparation for her release from prison in January. She was so close to getting out. By all accounts, Tierney was a model inmate, a friend to all, a mentor, and a teacher of basic to advanced reading and writing. So, what happened?

For most of her fourteen years in prison, Tierney had been in good health. Recently she started complaining about leg pains. According to a friend of Tierney’s, she said she was suffering from so much pain in her legs that she couldn’t walk and was always crying. She went to the infirmary day and night, and, day and night, was turned away with a “diagnosis” of arthritis, get used to it.

When Michelle Tierney was finally taken to the hospital, her feet were blue, she had cysts all over her body, she was in septic shock, she had a fever and suffered from pneumonia.

That’s how it is in hell. Your choices are a quick tortured death or a slow tortured death, both accompanied by terror, horror and indignity. None of this is new. None of the violence, terror, horror or indignity against these women is new. Maybe, just maybe now, at last, someone, like the Department of Justice, will do something. What they won’t do is bring back the women who have been systematically murdered in the Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida.

 

(Photo credit: Florida Department of Corrections)

How women in jails die: Another world is possible!

Michelle Mata lives in San Antonio, Texas, and she lives with mental illness. Until recently, that meant living with the near certainty that at some time she would need help, and, instead of help, the police, with no training in mental illness treatment or crisis intervention, would be called: “Mental illness is the only disease that when you’re in a crisis, the cops are called. You’re having a heart attack, you don’t call the police … I’m a mother. I’m a sister. I’m a friend. I’m a volunteer. I’m all these people. I contribute to my community, and I have a mental illness. My diagnosis is major depression, with psychotic features, dissociative identity disorder, and panic disorder … I want to be treated the way you want your mother to be treated if she was ever diagnosed with a mental illness. If I’m in a crisis, you know, I’m in a crisis, and I don’t, I don’t understand what’s going on around me.”

It’s a common story, an American story, happening every day across the country, and with dire results. Women in crisis “resist arrest”, are handcuffed, shackled, and sent to jail. And then what?

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report yesterday on mortality in local jails and state prisons from 2000 to 2012: “The number of deaths in local jails increased, from 889 in 2011 to 958 in 2012, which marked the first increase since 2009. The increase in deaths in local jails was primarily due to an increase in illness-related deaths (up 24%) … Suicide continued to be the leading cause of death in local jails”.

Among women prisoners, from 2000 to 2012, suicide was the most common “unnatural cause of death”. In 2000 and 2001, 91 women died in jail. In 2012, 122 women died in local jails. Starting in 2003, the number of women dying in local jails has never dipped below 111. That’s a minimum 22% mortality increase … and rising.

From 2000 to 2012,1457 women died in local jails. Of that number, 312 committed suicide and another 172 died of drug or alcohol intoxication.

On any average day in 2012, 100,000 women were in local jails. That’s up from 68,000 in 2000, and from 2000 to 2005, the numbers stayed well below 100,000. Today, 100,000 is the norm. The “good news” is that the suicide rate among women in jail has gone down from 30 out of 100,000 to 25 out of 100,000. But more women in jail are dying of suicide, and if you throw in drug and alcohol intoxication, it’s a crisis.

Most women in local jails are awaiting trial or are being processed. Twenty some years of zero-tolerance `urban redevelopment’ have combined with the gutting of mental health services to create today’s perfect storm of suicide and self-harm by women being held in local jails.

San Antonio decided to go another way. About a year ago, the San Antonio Police Department instituted a Crisis Intervention Training program for its police officers, and Michelle Mata is one of the trainers. Since the program went into full effect, officers have not used force even once on someone in crisis. People in crisis are going to treatment centers rather than jail. People living with mental illness and people living with people with mental illness report they are leading better lives. Another world is possible. Ask Michelle Mata.

Migrant and immigrant women workers want democracy, too!

Can migrant and immigrant workers demand democracy, and if they do, who will listen? This question arises, again, out of the news coverage of the Hong Kong protests, which has demonstrated an ambivalence, if not an anxiety, about where immigrant domestic workers fit in, or not, in the Umbrella Revolution. At heart, the problem is that many find it difficult to understand that migrant and immigrant women workers, domestic workers, “helpers” want it all: decent work, dignity, and democracy.

Hong Kong boasts one of the highest densities of domestic workers in the world. The overwhelming majority are Filipina and Indonesian. They are famously underworked, overpaid, and often suffer the full gamut of abuse. They are also organized, into various national-ethnic associations as well as into pan-Asian domestic workers’ associations, most notably the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body. Typically, the “news” about these women is [1] a story of abuse, [2] a story of seeking higher wages, [3] a story of getting slightly higher wages, and then the cycle begins again.

Abuse and wages pretty much cover the “domestic worker” front. And that’s why the Occupy Hong Kong protests have caused a ripple in the surface of the common sense. Where are the maids in Occupy Hong Kong? Where are domestic workers in the struggle for democracy?

Everywhere: “On 29 September, the first day of the general strike, unions representing dock workers, bus drivers, beverage workers, social workers, domestic workers, migrant domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, radio producers, and teachers took to the streets. They are not only protesting against the police suppression of the students. They are not only campaigning for universal suffrage. They are also demonstrating a more down-to-earth wish: social justice.”

Domestic workers, like 60-year-old Filipina domestic worker Vicky Casia, understand that political as well as economic wealth and well being in Hong Kong depend on the labor of migrant women workers: “We are proud of what they are doing right now. This is history. It would be another achievement for us, if soon they would also include in their fight the rights for migrant workers.”

Domestic workers were at the demonstrations, openly, proudly and happily, as their photos show. Likewise, domestic workers formally supported the protesters: “The Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMCB), is one with the people of Hong Kong in condemning the brutal response of the Hong Kong government, through its Police Force, to the protest – predominantly youth and students – calling for full universal suffrage in choosing the city’s Chief Executive … The movement for universal suffrage has been gaining steam for the past years and is further being propelled by the government’s lack of effective response to the problems besetting many of the Hong Kong people. Cuts in social service, disregard of the condition of workers, and the prioritization of the government of the interests of businesses, especially in times of crisis have contributed greatly to the desire of the HK people to have a more direct say in the election of the Chief Executive …The right of the people to assemble and protest is being wantonly violated; and activists for democratic rights cannot stand by and watch … We are one with the people of Hong Kong in the call to stop the repression against their democratic rights. We call for the immediate release of the arrested protesters. We call for the HK government to respect the people’s rights … We extend our solidarity to those who uphold the people’s rights and democracy.”

Migrant and immigrant women workers want it all: decent work, dignity, and democracy.

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)