Cell extraction: Torture from sea to shining sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The violence visited on homeless and unstably housed women

Released last week, “Recent Violence in a Community-Based Sample of Homeless and Unstably Housed Women With High Levels of Psychiatric Comorbidity” confirms common sense and lived experience as it adds some new twists … and leaves some out. The study looked at 300 homeless and unstably housed women in San Francisco.

Common sense and lived experience confirmed: “Violence against homeless women (i.e., women who sleep in a shelter or public place) and women who are unstably housed (i.e., those who are displaced or move often and women who sleep at homes of friends, family, associates, or strangers because they have no other shelter) is disproportionately common.”

Not terribly surprising: Almost all the women “met criteria” for at least one psychiatric condition, one mental health disorder, and one substance-related disorder. “Most study participants experienced comorbidity”, meaning they live with two or more chronic disorders.

60% of the women had experienced some type of violence prior to being interviewed. And here’s where some twists begin: “Violence was disproportionately perpetrated by non-primary partners.” Half of the women experienced emotional violence from a non-primary partner. Almost twice as many experienced physical violence from a non-primary partner as from a primary; and more than three times as many experienced sexual violence from a non-primary partner as from a primary partner.

According to the researchers, the odds of non-primary partner violence increased with a greater number of psychiatric diagnoses; a higher level of social connection; being White; having unmet subsistence needs. Being HIV positive decreased the odds of non-primary partner violence.

Violence from primary partners increased with age, being White, multiple psychiatric diagnoses, and a higher level of social connection.

While some of the social markers surprised the researchers, what really got their attention was the social connection link. It suggests that, for homeless and unstably housed women, social isolation makes sense. The less socially connected a woman is, the less likely she is to be hurt.

While the authors of the study don’t invoke “intersectionality”, they rely on it, to the extent that they insist that violence against homeless and unstably housed women must include emotional, physical and sexual violence.

The study misses economic violence, which is structural, and so misses prison. Given the privatization of streets and the criminalization of those who live on the streets, women with multiple disorders struggle with violence on the streets and are shunted off to jail and prison, where they receive less than no help, and then are dumped back onto the streets, where the cycle accelerates and intensifies.

The report concludes: “The high level of violence in this population exceeds reports from many previous studies because of its inclusion of emotional violence, perpetrators who were not primary or domestic partners, and a sensitive screening instrument. Comprehensive screening for violence against impoverished women in health care settings is needed, and these data suggest that this is especially true for mental health and drug treatment providers caring for impoverished women with high levels of psychiatric comorbidity. Referrals for care, counseling, and safety plans should prioritize basic subsistence needs (housing, food, clothing, and hygiene needs), psychiatric assessment, and care. Finally, providers must understand that rather than a negative predictor of health and safety, social isolation may be an effective means for some impoverished women to extricate themselves from a potentially dangerous environment in the absence of other options.”

The absence of other options is prison. High and excessive levels of violence against women and high levels of incarceration of women are part of the global story of severely reduced to eliminated mental health and all public services, of severely reduced to eliminated affordable housing, of severely reduced to eliminated jobs, of severely reduced to eliminated safe public spaces for women, and of astronomically expanded police forces and prisons.

Edom Kasaye, Mahlet Fantahun, Zone 9, and the writer’s freedom

On April 25 and 26th, the Ethiopian government arrested nine writers, six of whom are members of Zone 9. In Addis Ababa’s notorious Kaliti prison, Zone 9 is where political prisoners end up. Reeyot Alemu has been there for over 1000 days, for the crime of having written essays and articles critical of the government.

Now, members of Zone 9 sit in Zone 9.

For over 80 days, the nine writers were held without any charges, or better, under “informal accusations”. This past week, they were hastily charged with various forms of terrorism, under the anti-terrorism law passed in 2009.

Freelance journalist Edom Kasaye and blogger Mahlet Fantahun will join Reeyot Alemu in the women’s section of Kaliti. A third woman, Soliana Shimeles, was also charged with terrorism, but she’s outside of the country.

Almost forty years ago, in the throes of the anti-apartheid struggle, Nadine Gordimer asked, “What is a writer’s freedom?” Her answer, in part, was: “A writer needs all … kinds of freedom, built on the basic one of freedom from censorship. He does not ask for shelter from living, but for exposure to it without possibility of evasion. He is fiercely engaged with life on his own terms, and ought to be left to it, if anything is to come of the struggle. Any government, any society – any vision of a future society – that has respect for its writers must set them as free as possible to write in their own various ways, in their own choices of form and language, and according to their own discovery of truth.”

The Zone 9 writers’ slogan, and rallying cry, is “We blog because we care!” What do the writers care about? The truth. The end of censorship, lies, and suppression. The right to write. This week, Ethiopia charged ten writers with the terrorist act of writing, just writing. The rest is fog and mirrors.

In a tribute this week to Nadine Gordimer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o – who knows something about the combination of writing, truth, censorship, lies, imprisonment and exile – wrote:

Dear Nadine Your Name is Hope

You found broken hearts
You put them back together with words
From a pen that flowed ink instead of blood.”

The imprisonment of the nine writers, and charges against ten, is part of an Ethiopian story, as the name “Zone 9” suggests. At the same time, it’s part of a global assault against writing, all writing, under the guise of anti-terrorism. What was once particular to Gordimer’s South Africa or Ngugi’s Kenya or Paolo Freire’s Brazil or Angela Davis’ United States is now a coherent global regime. In that context, thinking of the ten writers charged with terrorism, thinking of Reeyot Alemu and so many other imprisoned writers, it’s time to ask, “Can pens still flow ink instead of blood?” Whose name today is hope?

Lacey Weld, Mallory Loyola and the real witch trials of Tennessee

In the last week, Tennessee became the site of the latest witch trials. On Tuesday, July 15, 27-year-old Lacey Weld was sentenced to 151 months in prison and five years of “supervised release” for manufacturing and using methamphetamine in her ninth month of pregnancy. The sentence exceeds the `traditional’ sentencing limits, because Weld was pregnant. The supplement, the gift, to Weld’s sentence is called `enhancement.’

At more or less the same time, Mallory Loyola was arrested, also in Tennessee, for narcotic use while pregnant. Under a new state law, Loyola was charged with assault, for having tested positive for methamphetamine. The fact that methamphetamine is not included in the Tennessee law didn’t matter. Mallory Loyola is under arrest.

The laws and practices that imprison pregnant women for drug abuse or other substance abuse are anti-mother, anti-poor, anti-family, anti-doctor, anti-women-of-color, anti-poor-women, and more. These laws and practices have devastating consequences, and not only on the women and their children. Everyone knows this …

And yet the laws continue to proliferate and women continue to be threatened, intimidated, harassed, and persecuted. Why? There are many reasons, one of which is that prisons need bodies, the machine needs to be fed. The war against women sleeps with the war for prison. In Europe, in the Middle Ages, tens of thousands of women were caged and killed for their knowledge and science, and in particular for their knowledge of reproductive health methods, including methods of abortion. They were called witches, and they were tortured and killed. In the intervening millennia, much has changed, but not the basic elements of the witch trial. Find pregnant women and women who care for pregnant women, demonize and criminalize them by any means necessary, invoke the community and the nation and protection, and then torture the women until they die in a grand public spectacle.

Lacey Weld and Mallory Loyola, by their own testimony, need help, but that doesn’t matter. Prison beds are hungry, and there are many ways of throwing women behind bars.

Support SCI Coal Township prisoners’ demands for decent food, humane treatment!

Austerity loves prisons but hates people, in particular prisoners. That’s the lesson from SCI Coal Township, a prison in Pennsylvania, where prisoners are peacefully protesting their mistreatment by the State and demanding they be treated as human beings with needs and rights.

In May, prisoners were told that `budget’ woes forced the prison to cut back on food rations’ size and quality. Prisoners’ morning meals were severely reduced, while the Staff Dining Room’s full, extensive, and, considering, lavish menu was untouched. Austerity loves prisons but hates prisoners.

SCI Coal Township prisoners have written and circulated a petition with 22 demands. Many involve the abrogation of their civil and human rights. The food demands are basically three:

First, rescind the cuts and restore the former menu, which wasn’t great to begin with.

Second, eliminate the special food privileges of the staff and have everyone eat from the same pot, as it were. Prisoners argue that the Staff Dining Room is a money pit that should be addressed.

Third, if none of the above is met, at least authorize prisoners to receive monthly 60-pound food packages from family and friends. Neighboring states New Jersey, New York, and Ohio already do so for their prisoners. As the SCI Coal Township prisoners say, “If the DOC places the budget over our nutritional needs we request a means to provide for our own nutritional needs.”

SCI Coal Township is also facing a court case in which its censorship of political and human rights literature is being challenged. Austerity loves prisons. Cut off food, cut off access to information and knowledge and education, cut off access to literature and culture. Call it a good day’s work.

Support the SCI Coal Township prisoners, if you can, by reading, signing, and circulating their petition, here.

In Greece, austerity builds its own gulag

Austerity loves prisons. From the United States, where debtors prisons are seeing a return, to Australia and the United Kingdom, where immigration prisons choke with people and atrocities, austerity loves its prisons. In Greece, austerity has built its very own gulag, out of prison hospitals, immigration prisons, prisons within prisons, and the free floating fear of going to prison for indebtedness, inability, or any of the other `failings’ that are part and parcel of being human.

But this year, the State may have to start paying its debts, not to multinational agencies and stock brokers but rather to ordinary human beings.

The Korydallos Prison Complex is Greece’s main prison. The Korydallos Prison hospital is the only prison hospital in Greece. In February, hospital inmates went on a hunger strike, which included refusing medications. The vast majority of the Korydallos hospital prisoners are HIV positive. Their complaint was simple: inhuman overcrowding. Korydallos prison hospital is meant to have no more than 60. It currently houses over 200. Prisoners’ testimony, and leaked photographs and videos, describe the place as a hellhole. They’re right. People come in and get lost in the crowd and often die there: “There’s a 23-year-old who’s already been here for a month without getting a check-up. We enter the hospital with a medical condition or a disability and leave with a chronic illness. Do you know why you don’t hear of deaths in prisons? Because when someone is near death, they move him to a public hospital. That’s where his death is recorded.”

Many of those in the hospital are awaiting trial. Many others are in for minor offences, and many others are in for survival economic offenses: “We’re human beings. Many of us are in prison for financial crimes; we haven’t done anything violent. We don’t understand why we’re being treated like this.” Austerity loves prisons, and Greek austerity loves a good gulag.

On June 26, the European Court of Human Rights decided that Greece had violated the rights of Mariana de los Santos and Angela de la Cruz, two women from the Dominican Republic who had been arrested as undocumented residents. The two lodged a complaint concerning the conditions of their imprisonment in Thessaloniki and in Athens. In Thessaloniki, the cell was overcrowded, and the amount of money allocated was insufficient to purchase a meal. In Athens, along with overcrowding, “they described numerous sanitary and hygiene problems, particularly the fact that there had been only a single shower and a single toilet for all of the female detainees.” Overcrowding, hunger, debt, and no facilities: austerity loves its immigration prisons.

On June 23, prisoners across Greece started a hunger strike that went on for over ten consecutive days. Along with overcrowding and the general architecture of despair, the prisoners were, and are, protesting new laws that create a new kind of maximum-security prison, called type-C prison. These are designed to house the `most dangerous of the dangerous,’ but that’s a fluid concept. It includes “terrorists”, who more often than not are young militant anarchists; members of “criminal organizations”, such as the Golden Dawn, and “prisoners who lead mutinies or hunger strikes like the one under way at the moment.”

Prisoners call C-type prisons the Greek Guantanamo: “a Greek ‘Guantanamo Bay’, a prison within a prison, without leaves, without visits, without tomorrow”. The gulag is national and global: “We start a mass hunger strike in all prisons across Greece. We claim our rights, and we fight to remain humans, instead of human shadows locked up and forgotten into despair.”

Prison guards are also on strike because of overcrowding. According to the guards, the current average on any given shift is one guard to 500 prisoners. Austerity hates workers, loves prisons.

From the cleaning women of the Greek Ministry of Finance to the Kordyallos Prison hospital to the immigrant detention prisons to all the prisons, the cry is the same: “We claim our rights, and we fight to remain humans, instead of human shadows locked up and forgotten into despair.”

Australia is `shocked’ by its routine torture of children

Australia routinely throws asylum seekers into prisons, mostly in remote areas or, even better, on islands. Among `detained’ asylum seekers, children represent the greatest percentage of self-harm and suicidal behavior, according to Gillian Triggs, President of Australia’s Human Rights Commission. According to Triggs, between January 2013 and March 2014, there were 128 reported self-harm incidents by children in detention. Triggs characterized these numbers as “shockingly high.”

The numbers are high. The stories are heartbreaking. The pictures drawn by children are devastating. One girl draws her own portrait. It’s a close up of her face, pressed against bars. Her eyes are blue, her tears, streaming down her face, are blood red. All the self-portraits are similar: the children are crying and are all in cages. Doctors and others report that children can’t sleep, suffer trauma, regress, suffer clinical depression, self-harm, and die inside.

There is no shock here. This has been Australia’s public policy for over a decade, and the policy has only worsened. As Gillian Triggs noted, “Children are being held for significantly greater periods of time than has been the case in the past, and that leads virtually inevitably to greater levels of mental health disturbance.”

Leads virtually inevitably to greater levels of mental health disturbance. Just call it ordinary torture, and be done. The delivery of medical services is worse than toxic, and the stays get longer and longer. Today, Australia holds more or less 1,000 children in “closed immigration detention.”  The longer children stay in “closed immigration detention”, the more likely they are to suffer mental health crises and the more severe those crises will become.

At a hearing of the Australian Human Rights Commission this week, Triggs asked, “Is it acceptable to have children held on Christmas Island in shipping bunkers, containers, on stony ground, surrounded by phosphate dust in that heat?” The government representative replied, “The last time I looked, president, there was no shipping container. They are containerised accommodation, they are not shipping containers.” Unfortunately, “containerised accommodation” does clarify everything. The State sees these children as less than less than less than human.

A child will die in one of those cages, and that child will have been a human. Perception matters, as Australia’s women asylum seekers and their children well know. Torture matters. The torture of children matters. Children matter. Tell Australia, and tell all the nations of the world that throwing asylum seeking children into cages. Children matter. It’s not shocking.

Considering that domestic work is mainly carried out by women and girls

Five men on the US Supreme Court decided this week that women workers [a] aren’t really workers and [b] don’t really work. Therefore, women workers don’t deserve the protections, and the power, that a trade union can confer on its members. Many have written on this decision, and many more will. Much of the response has avoided that frontal attack on women workers, preferring instead to focus on labor unions or on household workers. Although the majority opinion doesn’t specify women, it’s clear that the workers under attack are women.

On June 16, 2011, the International Labor Organization recognized as much, when it passed the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The Convention defines domestic work as “work performed in or for a household or households”, and defines domestic worker as “any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship.” The ILO was careful to note that its Convention applies to all domestic workers.

But before the ILO launched into the nuts and bolts of decent work for domestic workers, it set the global table, specifying the place of domestic work in the global economy and the place of women and girls in domestic work. In other words, the International Labor Organization recognized and considered women as the key.

And so, without further ado and as an alternative to the narrow, misogynistic world view of the U.S. Supreme Court, here’s a sampling of the opening of the Text of the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers:

“Recognizing the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy, which includes increasing paid job opportunities for women and men workers with family responsibilities, greater scope for caring for ageing populations, children and persons with a disability, and substantial income transfers within and between countries, and

“Considering that domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and of work, and to other abuses of human rights, and

“Considering also that in developing countries with historically scarce opportunities for formal employment, domestic workers constitute a significant proportion of the national workforce and remain among the most marginalized, ….

“Recognizing the special conditions under which domestic work is carried out that make it desirable to supplement the general standards with standards specific to domestic workers so as to enable them to enjoy their rights fully, and ….

“Having decided upon the adoption of certain proposals concerning decent work for domestic workers, which is the fourth item on the agenda of the session, and

“Having determined that these proposals shall take the form of an international Convention;

“adopts this sixteenth day of June of the year two thousand and eleven the following Convention, which may be cited as the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011.”

End juvenile life without parole now!

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole. In `America’, when we say life without parole, we mean it. Currently, about 2570 children are serving life without parole. With more than 500 people convicted as juveniles and given mandatory life sentences without parole, Pennsylvania leads the nation and the world in the practice of devastating children’s lives.

Two years ago almost to the day, in Miller v Alabama, the United States Supreme Court outlawed mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles. The Court did not ban life sentences without parole, but rather chose to ban the mandatory aspect. Three weeks ago to the day, that same Supreme Court refused to hear a case, Cunningham v Pennsylvania, which concerned the retroactivity of their earlier decision. If mandatory juvenile life without parole became wrong, on Constitutional grounds, in June 2012, shouldn’t that Constitutional reasoning apply to all those children who came before and now struggle to survive in an inhumane situation? For the Supreme Court, the time is not right.

The time is not right for many states across the United States. Last week, the Sentencing Project released a report, Slow To Act: State Responses to 2012 Supreme Court Mandate On Life Without Parole, which showed a national reluctance to abide by the Supreme Court mandate. The Supreme Court decision struck down laws in 28 states: “Two years later, the legislative responses to come into compliance with Miller have been decidedly mixed. A majority of the 28 states have not passed legislation. Frequently, the new laws have left those currently serving life without parole without recourse to a new sentence. Though 13 of the 28 states have passed compliance laws since Miller; the minimum time that must be served before parole review is still substantial, ranging from 25 years (Delaware, North Carolina, and Washington) to 40 years (Nebraska and Texas). Most states, not only those affected by Miller, still allow juveniles to be sentenced to life without a chance of parole as long as the sentence is imposed through individual review rather than as a result of a mandatory statute.”

State after States continues to insist that prison is the answer, that a policy of mass despair and death-in-life is the best thing for `some children.’ Juvenile life without parole laws supposedly addressed a sudden eruption of predatory and feral violence committed by incorrigible children. As Deborah LaBelle, Executive Director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, has noted, that means Black and Latino.

In Miller v Alabama, the Supreme Court decided that children are children and that children matter. No matter what they do, children are children, and this means, among things, they have a greater capacity for rehabilitation, assuming responsibility, healing and repairing. Mandatory juvenile life without parole denies children their identities as children. All juvenile life without parole denies children not only their existence as children, but also the possibility for all of us that a community cannot be built on the manufacture of despair. Hope matters.

Pennsylvania, despite your legislature and your Supreme Court, take your position as the world’s leading incarcerator of children for life without parole, and turn it inside out. End juvenile life without parole, all juvenile life without parole. Do it now.

Musasa: A sheltering tree for and of women of Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, two out of every three women and girls have experienced a form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. According to a 2006 study, 32% of women in Zimbabwe reported physical abuse by marital partners since the age of 16 years. That was then. Now it’s worse.

The 2006 study was conducted for the Musasa Project, one of the oldest women’s and feminist organizations in Zimbabwe. The Musasa Project was founded in 1988 in response to the escalating violence against women. Immediately, the women of the Musasa Project recognized that their work would involve service provision, advocacy, community organizing, and often raising a ruckus. The women of the Musasa Project have been leaders in every step of the women’s struggles in Zimbabwe. At the national level, this has meant from the earlier Constitutional processes to the domestic violence legislation campaigns to the more recent Constitutional processes to today.

According to their Executive Director Netty Musanhu. “I am sure you are aware of the crisis that the country has been in for the last decade. Things are getting worse – women are bearing the brunt of all that. We are seeing an increase in rape and sexual violence. We ask ourselves the question, if we are having high levels of sexual violence in times of relative peace, what does this mean?”

Despite an ongoing war on women, in which one in three girls is raped before the age of 18, Zimbabwe is officially a post-conflict country. It’s `at peace.’ Crisis is not conflict, according to the men who lead multinational agencies and form public opinion and governmental policy.

Meanwhile, by the government’s own assessment, at least 1500 children were raped in the first five months of 2014. To no one’s surprise, the overwhelming majority of rapes was committed by close relatives, parents or guardians.

The national government this week launched a National Action Plan on rape, which could be a good thing. It has said it is declaring war on rape, which cannot be a good thing. Sexual violence generally, and rape specifically, cannot be addressed with the means or mentality of warfare.

What exactly would war on rape mean, anywhere? What specifically would it mean in Zimbabwe, in which remand prisons are choking with women and men awaiting trial for years in cages in which, often, there is no usable water, food, electricity, or health care, in which people have died of starvation while awaiting trial?

In Shona, musasa means sheltering tree. The women knew what they were doing when they chose that name. The organization works from an explicitly intersectional place, in which domestic violence is HIV and AIDS which are poverty and wealth, which are access to safe spaces. For that reason, the Musasa Project continually supports evidence-based research to see what the situation is, while they sustain a physical shelter for women and children; meet and work with the government, especially legislators and police; run a hotline; monitor communities; and generally try to keep ahead of the arcs of violence. They always keep their eyes on the prize: women’s emancipation through the establishment of women’s power.

In Zimbabwe, elections loom large, and the patriarch is going to go out with a bang. Women who oppose violence, women who work their whole lives to transform violence into justice and peace know that a war on violence is not the answer. Musasa is the answer: a growing, flowing, sheltering tree that connects, one day, sheltering earth to sheltering sky.