In Nigeria’s election, Remi Sonaiya cracks a glass ceiling

Nigeria goes to the polls tomorrow, finally, and the top three contenders for President are Goodluck Jonathan, no surprise there; Muhammadu Buhari, also no surprise; and Comfort Remi Sonaiya … What? A woman is running third in the Presidential elections of the most populous country on the African continent? Yes, she is.

While it’s easy, and accurate, to frame the story as a long list of men and only one woman, it’s equally important to acknowledge that Remi Sonaiya is the first woman to qualify to run for President, and as such deserves more than praise, although a bit of praise wouldn’t hurt.

A published scholar and longstanding critic of both leading candidates, Remi Sonaiya is representing the Kowa Party, whose ideology is described as two-pronged: social welfare and modernism. That basically means that evidence-based approaches would be used to ensure a decent life for everyone and for all communities by transforming the Nigerian economy from one based on consumption to one based on production. Not surprisingly, given Remi Sonaiya’s history as a teaching and research scholar, she insists on expanding and improving education at the same time that she insists on “engaging with the Nigerian public on seeking to bring to an end age-old cultural and traditional practices which degrade the human person.” Sonaiya’s description of the Kowa Part ideology concludes with this telling sentence: “All of the above, needless to say, leaves absolutely no room for corruption or graft.” Needless to say, and yet it very much needs to be said.

Remi Sonaiya has been a tireless critic of State and bureaucratic corruption, at the same time that she has worked to ensure women’s rights, equality and power. As she noted in Lagos in January, “We have done enough of cheerleading. Women cannot keep on being cheerleaders in this country.” Elsewhere, Sonaiya expanded on this message: “I have a stake in Nigeria. I am qualified to run for the presidency of Nigeria. Like what Barack Obama said, he thought there was a skinny little black boy who thought that America had room for him. Well, this not so skinny woman thinks that Nigeria has a place for her, at the leadership level also.”

Many agree, and in particular a number of Nigerian women have taken notice. As one Nigerian writer commented, “Prof. Comfort Remi Sonaiya is the only woman contesting for the presidency in the forthcoming Nigerian elections in February 2015. Unfortunately, not many of us have heard of her, her running mate, Saidu Bobboi or her party, Kowa. I say unfortunately, not because she’s a woman like me, but because watching this video of her I found on Youtube, I get her, and she feels so much more capable, approachable and qualified than both Goodluck and GMB. The prof is an intellectual and in 2008, she was named an International Ambassador Scientist of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Sonaiya became the National Public Relations Officer of KOWA Party soon after she resigned as Professor of Foreign Languages at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. In the video, is a speech made at the 2013 TedexIfe where she speaks the language of the youth which included singing and rapping.”

Check out her 2013 talk, “How Could You Have Power and Not Use It?” Tomorrow, almost certainly, either “Goodluck or GMB” will be elected to the Presidency, but the future is in the race run by Comfort Remi Sonaiya. Listen. You can hear Nigerian women singing, rapping and asking hard and necessary questions through the cracks in the glass ceiling of the most populous country on the African continent.

 

(Photo Credit: YouTube / Kowa Party) (Video Credit: YouTube / Tedx Talks)

In Zimbabwe and South Africa, girls say NO! to coercion and exploitation

In November last year, Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi filed a suit in Zimbabwe in which they charged that the situation of “child brides” violated girls’ constitutional rights. They named Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community and the Attorney General’s Office as respondents responsible for implementation of the Customary Marriages Act, which allows for girls to be married at 16.

Age prohibitions are like speed limits. There’s the letter of the law and then there’s the car on the road. Ruvimbo Tsopodzi, now 18, was married off at 15: “I’ve faced so many challenges. My husband beat me. I wanted to stay in school but he refused. It was very, very terrible. I want to take this action to make a difference. There are a lot of children getting married.” Tsopodzi is the mother of one child.

Loveness Mudzuru, now 19, was married off at 16. By the time she was 18, she had given birth to two children: “Young girls who marry early and often in poor families are then forced to produce young children in a sea of poverty and the cycle begins again. My life is really tough. Raising a child when you are a child yourself is hard. I should be going to school.”

Across the border, in South Africa, the Western Cape High Court this week upheld the conviction of a 32-year-old man on various charges related to the trafficking and rape of a 14-year-old Eastern Cape girl. He tried to argue that the girl was not kidnapped and that there was no rape, but rather they were husband and wife, by a customary practice known as ukuthwala.

The Court rejected the man’s appeal and, more broadly, the argument that customary or traditional law allows for violence against girls and women: “The practice of ukuthwala has in recent years received considerable public attention… inasmuch as its current practice is regarded as an abuse of traditional custom and a cloak for the commission of violent acts of assault, abduction and rape of not only women but children as young as eleven years old by older men.”

Speaking of so-called child marriages, African Union Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, commented: “We cannot downplay or neglect the harmful practice of child marriage, as it has long-term and devastating effects on these girls whose health is at risk.”

While these stories describe girls living in poverty and struggling against physical and structural violence, they also speak of the courage and determination of precisely those girls, who speak for themselves. They say they deserve education, health, well being, safety, and peace. They say as well that individual and collective dignity and justice begin and end with informed consent. They say NO! to all forms of coercion and exploitation of girls, and boys, and they mean it.

 

(Photo Credit: Lipco.co.za)

Life & Times of Ms K

Ms K is dead. Her death was exemplary. A woman enters prison for the first time, a troublesome woman, and within weeks is found hanging in her cell. Here’s her story, as recounted in Learning from PPO Investigations: self-inflicted deaths of prisoners – 2013/14, the most recent report from the Prison and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales:

Ms K had a history of mental ill health. After a long period of stability she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after a number of attempts to kill herself.

She was discharged to the care of the community team but was arrested almost immediately, when she threatened to kill her former partner.

She was remanded to prison after a doctor decided she would not benefit from further hospital treatment. It was her first time in prison.

A nurse immediately began ACCT procedures and recommended constant supervision. However, prison staff set four observations an hour.

She tried to hang herself twice in the first evening, and was moved to a safer cell and constantly supervised. Nearly two weeks after arriving in prison she was referred to a psychiatrist, who did not believe she should be in prison and immediately began to organise a transfer back to hospital. Tragically, Ms K died before this could take place.

Frequent ACCT case reviews were held and most were multi-disciplinary. However, there were several occasions when prison managers chose not to follow, and sometimes not to ask, the advice of clinical staff. Clinicians said that their opinion was not listened to, which was particularly troubling for a prisoner with such severe mental health problems.

Ms K was difficult to manage and her moods were unpredictable, extreme and liable to change quickly. She made a number of serious and determined attempts to hang herself.

An enhanced case review process could have helped ensure more consistency in the staff involved in her care, and made sure all input was given sufficient weight.

For the Ombudsman researchers, Ms K’s case is “one example” of the “failure” to “consider enhanced case review process” when a prisoner’s history suggests “wide ranging and deep seated problems.” Ms K’s death was, and is, exemplary.

Last year, prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high. The majority of prisoners who engaged in suicide were White men. For men and women of all group, hanging was the preferred method of dying. Ms K’s death was, and is, exemplary.

There is no tragedy here, and, despite the Ombudsman’s best intentions, there is nothing to learn. Ms K’s death is a miniscule part of a global assembly line at which employees dutifully stand and wait for the next body to ignore. The prisons of England and Wales, with their mounting piles of prisoners’ corpses, are a tiny part of the global work of necropower: “I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead … Under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred.”

Ms K is dead. Her death is an example. Nothing more.

 

(Image Credit: guerillapolicy.org)

Why the number of prisoners committing suicide rose so sharply last year

Last year, prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, and the House of Commons Justice Committee. For all three, this dubious accomplishment parallels cuts in prison staff, harsher prison regimes, and various `efficiencies’ imposed across the so-called justice system. Add to that cuts in public health and housing services. Austerity kills.

The Ombudsman’s most recent report, Learning from PPO Investigations: self-inflicted deaths of prisoners – 2013/14, found a 64% increase in self-inflicted deaths in custody over the previous year. While that number captured a bit of attention, here’s a paragraph that many overlooked: “There were self-inflicted deaths at 53 different prisons, 56% more than the previous year. This included prisons where there had not been self-inflicted deaths for many years, sometimes ever.” Under austerity measures, the Empire of Prison Suicides has expanded rapidly and hungrily.

The Empire has expanded both geographically and demographically. Who are the ones who perished `at their own hands’? “In 2013/14, the prisoners who died were significantly less likely to have been convicted or charged with violent and sexual offences. There was also a significant increase in deaths among those serving short sentences of less than six months.”

Most of the prisoners who committed suicide were in their first month of custody. More had spent less than two hours out of their cell in the days before their deaths. Not `hardened’ nor `violent’ nor `in for long’. In other words, more or less ordinary people.

Frances Cook, Executive Director of the Howard League, noted, “No one should be so desperate whilst they are in the care of the state that they take their own life. The numbers hide the true extent of misery inside prisons and for families. It is particularly tragic that teenagers and other young people have died by their own hand in our prisons and we should all be ashamed that this happened.”

The tragedy is in the deaths, not the ages, and we should indeed all be ashamed. The State is not ashamed. As a Justice Committee report last week noted, “The prison system in England and Wales has one of the highest incarceration levels in Europe, standing at 149 per 100,000 people.” The report noted that when Justice Secretary Grayling was presented with the rising tide of suicide, his response was to blame society. On the question of suicides, the Justice Committee report concluded, “The Ministry told us they had looked hard for evidence of factors which could be causing an increase in suicide rates, self-harm and levels of assault in prisons. Worryingly, they had not managed to arrive at any hypothesis as to why this has taken place. In our view it is not possible to avoid the conclusion that the confluence of estate modernisation and re-configuration, efficiency savings, staffing shortages, and changes in operational policy, including to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, have made a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety.”

We should all be ashamed, and we should all be worried, worried about States that have looked and refuse to see, refuse to see unavoidable conclusions and, even more, refuse to see the humanity in each of us. Global leaders of incarceration, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, have gained their ascendancy by stuffing more and more people into prisons and jails, and then expressing shock and dismay when the conditions of confinement push prisoners to self-harm and suicide. A war on crime turns whole populations into `a problem’ and entire neighborhoods into lands belonging to no one. It’s a kind of genocide by erasure.

In the United Kingdom last year, almost all those prisoners who killed themselves did so by hanging. They turned the belittling spectacle of their erasure into one last spectacle of sacrifice. While the State spokespeople express dismay, and the State accountants chalk it up as another efficiency, the various gods of justice and humanity look on and weep.

 

(Image Credit: guerillapolicy.org)

In South Africa, women say “My body, my rights, my womb, my choices!”

 

In South Africa this week, 48 women living with HIV and AIDS responded to the indignity and abuse of forced sterilization. Represented by Her Rights Initiative, Oxfam, and the Women’s Legal Centre, 48 women who had suffered forced sterilization in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal came forward and lodged a formal complaint. These 48 `cases’ were from 1986 to 2014. These 48 women are the tip of a rumbling volcano. They are the faces and bodies of gendered inequality in South Africa and beyond. They represent the untold numbers of women living with HIV and AIDS who have been forced to suffer one indignity after another. They represent all women in national and regional economies where women’s bodies are viewed as consumables with ever declining values.

The women tell their own stories, for example, Zanele, who was 19 years old and 38 weeks pregnant: “As I was thinking about it, [the doctor] turned to this lady who was with her, I think she was an intern, and said we [referring to HIV-positive women] were a problem to the hospitals, we give birth all the time … at that time I felt guilty as a patient. Then [the doctor] came back and asked me if I wanted to be sterilised and I said yes.”

There is another, connected story, as told by Dr Ann Strode from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In 2012, Dr. Strode published a study published that examined the situation of forced sterilization of women living with HIV and AIDS. At the time, the research team believed that the practice had more or less ended by 2006, with the national rollout of antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs. In the present group of 48, more than half of the violations took place after 2006. Dr. Strode and her colleagues were surprised by the findings.

Consider the story of surprise. When those who are the most informed and the most engaged, when the advocates and the organizers, think the story is over, it takes the subjects, the women themselves, to step forward and `surprise’ the public consciousness out of its slumber. Two of the cases were from last year, and one has already resulted in a civil suit in Gauteng.

Some talk about the double stigma women living with HIV and AIDS suffer: being HIV positive, being unable to have children. But there’s a third stigma: having failed the nation-State. Women who are HIV positive are viewed as failed citizens. That’s why they can be treated this way, despite Constitutional and legal protections to the contrary. The Department of Health says forced sterilization is not department policy, but it is practiced, in the open, regularly.

Each of those 48 women represents tens and hundreds of other women living with AIDS, and each of those 48 women represents thousands and tens of thousands of women who struggle and organize in the unequal and violent spaces between policy and practice.

End this violation on women’s bodies! My body, my rights, my womb, my choices.”

 

(Photo Credit: The Star / Chris Collingridge)

The United States built a `special’ hell for women, USP Hazelton

 

In 2012, under pressure led by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the US Bureau of Prisons began an internal audit of its `restrictive housing’ policies. `Restrictive housing’ means segregation and isolation. CNA Corporation was hired to do the study. At first, they were not going to include any women’s prisons, despite the fact that every Federal women’s prison has its own Special Housing Unit. Apparently, women just aren’t special enough.

The report was completed in December and made public this week. One women’s prison is included: USP Hazelton: “The USP Hazelton facility, which houses female SHU inmates, was included in the study in order to assess conditions in female restrictive housing. Currently, there are no female inmates in SMU or ADX status, largely because there is not a sufficient number to create specialized SMU or ADX female units.”

In government speak, SHU means Special Housing Unit; SMU means Special Management Unit; and ADX means Administrative Maximum. There’s one ADX unit, in Florence, Colorado.

Special Housing at some level is meant to be benign and protective: “Special Housing Units (SHUs) are housing units in Bureau institutions where inmates are securely separated from the general inmate population, and may be housed either alone or with other inmates. Special housing units help ensure the safety, security, and orderly operation of correctional facilities, and protect the public, by providing alternative housing assignments for inmates removed from the general population … Administrative detention status is an administrative status, which removes you from the general population when necessary to ensure the safety, security, and orderly operation of correctional facilities, or protect the public. Administrative detention status is nonpunitive, and can occur for a variety of reasons.”

It’s special and nonpunitive. It’s protective and for your own good. The variety of reasons includes awaiting classification or reclassification; waiting transfer; being under investigation or awaiting a hearing; awaiting return. Other reasons include danger or threats from other inmates and danger to oneself. Of course, it’s not that neat and clean.

There are three things you want to know about USP Hazelton.

First, “At USP Hazelton, 16 hours of psychiatry services are available per month for 600 female inmates. Given the traditionally high degree of expressed psychopathology in female incarcerated populations, this amount of dedicated psychiatry time is insufficient to meet the needs of the population. Understaffing in this area leads to potential under diagnosis, inadequate treatment, and delayed referral because the psychiatrist only has time to see the most severely mentally ill inmates.”

Second, “Only the USP Hazelton Secure Female Facility did not have an SHU lieutenant assigned to manage unit operations. At Hazelton, the shift or operations lieutenant supervised the SHU, in addition to his/her other duties, and on occasion an extra lieutenant was assigned to the unit to supervise operations … The staffing of SHUs is consistent throughout the Bureau of Prisons facilities assessed. With the exception of the female unit at USP Hazelton, each of the SHUs was managed by the lieutenant that was designated as the SHU lieutenant, responsible for management and oversight of the unit.”

Third, “In visiting the selected facilities, there was only one instance observed where a staff member was observed opening a cell door without having two officers present, in apparent violation of operational procedures. This was at the female facility at USP Hazelton and staffing levels in that SHU may have contributed to this violation, as there were few officers available to conduct the movements.”

Why is USP Hazelton so `special’ among the special housing units? Why is there no dedicated lieutenant? Why is there no recognition of the “traditionally high degree of psychopathology in female incarcerated populations”? Being marked as “special” in Federal prisons is bad for everyone, women, men, and especially children. Among the adults, women receive a special `special’ marking, through omission. What makes Hazelton `special’ is the lack of investment and concern. Having had mental health services in particular ravaged over the last decades, women enter prison to find further efficiencies carved out of their bodies and lives. The United States built a `special’ hell for women, and sadly USP Hazelton is only one of its many levels.

 

(Photo Credit: Franciso Quinones / Solitary Watch)

In Zimbabwe, women activists are not surprised by the abduction of Itai Dzamara

 

In Harare on Monday, Itai Dzamara – journalist, pro-democracy activist, leader of “Occupy Africa Unity Square”, and a real pain for Robert Mugabe – was kidnapped, in broad daylight. On Tuesday, Dzamara’s wife, Sheffra Dzamara, went to the High Court and filed an urgent habeas corpus. Today, the High Court ordered the State to “search” for Dzamara. Talk about the fox guarding the chickens.

Reporting on this incident, and reporting on Zimbabwe more generally, suggests that State-sponsored violence has significantly reduced since the dark days of the 2008 elections. Jestina Mukoko, National Director of the National Peace Project, and Beatrice Mtetwa, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, would tell it differently. In 2008, Jestina Mukoko was abducted by State agents, and held and tortured for three months. Beatrice Mtetwa has also been a guest of the State, for having committed the crime of asking the whereabouts of one of her clients.

But that was then, and this is now. Right?

In an International Women’s Day celebration honoring Mbuya Felistas Chinyuku, a staunch anti-eviction women’s rights and human rights activist and organizer since 1991, Beatrice Mtetwa noted that in the past 24 months, 1390 local women human rights defenders had been arrested. The women activists’ crimes generally involved staging street protests or petitioning and litigating government with the aim of pressing for political, social and economic rights.

Beatrice Mtetwa explained, “When these women were arrested they were trying to assert their rights as women first and foremost and as citizens of Zimbabwe.” Jestina Mukoko added, “I do not know why the state thinks that we will be fighting against them. We do not intend to fight against the state but to remind them that we are people whose rights are being violated. But by just reminding them to recognize and respect people’s rights you will find yourself in jail.”

Beatrice Mtetwa and Jestina Mukoko made those remarks last Friday, three days before Itai Dzamara was kidnapped. Activists, and just plain folk, in Zimbabwe are worried and rattled by the abduction of Itai Dzamara, but they are not surprised. They have been struggling for the past two years with all varieties of disappearance, for the crime of being women and of being citizens. #BringItaiHome

 

(Image Credit: Twitter / Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition)

Indian rural women say NO! to the theft and devastation of their lands and lives

In India, last month, rural women shouted, “Enough is enough!” They marched, organized, and raised a ruckus about proposals to make corporate and State land “acquisition” easier and more “efficient.” They marched by the thousands to Delhi to express more than opposition. They went to articulate the value of their presence. And they promised that if no one in authority listened, they would return by the tens and hundreds of thousands.

In 2013, the Indian government passed a Land Acquisition Act that addressed consent, public purpose and urgency, and social impact. While the 2013 law had issues, it began a process of democratizing land acquisition. Local populations had to be consulted. The State was under stricter guidelines and controls concerning its capacity to declare a public need or urgency and thereby seize land. Social impact, such as mass dislocation, would have to be factored in. These provisions have complicated large scale land purchase, and so the new government has decided to prove its corporate creds by erasing over 65% of the national population. After all, farming communities are surely the source of India’s poverty, not “big capital [which] could get away with unconscionable waste, choke off all credit in the economy, externalise their costs on to society and flout regulation” and certainly not “the state [which] could fritter away vast land resources without any accountability.”

The new bill has been called anti-farmer, anti-Dalit, anti-poor, anti-women, and so Dalit women, tribal women, poor women, and women farmers united and went to Delhi. Kallan, from Uttar Pradesh, explained the women’s mobilization, “You see, men are scared of police. They flee at the first sign of trouble. We do not. Take us anywhere — to the police station, to the court anywhere, we will go… We will only go home when we get out patta (land documents).”

Sabubai, a tribal woman from Madhya Pradesh, agrees, “The farmers near our village sold off their land to the government, they wanted money and the land was to be used for a sugar factory. We are sharecroppers, we never owned the land. But we wrested it back from them. We have it now, but not the patta… we want the patta too.”

Baldiya Rana, an Adivasi from Assam, asked why the State is “so desperate to cease tribal cultivation close to forests, however encourage tree felling for firms”. Adivasis make up 8.6 percent of the Indian population, and 40 percent of those displaced by “improvement tasks.” Of those Adivasis who have been displaced, only 21 percent have been resettled.

Dalit farm laborer Hiranya Devi, from Uttar Pradesh, noted, “If solely the landowner will get a job and rehabilitation in trade, then the lots of like me will come and fill your cities. Anyway, that’s the place all of the street, electrical energy and water goes.”

Konsa Bai, a tribal woman from Madhya Pradesh, put it succinctly, “We have no land. Only big people have land in the village.”

Life for rural women has never been easy, anywhere in South Asia, and the everyday struggle for survival has always been hard. Where the food has been grown, hunger has always stalked women and children first. But recent years have been catastrophic. From 2001 to 2011, the number of women agricultural laborers increased 24 percent, while the total number of women farmers dropped 14 percent. Of nearly 98 million Indian women who have agricultural jobs, around 63% are agricultural laborers, dependent on the farms of others. Force women off their own land and then force them to return as laborers, in order to barely survive. It’s an old story and a very new one, and it’s part of the reason women marched to Delhi. They have seen the cost of `shining development’, and they know it targets women, viciously and violently.

Last month, thousands of women went to Delhi to say NO to the theft and devastation of their lands and lives. They went to say YES to their own dignity, to affirm the value of their presence and lives. That was last month. And next month … ?

 

(Photo Credit: The Hindu /  S. Subramanium)

Tell the US to stop sentencing children to life without parole!

The United States stands alone in the world in sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole. Life without the possibility of parole is torture, but for children it’s a special hell. For girls, it’s worse. That’s the takeaway of this week’s report by Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In his report, Juan Méndez “explores the international legal framework and standards protecting children deprived of their liberty from being subjected to torture or other ill-treatment and from experiencing developmentally harmful and torturous conditions of confinement. He also examines specific statutes and standards applying to prevent torture and ill-treatment of children deprived of liberty, and shortcomings in the practical implementation of legal standards.”

The report references girls’ need for access to gynecologists and education on women’s health; and their need for autonomous space, separated from boys as well as adults. The recommendations include respecting the heightened vulnerability of girls, as well as minority children, children living with disabilities, and migrant children. For migrant minority girls living with disabilities, the vulnerabilities are off the chart. In his last recommendation concerning treatment of children in detention, Méndez singles out girls, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children, and children with disabilities.

The report notes, “Children in detention should be provided throughout the day with a full programme of education, sport, vocational training, recreation and other purposeful out-of-cell activities. This includes physical exercise for at least two hours every day in the open air, and preferably for a considerably longer time. Girls should under no circumstances receive less care, protection, assistance and training, including equal access to sport and recreation.”

And here is the heart, and heartlessness, of the matter: “Girls deprived of their liberty are at a heightened risk of sexual violence, sexual exploitation and underage pregnancies while in detention. The risk of sexual abuse is greater when male guards supervise girls in detention. Girls deprived of their liberty have different needs not only to those of adults but also of boys. Girls in detention are often not only children but also carers, either as mothers or as siblings, and have specific health, hygiene and sanitary needs. Across the globe, girls are rarely kept separately from women in pretrial and post-conviction settings. Similarly, the Special Rapporteur notes that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children are at a heightened risk.”

Imagine that that daily “heightened risk” and intensified vulnerability form the visible, pre-ordained and immutable arc of your life. That is the policy practiced by the United States, alone in the world, and it’s designed for Black children. When it comes to girls, and particularly to Black girls, it’s designed for those whose vulnerability is already a matter of State practice. 80 percent of girls and nearly half of all children sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole have been physically abused. 77 percent of girls and 20 percent of all youth lifers said they have been sexually abused. This is the algebra of torture, cruelty, inhumanity, and degradation. Children sentenced to life without possibility of parole are the child soldiers of the United States. What exactly is the war being waged?

 

(Photo Credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images)

Black women prisoners still haunt International Women’s Day

Around the world, women of color, Black women, Aboriginal women languish in solitary confinement. Many die there. Their numbers grow incrementally by the day. BobbyLee Worm, an Aboriginal woman prisoner in Canada, refused to become another abject statistic of prison morbidity and mortality.

In 2006, BobbyLee Worm, 19 years old, entered Edmonton Institution for Women. Shortly after, she was moved to Fraser Valley Institution. The Fraser Valley Institution described itself as “a multi-level facility for women … Programs focus on the particular needs of women offenders, including Aboriginal inmates and those with psychological problems or learning disabilities.”

One of these particular programs was called Management Protocol. Established in 2005, Management Protocol was “a special program for handling women prisoners who have been involved in a major violent incident or threat of incident while in the system.” By 2011 seven women prisoners had been on Management Protocol. All seven were Aboriginal women.

Management Protocol was indefinite and unregulated solitary confinement. Twenty- three hours a day for as long as the prison deemed `adequate’ and `necessary.’ How did one leave Management Protocol? One earned one’s way out. To this day, how one earned an exit visa remains a mystery.

BobbyLee Worm entered prison June 7, 2006. She was a first time offender, sentenced to six years, four months. She spent more than three and a half years in solitary confinement: 23 hours a day in a cell 10 by 8 feet, with no meaningful human contact. For months on end. She was 19 years old.

With the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, or BCCLA, BobbyLee Worm sued the State for violation of her constitutional rights. Two days after the lawsuit was filed, BobbyLee Worm was removed from Management Protocol. Soon after, the Correctional Service of Canada, or CSC, announced it would shut down the Management Protocol program. In May 2013, BobbyLee Worm and the Canadian prison state settled the suit out of court. According to all reports, BobbyLee Worm was pleased with settlement.

This is a story of State investments and of women’s resistance and refusal. Who was BobbyLee Worm? According to her former attorney, “She was a teenage runaway living on the street, she was addicted to drugs, she was a survivor of serious childhood abuse and trauma and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and from depression. She had never had the opportunity to have any sort of trauma or abuse counselling, which she desperately needed. And the response of corrections was to subject BobbyLee to one of the harshest and most psychologically damaging punitive measures that they have available to them. And I think BobbyLee’s story is, sadly, not atypical. This happens to hundreds of prisoners across the country every day.”

This happens to hundreds of prisoners across the country every day, and in particular to Aboriginal women and girls.

What was the Management Protocol? For the CSC, it was a major commitment: “When the protocol was designed in 2003, experts advised the CSC that it was illegal. CSC leadership implemented it anyway. In 2008, the Office of the Correctional Investigator recommended that the program be rescinded, and CSC’s own review agreed that the protocol was dysfunctional. But it was only when the BCCLA filed suit that the CSC cancelled it … The law that allowed the management protocol remains on the books.”

The CSC wanted Management Protocol … badly. It wanted cages for young Aboriginal women, especially those desperately in need. Aboriginal women, Black women, women of color who live with that kind of desperate need are told they owe a debt to society, and prison is not enough. They must go into the hole, they must be tortured.

After the settlement was announced, BobbyLee Worm explained, “There were times when I lost all hope. Solitary confinement does one thing. It breaks a person’s will to live. Being locked up like that you feel like you’re losing your mind. The only contact with another human is through a food slot. Days turn into nights and into days and you don’t know if you’ll ever get out.” Debra Worm, BobbyLee’s mother, commented, “As a mother, that’s the worst feeling in the world to know your child is being broken apart but not being able to do anything to save her.”

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada recently filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the laws governing solitary confinement. Sunday, March 8, 2015, is International Women’s Day. In 2011, Black women prisoners haunted International Women’s Day. In 2015, they still do. And next year?

 

(Image Credit: Erin Marie Konsmo, Media Arts Justice and Projects Coordinator, Native Youth Sexual Health Network)