Where is the global outrage at the systemic racism that killed Joyce Echaquan?

On Monday, September 28, Joyce Echaquan — mother of seven, partner to Carol Dube, member of the Atikamekw nation of Manwan, 37 years old – died … or, better, was tortured to death, while lying in a hospital bed in Joliette, in Quebec, Canada. Suffering severe stomach pains, Joyce Echaquan checked herself into a hospital. That was September 26. On September 28, as the pain intensified, nurses administered morphine, even though Joyce Echaquan told them she was allergic to morphine and that she had a pacemaker. As Joyce Echaquan screamed in intensifying pain, the nurses told her, “You’re as stupid as hell”; “Are you done acting stupid? Are you done?”; “You made some bad choices, my dear. What are your children going to think, seeing you like this?”; “She’s good at having sex, more than anything else”. We know this because Joyce Echaquan, in excruciating pain, dying, pulled out her phone, started filming and posting on Facebook. The video is a bit over seven minutes long. Soon after Joyce Echaquan died … or, better, succumbed to torture. Now there’s an `outcry’ in Canada at the treatment Joyce Echaquan received, which was perfectly ordinary treatment for Indigenous women. Outcries have a short life span, especially when the subject is the torture and abuse of Indigenous women.

Joyce Echaquan pulled out her phone because she knew. She knew because it had happened before, to her. She knew because she was an Atikamekw woman. She knew because. Period. She knew that her family would organize and protest, decrying systemic racism. She knew they would hold her in their hearts and souls. She knew as well that the government of Quebec and Canada would deplore the horrible act, would demand an investigation, and ultimately would do absolutely nothing. 

Joyce Echaquan told the staff that she should not be given morphine, and they refused to listen. None of this is new. It has happened before, certainly across Canada, and will happen again. Violence against Indigenous, Native, First Nation, Aboriginal women is a core part and principle of the colonization processes and practices that continue, unabated, to this day. Why, for example, it the outcry and outrage only Canadian? Where is the coverage of Joyce Echaquan’s torture in the various new media around the world? The BBC had something, as have AlJazeera and the Guardian, and that is pretty much it. Where is the outrage at the torture of an Indigenous woman who only wanted, needed, and deserved care? Who cares about Joyce Echaquan? Tomorrow, Monday, October 11, is Indigenous People’s Day. It took 48 hours and a little over four centuries to torture Joyce Echaquan to death. Other than family, friends, community, who will remember Joyce Echaquan a year from now? Joyce Echaquan lived in a world in which, on her deathbed, she had to pull out her phone and start recording the torture she was suffering. We continue to live in that world. This is us. 

(Photo Credit 1: The Star) (Photo Credit 2: The Guardian / Canadian Press)

Cindy Erazo left El Salvador’s Ilopango Women’s Prison. She should have never been there.

Cindy Erazo

“The witch-hunt, then, was a war against women; it was a concerted attempt to degrade them, dehumanize them, and destroy their social power. At the same time, it was in the torture chambers and on the stakes on which the witches perished that the bourgeois ideals of womanhood and domesticity were forged.” Silvia Federici

On Wednesday, Cindy Erazo, 29 years old, mother of a 10-year-old child, walked out of Ilopango Women’s Prison, that special hell El Salvador built for women. Cindy Erazo spent the last six years in Ilopango Women’s Prison for a crime she never committed, and even now her freedom is conditional. Given her story, every woman’s freedom in El Salvador and beyond is `conditional.’

In August 2014, Cindy Erazo suffered an obstetric emergency. She has said she was not aware at the time that she was pregnant. She was at a mall and started bleeding. She went to the restroom where she passed out. When Cindy Erazo regained consciousness, she was in a hospital bed, chained to the bed. She was immediately charged with having an illegal abortion. Cindy Erazo was promptly sentenced to 30 years in prison, in that special hell Ilopango Women’s Prison. Later, her sentence was reduced to 10 years, for aggravated assault. After six years, this week, Cindy Erazo won `conditional’ freedom. In so doing, she joins women such as Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz, released in 2019, and Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín and Teodora Vasquez, both released in 2018. Since her release, Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz has been informed that the State seeks to charge her yet again. Freedom for women, and not only is El Salvador, is `conditional’ to the extreme.

Starting in 1998, El Salvador banned all abortions. Previously, abortion had been illegal but generally not prosecuted.  El Salvador is one of six countries to ban all abortions. El Salvador opened hunting season on pregnant women; any woman who suffered a miscarriage was suspected of both having had an abortion and of having committed murder. Between 2000 and 2014, over 250 women were reported to the police. 147 women were prosecuted.  49 women were convicted – 26 for murder and 23 for abortion. Salvadoran women’s groups, such as the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic and Ethical Abortion and Abortion for Reasons of Fetal Anomaly and the Feminist Collective, have waged a mighty campaign. Cindy Erazo’s release is in large part due to their persistent organizing.

Cindy Erazo leaves behind at least 18 women, caught in the overcrowded, toxic conditions of Ilopango Women’s Prison, none of whom have done anything wrong or illegal other than being women. Cindy Erazo was given `conditional’ freedom. When will she be free, and who will pay for the years of captivity? When and where does the witch hunt end? Where is the global outrage at the torture being visited upon women, especially young women, in El Salvador and beyond? 

(Photo Credit: BBC / Centro de derechos reproductivos)

What happened to Holly Barlow-Austin? What happened to Aunty Sherry? Prison. Prisons kill.

Holly Barlow-Austin

Holly Barlow-Austin’s husband and mother filed a lawsuit this week, claiming that Holly Barlow-Austin’s death, last year, was the fault of a Texas prison, the Bi-State Justice Center in Bowie County, where she was a `guest’ for two months. Protesters in Queensland, Australia, protested this week at the death in custody of a woman called Aunty Sherry, a Birri Guba woman who died in a cell at the Brisbane police station, September 10. Holly Barlow-Austin was 46 years old when she died; Aunty Sherry was 49 years old when she died. Before the contagion spread through the prisons, the prisons themselves were the contagion, as they continue to be. Prison, jail, police station, immigrant detention center together form a single global gallows. Do not claim to be surprised at current reports of forced hysterectomies in immigrant detention centers. Do not claim to be surprised that South Dakota’s women’s prison reported covid clusters this week, nor that Oklahoma’s did last week. We cannot be surprised. Before Covid killed, prisons killed, as they continue to do. 

Holly Barlow-Austin was arrested for an ostensible violation of probation. She was held, awaiting trial. When Holly Barlow-Austin entered the Bi-State Justice Center, she was HIV-positive, for which she was on medication. Otherwise she was in fairly decent health, regular vital signs, full mobility. When Holly Barlow-Austin left, after two months, she was emaciated, could barely move, and was blind. For two months, Holly Barlow-Austin was regularly denied her medication, regularly denied food and water, regularly denied any dignity. Holly Barlow-Austin called for help. Staff did nothing. Finally, Holly Barlow-Austin was taken to hospital, emaciated, almost immobilized, blind. Then she died. Do not be surprised.

Aunt Sherry’s story is even shorter. She was arrested on Sunday, for `property and drug matters’; arraigned Monday; sent to the Brisbane Watchhouse, the one Human Rights Watch called `terrifying’ last year, to await transfer to a prison; and was found dead early Wednesday morning. Police are `investigating’, while Indigenous peoples and their supporters, as well as all the women currently held in the Brisbane Watch House, grieve.

Grief. Anger. Rage. No surprise. 

Holly Barlow-Austin. Say her name. Aunty Sherry. Say her name. Say their names, shout their names, until your breath runs out. It’s time, it’s way past time, to tear down the entire edifice, to topple the global gallows, to end the witch trials passing for due process, and to start anew. #SayHerName 

(Photo Credit 1: Washington Post / AP) (Photo Credit 2: LSJ On Line)

Jacob Blake’s shackles form the landscape of the United States of America

Earlier this week, Jacob Blake’s father reported that his son – shot seven times in the back by policemen, paralyzed from the waist down, fighting for his life – was not only under constant police guard but was also shackled to his bed. Jacob Blake Sr remarked, “Why do they have that cold steel on my son’s ankle? He couldn’t get up if he wanted to. So that’s a little overkill to have him shackled to the bed.” Shackling is what police and prison staff do. Ask the myriad pregnant women who have suffered childbirth while shackled to a bed. It’s the American way.

Earlier this month, a newly published book, Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women, notes, “In 2017, around 225,060 women in the United States were imprisoned in state and federal prisons and jails, and over a million more were on probation or parole. In 2019, approximately 1,400 incarcerated women were pregnant. Giving birth in prison is a horrific experience, both physically and emotionally. Prisoners have recounted being shackled to the bed, and many say they weren’t allowed to have anyone in the room with them other than the hospital staff. One in eight incarcerated parents will lose their parental rights. And incarcerated mothers are the most likely to lose their children to foster care.”

In May 2020, South Carolina banned the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners) in childbirth. This was a major victory, won after years and decades of struggle and organizing. A number of states, almost half the states in the United States, continue to allow shackling pregnant women (prisoners) in childbirth, and the bans of other states are riddled with loopholes and confusion. 

According to the American Psychological Association, “Women subjected to restraint during childbirth report severe mental distress, depression, anguish, and trauma.”  This practice is what Jacob Blake Sr. witnessed, it is what Jacob Blake suffered. Shackles are baked into the fabric of the United States, and not only the so-called criminal justice system. Severe mental distress, depression, anguish, trauma: those are the constitutive, if not Constitutional, elements of justice in America. They are what we apply and what we seek for those who must be controlled. There was no overkill in Jacob Blake’s hospital room, sadly. There was only the United States of America at it again. Jacob Blake is no longer shackled to his bed, but the shackles have not been removed.

(Photo Credit: National Museum of African American History and Culture)

How many deaths does it take til we know that too many people have died? In prison, it’s not Covid that kills, it’s prison.

On April 28, Andrea Circle Bear died in federal custody, becoming the first woman to die of Covid-19 while in federal custody. Andrea Circle Bear was convicted of a minor offense and should never have been in prison in the first place. When Andrea Circle Bear was sentenced, she was five months pregnant; she should never have been in prison. You know what killed Andrea Circle Bear? Prison. On Saturday, August 15, Wendy Campbell died, of Covid-19, in federal custody. You know what really killed Wendy Campbell? Prison. Both Andrea Circle Bear and Wendy Campbell died in FMC Carswell, in Fort Worth. Wendy Campbell is the fifth woman to die at FMC Carswell. You know what killed all five women? Prison. FMC Carswell is a petri dish of inhumane conditions. So is Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, in eastern Washington state, according to a nurse who works there. From sea to shining sea and beyond, you know what’s killing inmates? It’s not Covid. It’s prison. And thus far we have done absolutely nothing to change that situation. Instead, we blame “the pandemic” for the constructed environments we have built.

Day after day, we `discover’ that clusters have formed in prisons, jails, immigration detention centers. We claim to express shock that overcrowded toxic spaces are overcrowded and toxic. In India, we `discover’ that overcrowded toxic prisons and jails are overcrowded and toxic. In Malawi, we `discover’ that overcrowded, toxic, far from home jails are overcrowded and toxic. In Mexico, we `discover’ that overcrowded, toxic, famously lethal prisons are overcrowded, toxic, and deadly. In Namibia, we `discover’ that overcrowded, toxic prisons and jails are overcrowded and toxic. We also `discover’ that inmates know the situation and are terrified.

In North Carolina, we `discover’ that a pregnant woman, in this instance eight-month-pregnant Brittany Cowick, has to organize, got to Federal court and more in order to be released to house arrest from a local jail that has reported high rates of Covid-19 infection. 

These `discoveries’ all occurred within the last 48 hours. They will recur in the next 48 hours. After a half century of mass incarceration, the time for discovery is over. How often must we `discover’ that the largest prison clusters are in jails and prison? Where is the outrage at this repeated farce of innocent discovery? Six months into the pandemic, why must pregnant women and their allies struggle so hard to be released from deathtrap jails, prison, detention centers of all sorts? What is the point of a word like “vulnerable” or a phrase like “compassionate release” in this landscape? You know what killed Wendy Campbell? Prison. And you know who put her there? You did, I did, we all did. Stop discovering, release them now. How many deaths does it take?

(Photo Credit: The Guardian/Tannen Maury/EPA)

The struggle to end the shaming of Black girl students in schools continues

In the past three days, a Black 15-year-old girl student was finally released from juvenile detention in Michigan. She had been incarcerated for 78 days for the crime of not having completed her homework. At the same time, a 7-year-old Black girl student in Jamaica was informed by the High Court that when, as a 5-year-old, she was told to cut her dreadlocks or be forced to leave school, her Constitutional rights had not been violated. At the same time, England’s Department of Education reported that, in many regions, Black students face three times as many fixed term exclusions as do White students. Girls are particularly targeted for their hair, or at least that’s the official reason. This is the world of Black Girl Education today, a world that believes that Black girls pose a particular danger to themselves and, even more, to `the world’. 

In Michigan, a Black 15-year-old girl student known as Grace was sent to juvenile detention for having violated probation. Her `violation’ was not having completed her online school assignments. According to her mother, when Grace’s school went online, Grace had trouble keeping up. The Judge decided that Grace’s difficulty, as well as her learning disabilities and other issues, constituted a threat to the community, and so sent her to juvenile detention, where she would “thrive” and the community would be saved. This all happened in the Oakland County court. Over the last four years, the Oakland County Court adjudicated around 4800 juvenile cases, of which 42% concerned Black youths. 15% of Oakland County youth are Black. After a major campaign, Grace has been `released’ to home detention.

For Black girls, the assault on their integrity is even more intense. Four years ago, girls were being forced into the juvenile `justice’ system at an alarmingly increasing rate, largely because girls were arrested more often than boys for status offenses and were more severely punished for those offenses. Those `offenses’ are not crimes. That’s what makes them `status’ offenses. If the girls were older, there would be no offense, no crime. But they are girls, and they must be protected from themselves. This is the vicious cycle that has been constructed in exactly the same period that has witnessed girl power on the rise: “In a 2010 national census of youth in custody, girls comprised 16% of all detained youth but 40% of those were detained for a status offense. At one time and in some states, girls comprised more than 70% of youth detained for status offenses.” This is the United States’ program of no girl left behind. This is girls’ education in the United States, and, in the past four years, the situation for Black and Brown girls has only grown worse. Despite activists’ great work, the school-to-prison pipeline has not only grown but is sucking in Black and Brown girls at a faster and faster rate. In that context, there’s no surprise that a judge would say that sending a young Black girl student to prison is the best thing for her, for her wellbeing and her education. Boys will be boys, and girls will be jailed, especially Black girls

Meanwhile, on Friday, Jamaica’s high court ruled that a school was within its rights to tell a 5-year-old girl student that she must cut her dreadlocks or leave school. The girl student, identified as Z, and her parents have challenged the school for two years. Z is now 7 years old. By all accounts, she is an excellent student. By all accounts, she has not in any way prevented others around her from pursuing their education. To the contrary, she is described as an ideal student and learner who helps her fellow students. Z’s desire to learn must give way to the politics of hair, of Black girls’ hair, and that’s Constitutionally fineZ’s parents have sworn to challenge the ruling and to continue the struggle.

Meanwhile, in many parts of England, Black students are disciplined three times as often as their White counterparts. Their offense, other than Being Black? “Black hairstyles, kissing teeth and fist-bumping.” “Black hairstyles” can send a child student, more often than not a Black girl student, into isolation or expulsion. An assistant head of school remembers a Black girl student who was told to cut her Afro because other students “couldn’t see the board … These may be small, micro things that you are doing to change yourself, but after a while it really wears you down. It’s the message that you are almost not good enough. You are having to tame your hair, tame your blackness, and it’s happening from when you are a child.”

This is happening in the same year that Ruby Williams won an out-of-court settlement of £8,500 for the abuse she suffered, for her hair, for Being Black, from the age of 11 years old on. It’s happening when you are a child, when you are a student. What is the child student learning, what is Black girl’s education in this world? 

Four years ago, almost to the day, Liepollo Lebohang Pheko wrote about a similar situation in South African schools: “Black Girl – you MATTER. Your HAIR matters, your LANGUAGE matters, your CHOICES matter and your VOICE matters. In case I haven’t told you today – you are valuable, loved, precious and powerful. Speak even if your voice shakes and fight even while you are scared. I LOVE you Black Child, Black Girl, and I stand with you. You give me such hope and courage. #Racism and imperialism ARE falling #Afros and Dreadlocks are Rising.”

Four years later, from the United States to Jamaica to England and beyond, say it loud, say it proud: “Black Girl – you MATTER. Your HAIR matters, your LANGUAGE matters, your CHOICES matter and your VOICE matters.” The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press)

Why do we continue to leave pregnant women in deathtrap jails, prisons, detention centers?

Tammy Jackson

At the beginning of March, we asked if Florida would finally stop shackling women prisoners in childbirth. At the end of June, Florida’s Governor signed the Tammy Jackson Healthy Pregnancies for Incarcerated Women Act. Last year, Tammy Jackson gave birth, alone, in a cell in the North Broward Jail, in Pompano Beach. The new law bans shackling pregnant women prisoners; invasive body cavity searches; and the use of solitary confinement; and requires medical examinations at least once every 24 hours. While this is welcome news, it begs the question why it took Florida so long to address the ongoing violence against women in its prisons and jails. Why? Why are pregnant women shackled while pregnant, in childbirth, and after delivery? Why? Across the United States, women, alone in their cells, give birth to children. They are alone because … because they are incarcerated. That justifies all acts of violence and violation, especially against women. Remember, Andrea Circle Bear, the first woman to die of Covid 19 in federal prison, was pregnant when she was sent to prison. Remember, Andrea Circle Bear should never have been incarcerated in the first place, and should never have remained incarcerated. Why is it so hard to release pregnant women from clear and imminent danger?

Every month, the reports come out, and every month, for the past few months, prisons and jails have been the epicenters of Covid infection and mortality. Has that mattered to prison authorities or the public at large? No. Have pregnant women, the most vulnerable sector of the the incarcerated population, been released? No.  In North Carolina, pregnant prisoners were told they would be released. It hasn’t happenedThe women worry and organize, their families worry and organize, and meanwhile … What? 

This week, faced with a monster outbreak of coronavirus in its prison system, and in particular in San Quentin, California is beginning to consider releasing prisoners. Included in that process is the following: “The department also said it is `reviewing potential release protocols’ for those who are pregnant or in hospice.” Why only now are those processes being reviewed? Why is it so very difficult to understand that pregnant women, and those in hospice care, are at particular risk? What is it about a prison uniform that fatally hides one’s humanity? Meanwhile, part of California’s `process’ of reducing prison overcrowding is to keep people in jails. What could possibly go wrong with that plan? Equally nightmarish stories of the abuse of pregnant women in immigrant detention centers continue to pile up as well.

This is the age of mistreatment and abuse of pregnant women. Pregnant women prisoners are the tip not so much of an iceberg as of a continent-wide subterranean volcano. Why are pregnant women being warehoused in jail cells where the staff ignores and `forgets’ them? Why are pregnant women being stuffed into prisons and immigrant detention centers, where they are only meant to suffer and die? If not, we would release them. Period. Meanwhile, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill that would provide medical care for women before and after childbirth, in both prisons and jails. At the same time, “the legislature struck down proposed bans on shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant women this year.” The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: New York Times)

We regret to inform you there will NO credible investigation of the stillbirth at Styal prison

Styal prison

The prison service has launched an investigation following the death of a baby in prison … The stillbirth of a baby at Styal prison in Wilmslow, Cheshire, on Thursday has been confirmed by the Ministry of Justice. It is the second stillbirth of a baby born to a woman in prison in the space of nine months.” We regret to inform you that there will be no credible investigation of this incident at Styal prison, just as, despite the fact that eleven so-called investigations were conducted after last year’s stillbirth at HMP Bronzefield, nothing came of them. Investigations of ongoing atrocities that produce absolutely no change are not investigations. They are coverups. 

The story, such as it is, this time is that a young woman was held in HMP Styal. She did not know that she was pregnant. She did know that she was in excruciating pain. She did tell the staff, who told her to take two aspirins and chill out. The pains increased. Finally, someone realized that the woman was pregnant. By then, it was too late. Now, the Prison Service expresses their deep concern, and the headlines, which are far and few between, suggest that the impending investigation is the real story. In that case, there is no story, because there will be no credible investigation.

What exactly will the Prison Service investigate. Will they, once again, investigate the rash of suicides at HMP Styal between February 2018 to May 2019? Will they investigate, once again, the “epidemic” of women’s self-harm and suicide at HMP Styal between August 2002 and August 2003, the epidemic that prompted the Corston Report: a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, published in 2007? Will they investigate the brutal conditions at HMP Styal, as documented in HM Chief Inspector of Prisons’ 2012 report? Will they investigate the Chief of Inspector of Prisons’ 2009 warning of the real and present danger of more deaths occurring at HMP Styal, if services for the vulnerable were not improved? How will the Prison Service investigate its own refusal to act for at least the past eighteen years? There will be numerous performances of investigation and concern, but there will be no credible investigation.

A chapter of the story is this: A woman was in real pain, and the staff meant to take care of her ignored her. The story is the active act of ignoring women to death. Here’s another chapter of the story: despite earlier promises, during the current pandemic, the English Prison Service has released only six pregnant women. In fact, HMP Prison Service has only released one in forty of women prisoners who applied for early release. The story is the active act of ignoring women to death. We regret to inform you that there will be NO credible investigation of the stillbirth at Styal prison. Rather than pretending yet again to investigate, shut Styal once and for all, and release the women who are held there. 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Don McPhee)

Jails, prisons, detention centers are still COVID death traps, where, despite promises, people in large numbers are left to die. Where is the global outrage?

Two months ago, prisons and jails made up seven of the ten largest COVID clusters in the United States. Hands were wrung, voices raised, promises made. Today … the situation remains the same, and not only in the United States. In the past six days, we’ve `learned’ that prisons in Turkeythe United KingdomMexico are scandals and worse. In the jails of Maharashtra, in western India, prisoners are tested for COVID … but only once they’re dead, and even then there’s no contact tracing. Across the United States, COVID carceral policy is referred to as a massacrepunishment by pandemic, a death sentence, and a death trap. Over the weekend, COVID cases in the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona `surged’ by 460%. This list is the smallest fraction of the so-called news over the past six days. As national trends more or less flatten, prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers rates zoom skyward. In response, prisons use solitary confinement more intensely and more oftenwhich only drives infection and self-harm rates higher and higherSome are saying it’s already too late. Women are at the center of this map of abandonment and deceit. Where are the women? Everywhere. Where is the global outrage? Nowhere to be seen.

According to a recent report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, in England, women prisoners’ rate of self-harm has risen precipitously since March. Women prisoners generally have higher rates of self-harm than male prisoners, largely because so many are living with trauma and mental illness, generally. This has been exacerbated by a new policy of 23-hour a day lockdown. Again, most of the women are in jail and prison for non-violent so-called offenses that would not have been considered criminal in earlier times. One woman, currently held at London’s HMP Downview, has petitioned the United Nations for help. Meanwhile, despite all the promises concerning prisoners living with underlying conditions, as of yet, a trickle has actually been allowed early release, fewer than 30 a week. Yet again, women are at the core of this policy of abandonment and abuse. Despite earlier promises, as of early this week, a sum total of six pregnant prisoners had been released. Twenty-nine pregnant women are still waiting to be released. Of 34 women in mother-and-baby units, 16 have been released. The English government spent £4,000 for electronic tags, to facilitate the release of prisoners. The money was delivered, the tags were delivered, the prisoners remain in solitary confinement in deathtrap prisons and jails. They call it compassionate release.

The same story is true in the United States. In North Carolina, pregnant prisoners were told they would be released. It hasn’t happened. The prisoners and their loved ones are losing hope, and so the system is working perfectly. Seven women currently housed at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, KCIW, are suing for release. All of the women have serious underlying conditions; the rates of infection are rising precipitously; practically no one is being released. In Louisiana, the men’s prisons have somewhat dodged the COVID bullet … for now. But the women’s prisons, which are more dilapidated and more overcrowded, are recording infection rates between 60% and close to 90%. Nothing is being done to address the situation in Louisiana’s women’s prisons, less than nothing. Almost no one is getting `compassionate release’ and no one in charge has a plan, other than solitary confinement, to address the severe overcrowding. From sea to shining sea … 

Again, this is the news from only the past six days. Promise that you’ll release pregnant women, and then do nothing. Promise that you’ll take care of those with underlying conditions, and then do nothing. Or worse, institute universal solitary confinement protocols. The situation in prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers has been referred to as “the hidden scandal”, but it’s neither hidden nor, actually, scandalous. It’s the logical consequence of five decades of mass and hyper incarceration; of urban development through racist and misogynist violence under the name of policing; and of abandonment as the only real public and mental health system provided. Where is the global outrage at this situation? Nowhere to be seen. But hey, just remember, we’re all in this together.

(Photo Credit: KentuckyToday)

In Canada, Joelle Beaulieu refuses the death sentence of incarceration

Around the World of Covid, the news these days is pretty grim, and the news from prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, juvenile detention centers is worse. In those places of confinement, generally, rates of infection are rising precipitously and, despite much hand wringing and loud sighing, the State and nation-states have done little to nothing to less than nothing. Given the past decades increased investment in mass and hyper incarceration, this comes as no surprise. But there is good, or at least hopeful, news, and that is in prisoners’ individual and collective actions and resistance. April saw prison uprisings, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and other actions in Sierra LeoneArgentinaColombia, the United States and beyond. Everywhere, prisoners echo the banner resisting prisoners hung from the rooftop of the Devoto prison in Buenos Aires: “Nos negamos a morir en la cárcel.” We refuse to die in prison. In Virginia, Cynthia Scott, 50 years old, African American, currently incarcerated at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, agreed: “I was not sentenced to death, and I don’t want to die here.  But I am afraid I will when the coronavirus comes.” In Canada, on April 21, Joelle Beaulieu, a member of the Ojibwe Nation, incarcerated in a Canadian federal prison in Joliette, Quebec, said NO! to the death sentence of conditions in the federal prisons and sued the Correctional Service Canada for its response, or lack of response, to the Covid pandemic. I was not sentenced to death. We refuse to die in prison.

At the end of April, Joelle Beaulieu sued on behalf of all federal inmates who had been imprisoned in federal prisons in Quebec since March 13. What happens to one happens to all. What happened to Joelle Beaulieu is she was incarcerated at Joliette Women’s Institution. She worked as a cleaner. Joelle Beaulieu worked in highly trafficked, congested areas. When she heard about the pandemic, she asked for gloves, mask and protective gear. The authorities only gave her gloves. When Joelle Beaulieu began developing symptoms, she was given Tylenol. For a week, her symptoms intensified. Finally, after a week, Joelle Beaulieu was tested. Then Joelle Beaulieu was sent to her cell, into what amounted to solitary confinement, for 15 days. She requested either a Native elder or a mental health professional. No one was provided. She says guards did not wear masks or gloves until after she tested positive. Prisoners were told to wash their hands, but were not given disinfectant.

Joelle Beaulieu believes she is “patient zero” of the Joliette Women’s Institution. Within two weeks, the number of Covid positive cases rose from 10 to 50, and by the time Joelle Beaulieu filed her case, more than half the residents had tested positive. On April 21, Quebec reported 114 positive cases. Of that 114, 51 were Joliette Women’s Institution prisoners. Of the women in Quebec who tested positive for Coronavirus, almost all were `residents’ of Joliette Women’s Institution. Joliette Women’s Institution is no outlier, and Joelle Beaulieu’s situation is in no way exceptional. According to Emilie Coyle, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, “Every time we speak with women who are inside the prisons, whether it’s in Joliette or other federal institutions  – they let us know they feel as though they’re not getting the right information. They’re kept in the dark. And that’s particularly concerning for them because they’re trying very hard to participate in keeping themselves safe and healthy.”

In Buenos Aires, when prisoners resisted, they released a statement which said, in part, “We are a mirror of the very society that forgets us and drowns in its own misery, silencing its own true reality:

Those who give up will never win.
We refuse to die in prison.
For a world without slavery and without exclusion.”

From the rooftops of a jail in Buenos Aires to the women’s prison of Virginia to the women’s prisons of Quebec, people are resisting the dehumanization of slavery and exclusion, engaging in the Great Refusal which is the Great Affirmation. They will not be kept in the dark nor will they be silenced. In Canada, Joelle Beaulieu, member of the Ojibwe Nation, said NO to the inhumanity, insisted she was not sentenced to die in prison, and lit a match to light the way to a world without slavery and without exclusion. Others will follow. The struggle continues.

(Photo credit: Sol915)