States of Abandonment: South African prisons are toxic and lethal

On Thursday, the South African Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, JICS, issued its 2017-2018 annual report on the state, and statelessness, of prisons in South Africa. The findings are both dismal and altogether anticipated. The prisons are in disarray. Due to restricted funding, JICS inspectors only visited 81 facilities. South Africa has 243 “correctional service centers.” Overcrowding is way up, suicide is way up, remand prisoners still make up way too much of the population. Infrastructure is a disgrace. Assault and torture are everywhere. Rehabilitation is virtually nonexistent. According to JICS inspecting judge Johann Vincent van der Westhuizen, “Overcrowding is at the core of everything else that exists (within prisons) … The situation of mentally ill inmates has become urgent.” In one year, the number of prison suicides rose from 52 to 82. In the past year, suicide was the highest cause of unnatural deaths in prison. What is going on?

On one hand, mental health institutions are overcrowded, and so patients are being transferred to prisons. The State has decided to correct of the mistakes it made in Life Esidimeni by dumping those living with mental illness into already overcrowded and under resourced spaces which have the benefit of invisibility. Out of sight, out of mind, out of luck, and, soon, out of breath. This is the State of Abandonment: “Zones of abandonment … accelerate the death of the unwanted. In this bureaucratically and relationally sanctioned register of social death, the human, the mental and the chemical are complicit: their entanglement expresses a common sense that authorized the lives of some while disallowing the lives of others.”

164,129 people are being held in South African prisons. 44,158 are awaiting trial. 27% of those persons in these hellholes are officially still innocent. Further, according to the JICS report, 1200 prisoners diagnosed with mental illness were kept with the general population. Many of those 1200 are awaiting transfer to “an accredited institution.” The public policy right now is to move people living with mental illnesses who are in overcrowded state hospitals to overcrowded prisons … and then “discover” and wonder that suicide is on the rise.

Prisons are not mental health institutions. The staff is not trained, the very architecture is inappropriate. The staff is also not trained to diagnose for mental health issues. Solitary confinement, or segregation, is traumatic. Extended solitary confinement is traumatizing. Intense overcrowding produces trauma. There are individuals who enter the prison with mental illnesses, and there are those who suffer mental illness because of the conditions in prison. 1200 is a low estimate.

Who sees prison as an “interim” solution for people living with mental illness? What is the name of that policy? Call it necropolitical abandonment, a policy of who might barely live and who definitely will die, slowly and in agony. “The report found that most facilities were in a `state of decay’.”

 

(Image Credit: Judicial Inspectorate for Prison Services / Times South Africa)

No hate no fear, immigrants and citizens, guests and strangers, are welcome here!

Mathabo Mofokeng

Mathabo Mofokeng is 86 years old. She is a citizen of the Republic of South Africa. She was born in Matatiele, at the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains, in the Eastern Cape. She is a citizen of South Africa; Mathabo Mofokeng is South African. Mathabo Mofokeng currently lives in Nhlazatshe, a village in KwaZulu-Natal. Mathabo Mofokeng has lived in KwaZulu-Natal since she was 18 years old. Three months ago, Mathabo Mofokeng lost her ID card and her South African Social Security Agency, SASSA, card. Without those, she couldn’t access her pension. Penniless, she relied on food donations from women in her church. Her electricity was cut off. So, Mathabo Mofokeng did what she was supposed to do. She travelled to the nearest Home Affairs office, in Pietermaritzburg, to have her ID and SASSA cards replaced. An official told her “to go back to Lesotho”. Mathabo Mofokeng says, “I’m scared to go back to Home Affairs offices. An official told me she can’t issue me a new ID; I should go back to Lesotho. There was a time I went three days without food.” Mathabo Mofokeng is an 86-year-old, destitute South African woman who is now terrified and terrorized as well. And she is not alone.

On the one hand, xenophobia is not new to South Africa. Since 1994, the national government has periodically worked to “secure the borders”. With national elections coming up, political parties across the spectrum are ramping up the rhetorics of xenophobia. One hears repeatedly that Home Affairs is in disarray, but the situation goes much further than accidental shambles. For twenty years, Home Affairs so-called Refugee Reception Offices have been a publically acknowledged atrocity. Three years ago, the Supreme Court of Appeals told the Home Office to clean up its act. For three years, the Home Office has refused.

Of course, South Africa is not alone in its xenophobia. In India, Assam has effectively told 4 million citizens that they’re not citizens. The majority of the 4 million are, predictably, women. They’re not Indian enough. In Italy, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini is trying to find ways to strip Roma citizens of Italy of their citizenship. They’re just not Italian enough. In Australia, Huyen Tran, a Vietnamese asylum seeker, faces imminent deportation. She has been in Australia since 2011. She has a six-month-old daughter, Isabella, born in Australia. Isabella can stay, but her mother is just not Australian enough. In the United States, hundreds of migrant children, forcibly separated from their parents, have been moved “under cover of darkness” to a tent city in the Texas desert, where they have been left to rot. This comes just weeks after the United States government threatened to remove citizenship from more than a thousand Latinx U.S. citizens, all delivered by midwives in the borderlands.

This is the world in which a State official told Mathabo Mofokeng, a South African native born citizen, to go back to Lesotho. Despite its Latinate appearance, xenophobia is a fairly recently coined word, a word that emerges in the late 19thcentury with the emergence of strong nation-States engaged in global imperial adventures. And what is xenophobia? A deep antipathy, call it hatred, to guests, strangers, and foreigners. Xenophobia doesn’t `merely’ target those born in other lands. Xenophobia targets the citizenship, humanity, personhood, and dignity of anyone deemed foreign, anyone thought to be a stranger, and, most significantly, anyone who is a guest. After reporters began investigating, Home Affairs issued Mathabo Mofokeng a temporary ID. In this brave new world, all it takes to secure your citizenship is a team of investigative reporters. Everyone, say it together: No hate no fear, immigrants and citizens, guests and strangers, are welcome here!

 

(Photo Credit: GroundUp / Nompendulo Ngubane)

Seclusion rooms: Alberta, Canada’s war on children living with disabilities

A seclusion room in an Alberta school

“This was inhumane. This was treating him like an animal,” said Marcy Oakes. “This” was, and is, an exclusion room, in this instance one in the Clover Bar Junior High School, part of the Elk Island Public Schools, in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada. According to Marcy Oakes and Warren Henschel, in 2015, their then-13-year-old son, Aidan, was dumped in a seclusion room. At some point later, someone looked in, and saw Aidan naked and covered in feces. The school took a photo, sent it to the parents, and told them to come fetch their son. Henschel remembers: “I could hear my son quietly whimpering. When I looked inside the room, it’s hard to describe my feelings.” Aidan is non-verbal and lives with autism and developmental disabilities. Mary Oakes explains, “My son does not take his clothes off willingly in a room unless he has been taught that. In the back of my mind, I will never know – because he can’t speak – how much they put him in that room.” Marcy Oakes and Warren Henschel are suing the Alberta government, the Elk Island Public School Board, the school’s principal, and the teacher. The School Board says it will “strongly defend the actions of our staff”. Who on the School Board strongly defends the lives of its students?

As a result of Aidan’s story, and others similar and worse, Inclusion Alberta launched an online survey to find out what exactly is going on in Alberta’s school systems. There’s no hard data on children being placed in seclusion rooms. The schools don’t keep records; the schools aren’t mandated to keep records. Additionally, there’s no set policy, other than vague “as a last resort” language, concerning the use of seclusion rooms. Just last week, Alberta Education Minister David Eggen announced that he expects the province to issue guidelines concerning the use of seclusion rooms within “a matter of weeks.” As of now, there’s only verbal night and fog. It’s not even clear if the Alberta government knows how many seclusion rooms there are, and what makes a seclusion room a seclusion room.

According to Bruce Uditsky, CEO Emeritus of Inclusion Alberta, speaking of the treatment Aidan suffered, “It’s not just about the use of seclusion in this instance; it’s about the abandonment and neglect and abuse that any of us would typically understand in any other circumstances, and how come it’s acceptable and tolerated in a school where we expect children to be safe and we’re to trust educators.”

Story after story, expert after expert, year in and year out, argue that seclusion rooms only serve to traumatize children and that there are better, evidence-proven ways of addressing `difficult behaviors.’  This year began with New Zealand outlawing the use of seclusion rooms in schools. In May 2018, Inclusion BC reported extensive and systemic use of seclusion rooms across British Columbia. This year’s report was a follow-up to a report in 2013, that led to voluntary guidelines finally being passed in 2015. According to Inclusion BC, only in three British Columbian school boards has adopted any policy concerning constraint and seclusion. And now it’s September, and Alberta “discovers” its lack of guidelines, which is it say, its policy of refusal.

Recently, a team of Canadian researchers studied “children’s moral experiences of crisis management in a child mental health setting.” The researchers asked children 12 and under living with severe disruptive disorders what they thought of the use of restraints and seclusion: “Children considered restraints and seclusion could help them feel safe in certain instances, for example if another child was being aggressive towards them or in exceptional cases to prevent self-injury. However, their own experiences of being restrained were predominantly negative, especially if not knowing the reason for their use, which they then found unfair. Some of the children emphasized the punitive nature of the use of restraints and seclusion, and most children disagreed with these practices when used as a punishment. Children’s perspectives also highlighted the limits of the use of a uniform de-escalation approach by the staff to manage crises. Children considered discussing with the staff and developing a relationship with them as more helpful in case of a crisis then the use of a de-escalation approach or coercive strategies.”

Seclusion rooms become part of the regular “arsenal” of education in response to budgets and resources. Staff are insufficiently trained to work with diverse populations, as the populations become increasingly diverse. Solitary confinement cells are built and children are thrown in. What do children learn in that process? Who cares? Who asks the children what they think? “This was inhumane. This was treating him like an animal.”

 

(Photo Credit: Sherwood Park News / Inclusion Alberta)

In Assam, India, Safiya Khatun spent two years in detention for the crime of being … a citizen?

In July, the Indian state of Assam dropped four million people from its registers, identifying them as “foreigners.” Women comprise the overwhelming majority of the four million. Call it witch hunt? Call it femicide? Yes to both. Call it as well part of an ongoing nationalist campaign against the “foreigners in our midst”, a campaign that targets poor women. One such woman, Safiya Khatun, spent the last two years in the “Kokrajhar detention camp”, a jail designed to hold women “foreigners” in the Kokrajhar district of Assam. Assam boasts six detention camps. The detention camps were established in 2010, “to shelter women declared foreigners.” If this is shelter, give us the storm, please.

What is Safiya Khatun’s crime? A “mismatch” appeared with her father’s name on different voters’ lists. That misspelling brought Safiya Khatun before a “Foreigner’s Tribunal”, or FT, where she was found to be foreign. Assam has 100 FTs, and, by all appearances, they are models of poor process. Safiya Khatun’s FT hearing occurred in October 2016. She’s been “sheltered” by the State since.

Safiya Khatun is a poor, 50-year-old woman from an area declared, by the Indian government, one of the “most backward districts” in the country. Safiya Khatun’s father is a citizen; Safiya Khatun’s mother is a citizen; Safiya Khatun’s five brothers are citizens; Safiya Khatun’s husband is a citizen. Nevertheless, the FT found Safiya Khatun to be an immigrant foreigner. So did the Guwahati High Court. The Court argued that there were omissions in Safiya Khatun’s application, and so she is a foreigner. Finally, on September 12, the Supreme Court of India demanded that Safiya Khatun be released on bail. The Supreme Court decided that the State had not conducted a full inquiry and so had imprisoned wrongfully. Safiya Khatun’s attorney said, “You claim to trace and oust every ‘infiltrator’, but we will ensure that every Indian citizen gets the right guaranteed by the Constitution.”

The real crime is revealed in the language, where prison becomes camp becomes shelter; where foreigner becomes infiltrator; where omission and misspelling become crimes. Safiya Khatun spent two years in the Kokrajhar detention camp, the same prison where, in August, more than 150 women prisoners went on indefinite hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions. Kokrajhar detention camp houses elder women, many of whom have stories identical with that of Safiya Khatun, and young pregnant women. In most cases, the women’s extended families are all Indian citizens, but the women somehow are dangerously foreign non-citizens, and so packed off to prison … for shelter.

What is going on in Assam is a campaign, a war, against women, and Assam is a testing ground, and not only for India. Around the world, in so-called liberal democracies, citizenship is under assault, and the first line of that assault is women. Women are identified as dangerously foreign non-citizens, despite layers of evidence testifying to their citizenship. Citizenship is the criterion for the new global witch hunt, from the United States to the United Kingdom to Australia and beyond. Meanwhile, two months ago, 19-year-old Somiron Nessa, of Goroimari, in Assam, was informed, out of the blue, that she is a “foreigner”. The struggle continues.

 

(Photo Credit: DailyO)

HM Prison Eastwood Park leading the nation in women prisoners’ self-harm barely receives attention?


In July, the Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales released their annual report, and it was predictably grim, especially for women prisoners. Much of the news media in England, especially the local media, focused on the numbers concerning HMP Leeds, where each day sees around two women prisoners engaging in self-harm. In 2017, there were 712 `incidents’ of self-harm in Leeds, a 30% increase over the previous year, which saw 548 self-harm events. At Leeds women’s prison, 65 out of every 100 women is engaging in self-harm. Leeds is a bad place … but not the worst. Way down in any article on “the prison where self-harm incidents happen almost twice daily” would be a version of this nugget: “HMP Leeds was not the worst for self-harming however; Eastwood Park women’s prison in South Gloucestershire has the worst self-harm problem in the prison system. There were only 394 women on average at the prison in 2017/18 but there were 1,770 cases recorded in 2017.” Eastwood Park leads the nation in women prisoners’ self-harm, and somehow that’s not particularly important? Why?

In recent years, Eastwood Park has hosted a number of women prisoner deaths that have garnered some attention. In 2013, Natasha Evans collapsed in her cell. At the inquest, two years later, expert testimony suggested that Natasha Evans died because of lack, or systematic refusal, of appropriate care. Since 2013, six more women prisoners have suffered non-self-inflicted deaths at Eastwood Park. Most recently, in June 2016, Michalla Sweeting choked to death on her own vomit. Michalla Sweeting arrived in Eastwood Park after three days in police custody. She was put on a methadone detox program. She started vomiting, staff noted that and did nothing, she died. This May, two years later, the inquest jury found that Michalla Sweeting died of gross negligence committed by prison and healthcare staff.

That’s the same prison and healthcare staff that supposedly is addressing the “complex needs” of Eastwood Park prison population. In 2016, seven women died inside Eastwood Park. Three of those were “self-inflicted deaths.” In 2017, no one died in Eastwood Park … but the self-harm continues.

There are no women’s prisons in Wales, and so Welch women are sent to primarily to Eastwood Park and to HMP Styal, another hellhole. Eastwood Park holds a little over 400 prisoners, of whom 40% are from Wales, which means their families and home communities are far away. Eastwood Park is supposed to have a mother-and-baby unit. In November 2016, it was reported as temporarily closed. Today, two years later, it’s still closed. Eastwood Park is hard on everyone, and particularly on Welch women and on mothers.

The rate of self-harm in Eastwood Park is 449 incidents per 100 prisoners. In 2017, there were 1,770 incidents. While that’s down from the record high of 2016, it’s the second highest number of incidents of self-harm since 2010. “On average, there were four incidents of self-harm a day at HMP Eastwood Park in 2017.”

On January 2017, the Chief Inspector of Prisons reported on Eastwood Park: “The population remained vulnerable; many women were a long way from home, which was a problem for the large number who had dependent children. Nearly half of the women had a disability, and over three quarters reported mental health or emotional well-being issues. Eighty-four per cent of women said they had various problems on arrival at the prison, and over half said this included issues with drugs, while over a third reported having alcohol problems. Levels of self-harm had increased and were overall relatively high.”

Against this backdrop, the Inspector concluded, “We still considered Eastwood Park to be a well-led, generally safe and decent prison, but it was showing signs of being under strain. Staffing levels had not kept pace with the rise in population, nor with its increasing complexity.”

Nineteen months later, the rate of self-harm is four per day, and 449 incidents per 100 women. That’s safety and decency in a State committed to locking women up. It’s not the prison that’s under strain; it’s women, and the strain is public policy. In July, the Inspector noted, “The number of women prisoners is growing for the first time since 2012, putting a strain on the system and emphasising the need for a strategy for women’s prisons …  The high rate of self-harm among women prisoners is indicative of the very complex needs of many women.”

The Inspector noted that the two women’s prisons inspected “were not doing enough to address the very complex needs of women prisoners.” Not doing enough. Very complex needs. This is the language of neoliberal State alibi that suggests, implicitly, that the reason women prisoners have rising, and astronomical, rates and incidences of self-harm is the set of “very complex needs.” This is nonsense. The State refuses to address women’s needs and, even more, women’s lives, and that is reason for the rates and numbers of women prisoners’ self-harm. Period. At HMP Eastwood Park, women self-harm four times a day, every day, and absolutely no one cares. If we did, we’d stop it.

 

(Photo Credit: Gloucestershire Live)

In Mississippi, 15 prison deaths a month is “normal”

Nicole Rathmann

On August 23, 2018, 23-year-old Nicole Rathmann died. Nichole Rathmann had served six years in Mississippi prison on a drug conviction. She was supposed to be released last week, and in a sense, a horrible sense, she was. Prison officials say Nichole Rathmann died of an aneurysm, but a doctor at the hospital where Nicole Rathmann died says the aneurysm resulted from regular ingestion of meth while a “guest” of the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl. Nicole Rathmann’s father says, “I know my daughter was no angel, but she was the responsibility of the state. She was an addict. They didn’t help her.” Unfortunately, Nicole Rathmann received precisely the kind of “help” prisons routinely offer prisoners needing help, and in particular women prisoners. What happened to Nicole Rathmann? Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, the prison itself concurs with this conclusion.

In August 2018, 15 prisoners died in Mississippi prisons. They ranged in age from 24 to 75. According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, “most of the reported deaths during the month of August are from illnesses or natural causes, such as cancer and heart disease, based on available information.” Nevertheless, the Department is asking the FBI to investigate the causes … of these “natural causes.”

When asked if there was any cause for concern at this seeming spike in deaths, Mississippi responded that 15 is not a spike. Earlier in the week, when the number was reported at 12, Mississippi’s prison commissioner responded that 12 “is not out of line with the number of deaths in previous months.” While orange may be the new black, in Mississippi’s prisons, mourning black is the new normal.

When asked for supportive data, none was provided. What we do know is that Mississippi has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country, and this despite periodic attempts to reduce the prison population. We know that, for the past twenty years, in any given year, the rate of mortality in Mississippi prisons is among the highest. We know that, although the number of women incarcerated has been reduced, the conditions in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, Mississippi’s only women’s prison, remain toxic. We know Nicole Rathmann is dead, and that’s how the State took responsibility for her.

Families grieve their loved ones; families, friends, supporters, prison reform and abolition advocates, and strangers make demands. Prison continues to be a factory where death does have dominion, even over data. The State measures its responsibility to prisoners in the number of caskets it rolls out. What happened to Nicole Rathmann? Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

 

(Photo Credit: NBC News / Rathmann family)

National Women’s Day 2018: Where are the women prisoners?

Yesterday, August 9, across South Africa, people acknowledged, in various ways, National Women’s Day, the annual commemoration of the 1956 Women’s March on the Union Buildings, in Pretoria, to protest the pass laws and much, much more. On August 1, across South Africa, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of women and gender non-conforming people engaged in an “intersectional women’s march against gender based violence” and stayed away from all work and commerce. This was under the banner, #TotalShutdown. Organizers asked people to find ways of supporting those women who were forced to work that day. Additionally, for women in rural areas, where a march to a High Court might not be feasible, women were asked to `simply’ stand together, to unite and stay away from work and commerce. In between August 1 and August 9, on Sunday, August 5, Barbara Hogan, anti-apartheid activist and politician, returned to the Women’s Jail, now turned into a museum, on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. Hogan remembered her stay in that prison from 1982 to 1983. On Women’s Day, in Women’s Month, and in the #TotalShutdown, where are the women prisoners? Where are South Africa’s women prisoners, generally, and where are they in the movements for women’s emancipation and power?

According to the most recent Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services Report, covering April 2015 to end of March 2016, South Africa has 236 operational prisons, of which 9 house women prisoners. Only 2.6 percent of prisoners are women. As Johann van der Westhuizen, the inspecting judge of Correctional Services, noted, this is “one of the lowest percentages in the world. Not bad for a population that is just more than half female. This means slightly more than 4 000 women are in jail — some with their babies.” Not bad? No. Johann van der Westhuizen continues, “Women’s prisons are also overcrowded. I was told that a cell for 25 with 37 inmates was not overcrowded. And that, in other instances, additional mattresses were put on the floor, almost doubling the number of inmates.”

The number of women in prison is low, and yet the women’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded. How can that be? Part of the answer appears in van der Westhuizen’s report, “Due to the high turnover rate of remand detainees, remand units were found to have deplorable health conditions and dilapidated infrastructure compared to those occupied by sentenced offenders.” Pollsmoor Remand was 251% overcrowded, and was “short” 2448 beds. According to the Department of Correctional Servicesmost recent annual report, 2012 to 2017, the number of male remand prisoners has declined fairly steadily, from 44,742 to 41, 397, while women’s numbers have risen, from 998 to 1,128.

What does that look like “on the ground”? For women prisoners, and especially for those awaiting trial, from overcrowding to access to healthcare to food to hygiene and sanitation to access to education, reading materials, decent work or any work, exercise and recreation, to contact with the outside world, the conditions are “horrifying.” At Pollsmoor, for example, more than half of the women prisoners are awaiting trial. Many wait years for a trial that is often thrown out or postponed indefinitely.

Reflecting on her experiences in prison, Barbara Hogan commented, “Prisoners do not need to be told that policeman beat up prisoners. They know it.” Last year, in August, the Women’s Jail opened a new exhibition, paintings from that jail by anti-apartheid activist Fatima Meer. The paintings’ very existence testifies to the myriad forms of women’s persistent, resistant and defiant organizing. At the same time, they speak to the ongoing squalor and dehumanization of women behind bars. The conditions of women prisoners, in particular women remand prisoners, is not an oversight. Those women have not been forgotten. They have been dumped, disposed of, and that’s public policy, not some accident. Prisoners do not need to be told that, but the public does. Someday, along with the Union Buildings and High Courts, women and their supporters will march to women’s prisons across the country to acknowledge, learn from, and build on the intersectional women’s organizing taking place each and every day among those women who are forced to sleep standing but never surrender.

 

(Paintings by Fatima Meer; Mail & Guardian)

In 2006 in South Korea, women railway workers went on strike. 4526 days later … they won!

KTX women workers on strike

In 2004, South Korea launched its national bullet train, the KTX. KTX advertised to hire women train attendants. Close to 5000 women applied. KTX hired 351, all in their 20’s. The women were hired on a two year contract. The women were told they would become `regular’ employees at the end of the two years. These jobs were considered dream jobs. The women were highly educated; the jobs were secure, well paying, government jobs. What could go wrong? Everything, and predictably so. After a year, the government launched a privatization program. Women were told they were to be permanently outsource. They would be permanently irregular workers. They could still be called “the Flowers of KTX”, however. In 2006, male and female workers walked off the job. Four days later, the men returned. Twelve years later, on July 21, the women won their victory! On July 21, the Korean Railroad Corporation, KORAIL, said it would reinstate all the workers. One of the strikers, Oh Mi-seon, commented, “The ‘time of struggle’ isn’t over yet.”

The story of the South Korean railway workers’ organizing has at least three major strands. First, there’s the ongoing, intense women workers’ organizing campaigns, lasting twelve years. Women workers organized rallies, sit-ins, occupations, tent cities, and more. Since January 2007, KTX union leaders have conducted a sit-in at Seoul’s central train station. The women workers knew that they were right. They knew that, despite the numbers actually working on the trains, women made up only 5% of KORAIL’s regular employees. They knew that no one can be a permanent `irregular’ employee, and they knew that that particular destiny was slotted for women workers.

Second, the women workers went to court. IN 2008, the women filed a lawsuit. They won in 2009. KORAIL appealed. In 2011, at the appeals level, the women workers won again. KORAIL appealed again. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of KORAIL. But it didn’t end there. Since 2015, the women workers, while continuing their demonstrations and other actions, argued that something was fishy about the Supreme Court decision. At the end of May, they were proven right, when documents revealed that former Supreme Court Justice Yang Sung-tae had colluded with former president Park Geun-hye and twisted the law to benefit KORAIL. With that, the women threatened to storm the Supreme Court. Two months later, KORAIL caved.

There is a third strand. When the Supreme Court issued its ruling, in 2015, KORAIL attacked the women workers. KORAIL went to court, insisting that each of the women had to “repay” the company the equivalent of $76,000. In March 2016, a 36-year-old woman worker, only identified as Ms. Park, committed suicide. In every demonstration, press conference, action, Ms. Park is remembered, invoked, conjured. Ms. Park left a note for her 3-year-old daughter: “I am sorry, my baby. All I can leave with you is debt.” When Kim Seung-ha, head of the Korean Railway Workers Union, heard of the agreement with KORAIL, she responded, “I want to tell the friend who couldn’t be here with us for this joyous moment that we were right, we were justified.” Oh Mi-seon added, “I plan to keep battling until the truth comes to light – if only to restore the reputation of the friend I lost.”

Militant women made this happen. Militant women rejected being rendered irregular, precarious, inferior, vulnerable, weak. They withstood and transformed, and today, they are taking the struggle forward, inside the spaces of work and labor, and onto the trains. After twelve years, Korean women workers plan to keep battling until the truth comes to light. The struggle continues.

 

(Photo Credit: Minplus)

India strips millions of women in Assam of their citizenship. Call it femicide

The documents these women presented were deemed invalid.

What’s it called when, with one sweep of a pen or publication of a report, millions of people `lose’ their citizenship. Today, India dropped over four million people living in the resource-rich state of Assam, in northeast India, from the citizenship lists. Poof. Gone. Four million. In one state. And, to no one’s surprise, the majority of the four million are women. Even if women weren’t overrepresented in the rollcall of the suddenly disappeared, the impact on women, individually and collectively, is particularly deep and vicious, and is particular to policy formation in patriarchal states and societies.

Today, the Indian government published the final draft of the National Register of Citizens, NRC, for Assam. Assam has been experiencing a considerable population growth over the last decade. About two-thirds of the state is Hindu, and one third is Muslim. For over seventy years, Indigenous Assamese, in particular the Bodo, and Bengali Muslims have opposed each other, often violently.

Those dropped from today’s citizenship lists are largely, almost exclusively, Bengali Muslims. Many view this as part of the national government’s saffron policies, turning secular multicultural India into Hindu India. Whatever the reasons, the NRC predictably targets, and eliminates, Bengali Muslim women. Shorbhanu Nessa’s story is typical of many Bengali Muslim women in Assam … and typical of many women across India and beyond.

Shorbhanu Nessa married before she was 18. She is surrounded by nevers that result in her elimination from the NRC: never went to school, never owned property, never had a bank account, never thought she needed to. She is the mother of five adult children. As far as Shorbhanu Nessa knew, being married to her husband was sufficient. Not any longer.

Shorbhanu Nessa’s son, Hussain Ahmad Madani, explains, “Because she never voted in her maiden home, she had no way to prove now that she was her father’s daughter. Her father’s legacy data is there, but she has no document to establish her linkage to him. There is no school certificate which would have mentioned his name. Her family settled in this char (a sand bar by a river in Assamese) when she was one-and-a-half years old after their char (Majarlega Char) was swallowed by the Brahmaputra. She was married off to my father in this same char. Though her father passed away, everyone in the neighbourhood knew whose daughter she was; trouble began when documentary evidence was sought by the NRC authorities to prove who her father was.”

Everyone knew, but this particular category of everyone doesn’t count.

Many of those who were dropped from the rolls are women. Almost all of them are Muslim. Most, if not all, are married. As of yet, there’s not an exact gender breakdown of the disappeared, but the stories are everywhere, repeating one another.

No matter how one cuts it, the design for the data collection for the NCR predictably attacked Muslim individuals and communities, who, for various reasons, would not have the documentary evidence to prove what everyone in the neighborhood knew and had known for years, decades and generations. What is it called when millions of people are stripped of their citizenship? Genocide.

But there’s something else here. The NRC structures specifically targeted Bengali Muslim women of Shorbhanu Nessa’s generation. In 1988, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Bengali Muslim women, like Shorbhanu Nessa, were `encouraged’ to marry before they turned 18. Thus, they never voted using their birth, or maiden, names, and so now they can’t prove they are, and were, who they are, and were, precisely because they were dutiful daughters. None of this is surprising. It’s part of publicly and widely known culture in Assam, and it’s equally part of the NRC plan. The way the data was collected meant Bengali Muslim women would be disappeared, in large numbers, and that was perfectly fine with both Assamese officials and those in the national government. What’s it called when millions of women are disappeared in a single day? Femicide. In this world, citizenship is life. In one fell swoop, India created the single largest stateless population ever, and at the heart of that effort is the nation-State assault on women.

 

 

(Photo Credit: The Wire / Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty)

When it comes to addressing the specificities, and injustices, of women’s incarceration, we are all a long way from home

Today, the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee, an all-party committee, released a report, A long way from home: Improving London’s response to women in the criminal justice system. The report argues that women matter, that women’s contact with the criminal justice system is particular to women’s situation in the world and in London specifically, and that something should finally be done about supporting “women who offend and those at risk of offending.” While the report is welcome, as far as it goes, it also notes, repeatedly, that much the same call was made a decade earlier, and that, in that decade, little or nothing has been done. In that sense, the report is far too kind to history. This is the story of the report and the past decade. None of this is new; we have been here before, too many times.

It all began with HMP Styal, in August 2002. From August 2002 to August 2003, Her Majesty’s Prison Styal suffered an “epidemic” of women’s self harm and suicide. At that time, in the United Kingdom, forty per cent of sentenced women served three months or less, and yet somehow manage to `harm themselves’ at a rate of three incidents per inmate. The Corston Report: a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the U.K. criminal justice system, described the situation in March, 2007.

Behind the Corston Commission Report sat HMP Styal, “one of the largest women’s prisons” in the U.K. Between August 2002 and August 2003, six women died at Styal. Anna Claire Baker, a 29-year-old mother of two, a remand prisoner, was found hanged in her cell in November 2002. Sarah Campbell, 18, took pills, informed the staff she had taken pills, and was promptly left alone in a cell, to stew for a bit. Rather than stew, she died, as did Julie Walsh, in August 2003. Walsh, a 39-year-old mother-of-two, died after taking pills. The tragic deaths of these six women at Styal was the impetus of the Corston Commission. According to Nicholas Rheinberg, the Cheshire Coroner who conducted the inquests into the deaths at Styal, “I saw a group of damaged individuals, committing for the most part petty crime for whom imprisonment represented a disproportionate response. That was what particularly struck me with Julie Walsh who had spent the majority of her adult life serving at regular intervals short periods of imprisonment for crimes which represented a social nuisance rather than anything that demanded the most extreme form of punishment. I was greatly saddened by the pathetic individuals who came before me as witnesses who no doubt mirrored the pathetic individuals who had died.” That was then.

In February 27, 2009, “The chief inspector of prisons has warned of more deaths at Styal women’s prison if services for vulnerable inmates do not improve…. John Gunn, brother of Lisa Marley, who died at Styal, asked: “How many more women have to die before something is done?”

The next chapter of this story involves HMP Holloway. At one point Holloway was the largest women’s prison in western Europe. Sarah Reed died, or was executed, there on January 11, 2016. On January 11, Sarah Reed, 32 years old, Black, living with mental health issues and drug addiction, the victim of a famous police brutality case, was “found dead” in her cell at Holloway Prison, north of London. Her death went relatively unreported for almost a month, until the family managed to contact Black activist, Lee Jasper. In 2012, Sarah Reed was viciously attacked by a Metropolitan Police officer. The attack was caught on camera, and, in 2014, the officer was dismissed from the force. In October 2014, Sarah Reed was in a mental health hospital when she allegedly attacked someone. Her family says she wrote to them saying she had acted in self-defense. On January 4, Sarah Reed was shipped over to Holloway Prison, to await trial. While there, according to her family, she received no mental health treatment. Prison authorities claimed that Sarah Reed “strangled herself” while in her bed. Her family doubts that narrative. Further, they say they were prevented from seeing Sarah Reed and were treated “in a hostile and aggressive manner.”Sarah Reed was the last woman to die in Holloway Prison. On July 2016, Holloway was closed, and prisoners were moved to HMP Downview and HMP Bronzefield, outside of London. According to the Chief Inspector of Prisons, in 2013, the conditions in Bronzefield were dismaying.

And that leads us to the most recent chapter, A long way from home: Improving London’s response to women in the criminal justice system. Holloway was not only the largest women’s prison in Western Europe. It was the only prison in London. So, when Holloway closed, two years ago, women prisoners of London are shipped out of town. As the report notes, first, the majority of women shouldn’t be in the criminal justice system in the first place: “The crimes that women typically commit are ‘low-level’ offences like criminal damage, theft, common assault and TV licence evasion”.  Second, the women shouldn’t be sent distances from their families and communities of support. Third, a short sentence, which is what most women receive, has long-term catastrophic effects. Fourth, the system for women needs a thorough overhaul that begins with the problems women face and addressing those problems. Finally, we have all been here, among these “findings” and recommendations, before, more than once, and we did nothing, less than nothing.

A news article on today’s report notes, “The report from the London Assembly covers the capital but has national importance.” Actually, it has global importance. As in London, so in many parts of the United States and other countries. Women prisoners are in for low-level offences that suggest need for support and assistance rather than incarceration. Women prisoners are sent greater distances than male prisoners. The system for women prisoners everywhere needs a thorough overhaul. Finally, none of this is new, we have all been here before, and we have done nothing, less and worse than nothing. The time has come, more than come, to move beyond “findings” and recommendations, and to begin the real work of overhaul and transformation.When it comes to addressing the specificities, and injustices, of women’s incarceration, we are all a long way from home.

 

(Photo Credit: London Assembly)