Suicides in prisons in England and Wales hit 25-year high, and who cares?

From a demonstration outside Styal prison, August 2008, to remember all the women who had died there. Styal is still open, and women are still dying therein.

Today, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice released Safety in Custody Statistics England and Wales / Deaths in prison custody to March 2016. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the numbers are bad, the worst in 25 years. One hundred people committed suicide in prisons across England and Wales, in the twelve months between March 2015 and March 2016. Last year, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, and the House of Commons Justice Committee, prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high. Last year, the Ombudsman found a 64% increase in self-inflicted deaths in custody over the previous year. Additionally, “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.” In February 2016, the Ombudsman published a “Learning Lessons Bulletin” on prisoner suicide within the first month of custody: “It is a sadness to me that this bulletin repeats learning that I have frequently published elsewhere, about staff not spotting or using essential information about risk of suicide. This suggests that lessons still need to be learned.” The sadness goes deeper and broader than repetition and not learning. The sadness is that the bodies pile up and nobody cares.

Today’s report notes that prison suicides have soared from 79 last year to 100 this year, a 27% increase, and that prison suicide make up a little over one-third of prison deaths. Further, “the rate of self-inflicted deaths had reached its peak in the time series in the 12 months to March 2003 of 1.5 per 1,000 prisoners. After a period of fluctuations from 2004 to 2008, the self-inflicted death rate had stabilised until 2013. Subsequently the rate began to rise again to the highest point, since the prior peak, in the most recent 12 months ending March 2016 of 1.2 per 1,000 prisoners.”

While today’s report does not distinguish between men and women prisoners who have `successfully’ committed suicide, its profile of self-harm in the same period is telling: “When considering females, despite the falls seen between 2009 and 2012, rates of individuals self-harming among females remain disproportionately high in comparison to the overall rates of individuals self-harming … Females accounted for nearly a quarter of self-harm incidents in this reporting period, but only make up less than 5% of the prison population.”

None of this is surprising, and that’s the point. Critics say the system is in meltdown; it’s not. The system is working perfectly. Every year, a report comes out and some ask why the numbers continue to spike. Every year, the staff is blamed or the community or the individual prisoners. Every year, “safety in custody” is measured in suicide and self harm, and no one asks about well being and absolutely no one asks if those who die and hurt themselves in the pursuit of their own deaths belong behind bars in the first place. Every year, the public budgets for mental health are cut more deeply, and the butchers mutter in surprise at the “decrepit state” of the prisons and those who live and die therein.

Here there are no lessons to learn. These deaths are a station on a global assembly line at which employees dutifully stand and wait for the next body to ignore. The prisons of England and Wales are one tiny part of the global labor of necropower: “I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, … 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.”

It is a sadness frequently published elsewhere.

 

(Photo Credit: Indymedia UK)

Mabel Gawanus demands FREEDOM! #SetHerFree

08/01/16 Pixelated 04/01/16 Yarlswood.A Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre detainee is taken to a hospital appointment in hand cuffs. Pic by Keiron Hillhouse

Mabel Gawanas is taken to hospital in handcuffs

Why does the English government hate Mabel Gawanas? What horrible crime has she committed that the State has chosen to persecute and cage her for close on to two years? Mabel Gawanas has been in Yarl’s Wood for 22 months for the crime of having sought freedom and safety. Last week, the State moved to deport Mabel Gawanas. Thanks to her organizing and that of supporters in Movement for Justice, Black Sox, and Sisters Uncut, her ticket was cancelled. While that is great news, the idea that being sent back to prison is great news is an apt description of the current moment of State-sponsored violence against and torture of women. This week, Mabel’s daughter, Alexandra, born in England and a citizen of the European Union, turned seven years old. Who will restore those years to Mabel and Alexandra?

Mabel Gawanas is 42 years old and comes from Namibia. Orphaned as a young child, Mabel Gawanas was forced to work as a child minder when she was herself only a child. She says she was beaten, raped and abused by members of her extended family. Finally, she fled the violence. In 2006, she went to the United Kingdom, where, again, she was trapped in a family home. Mabel Gawanas has lived with mental illness for years. According to many, her mental health conditions arise largely from the violence she has endured.

Subjected to the trials of Job, Mabel Gawanas has survived with dignity, and has been rewarded with prison and worse: “I came here as a victim of torture, I was sexually abused by my own family and I am a victim of trafficking … I’ve been offered a place to stay – but I’ve been refused bail three times. Why would I run away from the people who are giving me somewhere to live? I would rather die than be deported. I am so frustrated, I should be bringing up my daughter.”

Mabel Gawanas has been one of the lead organizers of women held in Yarl’s Wood. Last year, when she discovered that she would be taken to medical appointments in handcuffs, she organized the press to come photograph and interview women prisoners in transit. In another instance, she stopped a Kenyan woman from being deported: “We protested when a woman who was tortured in Kenya, and all her family tortured or dead, was due to be deported. Ten of us filled her room with furniture so she missed her flight. She was later freed; we saved her that day.”

According to Movement for Justice, “Mabel is the foremost freedom fighter, leader and organiser of women imprisoned in the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre, a role model for every woman struggling for justice against Britain’s inhuman and racist immigration. She is one of the leaders who have made Yarl’s Wood the central battleground in the fight for women’s rights and the right of asylum in Britain … She has been a leader in every struggle in Yarl’s Wood from the protests that followed the Channel 4 exposures in March last year, and she has always been an active part of the Yarl’s Wood Movement for Justice group. She is a leader for women of every nationality in Yarl’s Wood – from every part of Africa, from India, Bangladesh, China, Eastern Europe etc. She has been organising the protests and placards at the windows on every one of the Surround Harmondsworth demonstrations since April 2015; people at the 12 th March demonstration heard Mabel speak over the phone and saw the large placard she held at the window, denouncing the sexual abuse of women by male guards. Mabel has been central to making the fight inside the centre more organised. She was part of the 3-day courtyard protest by over 100 women in the run-up to September’s parliamentary debate on detention, and organised successful collective action to support get a Chinese detainee taken to hospital. In November and March she organised women of different nationalities to defend Nigerian & Ghanaian women who were collectively resisting deportation. Both charter flights had to leave without any of those women on board.”

The English government hates Mabel Gawanas because she is a freedom fighter. She brings to light the brutality of Yarl’s Wood, immigrant detention and prison more generally. She calls out the State’s violence against women, which begins with a policy of disbelief in women and ends with the torture of indefinite detention. She demonstrates the special hell the State has constructed for African women, and for all women inside. Mabel Gawanas demands FREEDOM. Free Mabel Gawanas! #SetHerFree #ShutItDown

 

(Photo Credit 1: Bedfordshire on Sunday) (Photo Credit 2: Bedfordshire News)

In Virginia, Raja Johnson, Kimberly Carter and 206,000 more people just won back the right to vote!

Raja Johnson and Terry McAuliffe

Sometimes, as in Virginia this past week, democracy happens, and when it does, it’s largely thanks to the work of women of color organizing. Last Friday, Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting and civil rights to 206,000 people who had been disenfranchised permanently, thanks to Virginia’s lifelong voting ban on former prisoners. As the Governor explained, “I believe our commonwealth can not achieve its full potential until all men and women act on this fundamental right and participate in the decisions about their own children’s education, about their taxes and every aspect of their lives. Unfortunately, Virginia has had a long and sad history of effectively suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women at the ballot box … I believe it is time to cast off Virginia’s troubled history of injustice and embrace an honest clean process of restoring the right of these men and women. And so today, I will sign an order restoring the civil and voting rights of every single individual who has completed his or her sentence as of this day.” On that day, Raja Johnson stood with Governor McAuliffe as he spoke, and Kimberly Carter watched on television. These women, and thousands of others overwhelmingly women of color, will finally be able to vote, and so a chapter in Virginia’s decades long war on women of color may be drawing to a close.

In 1999, Raja Johnson, an 18-year-old Black woman, made a mistake. She was convicted of grand larceny. In 2014, Governor McAuliffe restored her right to vote. According to Johnson, “It sort of did something on the inside…and it gave me that motivation to go on. I’m about to graduate. I’ll have an associate degree in two months. In June I’ll be going for a bachelor’s degree. So, it’s sort of made me feel more like a citizen, just having my right to go back.” About ten years earlier, Kimberly Carter, a woman in her late teens, was arrested on a drug charge. Today, Kimberly Carter is 45 years old. Last Friday, Kimberly Carter watched Governor McAuliffe’s speech and then went and filled out a voter registration card: “You make a mistake, 20 years later you’re still paying for it.”

According to Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, “It is a historic day for democracy in Virginia and across our nation. The disenfranchisement of people who have served their sentences was an outdated, discriminatory vestige of our nation’s Jim Crow past.”

Virginia’s current code of lifelong disenfranchisement began, in 1902, as a racist attempt to keep newly enfranchised Black populations from voting. For over a century, the Commonwealth actively sustained and intensified that racism. According to Governor McAuliffe’s office, “It is estimated that 1 in 5 of the African American voting-age population is disenfranchised in Virginia because of this provision.” While the lifelong voting ban in Virginia has always been an assault on African Americans, and then on communities of color more generally, in recent years, it has also been the preferred weapon of State in a war against women of color. The so-called war on drugs targeted women of color, in particular through conspiracy laws, which have caught women for the crime of intimate relationships with someone involved in the drug trade. That’s the reason Virginia’s rate of incarceration of women has soared to 146 per 100,000. With the war on drugs, Jim Crow became Jim and Jane Crow.

It’s time Virginia returned the right to vote to those who paid their debt, a debt was largely the result of racist legerdemain. It’s past time to stop the war on communities of color, and in particular on women of color. It’s time for Virginia, and all the States, to pay back their debts to the unfinished project of democracy. Raja Johnson, Kimberly Carter and hundreds of thousands in Virginia and millions across the United States are saying that the time for democracy-to-come has passed. It’s spring, and it’s time for democracy here and now.

The crowd responds to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s restoration of voting and civil rights to 206,000 neighbors.

(Photo Credit 1: New York Times / Chet Strange) (Photo Credit 2: Richmond Times-Dispatch / Mark Gormus)

El Salvador built a special hell for women, Ilopango Women’s Prison

Ilopango Women’s Prison

El Salvador built as special hell for women, formally called el Centro de Readaptación para Mujeres de Ilopango, the Ilopango Center for Women’s Readaptation. Call it the Ilopango Women’s Prison. For the last few months, this prison has, and has not, received some notoriety because of El Salvador’s draconian anti-abortion laws, which have landed Las 17 in Ilopango. The story of the 17 women sent into the hell of Ilopango for having suffered miscarriages is important, as is the story of all the women in Ilopango. The abuse of the 17 is a crime, as is the abuse of all the women prisoners in Ilopango.

Starting in 1998, El Salvador banned all abortions, period. Today, El Salvador is one of six countries to ban all abortions. Additionally, El Salvador opened hunting season on pregnant women, so that 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. A People’s Tribunal is going on right now to investigate the cases of three of those women: Carmen Guadalupe Vasquez Aldana, sentenced to 30 years and released after seven years; Maria Teresa Rivera, in for 40 years for aggravated homicide; Teodora del Carmen Vásquez, sentenced to 30 years.

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. Periodically, the case of Las 17 is picked up globally, and so the struggle continues.

The assault on pregnant women, the absolute and total ban, is predictably partial: “The majority of the cases were referred to the police from hospitals—specifically, from public hospitals. Indeed, not a single hospital report to police came from the country’s private practice doctors or private hospitals.” So, the “totality” of the ban applies only to those women dependent on the public health system.

Of equal importance is the prison itself: “Ilopango is squalid and cramped: Overcrowding stands at nearly 1,000 percent, according to some estimates. Women sleep some 40 to a cell; one prison guard told me that over 100 children under five live there with their mothers.” Ilopango was designed for 225 women, maximum. Last year it held 2000. Women sleep five to a bed, or on the floor. Water is scarce, and medical care even scarcer. Prisoners rely on their mostly impoverished families for pretty much everything.

These are the numbers of violence against women: Las 17 and 2000 in a space for 225. For the women who suffered miscarriages, the viciousness of the State is a crime. For the women, all the women, who ended up in Ilopango, the sentence of death-in-life is the crime, not abortion, not miscarriage, not this or that act, not being a woman. Ilopango is the crime.

Meanwhile, last month, Flor Sánchez was dumped in jail for the `crime’ of having endured a miscarriage.

 

(Photo Credit: New York Times / Meridith Kohut)

Madaline Christine Pitkin died in agony, screaming and begging for care

Madaline Christine Pitkin

On April 24, 2014, Madaline Christine Pitkin was found on the floor of her solitary confinement cell in the Washington County Jail, in Oregon: “Her body lay on the cell floor. Her eyes were open. Her mouth moved slightly as if she had to cough, while one of her arms twitched. A brown fluid pooled beneath her.” Women’s bodies keep being “found” in jails across the United States: Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Joyce Curnell, Kellsie Green, Natasha McKenna, Christina Tahhahwah. This is only a partial list of women who were “found” dead in jails across the United States in the past year. From sea to shining sea, women’s corpses pile up in jails, as they have been. Madaline Christine Pitkin is just another piece of the rising tide of collateral damage flotsam. #SayHerName … and then move on.

Two years after her death, Madaline Christine Pitkin’s story finally has come to something like light. Like so many, she ended up in jail on a drug charge. In jail, she entered into a detox “program,” which is to say no program whatsoever. She began to suffer from withdrawal symptoms. For seven days, her situation deteriorated visibly and rapidly. On four separate occasions, she sought and filled out forms asking for help to control withdrawal symptoms. The fourth form, filled out the day before she died, read, “This is a 3rd or 4th call for help. I haven’t been able to keep food, liquids, meds down in 6 days … I feel like I am very close to death. Can’t hear, seeing lights, hearing voices. Please help me.” No one ever came to help.

From beginning to end, everything about the treatment of Madaline Christine Pitkin is shrouded in fog. Details were left out of the official story; stories of jail staff and medical staff differ; everything that was done, after Pitkins’ death, was done at a snail’s pace. But this much, from the beginning to now, is clear. There were no “serious breakdowns in the way Pitkin received medical treatment inside the jail.” The State set up a system in which there was “scant accountability” for those assigned to care for women in the jail. Madaline Christine Pitkin said, more than once, that she felt she was dying, and the so-called medical staff shrugged their shoulders and never came to help. That’s not an omission. That’s the plan, and it worked.

Madaline Pitkin was 26 years old when she “passed away unexpectedly.”

 

(Photo Credit: Krystina Wentz-Graff / The Oregonian)

Weapons in the war on women: Death and disappearance

To absolutely no one’s surprise, in the United States, the rich live longer, healthier lives than the poor. To the surprise of some, in the disparity between rich lives and poor deaths, geography matters. Rural white women are suffering an unprecedented spike in mortality rates. For many, that single piece of data is the takeaway of two major studies that appeared over the past two days. But there’s more. Women are the fastest growing prison population, and have been for some time. The numbers of women – overwhelming urban women of color – in prisons and jails is also unprecedented. The numbers of women dying in jails and prisons is also unprecedented, as are the mortality rates. Young adult American Indian and Alaska Native women commit suicide at the highest rates, among women, in the country. Women are being systematically removed from the United States landscape.

While the rich can live anywhere, poor individuals and communities live shorter lives, depending on locale. For example, the range of expected age at death between wealthy women in Spokane, Washington, and poor women in Las Vegas is between 89.2 years and 80 years. Poor women in cities like New York, Miami and Santa Barbara, are living longer than poor women in Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa. From 2001 to 2014, the life expectancy of women and men in Tampa, Florida, decreased by 2.2 years. The rate of decline for women exceeded that for men.

Meanwhile, since 2000, “white women have been dying prematurely at higher rates … passing away in their 30s, 40s and 50s in a slow-motion crisis driven by decaying health in small-town America … In one of the hardest-hit groups — rural white women in their late 40s — the death rate has risen by 30 percent.” Since 2000, white women’s health has “decayed”. This is especially so for white women in rural areas. This “rural area” particularity is further intensified in 21 counties across the South and Midwest. From 2000 to today, Victoria County, Texas has lead the pack on women’s mortality and morbidity. The death rate among women 45 to 43 years old skyrocketed from 216 per 100,000 people to 583, or an increase of 169 percent.

White women in rural areas are dying of drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. Women in prisons and jails, overwhelmingly women of color, are dying of drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. American Indian and Alaska Native women are dying of drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. That’s today’s rainbow profile of the United States, and it’s neither new nor surprising. Create the world’s largest state of abandonment; build more and more prisons and jails whose beds need to be used; militarize police forces; remove public health and all forms of assistance; and then effectively deny women of full citizenship, and the outcomes are as desired. Women dying and disappearing, through waves of socially engineered self-harm and through active State violence. Together, they constitute today’s war on women.

(Image Credit: Journal of the American Medical Association)

What happened to Loreal Tsingine? Just another Native woman killed by police

On March 27, 27-year-old Loreal Juana Barnell-Tsingine, a petite Navajo woman, was shot five times by a police officer in Winslow, Arizona. Loreal Tsingine is the fourth Native American woman to be killed by police this year. In January, in Washington State, Jacqueline Salyers was killed under disputed circumstances. In February, in Alaska, police shot and killed Patricia Kruger. In the same month, in Arizona, Sherrisa Homer was killed by police. Last year, police did not kill any Native American women. This year, it’s fast becoming the new normal. Of 277 people killed this year by police, 6 are Native Americans. That means Native Americans, at 1.57 deaths per million, top the charts on police killings. Again, of those six, four were women.

The killing of Loreal Tsingine took place in broad daylight. Police heard that a “Native woman” was shoplifting at a convenience store. According to police, Loreal Tsingine “fit the description.” They say they tried to arrest her, she resisted, she showed them a pair of scissors, and so a police officer fired at least five shots into her body. She fell to the street. A passerby rushed up to offer help: “I told the officer, `I know CPR, I can help her,’ but he told me step back, sir, and he pushed me.” According to local Navajo leaders, Loreal Tsingine died there and then, and was left on the sidewalk for hours.

Locally and nationally, Native American communities and their supporters are organizing under the banner #JusticeforLoreal and, once again, #NativeWomenMatter. On Saturday, Loreal Tsingine’s family joined with The Red Nation to hold a vigil. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said, “We as a nation demand justice.” Loreal Tsingine’s family said, “She was loved by so many. There are no words to describe the pain in our hearts.” And Red Nation organizer Melanie Yazzie explained, “She was executed in broad daylight. This officer did this because he knew he could do it with impunity.”

Part of the impunity is the widespread national silence. Have you heard of Loreal Tsingine’s death? Did you know that this year has already exceeded last year in police killings of Native women, and it’s only April? How many Native women have to lie dead, for hours, on the streets before their lives and deaths become newsworthy?

As Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye explained, “We hear about these types of shootings happening across the country.” Do we? #JusticeforLoreal

Loreal Tsingine

 

(Photo Credit 1: FusionFacebook) (Photo Credit 2: Indian Country Today Media Network)

In prisons, jails and detention centers, the bodies pile up: Who cares?

Harmondsworth, 2006

According to a report released today, 2015 recorded “the highest number of executions … in more than 25 years (since 1989).” Along with the `highest number of executions”, many jails, prisons and immigrant detention centers are experiencing the highest number and the highest rates of suicide. Once more into the global work of necropower: “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.” Welcome to the necropolis.

In the United Kingdom, the number of suicide attempts in “immigration removal” centers is at an all-time high. In 2015, there were 393 attempted suicides recorded. Harmondsworth topped the list at 105. Yarl’s Wood came in second at 64. In 2014, there were 353 attempted suicides. Harmondsworth led again with 68, and, again, Yarl’s Wood came in second with 61. In 2015, 2,957 detainees were on suicide watch during 2015. Of that number, 11 are children.

Meanwhile, in 2014, prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high. The Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales found a 64% increase in self-inflicted deaths in custody over the previous year. There is no surprise in either the seven-year high in prisons in England and Wales, nor in the all-time high in immigrant detention centers.

In the United States, during the Obama administration, there have been 56 deaths in ICE custody. These include six suicides and at least one death after an attempted suicide. Eloy Detention Center, in Eloy, Arizona, holds pride of place in this race to the bottom. As of July 2015, 9 percent of detention deaths nationwide since 2003 occurred at Eloy, where 14 of the 152 total deaths occurred. In 2013, women prisoners in Eloy went on hunger strike to protest the conditions. As Thesla Zenaida, an Eloy hunger striker, explained: “Look, a girl hanged herself. A girl was hanged here. [After] she was hanged, they didn’t want to take her body down. And for the same reason—because they treat us poorly. A guard treated her poorly, and that guard is still working here.” And now, three years later, people still ask, “Why so many suicides?

Meanwhile, in 2015, the Arizona prison system recorded close to 500 attempts at self-harm and suicide, another record broken.

In Illinois, in the Kane County jail, the suicide rate is three times the national average, and no one on staff seems to care. In August 2013, Terry Ann Hart hung herself in the Kane County jail. Now, almost three years later, her daughter is taking the county and the sheriff to court. In a little over a year, Kane County had three suicides and one attempt, while nearby larger jails had no suicides from 2011 to 2015. Terry Ann Hart’s daughter wants to know how it’s possible for so many people to kill themselves and for no one to be held accountable and for nothing whatsoever to change inside the jail.

The family of Wakiesha Wilson, who died in the Los Angeles County Jail last month, has similar questions. How did their loved one die, and why did the State take so long to inform them? From Harmondsworth and Yarl’s Wood to Eloy Detention and Kane County and Los Angeles, and beyond, women are dropping like flies, and their families ask, “Why?” and “Who cares?

In France, due to two recent high profile prison suicides, people are asking why the rate of suicide in French prisons is so high. Coincidentally, a report released this week notes, “Suicide rates in French prisons are higher than in the general population – seven times as high … According to the French government, there were 113 suicides in French prisons in 2015 … Female prisoners with psychosocial disabilities face particularly harsh conditions in French prisons. Women in general, who are a minority in prison, are more restricted in their movements than men and have less access to treatment for mental health conditions than their male counterparts. Women detained in a prison with separate quarters for female and male prisoners described … how, unlike the men in the same facility, they had to be escorted in all their movements. Besides making them feel isolated, this gives women the sense that they are treated more harshly only because they are women. Female prisoners also face discrimination in their access to mental healthcare: while 26 Regional Medico Psychological Services (SMPR) in French prisons provide mental healthcare during the day and beds for the night, only one of them has beds for women.”

From executions to prison suicides, these numbers are the census of the death-world, where now what is blurred is the line between the living dead and the dead dead. Record-breaking numbers of suicides occur, and nobody knows? How much higher must the piles of women’s corpses rise before the `discoveries’ end and the work of justice begins? Look, a girl hanged herself. A girl was hanged here. ¡Ni una mas! Not one more!

 

(Photo Credit: Institute of Race Relations)

#LetThemStay: Australia tells asylum seekers detention is freedom

What does freedom mean? Don’t ask the Australian government, who this weekend hit a new low by proudly announcing it had released all refugee and asylum seeking children in Australia, when, apparently, it had merely changed their designation from “held detention” to “community detention”, without actually moving them. When torturing children just isn’t enough, try torturing the language as well. Freedom’s just another word …

Years ago, Australia’s government looked out upon the waters, saw small boats filled with desperate people, declared them a crisis and installed a state of emergency. The State has tried everything, from detention and torture to offshore detention and torture to way offshore detention and torture, from places like Villawood Immigration Detention Centre to Nauru Regional Processing Centre to who knows what or where in Cambodia. The landscape is littered with rising piles of bodies, commission reports, and expressions of shock at the routine torture of women, children, and men. Lately increasing numbers of Australians have protested in favor of a more open policy, under the banner #LetThemStay. And so, over the weekend, the State tried a new sleight of hand, and declared the war is over, even though the fighting actually continues.

When challenged on the terms of “release”, Australia’s Immigration Minister explained, “We’ve been able to make a modification to the arrangement so the children aren’t detained, they can have friends over, they can go out into the community.” Pushed by reporters, he further explained, “The same definitions apply today as they did before. There are certain characteristics that need to be met in relation to all these definitions, but that’s all beltway stuff. They’re outside of ‘held detention’, so that’s the answer that I’ve provided to you before.” Still unsatisfied with the release that is not a release, reporters continued to seek clarification, and a spokesperson for the Minister complied, “There are arrangements that have been put in place. Those arrangements now sit with the fact that it’s community detention.” That kind of obfuscation is “stuff” that beltways are made of.

Here’s the situation in plain words: “Families with children in `held detention’ in the `family compound’ of Villawood detention centre were told by letter on Friday that their detention was now classified as `community detention’. They have been `released’ from detention without moving.”

On Saturday night, a nineteen-year-old woman attempted suicide. Others will follow. Today Australia’s Immigration Minister vowed to ship the families to Nauruand beyond. The bodies pile up, the lies grow more intricate and more brazen, the shame deepens, and people and words are made to disappear. Soon, if all goes according to plan, no one will care about words like democracy, freedom, decency, or humanity.

 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Pacific Press / REX / Shutterstock)

Qumotria Kennedy said NO to debtors’ prison … and won!

Qumotria Kennedy

Despite having been outlawed and declared unconstitutional, debtors’ prisons and even more debtors’ jails exist all over the United States. In Biloxi, Mississippi, Qumotria Kennedy said NO to all of that, and, a couple weeks ago, she, and we, won! On the same day Qumotria Kennedy won, the U.S. Department of Justice warned state judges that courthouses are not supposed to be ATMs, but, of course, the national shakedown of the poor persists.

In July 2015, Qumotria Kennedy, 36 years old, Black, a single mother, was riding with a friend, going to pick up their kids. The car was stopped by the police. Even though Qumotria Kennedy was the passenger, the police ran her identity `through the system’ and found an outstanding warrant for having “failed to pay” court fines, which stemmed from traffic violations in 2013. The thing is, Qumotria Kennedy didn’t fail to pay. She couldn’t pay. She didn’t have the money. She explained that to the probation officers, who are employees of Judicial Corrections Services Inc, a private processing company. They refused to hear her explanations.

Qumotria Kennedy works off and on as a cleaner. She earns under $9000 a year. She raises two children, on her own. By any standards, and by formal government standards, Qumotria Kennedy is indigent. She said as much. She asked for help. She was sent to jail for five days. That’s what counts as help these days.

In October, Qumotria Kennedy, Richard Tillery and Joseph Anderson sued The City of Biloxi; John Miller, Chief of Police of the City of Biloxi; Judge James Steele; and the Judicial Corrections Services, Incorporated. Qumotria Kennedy and her co-complainants were represented by the ACLU. The complaint begins: “Defendant City of Biloxi … operates a modern-day debtors’ prison. The City routinely arrests and jails impoverished people in a scheme to generate municipal revenue through the collection of unpaid fines, fees, and court costs imposed in traffic and other misdemeanors cases. As a result, each year, hundreds of poor residents of the City and surrounding areas, including individuals with disabilities and homeless people, are deprived of their liberty in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center for days to weeks at a time for no reason other than their poverty and in violation of their most basic constitutional rights.”

As Qumotria Kennedy explains, “I decided to bring a lawsuit against Biloxi because I don’t like what the city is doing to people. All it cares about is money. Biloxi locked me up for being poor. But it costs them money to keep me in jail. So this system doesn’t even make any sense. I hope that everybody knows that the system is trampling on poor people, and it’s not fair.”

Last month, Biloxi settled with Qumotria Kennedy and her co-complainants. The city agreed to pay each $25,000. Additionally Biloxi said it would stop jailing people for nonpayment of fines and that it would no longer use probation companies to collect fines. Additionally, it would hire a full-time public defender to represent the indigent charged with nonpayment and would not charge additional fees to people who entered into repayment plans or performed community service in lieu of payment. Furthermore, people will not be given a hearing to see if they’re able to pay imposed fines. For those who can’t pay, alternatives will be found.

Qumotria Kennedy was dumped into jail because she’s a low-income Black woman. Qumotria Kennedy is the embodiment of intersectional violence. The violence against her and the extraction of value from her body intensified with each convergence of components of her identity. This revolving cash register of injustice is happening in jails across the country. Thanks to Qumotria Kennedy, who refused to be the sum total of her oppressions, who said NO to the City and the Police and the Judge and the Corporation and the injustice and indignity of debtors’ prison, it may be ending in Biloxi, Mississippi.

 

(Photo Credit: American Civil Liberties Union)