In Massachusetts, au pairs win in court, expanding domestic workers’ rights everywhere!

Matahari Women Workers’ Center Au Pair Organizing Committee

In November 2019, Philadelphia enacted a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, joining one other city, Seattle, and nine states: Oregon, California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Nevada. Massachusetts passed its Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2014. In December 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Massachusetts, ruled that au pairs are covered by Massachusetts’ Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Once again, domestic workers organized, persisted, organized some more, cut through the fog and smoke of “like one of the family” and “care work is loving work and therefore not work at all”, and secured victory. While this ruling “only” applies to Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico, its implications are both national and global, and it is a major victory for women workers’ rights everywhere.

The case emerged when Culture Care Au Pair, an au pair sponsorship agency, sued Massachusetts. Culture Care claimed that au pairs were not workers but rather participants in a cultural and educational exchange program. The Matahari Women Workers’ Center, which had worked for the passage of Massachusetts’ Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, immediately spun into action, organizing domestic workers, finding lawyers, and keeping the pressure on. When the Court threw out Culture Care’s arguments, Monique Tú Nguyen, Executive Director of Matahari Women Workers’ Center, said, “This is a huge win for au pairs, who provide crucial live-in child care to families across the state. They do the critical caregiving work that makes all other work possible.”

This is a huge win for au pairs and for all workers, overwhelmingly women of color, who provide critical caregiving work.

Since the First Circuit decision, instead of trying to figure out how to comply with the new circumstances, many parents have mobilized and lobbied Massachusetts state legislators to find a way to preserve the status quo, to find a way to keep their au pairs from being formally protected as workers and from being formally and existentially recognized for the work that they do. The press has largely focused on how families and agencies have been “upended” by the court ruling and how they’re “struggling” to comply. Families are “up in arms”. Where is the coverage of the impact on au pairs? The struggle for women workers’ dignity continues.

The First Circuit decision on au pairs means that au pairs must be paid the Massachusetts minimum wage, $12.75 an hour, and that au pairs must receive meal breaks, overtime, and all other benefits covered by law. 2019 was a big year, perhaps a turning point, for au pairs across the United States. It began with a $65.5 million settlement between 100,000 former au pairs and 15 companies which sponsor au pairs. That settlement came out of a class-action lawsuit filed by ten or au pairs in a Denver federal court. Those au pairs worked with Towards Justice, a Denver-based advocacy group. When the settlement was reached, David Seligman, Executive Director of Towards Justice, said, “This settlement, the hard-fought victory of our clients who fought for years on behalf of about 100,000 fellow au pairs, will be perhaps the largest settlement ever on behalf of minimum wage workers and will finally give au pairs the opportunity to seek h.”

From Denver to Boston and beyond, justice for au pairs, domestic workers, women workers is forged by the persistence of women workers who fight for years, who were never meant to survive. Matahari Women Workers’ Center understands it’s time for those who were never meant to survive: “Matahari Women Workers’ Center (“Matahari”) is … committed to building a world without economic violence and exploitation. Our community believes in the transformative power of survivors and is committed to developing the leadership of women of color, immigrants, and low-wage workers.” From domestic worker victories and advances in South AfricaPhiladelphia, Denver, Massachusetts, 2019 was a year that saw the expansion and deepening of domestic workers’ rights, dignity and power everywhere. Spread the news! The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: Matahari Women Workers’ Center) (Image Credit: International Domestic Workers Federation)

Who mourns Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende? Where is the global concern?

Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende

On July 4, 2019, 26-year-old Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende left her village on the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, and headed for Kuwait, where a job as a domestic worker awaited her. Five months later, on December 28, 2019, Jeanelyn Villavende arrived, or was dumped, already dead, showing signs of having been tortured, at Sabah Hospital. Her employers are under arrest. The Philippines expresses its outrage, and, yesterday, declared a partial ban on “deployment of workers” to Kuwait. Two years ago, reflecting on Saudi Arabia’s execution of domestic worker Tuti Tursilawati, we asked, “Why does the world not care about the young women of color who travel long distance and leave families and communities behind, precisely to keep the world, our world, functioning?” The redundancy and familiarity of Jeanelyn Villavende’s story suggests that was the wrong question. This repeated narrative of migration, abuse, torture, exploitation, death, return, 15 minutes of national “outrage”, followed by return to the same, this is the quality of our concern for young women of color in the contemporary global marketplace. As an Ethiopian domestic worker in Lebanon once put it, “We are like oil to our government”. After an oil spill here and there, it’s back to business as usual.

None of this is new. If anything, it’s a cliché by now. The neoliberal global economy was built on global cities that required 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week service, and so, among other industries, the household care work sector exploded. Urban areas of certain areas demanded more and more domestic workers, and certain nation-States, the Philippines most notably, turned themselves into mega-brokerage houses for mass migrations of domestic workers … like so much oilThe sending countries lauded the women as heroes of the nation and promised to protect them. But that protection never came. If it had, not only would Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende be alive today, she would never have had to leave in the first place.

Repeatedly, we have seen migrant and transnational domestic workers organizing themselves, demanding justice, making change. Filipina domestic worker Evangeline Banao Vallejos did so in Hong Kong, as did Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, and as are Filipino domestic workers Baby Jane Allas, Milagros Tecson Comilang, and Desiree Rante LuisAdelina Lisao is a mirror sister of Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende: 26 years old, Adelina Lisao left Indonesia to work in Malaysia, and returned home, visibly tortured, in a body bag. Why does the world not care about the young women of color who travel long distance and leave families and communities behind, precisely to keep the world, our world, functioning? We do. This is how we care. We speak of justice, for example “justice for Jeanelyn Villavende”, and then return to business as usual. No one cries forever over a little spilled oil.

In February 2018, the Philippines imposed a total deployment ban on Kuwait, which it rescinded in May 2018. In May 2019, the Philippines imposed a total deployment ban on Kuwait, which it rescinded soon after. Each one of these bans occurred in response to spectacular brutality and death visited upon Filipina domestic workers. Each time, Kuwait and the Philippines signed a new deal. Each time, women were told they were protected. This is why almost every headline involving Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende’s torture and murder says “another”: “PH condemns killing of yet another Filipina domestic worker in Kuwait”; “PH gov’t condemns death of another Filipino domestic worker in Kuwait”; “Another OFW killed in Kuwait”. Another just like the other just like the next … so many drops of oil.

Around the world, domestic workers, overwhelmingly women, are organizing. They know that neither justice nor dignity come in some afterlife. There is absolutely no point in intoning “justice for Jeanelyn Villavende” as if that would conjure her up. It’s time to remember Mother Mary Harris Jones’ exhortation to striking miners: “Your organization is not a praying institution. It’s a fighting institution. It’s an educational institution along industrial lines. Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!” 

(Photo Credit: Sun Star Manila)

Mourning all that is human, once again, drowned in the sea, once again

“one cannot speak of generations of skulls or spirits except on the condition of language – and the voice, in any case of that which marks the name or takes its place (“Hamlet: That Scull had a tongue in it, and could sing once”).
Jacques Derrida. Specters of Marx

Once again, the year ends with the surface of the Mediterranean concealing thousands of humans lost. According to the International Organization of Migration, 1246 people – women, children, men – drowned in the Mediterranean while trying flee certain death. In certain circles, this number, 1246, is being celebrated as a mark of success. The numbers of dead have declined. Fortress Europe, like Fortress Australia and Fortress USA, is working. This is the mathematics of success in our contemporary world. 2019: 1246 dead: “the fifth straight year of at least 1,000 deaths on the Mediterranean”. 2018: 2299 dead. 2017: 3139 dead. 2016: 5143 dead. 2015: 4054 dead. 2014: 3283 dead.  From 2014 to today, 19,164 souls – women, children, men – thrown into the deep waters of unmourning. No language, no marking of names, no taking of place. No singing. Only the silence of “success”.

According to UNITED, United Against Refugee Deaths, “In the period 1993-2019 more than 36,570 deaths can be put down to border militarisation, asylum laws, detention policies and deportations. Most probably thousands more are never found.” UNITED compiles a list of documented deaths of refugees. The overwhelming majority of the deceased are identified as “N.N.”, “Nomen Nescio: I don’t know the name”. This is success today. Tens of thousands dead; tens of thousands rendered nameless. Tens of thousands languishing, tortured, in confinement in north Africa, especially in Libya

In 2016, the deadliest year ever for migrants trying to reach Europe, the year’s epitaph was simple: “2016: The year the world stopped caring about refugees”. This year, the epitaph is equally simple: “2019: The year refugees were urged to return”. Refugees and asylum seekers were “urged” at the end of a gun, in the festering conditions of camps, by policies of hostility, by enforced freezing, starvation, and other forms of violence. In today’s world, these forms of violence are called urging, invitation.

We have turned the sea into a graveyard. It’s December 31, 2019, and the Person of the Decade is a woman, child, man lying on the bottom of the Mediterranean; we do not know their names, and we do not much care. If we did, they would be alive today.

To “honor” the decade, here is a poem for the refugees who lie in the cemetery that we have made of the Mediterranean and for those who continue to seek shelter, haven, community, work, humanity. See you next year.

Mourning
By Carolyn Forché 

A peacock on an olive branch looks beyond
the grove to the road, beyond the road to the sea,
blank-lit, where a sailboat anchors to a cove.
As it is morning, below deck a man is pouring water into a cup,
listening to the radio-talk of the ships: barges dead
in the calms awaiting port call, pleasure boats whose lights
hours ago went out, fishermen setting their nets for mullet,
as summer tavernas hang octopus to dry on their lines,
whisper smoke into wood ovens, sweep the terraces
clear of night, putting the music out with morning
light, and for the breath of an hour it is possible
to consider the waters of this sea wine-dark, to remember
that there was no word for blue among the ancients,
but there was the whirring sound before the oars
of the great triremes sang out of the seam of world,
through pine-sieved winds silvered by salt flats until
they were light enough to pass for breath from the heavens,
troubled enough to fell ships and darken thought — 
then as now the clouds pass, roosters sleep in their huts,
the sea flattens under glass air, but there is nothing to hold us there:
not the quiet of marble nor the luff of sail, fields of thyme,
a vineyard at harvest, and the sea filled with the bones of those
in flight from wars east and south, our wars, their remains
scavenged on the seafloor and in its caves, belongings now
a flotsam washed to the rocks. Stand here and look
into the distant haze, there where the holy mountain
with its thousand monks wraps itself in shawls of rain,
then look to the west, where the rubber boats tipped
into the tough waves. Rest your eyes there, remembering the words
of Anacreon, himself a refugee of war, who appears
in the writings of Herodotus:
I love and do not love, I am mad and I am not mad.
Like you he thought himself not better,
nor worse than anyone else.

(Photo Credit: Electronic Intifada /Oren Ziv/Active Stills)

Beyond cruelty lies immigrant detention and family separation: Maria, Flor, Eloy

Maria and Flor crossed the U.S. – Mexico border in March 2019 and applied for asylum. Technically, Maria, 23 years old, filed for asylum for herself and her six-year-old niece. Maria and Flor had travelled north from Guatemala, where Flor’s entire family was murdered when Flor was a baby. Maria was, and is, her only living relative. Maria took Flor in and has raised her as her daughter. Maria is the only mother Flor has ever known. Maria’s family was killed this year, and that precipitated the flight north. Maria brought all the formal papers she could lay her hands on. ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, rejected the papers, rejected Maria and Flor as well. Maria was dumped into Eloy Detention Center, in Arizona. Flor was taken to a shelter … in New York City, thousands of miles away. Anita, a woman living in New York, has volunteered to provide a home for Maria and Flor. Volunteers have provided assistance, clergy and faith community members have joined with activists to raise a hue and cry, attorneys both in Arizona and New York have actively represented both Maria and Flor. Despite all this support, Maria was recently again denied parole. ICE provides no reason. Deeper into the landscape of no-reason, were Maria or Maria and Flor to be deported, there are no assurances that Maria would know Flor’s whereabouts. Again, Maria is 23 years old; Flor is 6 years old. Find a six-year and just look at her, and you’ll understand what this theater of cruelty is all about. As one local reverend said, “It is beyond cruel.” What is beyond cruel? This.

Maria sits, waits, tries to organize her life and Flor’s life, in Eloy Detention, the place where Raquel Calderon de Hildago, also Guatemalan, hanged herself … or was sentenced to hang herself; Eloy, the detention center that often has had both more deaths in custody and more suicide and suicide attempts than any other detention facilityEloy, the site of repeated women’s hunger strikes. Why is Maria in Eloy, rather than `out in the world’ with her daughter-niece Flor? Why is anyone in Eloy?

Despite the State of Abandonment, Maria insists that she does not feel abandoned, because, she says, “I have the support of lots of people. I’m not alone”. Abandonment is the obverse of democracy. Maria’s understanding of community, solidarity, hope, that is what democracy looks like. 

#FamiliesBelongTogether #FreeMaria

(Image Credit: Franziska Barczyk / The Guardian)

A woman was forced to give birth alone in a cell: Diana Sanchez, Tianna Laboy, Kenzi Dunn

In one week in December, two stories of women being forced to give birth alone in prison or jail cells collided. In Connecticut, a court decided that the case of Tianna Laboy, who, while held at the York Correctional Institution, was forced to give birth to her baby in the toilet of her prison cell. That occurred February 13, 2018. In the same week the Connecticut court made the decision concerning Tianna Laboy’s case, another court, in Florida, heard the case of Kenzi Dunn, who was forced to give birth alone in a cell in the Osceola County Jail.  Tianna Laboy’s baby survived. Kenzi Dunn miscarried. This is how the year ends; this is how the decade ends. Across the United States, pregnant women in prison and jails routinely suffer programmatic neglect and abuse. Diana Sanchez was forced to give birth, alone, in the Denver County Jail, July 2018. The list goes on: Tammy Jackson, Broward County, Florida; Jessica Preston, Macomb County, Michigan. Nicole Guerrero, Wichita County, TexasAutumn Miller, Dawson State Jail, Dallas, Texas. These are only the names we know. There is no national data base concerning prison or jail births … because, really, who cares?

When Diana Sanchez was booked, she was eight months pregnant, in early stages of labor, and had a history that suggested high-risk pregnancy and a good chance of early delivery. Diana Sanchez went into hours long labor, screamed for help, and no one cameStaff stood outside her cell, nurses watched on video and refused to help. Diana Sanchez reflected, “That pain was indescribable, and what hurts me more though is the fact that nobody cared.” What hurts me more is the fact that nobody cared.

Tianna Laboy’s experience echoes that of Diana Sanchez. She informed authorities she was pregnant. Staff did nothing or less than nothing. Tianna Laboy walked the halls in pain, begged for help, cried out in pain. No one came. Sitting on a toilet in her cell, she gave birth to a child. The child hit her head on the toilet. Tianna Laboy pulled the infant out. Her cellmate told her to pat the child on the back. She did and her daughter started breathing. Other than her cellmate, Tianna Laboy received less than no care. That was last year. It’s not clear if anything has been done at the prison to correct this situation … because, really, who cares?

Kenzi Dunn’s story is basically the same. When she was booked into the Osceola County Jail in October, Kenzi Dunn discovered she was pregnant. On Wednesday, December 4, Kenzi Dunn started bleeding, asked for help, begged for help, screamed for help, and none came. Kenzi Dunn continued to bleed. She didn’t see a doctor until Friday. On Saturday, bleeding and suffering cramps, Kenzi Dunn miscarried. On Monday, she was taken to the hospital. Upon release from the hospital, Kenzi Dunn was taken back to the same cell and had a day added to her sentence, to make up for the day she spent in the hospital. The following week, Kenzi Dunn was released two weeks “early”. Kenzi Dunn summed her experiences succinctly, “It was torture”.

Across the United States, in the name of justice and security, women are being forced to give birth alone in prison and jail cells. Women are being forced to bear their children into toilets or onto floors. Women are being forced to bleed for days on end, while assistance stands inches away and refuses to budge. Nobody cares. It’s torture. 

(Infographic Credit: Prison Policy)

South Africa confirms the rights of all children to education!

It’s the end of the year and decade, and we need some good news, right? As the United States continues to throw migrant children into the abyss of immigrant detention and India throws millions under the bus of lost citizenship, last week a court in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa came through. In a case concerning the rights of 37 undocumented children to attend school, the Judge President of the Eastern Cape Selby Mbenenge, writing for the Makhanda High Court, emphatically declared that the Constitution of South Africa enshrines the right of all children to access to education. Judge Mbenenge opened his decision: “Central to this application is the right to basic education enshrined, without any qualification, in section 29 of the Constitution … Education is a mighty tool in the hands of the possessor. Its efficacy depends largely on the bulwark that surrounds it – the right to education … In our constitutional dispensation basic education is a pivot of transformation.” Children matter, democracy matters, education matters, rights matter, the Constitution matters, courts matter, judges matter, decency matters, compassion matters, transformation matters … without any qualification. Amen.

Who are the undocumented children of South Africa? According to the Department of Basic Education, of the 998,433 undocumented children currently enrolled in public schools, 880,968 are South African citizens. A little over 88% of those children are South African. Of the 37 children represented in the Eastern Cape case, 23, or a bit more than 60%, are South African citizens. South African children born at home often don’t have birth certificates. There are other barriers. Eight of the children live in a safe house for abandoned and orphaned children. Their situation didn’t matter. Without proper papers, they were expelled. Who are the undocumented children of South Africa? Poor. Black. Vulnerable. But first, they are children.

The Makhanda High Court has said that children’s situation does not matter, because they are children and thus are due an education, and that obligation is without qualification. Section 29 of the Constitution of South Africa reads:

“Section 29 Education

 (1) Everyone has the right –

(a) to a basic education, including adult basic education; and

(b) to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.

(2) Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable. In order to ensure the effective access to, and implementation of, this right, the state must consider all reasonable educational alternatives, including single medium institutions, taking into account –

(a) equity;

(b) practicability; and

(c) the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices.

(3) Everyone has the right to establish and maintain, at their own expense, independent educational institutions that –

(a) do not discriminate on the basis of race;

(b) are registered with the state; and

(c) maintain standards that are not inferior to standards at comparable public educational institutions.”

Everyone means everyone. Tell that to the governments of the United States and India, and all those fortress nations in between and beyond. This is a victory for vulnerable children as it is a victory for inalienable rights without qualification. Transformation is still possible. 

(Photo credit: Daily Maverick)

#ShutDownBerks: Pennsylvania’s Auditor General calls Berks a jail and urges it be shut down

For the past six months, Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has been conducting an audit of Berks County “Residential” Center, or BCRC, one of the three so-called family immigrant detention centers in the United States. Yesterday, he issued his report. The report ends with two recommendations, all in caps in the report: “1. IMMIGRATING FAMILIES SHOULD NOT BE HELD IN BCRC AND SHOULD INSTEAD BE RELEASED INTO COMMUNITIES WITH OVERSIGHT AND SUPPORT. 2. AS LONG AS BCRC REMAINS OPEN, THE STATE DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES MUST CONTINUE TO CONDUCT MONTHLY INSPECTIONA TO OVERSEE THE TREATMENT OF THE CHILDREN BEING DETAINED THERE.” The Auditor General chose to put those two recommendations in capital letters, to make sure we see and hear the message. Shut down Berks. SHUT DOWN BERKS. #ShutDownBerks. Can you hear me now?

The report opens noting that, apart from those who are members of “an indigenous native tribe”, everyone else is “part of Pennsylvania’s immigration history”. Further, “seeking asylum is not a crime. Neither is asking the U.S. government for permission to live on its soil and become a contributing member of its society. Yet the parents and children being held at BCRC are treated like prisoners despite not being accused of any crimes.” Also, “facilities such as BCRC should not exist.” The report then launches into the details concerning Berks, details many of which we have described before: children being kept in violation of limits; mothers being abused, mothers and children suffering isolation, trauma, deprivation. Repeatedly, in the report and at the press, the Auditor General emphasized that seeking asylum is not a crime and is not part of the criminal justice process in any way whatsoever. At the press conference, DePasquale noted, “No one being held at the Berks facility is facing any criminal charges, but the center still essentially functions as a jail where adults and children, sometimes mere babies, are detained”.

The report details the experience, in October 2019, of the Connors family, an English couple with their three-month-old son who were vacationing in Canada, got lost on a back road, accidentally entered the United States, were apprehended, and shipped off to Berks. When the Connors arrived at Berks, there were five families with children under five years old. Because the Connors’ child was so young, ICE offered them a deal, family separation. Eileen Connors said she was “shocked and disgusted” by the suggestion and rejected it out of hand. Everything was dirty and broken. When their child’s clothing needed washing, there were no replacements. Eileen Connors asked, “How am I supposed to keep my baby warm in this horrible cold?” “All they tell me is to put a hat on him.” They say, “Put a hat on him.” We say, “Shut it down!”

For the last five years, repeatedly, the mothers of Berks have called for justice, beginning with shutting down Berks. Repeatedly, they have said they are not criminals, they are asylum seekers. Repeatedly they have said, no human being deserves to be abused. Repeatedly they have said, children need and deserve love, not abandonment and abuse. Repeatedly they have said, we know justicethis is injustice!

 U.S. Senators have agreedPsychologists have agreedLocal activists, human rights advocates, attorneys and just plain folk have agreed. Recently, even Berks County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt, who previously supported Berks because of its supposed economic benefit, said “he no longer supported maintaining the detention center, citing concern that President Trump’s administration is `changing the immigration landscape in a negative way.’” Pennsylvania’s Governor wants to shut Berks down and convert it into a treatment space, a healing place. How many more reports, documents, testimonies are needed? “We are well past the time to close the Berks center.” Shut Berks down. Facilities such as Berks “should not exist.” Shut Berks down! SHUT BERKS DOWN! #ShutBerksDown!

(Image Credit: Grid Philly) (Photo Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer / Charles Fox)

Sunday’s factory fire in New Delhi was a planned massacre of workers: We know

A factory fire broke out Sunday, December 8, 2019, in a factory that produced school bags, purses, and toys, in the Anaj Mandi neighborhood, in New Delhi. At least 43 workers were killedA factory fire broke out Saturday, July 13, 2019, in a hardware factory in the Jhilmil industrial area, in New Delhi. “Only” three workers were killed.  A factory fire broke out Saturday, January 20, 2018, in a gunpowder factory in the Bawana Industrial area, in New Delhi. Seventeen workers were killed. Every time, government officials proclaim their sadness. Every time, the media describes the “tragedy”, interviews relatives weeping at the morgue and the hospital. Every time, explanations, alibis, “explain” what happened. Narrow streets. Inaccessible spaces. Every time … That fire was a planned massacre. The building was a death trap waiting to explode, the workers, mostly migrant Muslim from Bihar, were slated for the sacrificial burning. As one witness explained, speaking of the workers, “Their only fault was they were poor.” He paused and then concluded that the workers’ lives were “a bigger tragedy than their death.” What is tragedy in this world?

We know what happened Sunday: the factory was illegal; the building far exceeded height limitations of the area; of 18 rooms in the building, 15 are rented out to different entities running illegal factories, and, of course, there are no leases or any other documents; there was never any police verification of anything, as there should have been; the building was packed, in violation of city rules, with hazardous and inflammable items; goods blocked one emergency exit, which was locked from the outside; the other exit was impassible thanks to packages piled up in front of it; other exits were locked from the outside; windows were barred and could not be opened; firefighters had to break down the outer gate and then the doors to get in. We know.

We know that the workers lived and slept in the factory itself, because their wages were so low that that’s what they could afford; that almost all the workers asleep on the third floor died, slowly and painfully, of suffocation, many of them on their phones, calling loved ones, friends, pleading for help, saying farewell. We know.

We know that now people will be investigated, arrested, even convicted; that the workers in the other illegal factories in other illegal buildings in the Anaj Mandi neighborhood are afraid that they will lose their jobs. Anaj Mandi has become “interesting”. We know this. This is modern urban and national political economic development. We know.

We do not know if we will remember this particular fire a week from now, a month or year from now. Maybe. Maybe not. But we know another factory is waiting to explode, and when it does, the Great Men will intone tragedy this and sorrow that. Tell them to stop. Tell them, we know. We know. 

(Photo Credit: New York Times / AP / Dinesh Joshi)

What happened to Jenna Mitchell? Just another transgender woman prisoner suicide in Georgia

What happened to Jenna Mitchell? Jenna Mitchell was a prisoner in Georgia’s Valdosta State Prison. On December 2, 2017, Jenna Mitchell’s mother, Sheba Maree, called the prison to inform them that Jenna had threatened suicide. Jenna Mitchell’s mother urged the prison to place her daughter on suicide watch. She was told her daughter was already on suicide watch. Jenna Mitchell was never placed on suicide watch. Two days later, however, she was thrown into solitary confinement. According to a lawsuit filed by Jenna Mitchell’s parents, Jenna Mitchell told the officer she intended to kill herself. According to the lawsuit, the officer laughed, basically said make my day, and left Jenna Mitchell alone in her cell. When the officer returned, Jenna Mitchell had hanged herself. Two days later, she died. Now, two years later, the family has sued. 

Jenna Mitchell lived, and died, with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and “gender dysphoria”. She had a history of suicide attempts. This history was known to the prison, and, put charitably, the prison did nothing. Better put, the prison refused to do anything and so placed Jenna Mitchell in grave, and ultimately fatal, danger.

Jenna Mitchell was born Caleb Mitchell. She was a transgender woman. Why was she in Valdosta State Prison, a prison for adult males? Four years ago, Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman, was also sent to Valdosta State Prison. She sued Georgia for numerous violations, as well as numerous forms of violence. According to Diamond, a Valdosta State Prison warden called her a “`he-she-thing’ and encouraged staff to ridicule her for acting like a woman.” Diamond was told, “This is a male facility and your gender is male. You will be required to follow the rules a.” Ashley Diamond tried to commit suicide and to castrate herself. Finally, she was transferred to Baldwin State Prison, a close-security prison where she had already suffered numerous assaults. At the time, it was reported widely that Ashley Diamond’s lawsuit brought national attention to the abuse of transgender prisoners, and especially transgender women prisoners, in Georgia. Georgia changed its policy on gender-affirming medical care for transgender prisonersallowing hormones for transgender prisoners. Those were reports in 2015. In 2017, Jenna Mitchell hanged herself in Valdosta State Prison, the prison that Ashley Diamond self-mutilated and attempted suicide in, in order to get out, one way or the other.

Meanwhile, Georgia prisons are experiencing a spike in suicide rates. From 2104 to 2016, 20 state prisoners committed suicide. From 2017 to this year, that number rose to 46. The prison suicide in rate in Georgia is at 35 per 100,000 prisoners, which is double the national prison suicide rate. The suicide rate for the general population is 13 per 100,000. Valdosta State Prison leads the state, and most of the nation, in prison suicides

What happened to Jenna Mitchell? She wasn’t failed by the state of Georgia. She was executed … for being transgender, for being woman, for living with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, for living, for being. Jenna Mitchell asked for help and she was ridiculed and then abandoned.  When will we stop “improving” fatal and toxic policies and, instead, opt for available alternatives to cages, torture, and death? Why are so willing to sacrifice Jenna Mitchell and her sisters?

(Photo Credit: Project Q Atlanta)

Michigan built a special hell for women, the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility

Recently, reflecting on family separation and other forms of public policy abuse of migrant and immigrant families and communities, regular Women In and Beyond the Global contributor Nichole Smith wondered, “Have we no shame?” Consider the conditions of women’s prisons, jails, and detention centers across the United States, from Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution to Alabama’s Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women to Pennsylvania’s SCI-Muncy to Texas’ Karnes County Residential Center to the Charleston County Jail in South Carolina to Alaska’s Anchorage Correctional Complex and between and beyond. Have we no shame? Take, for example, Michigan’s one women’s prison, the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. Go there and you will see and smell that we have no shame, we have no capacity for shame.

In April 2012, the ACLU “persuaded” the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility to stop its practice of invasive strip search of all women prisoners who had a contact visit … with family, clergy, friends, attorneys, anyone.

In September 2014, the ACLU, Michigan Department of Corrections, and US Department of Justice announced they were investigating the abuse and torture of prisoners living with mental illnesses who had the misfortune of ending up in the Women’s Huron Valley. Women were hogtied naked for hours on end, deprived of food and water, thrown into solitary. Advocates and supporters argued that Huron Valley was a closed system, and as such was ripe for abuse.

In November 2015, a twenty-five-year-old Black woman, Janika Nichole Edmond died, or better was executed in the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility.  Janika Edmond’s story is short and terribly familiar: Janika Edmond lived with mental illness. Once in Michigan’s `criminal justice’ system, her condition deteriorated. She had a history of assaulting prison guards, which resulted in her being sent to solitary, which resulted in her becoming more aggressive. The rate of `incident reports’ skyrocketed. No one did anything. In 2014, Janika Edmond made a rope out of a towel and tried to hang herself. Earlier in 2015, Janika Edmond was found with a razor. She said, repeatedly, that she was “tired of being here” and was hearing voices. No one on staff listened to Janika Edmond’s voice. The day she died, Janika Edmonds asked for a suicide prevention vest. The guards laughed. Hours later, she lay dead on the floor. “The death report provided by the MDOC [Michigan Department of Corrections] for Edmond shows her presumed cause of death was suicide.” When Janika Edmonds died, the State was still “investigating” the July 16 death of Kayla Renea Miller, in Huron Valley. 

In 2012, Carol Jacobsen, founder and Director of the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Projectnoted, “Abu Ghraib has nothing on Huron Valley.” She was describing the irony that Huron Valley was meant to solve the crisis of abuse of women prisoners in the Robert Scott Correctional Facility. As a result of widespread torture and abuse, Scott was closed in 2009, and the women were moved to Huron Valley, which is worse than Scott. In 2012, we “cared” about Abu Ghraib. Huron Valley? Not so much.

For the past seven years, the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility has been described, accurately, as hell. On November 20, the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility was sued for “perilous” conditionsAccording to the lawsuit, “The women have complained about the presence of mold in the facility for years, and continue to do so, but their pleas have been ignored.” Huron Valley “is operating under a state of degradation, filth, and inhumanity, endangering the health and safety of incarcerated women.” One of the attorneys described Huron Valley as “medieval and dungeon-like.” Another added, “This prison has a long history of problems: dilapidated conditions, unsafe conditions, and unconstitutional conditions. This has been going on for a long time. To make matters worse, there’s no ventilation. So these women are trapped in these boxes and are literally being poisoned on a daily basis, with no ventilation.”

Michigan’s only women’s prison, the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, is not medieval. It is modern, all too modern. Overcrowded, toxic, lethal … and this is us. Michigan’s only women’s prison, the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, is the architecture of shame in the United States of America. Michigan built a special hell for women, the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, and it’s been going on for years and it’s going on now. Have we no shame? You tell me.

(Photo Credit: Michigan NPR)