And also lonely: With mass incarceration, the State becomes a factory producing loneliness

Umar Khalid

Umar Khalid, a political prisoner held in Tihar Jail, in India, wrote an open letter, which was published September 13, 2022. The letter was addressed to Rohit Kumar, a high school teacher and education activist. In India, “democratic rights” organizations, communities, and people observe September 13 as Political Prisoners Day, to commemorate the death of Jatin Das, 24-year-old independence activist and revolutionary who died, September 13, 1929, after a 63-day hunger strike. On September 14, 2020, student activist Umar Khalid was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which allows for indefinite detention. Two years later, he is still in jail, still awaiting trial, still surrounded by State and media lies. As Umar Khalid notes, “Do people not see any similarity between the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) – under which we are languishing in jail – and the Rowlatt Act, which the British used against our freedom fighters? Should we not do away with these penal instruments – a continuing ‘legacy’ of colonial rule – that enable the violation of the people’s rights and liberties?” What is it called when history repeats itself? Halfway through his letter, Umar Khalid takes a slight turn and writes, “To be honest, Rohit, it makes me feel pessimistic at times. At times I also feel lonely.”

At times I also feel lonely.

We don’t talk enough, if at all, about the imposed, enforced and mandated loneliness that is part of incarceration. Why is that? Is it because loneliness isn’t grand enough, doesn’t fit into the register of tragic conditions? There’s talk of solitude, torture, resistance, all of which are critical components. But what about the conditions and feelings, the ways of being and becoming, that are `minor’? “At times I also feel lonely” is the invitation to enter into “minor literature”, the literature a minority constructs within a major language; the literature in which, because of its “cramped space”, everything connects to politics; the literature in which, because of the scarcity of talent in a confined, constrained space and community, “everything takes on a collective value.” This is how Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe Kafka’s project, the production of a minor literature: “We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature”.

Umar Khalid understands the revolutionary conditions of the minor literature of the incarcerated. He follows his `confession’ of loneliness with precisely the political and collective significance of his scarcity of talent: “The only thing I find succour in in such moments is the realisation that none of this is personal. That my persecution and isolation is symbolic of something larger – the persecution and isolation of Muslims in India right now.”

Prison is an architecture of loneliness, a structure and practice of estrangement, alienation, and then theft, by the State, of a person’s sense of belonging and of being. While loneliness is distributed and instilled across the carceral universe, it has its gendered particularities. How often must we wonder about the greater distances between women’s prisons and the women’s home communities? How often must we wonder about the absence of educational, cultural and social programs in women’s prisons and jails? Always, the State responds with budgetary alibis, but the real purpose is to render women lonely.

Lonely is not just being alone nor is it solitude nor solitary, although there are connections. Lonely includes dejection, sadness, absence, missing parts. Umar Khalid’s sometimes loneliness is a function of recognizing that something has been taken away, something is being taken away. That theft is part of the State policy and practice of mass incarceration. It is literally the State of Abandonment. As Umar Khalid notes, “It makes you feel unwanted. It makes you feel a stranger in your own land.”

In 1917, Rosa Luxembourg was in prison, in Berlin. On February 7, 1917, she wrote a letter to Mathilde Jacob in which she describes the cry of the chickadee, a cry she knows so well that she draws the chickadee to the bars of her cell. Then Luxembourg adds, “Despite the snow, the cold and the loneliness, we believe, the chickadee and I, that spring is on the way.”

In 1965, Dennis Brutus was in prison, on Robben Island, when he wrote “Letter 18”:


I remember rising one night
after midnight
and moving
through an impulse of loneliness
to try and find the stars.

And through the haze
the battens of fluorescents made
I saw pinpricks of white
I thought were stars.

Greatly daring
I thrust my arm through the bars
and easing the switch in the corridor
plunged my cell in darkness

I scampered to the window
and saw the splashes of light
where the stars flowered.

But through my delight
thudded the anxious boots
and a warning barked
from the machine gun post
on the catwalk.

And it is the brusque inquiry
and threat
that I remember of that night
rather than the stars.

20 December 1965”

In 1974, Assata Shakur was one month pregnant. She was taken to Roosevelt Hospital and shackled to a bed for 10 days. Then she was moved to Middlesex County Jail for Men and kept in solitary confinement for four months. She was then moved to New York, to Rikers Island, where `the treatment’ continued. On September 10, Assata Shakur went into labor, and, on September 11, gave birth to Kakuya Amala Olugbala Shakur. When Shakur returned to Rikers Island, she was shackled, beaten, put into solitary confinement for a month. Finally, she was released from `punitive segregation: “So I was no longer locked. Just in jail. And separated from my child.” And she wrote the poem, “Leftovers – What Is Left”, in which she wondered

“After the tears and disappointments,
After the lonely isolation,
After the cut wrist and the heavy noose,
What is left?”

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of incarceration, hand in hand with his then partner Winnie Madikizela Mandela. He walked forth into the strong summer sun of Cape Town and addressed the nation and the world: “Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans. I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.” He ended with an invocation of pain and loneliness: “I pay tribute to the mothers and wives and sisters of our nation. You are the rock-hard foundation of our struggle. Apartheid has inflicted more pain on you than on anyone else … My salutations would be incomplete without expressing my deep appreciation for the strength given to me during my long and lonely years in prison by my beloved wife and family. I am convinced that your pain and suffering was far greater than my own.”

Those who have been incarcerated, those who are presently incarcerated, they know. Loneliness is not just an afterthought, not an aside. Loneliness is a constitutive component of incarceration. A State that engages in mass incarceration is committed to the mass production of loneliness. 


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Pariplab Chakraborty / The Wire)

Winter’s coming. Scotland stops evictions and rent increases. Your government can too!

Winter is coming to the Global North. In the United Kingdom, winter can be brutal. Inflation this week hit 10.1%, the highest since 1982. Rents across the United Kingdom have skyrocketed at never-before-seen rates or levels. Scotland was hit the hardest. Last year, across the United Kingdom, close to a million rental households feared and anticipated eviction: “Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) renters, renters with children, lower-income renters, and renters that have lost income during the pandemic, are disproportionately struggling.”. Where are the women in this tragedy? Black women, Asian women, minority ethnic women. Women with children. Lower-income women. Women who have lost income during the pandemic. Where are the women? Everywhere, disproportionately.  This week, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, responding to the crisis, announced a rent freeze on public and private properties and a ban on winter evictions. In Scotland, 37% of households are rentals. The rent freeze and the ban on evictions will be in place until at least March 31.

According to Nicola Sturgeon, by October, 40% of all Scottish households would be “in fuel poverty”, 37% in “extreme fuel poverty”. As we have seen in the United States and elsewhere, fuel poverty translates to food poverty, housing poverty, education poverty, health poverty. Fuel poverty translates as well into increased domestic and community violence. There are no discrete poverty categories. As Nicola Sturgeon noted, “It is, to be blunt, a humanitarian emergency”.

Scotland cannot address fuel poverty on its own. The United Kingdom, ie Westminster, must do that. Scotland has the same impediments as many jurisdictions around the world. It can do some, but not all, things. But it has decided to do something. In Scotland as elsewhere, a rent freeze is controversial. A ban on evictions is controversial. The government of Scotland decided to welcome the controversy and move forward: “It will aim to give people security about the roof over their heads this winter through a moratorium on evictions. Secondly the legislation will include measures to deliver a rent freeze. The Scottish government does not have the power to stop your energy bills soaring but we can take action to ensure your rent does not rise. The practical effect of this statement is that rents are frozen from today. Two of the most important and fundamental sources of security for any of us are a job and a home. In times of economic and financial crisis. These can be the foundations that helps people through.”

These can be the foundations that help people through. Scotland has acted. Your government can as well.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: BBC)

In South Africa, Hope Gloria Mashilo and Tshebeletso Seremane said NO! to the subjugation of women workers … and won!

Tshebeletso Seremane

Hope Gloria Mashilo and Tshebeletso Seremane used to work, as executives, at the South African Revenue Service, SARS. Mashilo began working at SARS in 2005, and by 2015 she had attained the position of Executive: Workplace Wellness, where she addressed employee assistance programs, occupational health, extended sick leave and chronic diseases. Seremane began working at SARS in 2009, as Executive: Integrity and Organisational Culture. Seremane was effectively the in-house person in charge of ethical conduct and culture. According to Seremane, at first SARS valued integrity. All that changed, again according to Seremane, in 2014, with the arrival of a new Commissioner, Tim Moyane, and of the now disgraced Bain & Company, who were hired to facilitate processes at SARS. Within a month of Moyane’s arrival, the new Commissioner and his friends at Bain announced a new restructuring plan. That’s when integrity left the building, and Hope Gloria Mashilo and Tshebeletso Seremane began worrying about the institution as well as their own positions and well-being. With good reason, as it turned out.

Moyane and Bain’s `restructuring’ was “unveiled” in August 2015. Soon after, many executives discovered their jobs no longer existed and they were re-assigned to ill defined, lower positions. Many, including Mashilo and Seremane, were informed they were now “Domain Specialists”, an undefined job which basically involved turning on a computer, sitting, then turning off the computer. To be clear, people continued to receive salaries as well as benefits and bonuses. Mashilo and Seremane, separately, thought this was, first, wrong and then suspicious.

Mashilo wrote a letter, entitled “Breaking the Silence”, addressed to Malusi Gigaba, then Minister of Finance, and Yunus Carrim, chairperson of the Standing Committee on Finance, with Moyane copied. Mashilo described her own personal trials as well as the illegal appointment of Bain and the spectral situation of “Domain Specialists”. Under South African whistleblower protection laws, the author of this letter should have been protected. Nevertheless, soon after Hope Gloria Mashilo was fired and escorted out of the building.

While Tshebeletso Seremane never wrote a letter, she refused to accept the indignity and illegality of the downgrading and of the “Domain Specialists” position. She too was fired and escorted off campus. Seremane has said the that dismissal had “broken her”. Her marriage fell apart as did other parts of her life.

Hope Gloria Mashilo and Tshebeletso Seremane decided to confront the indignity and illegality of their dismissals. They sued SARS, demanding re-instatement. On August 22, acting Labour Court Judge Smanga Sethene decided in favor of Mashilo and Seremane. His judgement begins: “History narrates that in human tragedies, wars and skirmishes, women are always burdened with sufferings and hardships. The burden of womanhood is a daily struggle encountered by women in all walks of life. Courts should not be meek and gentle when confronted with instances that have all the traits of any attempt to keep women subjugated in any form at workplaces. This case captures the hardships endured by two single mothers and senior executives during the infamous `restructuring’ of the South African Revenue Services (SARS) by Bain & Company (South Africa) during the tenure of Commissioner Thomas Swabedi Moyane … Their main sin was to question the integrity of the 2015 “restructuring” sponsored by Mr Moyane with Bain as a service provider”.

The decision concludes, “The injustice visited upon Ms Mashilo and Ms Seremane deserves the unwavering protection of this court. This court cannot consort with any corrupt activity at workplaces calculated to circumvent any provision of the Labour Relations Act. This court cannot consort with anyone who trampels upon women to exploit their vulnerability at workplaces. If this court were to turn a blind eye on what occurred at SARS during Mr Moyane’s `restructuring’, it would be failing in its constitutional obligations … This court shoulders the responsibility to ease the burden of womanhood at workplaces. It is in the interest of justice and the rule of law for this court to order the current Commissioner of SARS, Mr Kieswetter to welcome Ms Mashilo and Ms Seremane24 back … effective from 1 September 2022.”

Courts should not be meek and gentle when confronted with instances that have all the traits of any attempt to keep women subjugated in any form at workplaces. In refusing to be meek and gentle, courts follow, and honor, the actions and lives of those women who refused, who said NO! to indignity, who seized the power that was, and is, already in their hands. Hope Gloria Mashilo and Tshebeletso Seremane said NO! and won, and their victory is a victory for women workers everywhere, for women everywhere.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: EWN)

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are incarcerated for being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women

On August 17, the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council issued a report, Engendering justice – the sentencing of women and girls, that found, yet again, that, from 2015 to 2019, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Queensland were disproportionately subjected to incarceration, usually for `minor offences’, usually for short less than a year periods. This happened despite numerous national, organization, and academic reports and recommendations that clearly stated that incarceration for low level offenses was bad for everyone and that short term imprisonment was deeply damaging. And yet here we are, with a skyrocketing rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women seemingly trapped behind bars.

That report follows a Guardian Australia report the week before that over 1200 people are detained without having been convicted, sometimes for decades. How? Most of the 1200+ are individuals who were deemed unfit to plead after being charged or were found not guilty due to mental impairment. So, `for their own protection”, they were thrown into prison. In the Northern Territory, one person has been in the Darwin Correctional Centre for more than 30 years. For their own good.

In 2018, Victorian Ombudsperson Deborah Glass investigated the 18-month imprisonment of a 39-year-old woman found unfit to stand trial and not guilty because of mental impairment. And so the province dumped her in solitary. Again, why? Because “Victoria has no secure therapeutic facilities for women with Rebecca’s disability. Authorities were concerned about releasing her into the community because she had no housing or services.” Nowhere to go? Go to jail, to solitary. As Deborah Glass noted, “We heard many more stories, some as sad as Rebecca’s, of people with significant disabilities who had spent long periods in prison. These stories highlight both the trauma of incarceration on acutely vulnerable people, and the threat to community safety in failing to provide a safe and therapeutic alternative to prison.” Glass concluded this case was “the saddest case I have investigated in my time as Ombudsman”.

In response to this week’s report on Queensland, Debbie Kilroy, founder of Sisters Inside, noted, “The thing with these reports and recommendations … the recommendations are not implemented. We’ve even got recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody from 1991 to decriminalise and repeal public drunkenness, and that still hasn’t happened. Governments continue to fund inquiries and reports, but recommendations continue to sit on the bookshelf, gathering dust for decades and decades and decades.”

The recommendations gather dust, the infirm sit in solitary, we hear many stories, sadness abounds. Over four years ago, Australia signed international treaties that required it to open its prisons to independent oversight. Thus far, it has successfully delayed any visit. Signing the document was the point, not changing the system. Debbie Kilroy understands this cynicism and the way in which it abuses language. When a bill was introduced this week to raise the age of criminality to 14, Debbie Kilroy replied, “So what you’re saying is a child, an Aboriginal girl that’s 14 years and one week old, can actually be put in a cage. I do not agree with that — no child should be caged ever.” Start there. No child should be caged ever, no vulnerable person should be caged ever, no person or persons should be caged ever. Ever.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: National Gallery of Australia)

Texas’s juvenile prison system is (still) in crisis (again): Where are the girls and young women?

E.Y., age 11

The Texas Tribune reports this month, and once again, that Texas’s juvenile detention system is still in crisis, again. As Tribune criminal justice reporter Jolie McCullough noted in an interview yesterday, “The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has really always been – it’s always been in crisis. It’s been more than a decade of crisis after crisis. There’s sexual abuse scandals, mistreatment allegations. They’re actually under federal investigation right now from the U.S. Department of Justice.” The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has always been in crisis. While the system has reduced from thousands to hundreds, that step is of little benefit to those still caught inside. Children are spending 23 hours a day, days on end, alone in their concrete cells, equipped with a mounted shelf and a thin mattress: “The lucky ones have a small window to the outside.” Children are `self-harming’ in record numbers. The “system is nearing total collapse.” Nobody in that system is lucky. And where are the girls and young women? They are in the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood … for now.

In 2008, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against Texas challenging inhumane conditions at the Brownwood State School, which was later renamed Ron Jackson. The conditions included invasive, frequent strip searches; frequent, extended use of solitary confinement; frequent application of “brutal physical force.” Why were girls and young women in Brownwood, in the first place? Minor offenses, minor misbehavior, but really for being girls and young women who had survived violence and were living with trauma, depression, and mental health issues. Any of those would send a girl or young woman into solitary, often and for long periods of time. Who in that system, in the early 2000’s, was lucky? That class action lawsuit covered “all girls and young women who are now or in the future will be confined in the Brownwood State School”. From 2008, is 2022 “in the future”, because the conditions at Brownwood, now known as Ron Jackson, are still brutal.

In 2012, the Texas Coalition Criminal Justice Coalition reported on girls’ experiences in the Texas juvenile justice system. They found: “Girls in the Texas juvenile justice system do not receive sufficient help to deal with past trauma in their lives … Negative interactions with staff are the least helpful part of the juvenile justice system; they are also the number one thing girls want changed in the juvenile justice system … Girls in the Ron Jackson state secure facility are extremely isolated from their families.” Anna Yáñez-Correa, Executive Director of the Coalition, noted, “We are failing many of these traumatized children. Half of the girls we surveyed at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex told us that their time in county juvenile facilities either did not help or actually did more harm than good for dealing with their past trauma. Tragically, eight percent told us that their time at Ron Jackson is doing more harm than good, suggesting that our juvenile justice system may be re-traumatizing many of these domestic violence survivors.” As one girl explained, “Counselors, staff, the legal system – they can’t understand where we’re coming from and what we need. They’re always trying to judge us for our trauma.” Ten years later, the trauma and the judging continue and deepen.

In 2019, the U.S. Justice Department’s Sexual Victimization Reported by Youth in Juvenile Facilities, 2018 found that, nationally, 7% of youth in juvenile facilities reported having experienced sexual victimization, which was down from 9.5% in the previous report, in 2012. Texas was an outlier, reporting 10.3%. Ron Jackson’s lucky residents reported 14%, as they had in 2012. In August 2019, a guard at Ron Jackson was fired and jailed for sexually abusing a “resident”. For those incarcerated girls and young women, when does “the future” begin?

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the abuse of children and teens in Texas juvenile detention centers. At the press conference announcing the investigation, Chad Meacham, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, said, “We are particularly troubled by the news coming out of the facility in our district, especially reports of misconduct by staff.” That was an explicit reference to the particularly troubling Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex.

Last year, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department reviewed its own “progress”. Under the heading “Achieving Balance Between Supervision and Population”, the report addressed the particularities of girls at Ron Jackson: “Girls have very high levels of trauma, with 86 percent having 4 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, and when we screen them for potential sexual exploitation, 36 percent are of clear concern and 55 percent are of possible concern. The small number of girls in state care quite often have an intense level of trauma that causes them to respond automatically and aggressively to stressors. Girls need an overall ratio of 1 direct-care staff member to 6 girls; for the most violent youth and those with significant mental health needs, that ratio is 1 to 4. Of girls in secure facilities 63 percent have been placed on suicide alert at least once— about twice the percentage of TJJD secure youth overall. When this occurs, they often need a 1 to 1 ratio … 84 percent of girls have four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as compared to 12.6 percent of the public, 91 percent of girls are clear or possible concern for child sex trafficking … This is the highest concentration of acute needs and risk in the history of the agency.” How does the State respond to the highest concentration of acute needs and history? Diverting federal coronavirus relief funds to Texas’ “border security mission.”

In June 2022, Shandra Carter, Texas Department of Juvenile Justice Interim Director, wrote to her staff to outline her response to the department’s situation. The letter begins, “I am incredibly disappointed to have to inform y’all that we will temporarily be halting intake of youth committed to TJJD.” She then outlines five steps, including moving the female behavioral stabilization unit from Ron Jackson unit to the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility and “reducing’ the female population by 16 at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex by moving them to the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, currently holding 242 males. So, the reduction involves no reduction but rather moving 16 girls and young women to an all-male facility that is also under federal investigation.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has always been in crisis. From the first report to the latest, the “crisis” is always attributed to “staffing shortages”. While staffing shortages exist, the crisis in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department is prison. Texas responds to violence against girls and young women as a matter of criminal justice in which girls and young women are condemned for their trauma as well as their survival. Moving girls and young women from one prison to another does not reduce their population, it reduces their dignity and stature and intensifies their trauma. Blaming the situation on staff shortage refuses to acknowledge the truth, one which Mark Patterson, head administrator of the currently empty Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, explained, “We no longer want to keep sending our kids to prison … Do we really have to put a child in prison because she ran away? What kind of other environment is more conducive for her to heal and be successful in the community?” Stop offering alibis, such as staff shortages, for our own vicious policies; stop sending children to prison; stop treating trauma and mental illness as a crime. Work towards healing in the community and beyond. Begin, again, by stop sending children to prison. Where are the girls and young women; when does their future begin?


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Richard Ross / PBS)

No girls in juvenile detention: In Hawaii another impossible world is possible

“Forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible by doing the impossible.”   Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness

For decades, women have been the fastest growing population. For decades, girls have been the fastest growing population in juvenile detention. While many have decried the situation, it often seems that the best one can hope for is some reform around the edges, but real change, transformative change, seems impossible. The problem is so big, so complex, and there are so many things to attend to. It’s … impossible. Well, welcome to Hawaii: “Hawaii has no girls in juvenile detention. Here’s how it got there.”

In 2014, we noted, “Girls are entering into the juvenile `justice’ system at an alarmingly increasing rate. One reason is that girls are arrested more often than boys for status offenses and are more severely punished for those offenses. The thing is those `offenses’ are not crimes. That’s what makes them `status’ offenses. If the girls were older, there would be no offense, no crime. But they are girls, and they must be protected from themselves.” Boys will be boys, and girls will be jailed. In January 2022, eight years later, we noted, “Girls `enter the criminal justice system’ in disproportionate numbers and, as a result, die at a young age in disproportionate number. The time for discovery is over. It’s time, it’s way past time, to stop the slaughter of girls and gender expansive youth.” Boys will be boys, girls will be jailed, and then they will die at an early age. At times, the news can seem dispiriting, but wait, there’s more. Hawaii has no girls in juvenile detention. How can that be?

Hawaii has no girls in detention because people worked together for years to make that happen, starting in 2004, when Judge Karen Radius founded a Girls Court which “aimed to address the specific crimes and trauma history of girls.” Other Hawaiian programs with similar aims followed suit. Then, in 2014, Mark Patterson assumed the administration of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, HYCF. Patterson came from having been warden of Hawaii’s only women’s prison, the Women’s Community Correctional Center. Upon announcing that HYCF had no girls inside, Patterson explained, “We no longer want to keep sending our kids to prison. What I’m trying to do is end the punitive model that we have so long used for our kids, and we replace it with a therapeutic model. Do we really have to put a child in prison because she ran away? What kind of other environment is more conducive for her to heal and be successful in the community?”

As Patterson and others explain, this news is the result of a concerted 20-year effort that itself is built on decades of work, vision, struggle. Part of it involved seeing and speaking the truth. Native Hawaiian youths were disproportionately dumped into the criminal justice system. Girls were arrested for having survived, often barely, trauma. And so, Patterson and his allies set to transform HYCF into the Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center, an environment with trauma care at its center and everywhere. This vision, and now reality, is based on “pu’uhonua — a place created within a traditional Hawaiian village for conflict resolution and forgiveness.”

For Patterson and his allies, the struggle is not over, there’s more work to be done, much more work. At the same time, their work and example have already taught that doing the impossible is necessary. Another world is possible, one in which impossible forgiveness subsumes the criminality and cruelty of justice structures that send children, especially girls, who have suffered trauma into cages, brand them for life, and then toss away so much more than a key, toss away their lives. Another impossible world is possible.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Ka Wai Ola)

British Columbia decided that rather than be second in the race to the bottom, it would prefer to be first in the pursuit of justice


On Thursday, July 21, 2022, British Columbia’s Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Mike Farnworth announced that the province will end its immigration detention contract with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). The province would no longer hold immigrant detainees in provincial jails. Minister Farnworth explained, “In the fall of 2021, I committed to a review of BC Corrections’ arrangement with the CBSA on holding immigration detainees in provincial correctional centres. This review examined all aspects of the arrangement, including its effect on public safety and whether it aligns with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and expectations set by Canadian courts …. The review brought to light that aspects of the arrangement do not align with our government’s commitment to upholding human-rights standards or our dedication to pursuing social justice and equity for everyone.”

Part of the impetus for the provincial review came from a joint Human Rights – Amnesty campaign, #WelcomeToCanada, launched last year, on June 20, World Refugee Day. At the launch, the campaign noted, “Between April 2019 and March 2020, Canada locked up 8,825 people between the ages of 15 and 83, including 1,932 in provincial jails. In the same period, another 136 children were `housed in detention to avoid separating them from their detained parents, including 73 under age 6 … Since 2016, Canada has held more than 300 immigration detainees for longer than a year.”

This week, Ketty Nivyabandi, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada (English Speaking), said, “Today’s decision is a momentous step. We commend British Columbia on being the first province to stop locking up refugee claimants and migrants in its jails solely on immigration grounds. This is a true human rights victory, one which upholds the dignity and rights of people who come to Canada in search of safety or a better life.”

Kasari Govender, British Columbia’s current and first independent Human Rights Commissioner, added, “Detaining innocent migrants in jails is cruel, unjust and violates human rights commitments. CBSA may still hold migrants in a detention centre, but this a significant first step towards affirming the human rights of detainees. Now, it is up to the federal government to abolish all migrant detention and expand the use of community-based alternatives that support individuals.”

The decision is momentous, landmark, in a number of ways. In and of itself, it marks the first province to stop the brutal practice, and to do so in the name of human rights, social justice and equity. Additionally, until now, British Columbia is a leader in the incarceration of immigrants. From 2019 to 2020, 22% of detained immigrants were held in provincial jails. Then Covid hit. The number of people held in 2020 – 2021 dropped to 1605, of whom 40% were held in provincial jails. In the two years under review, only Ontario exceeded British Columbia in the incarceration of immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees. This week, British Columbia decided that rather than be second in the race to the bottom, it would prefer to be first in the pursuit of justice.


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Amnesty International Canada)

India’s prison system is at 155% capacity, 80% await trial, the process is the punishment

India’s prison system, consisting of 1,378 prisons, is designed to hold a maximum of 403,739 people. On July 16, Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana noted that the prisons held 610, 000 people. By July 17, that number was just under 620,000. Today, July 19, that number is 626,259, and rising. As of last count, India’s `correctional’ system is currently at 155% capacity. According to Chief Justice Ramana, 80% of incarcerated people are awaiting trial and presumed to be innocent. As Chief Justice Ramana noted, “In the criminal justice system, the process is a punishment. From indiscriminate arrest to difficulty in obtaining bail, the process leading to prolonged incarceration of undertrial prisoners needs urgent attention. Prisons are black boxes. Prisoners are often unseen, unheard citizens.” While the cloak of coerced silence and visibility cuts across several sectors, in each, the epicenter is women, and that is intentional.

Where are the women? Everywhere and nowhere. When it comes to overcrowded carceral spaces for women, six states lead: Uttarakhand, 156.5%; Uttar Pradesh, 140.6%; Chhattisgarh, 136.5%; Maharashtra, 105.8%; Jammu and Kashmir, 104.1%; and Jharkhand, 102.6%. Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Jharkhand have no dedicated women’s jails; women are housed in enclosures in men’s prisons, designed for men. The process is the punishment. While this `unprecedented overcrowding” is shocking, it’s no surprise.

In 2015, 612 women in Tihar Jail, New Delhi’s Central Jail, refused to accept `the process’. They informed the State that they had been in prison awaiting trial for more than half of the maximum sentence for their various crimes. Responding to a letter by Supreme Court Justice Kurian Joseph, the Delhi High Court decided to take over. Justice Joseph had written directly to the Delhi High Court Chief Justice G. Rohini, the High Court’s first woman Chief Justice, “earnestly” requesting her “to take up the matter appropriately so that the cry for justice is answered in accordance with law with the promptitude with which a mother responds to the cry of her child”. In a plea to Justice Joseph, the 612 women in Tihar Jail described the cruel separation from their children six years and older; the severe overcrowding of the women’s jail; the insufferable delay in disposal of their cases; the unjust bail bonds conditions; the “lack of sympathy” from the jailhouse courts and doctors; and the inadequacy of legal aid made available to women prisoners. The women asked to be released immediately on personal bond. Testifying before the High Court, the Delhi government agreed: “Out of 622 inmates, 463 are undertrial prisoners, and there are only 159 convicts.” The Delhi government advocate noted that Jail No. 6, the women’s jail, was designed to hold a maximum of 400 women, and at that point, seven years ago, held 622. Effectively, one State agency told another State agency it was time to let my non-people go.

In 2019, after a bit of a delay, the National Crimes Record Bureau, NCRB, finally released its Prison Statistics India 2016 Report, which reported that, in 2016,  67% of India’s prisoners were “undertrial”. 72% of women prisoners were awaiting trial. Much more than with male prisoners, women prisoners were overwhelming young, minimally educated, poor … and formally innocent. Additionally, there were 1,809 children in prisons and jails across India, and they were all cared for by their incarcerated mothers. Of the 1809 children living behind bars, 78% of their mothers were awaiting trial, minimally educated, poor … and formally innocent.

And then came Covid.

In 2020, India’s Supreme Court, on its own, recommended various measures to control the spread of Covid in prisons and jails. In 2021, the same Supreme Court ordered state authorities to reduce arrests and decongest jails and prisons. States convened “high-powered committees” which came up with presumably high-powered plans. Today, those prisons and jails suffer unprecedented overcrowding. The last two years saw a 30% rise in incarceration numbers. From 2019 to this year, Haryana’s prison population went from 105.78% capacity to 224.16%. Uttar Pradesh went from 167.9% to 198.8%. Bihar went from a `respectable’ 94.2% to 164.3%.

Maharashtra has 60 central and district jails. Of them, one, Byculla Women’s Jail, is the only one dedicated for women and children. In 2020, Byculla Women’s Jail was at 101.5% of capacity, in the midst of the ferocious first wave that hit India, and Mumbai in particular, where Byculla is located.  On March 31, 2020, Byculla, capacity 200, held 352 women. That’s 176% occupancy rate.  In September 2021, when Covid raged through Byculla, the jail held close to 300 womenAccording to activist Sudha Bharadwaj, her Byculla unit housed 75 women. It had a maximum capacity of 35. Women slept side by side by side on the floor, each on a mat the “size of a coffin. Overcrowding becomes a source of fights and tensions. There’s a queue for everything – food, toilets.” 24% of the women in Sudha Bharadwaj’s unit were infected with Covid: “The judiciary should consider decongesting our jails more seriously. Even during the pandemic most people did not get interim bail to return to their families.” In April 2021, Byculla accounted for 33% of the Covid cases in Mumbai’s five jails.

The judiciary should consider decongesting our jails more seriously. The judiciary did consider decongesting the jails more seriously, and today the women’s carceral spaces are more overcrowded than ever. For women in India, the process – rule of law, due process, presumption of innocence, innocence itself, justice itself – is the punishment.


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Art Work: Arun Ferreria / Free Them All)

Hope in a time of choler: From Thailand to Mexico to Switzerland to Slovenia to Ukraine, “hope has a place”

The Rainbow Coalition for Marriage Equality campaigns outside Thailand’s Parliament in support of Marriage Equality.

In his concurring opinion in the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “For that reason, in future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell. Because any substantive due process decision is `demonstrably erroneous’, we have a duty to “correct the error” established in those precedents.” That is, `we’ have a duty to do away with Constitutionally protected legalized same-sex relationships and marriage equality, respectively, as well as respect, mutuality, and democracy. That decision was handed down June 24, 2022. As Virginia State Senator Adam Ebbin noted, “Nationally, it is clear there is a bull’s eye on the LGBTQ community.” Nationally … and globally. On June 20, the Osaka District Court ruled that the national ban on same-sex marriages is constitutional. (Last year, in “a landmark ruling”, the Sapporo District Court found the ban unconstitutional.) In both Hungary and Romania, national legislatures are considering so-called “gay propaganda” laws, of the sort instituted by Russia in 2013. Welcome to July 2022, where the Thunderdome continues to dominate our attention, but it’s not all gloom and doom. These are grim times. But they are not without hope. Hope has a place, from Thailand to Slovenia, between and beyond.

In Ukraine, faced with cataclysmic prospects, over 28,000 people signed a petition calling for legalization of same-sex marriage. As Anastasia Andriivna Sovenko, author of the petition, wrote, “At this time, every day can be the last. Let people of the same sex get the opportunity to start a family and have an official document to prove it. They need the same rights as traditional couples.” President Volodymyr Zelensky has ten days to respond. When every day can be the last …

In September 2021, 64.1% of Swiss voters supported the “Marriage for All” law in a national referendum. On Friday, July 1, 2022, the first same-sex marriages were formally conducted. As Aline, who married Laure on Friday, said, “It’s true that Switzerland has been a little slow. It’s not a moment too soon, after all. Now’s the time.” Now is the time.

On Friday, July 8, Slovenia’s Constitutional Court ruled that bans on same-sex marriage and adoption are unconstitutional. The Court ruled that discrimination is discrimation, and that discrimination against same-sex couples “cannot be justified with the traditional meaning of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, nor with special protection of family”. The Court ordered the Parliament to amend the law within six months.

On Friday, June 24, hundreds of same-sex couples in Mexico City were married in a city-funded mass wedding ceremony, a ceremony that had been cancelled for the previous two years, due to Covid. Mexico City legalized same-sex marriage in 2010. Since then, 26 of Mexico’s 32 states have done so as well.

Finally, in June, Thailand’s Parliament passed both a same-sex civil partnership and, separately, a marriage equality bill for further consideration. While activists would prefer full equality, either would be a step forward. If the Parliament passes either bill into law, Thailand would become the first South East Asian country to legalize some form of same-sex relationships, and to provide partners within those relationships with legal rights regarding personal and jointly held property and the right to adopt children. As LGBTQ+ rights activist Nada Chaiyajit explained, “It’s like we were able to open the first door toward marriage equality rights in Thailand. Up until now, every draft that we’ve had in the past, had no chance to even be considered during the process.” #MarriageEquality dominated Thai Twitter on the day the Marriage Equality Bill moved forward. LGBTQ+ activist Ray Laohacharoensombat reflected on the situation in Thailand, and beyond, “Hope has a place”. Hope has a place.


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Pornprom Satrabhaya / The Bangkok Post)

Hope in a time of choler: Sierra Leone, Kenya, Antigua and Barbuda

Mothers and children in Sierra Leone, with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world

In streets and legislatures as well as in representations in news and social media, from Hungary to India to Brazil to Zimbabwe to the United States and beyond and between, these are trying times in which a threat of totalitarianism looms around us. Welcome to July 2022, where, on one hand, the Thunderdome continues to dominate our attention, but it’s not all gloom and doom. These are grim times. But they are not without hope. There is light, there is real and serious opposition in the Thunderdome. Consider the news this past week from Sierra Leone, Kenya, Antigua and Barbuda.

In Sierra Leone this week, President Julius Maada Bio and his cabinet announced their unanimous support for the Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Act which would decriminalize abortion, expand access to contraceptives, post-abortion care and other reproductive health services. On one hand, the support is important in and of itself for women and girls in Sierra Leone and beyond. At the same time, support for the Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Act is seen as part of the process of decolonization. The current law dates from 1861, during the English occupation of what became Sierra Leone. As President Bio pointedly noted, “At a time when sexual and reproductive health rights for women are either being overturned or threatened, we are proud that Sierra Leone can once again lead with progressive reforms. My government has unanimously approved a safe motherhood bill that will include a range of critical provisions to ensure the health and dignity of all girls and women of reproductive age in this country.” Sierra Leone joins Benin, which legalized abortion last year.

In March 2022 a High Court in Malindi, in Kenya, found abortion related arrests to be illegal. “The court noted that abortion care is a fundamental right under the Constitution of Kenya and that protecting access to abortion impacts vital Constitutional values, including dignity, autonomy, equality, and bodily integrity. It also ruled that criminalizing abortion under Penal Code without Constitutional statutory framework is an impairment to the enjoyment of women’s reproductive right”

This week, still in Kenya, Justice Okong’o Samson Odhiambo, appearing before the Judicial Service Commission during the Court of Appeal judges interviews, when asked about his views on abortion, responded, “My personal view is that people have the freedom to decide on what to do with their lives.”

Meanwhile, in Antigua and Barbuda this week, the High Court struck down a colonial-era law banning same-sex acts between consulting adults. The case was brought before the court by Orden David, an openly gay man; and Women Against Rape. High Court Judge Marissa Robertson ruled, “The right to privacy extends beyond the right to be left alone and includes the concept of dignity of the individual, aspects of physical and social identity, and the right to develop and establish relationships with other human beings.” Alexandrina Wong, President of Women Against Rape, agreed, noting “We are very much hoping the Antigua ruling will prompt other legal systems in the Caribbean to review their laws and policies, and how they impact on vulnerable populations.” Lucien Govaard, Co-Chair of the Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities, added, “We reiterate that it is time governments in the region let go of these colonial structures as they have no place in a modern, diverse, and developing the Caribbean.” According to the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality, ECADE, three more Caribbean national courts will decide on similar cases by the end of 2022: St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, and Barbados.

The struggle for expansion of rights, decolonization, respect for human dignity is regional, transnational, and global. This week, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Antigua and Barbuda shine the light. It is time, way past time, governments, nation-State, societies, people let go of colonial structures.

A rainbow in Antigua


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit 1: AfricaNews) (Photo Credit 2: LGBTQ Nation)