Rohith Vemula: The rot of caste privilege and the price of a Dalit scholar’s life

Rohith Vemula

Rohith Vemula was the leader of a Dalit student organization, Ambedkar Student Association at the University of Hyderabad. He was a bright student on a scholarship in a prestigious PhD program, interested in science studies. His coursework complete, he had just received approval for his research proposal. His dream was to become a science writer like Carl Sagan.

Because of a complaint by the rival, right-wing student association ABVP’s leader N. Susheel Kumar, that he had been assaulted by Rohith and his friends, Rohith had become the target of three different investigations by local neighborhood police and the university. Starting in September 2015, the Union Minister for Human Resources Office had written three letters to the university pressuring them to take action against Rohith and four other ASA members. One faculty member asked, why these investigations about a minor student-student altercation were so drawn out: why was it not settled swiftly? After all, the doctor who examined the claim to assault by the ABVP student said he had one small bruise on his body and did not show any signs of assault.

The altercation was politicized from the start. The ABVP is allied to the RSS, an extremist Hindu nationalist organization popular with upper-caste Hindu communities, whose political arm is the BJP (the political party currently in power in India). India’s largest student union, the ABVP has in recent years been known for disrupting campus dialogue on Kashmir (Pune), secularism, and, at Rohith’s campus, the ASA’s screening of a film on Hindu-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar in north India. The scuffle involved both ABVP and ASA students when the latter had demanded an apology for the disruption. Only five ASA students were singled out and suspended in August 2015 by the university.

Subject to three institutional investigations, suspended from the university for seven months while these were ongoing, Rohith’s situation kept worsening. His scholarship was withheld for these seven months, a terrible financial hardship for him and his poor family, which earlier subsided largely on his mother’s daily wage labor of sewing and tailoring. Following three letters from the Ministry of Human Resource Development urging action against these five students, on 16 December 2015, these student-activists were expelled from their dorm, and barred from entering administrative buildings and shared spaces on campus, such as the library. This institutionalized discriminatory treatment in the very educational institution that is supposed to enshrine equal and democratic rights, was part of his long experience of discrimination, “in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” As he wrote in his suicide note, “Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made of star dust.”

Denied dignity and human rights, Rohith and the four other expelled students launched a 14-day sleep-in strike to protest their treatment. On the fourth day of this strike, Rohith died, gently asserting, in what Manash Bhattacharjee notes is the clarity of a suicide note, “Do not shed tears for me. I am happy dead than alive.”

Following the suicide and related media protests across India, the suspension of the other four Dalit students was reversed. Only proving Rohith’s suggestion, that his birth as a Dalit drove the harassment he faced; though not just that, but also the fact that he spoke up as a Dalit subject, as an activist, and he exercised his constitutional rights of free speech, because he thought he lived in a democracy. But he spoke up in a political climate that has become increasingly inhospitable to dissident voices, be they Muslim, Dalit, secularist, or feminist. His treatment violated the equality promised in our constitution, and his young life was lost needlessly, as Ananya Vajpeyi writes, “to our eternal shame.”

Rohith’s mother has rejected the state’s offered payment of INR 8,00,000 (US$ 11,838) as compensation for Rohith’s death. Given the withholding of the stipends that would have paid for food and living expenses, and driving him to suicide, this seems like a cruel joke. She demands that the politicians and officials involved be held accountable and responsible for driving him to this.

Rohit Venkatramakrishnan has written that Rohith’s death indicts us all. When death or the risk of death seems happier than life to a young student in Hyderabad, or Syria, or a young Buddhist monk in Tibet, we are looking at a deeply traumatic, and multi-layered historical experience of persistent cruelty, violence, dispossession, and dehumanization. Rohith’s death is an indictment not only of the society, but also of the state and its Delhi ministries, that failed to protect the dignity and human rights of some of India’s most vulnerable citizens. In 2016, this points to a crisis in caste relations, minority experience, and inequality in India that needs to be addressed now, by all of us.

 

(Photo Credit: The Indian Express)

Migrant and immigrant women workers want democracy, too!

 

Can migrant and immigrant workers demand democracy, and if they do, who will listen? This question arises, again, out of the news coverage of the Hong Kong protests, which has demonstrated an ambivalence, if not an anxiety, about where immigrant domestic workers fit in, or not, in the Umbrella Revolution. At heart, the problem is that many find it difficult to understand that migrant and immigrant women workers, domestic workers, “helpers” want it all: decent work, dignity, and democracy.

Hong Kong boasts one of the highest densities of domestic workers in the world. The overwhelming majority are Filipina and Indonesian. They are famously underworked, overpaid, and often suffer the full gamut of abuse. They are also organized, into various national-ethnic associations as well as into pan-Asian domestic workers’ associations, most notably the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body. Typically, the “news” about these women is [1] a story of abuse, [2] a story of seeking higher wages, [3] a story of getting slightly higher wages, and then the cycle begins again.

Abuse and wages pretty much cover the “domestic worker” front. And that’s why the Occupy Hong Kong protests have caused a ripple in the surface of the common sense. Where are the maids in Occupy Hong Kong? Where are domestic workers in the struggle for democracy?

Everywhere: “On 29 September, the first day of the general strike, unions representing dock workers, bus drivers, beverage workers, social workers, domestic workers, migrant domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, radio producers, and teachers took to the streets. They are not only protesting against the police suppression of the students. They are not only campaigning for universal suffrage. They are also demonstrating a more down-to-earth wish: social justice.”

Domestic workers, like 60-year-old Filipina domestic worker Vicky Casia, understand that political as well as economic wealth and well being in Hong Kong depend on the labor of migrant women workers: “We are proud of what they are doing right now. This is history. It would be another achievement for us, if soon they would also include in their fight the rights for migrant workers.”

Domestic workers were at the demonstrations, openly, proudly and happily, as their photos show. Likewise, domestic workers formally supported the protesters: “The Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMCB), is one with the people of Hong Kong in condemning the brutal response of the Hong Kong government, through its Police Force, to the protest – predominantly youth and students – calling for full universal suffrage in choosing the city’s Chief Executive … The movement for universal suffrage has been gaining steam for the past years and is further being propelled by the government’s lack of effective response to the problems besetting many of the Hong Kong people. Cuts in social service, disregard of the condition of workers, and the prioritization of the government of the interests of businesses, especially in times of crisis have contributed greatly to the desire of the HK people to have a more direct say in the election of the Chief Executive …The right of the people to assemble and protest is being wantonly violated; and activists for democratic rights cannot stand by and watch … We are one with the people of Hong Kong in the call to stop the repression against their democratic rights. We call for the immediate release of the arrested protesters. We call for the HK government to respect the people’s rights … We extend our solidarity to those who uphold the people’s rights and democracy.”

Migrant and immigrant women workers want it all: decent work, dignity, and democracy.

 

(Photo Credit: Varsity CHUK / Common Dreams)

The people do not celebrate Greece’s return to the debt market

On April 11 2014, Angela Merkel was welcomed by the Greek Prime Minister to celebrate the return of Greece to the official speculative bond market, which means to the free market of debt. “Capitalism is all about borrowing so psychologically and symbolically our return to the markets has been hugely important” declared a professor of economics in Greece. Whose psychological well being is he talking about?

Angela Merkel did not stay long in Greece, not even seven hours, understandably since about 7000 police officers were needed for her not to see any of the faces demonstrating because they have suffered and are still suffering from the austerity measures imposed to achieve the Greek return to the debt market.

Angela Merkel benevolently recognized, “I want to say that the government’s policies have led to many people suffering, and were very hard for the government to implement, but now we can see Greece keeping its promises, fulfilling its obligations, and the budget situation is better than we could have wished for or expected.” How does the psychological affect of the investors and gamblers in the debt economy connect with the suffering of an entire population? These policies have led to death and abject deprivation. Moreover, they triggered the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn, which has murdered fellow Greek citizens, and, sometimes working with police, has targeted immigrants who themselves were escaping violence or impoverishment.

The Greek prisons have been filled with many who were directly impacted by the austerity measures. The conditions of detention are dreadful. Certainly, sending a 90- year-old woman who has Alzheimer to jail for few thousand Euros is a great aid to the debt market economy. The country’s real debt has been the impoverishment of over 600 000 children, but who cares about children? Words seem to have different meanings whether we talk about the future of children or the future of investors.

Inserted in the neoliberal logic of a debt economy Merkel affirmed, “I firmly believe that after a very, very tough phase, this country harbors boundless possibilities still to be exploited.” Ask the cleaning women who have been fighting for their rights. They know who is going to be exploited because they already are. They understood that the “so called” labor market has been deregulated thanks to this tough phase that allowed employers to force them to sign blank contracts. They know the Greek State has organized its own defection and is now subservient to private enterprise.

Angela Merkel took the time to meet with Greek entrepreneurs but did not visit the hospitals or the schools. For example, she could have visited a social community clinic run by Sophia who would have told her, “The philosophy [of our work] is not to subsidize the state, this is not our job.” She would have explained that in Greece today there is no democracy, “Democracy is for people to live better isn’t it? With dignity, with hope for the future. That does not exist anymore!”

Why weren’t these principles of democracy praised by Angela Merkel while she was on Greek soil?

Greeks have organized, and new sites for European solidarity are being formed. New political forces are also rising and elections may change the course of the well orchestrated debt economy. Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the growing Greek leftist party Syriza, has long voiced other views about the debt. In 2012, he explained, “The European citizens should know, however, that loans to Greece are paid into an `escrow’ account and are used exclusively to repay the loans and to re-capitalize near bankrupt private banks. The money cannot be used to pay salaries and pensions, or to buy basic medicine for hospitals and milk for schools … If there is a risk for taxpayers losing their money, it is created by austerity.”

The money other European nations loaned to Greece never went to the Greek people. It was just a displacement of wealth for the advancement of neoliberal finance and power. However, populations are also lost when facing this capitalist delirium. This is part of the program, and it allows policies to continue with their brutal devastation. The efforts that many in Europe thought to be made for a better future have produced misery. Greece’s unemployment is at a record high 28%. More women are unemployed than men, and women and youth make up the bulk of unemployment. The public debt is still at 177% of the GDP. 23.7% of Greeks, and 30.4% of children, are under poverty line. As Greece’s social cohesion has been swiftly ripped apart, the goals of these policies have become clear.

For many including some economists, the solution is also clear. The European Central Bank should take social responsibility and buy back the debt. It is time for the people through struggle to reclaim politics in Europe and elsewhere and thereby create the conditions for a radical transformation. Instead of falling into the trap of a standard of debt that Angela Merkel wants to celebrate with the Greek neoliberal establishment, we must celebrate our social cohesion, our community, and the promise of democracy.

 

(Photo Credit: YouTube.com / en.enikos.gr in English)

Prisoners have visitors in France and in many other European countries

Prisoners have visitors in France and in many other European countries. The prison visitors are volunteers who respond to prisoners’ requests to have visitors. As a prison visitor explained: “We are not contracted, we are not entertainers, we come to share and we don’t come to judge the act that sent this person to prison but to meet with the person who is beyond the act. The act is his or her business, our goal is that this person breaks free from the spiral of losing self esteem.”

How does it work? When a person is incarcerated, he or she is informed about the possibility of having a prison visitor assigned, and then the prisoner has to send a request to the prison authorities.  The prison visitor commits to visit the prisoner regularly. The visit is confidential, takes place in cells reserved for meetings with lawyers, and may last from 45 minutes to one hour and thirty minutes.  For the detainee, this moment with the prison visitor is one rare instant without surveillance.

The association of prison visitors, ANVP, was created in 1932 and became state approved in 1951. It presently counts over 1500 members, not enough, they say, to guarantee the ideal ratio of 1 visitor per 20 prisoners. The president of the association, himself a prison visitor, explains that they are always looking for and recruiting volunteers. The age required is between 21 and 75 years old, and it takes about 2 months to be accredited after an interview and a police background check, followed by six months of probation with more training.  The main quality expected is to be able to listen: “We are here to listen. We are the wind coming from the outside.”

For prisoners in France, the outside world continues to exist and detainees remain full citizens. As Stephanie Balandras, director of “Les Baumettes” women’s prison in Marseille, explained, prison visitors “ensure that a detainee remains a citizen”.

In a democracy, everyone with citizenship has the right to vote. In France, as in most democracies in the world, detainees retain the right to vote. The right to vote is recognized by the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe as an essential right in a democracy; its suppression is incompatible with a true democratic system of governance.

Among the 47 countries of the European Council, 19 have no restrictions on civic rights for detainees, 21 have some restrictions, mostly decided in court, and 7 states suspend the right to vote for detainees.

Meanwhile, in the United States prisoners lose their civic rights when convicted. Writing on the extension of the robotized war with the development of the American drone program, Barbara Ehrenreich quoted the US Secretary of Education who reported in 2010 that “75% of young Americans between the ages of 17 to 24 are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.” As African Americans fill the American prisons, they are losing their civic rights in greater proportion than Whites. There are no prison visitors to listen to them or help them retain a sense of belonging as they are pushed further to the margins.

According to Denis Salas, “The principle of human dignity is the reference on which lies the right to bend state power.” As one prison visitor put it, this principle has to come from the outside to the inside: “The prison visitor’s objective is to make each detainee aware of her or his own riches and deficits, and to help him or her to build their own project for the future”.

Let’s imagine more prison visitors in the United States, people who would help make American prisoners more visible, retain and develop their own humanity, and have their civic rights restored.

 

(Image Credit: Sentencing Project)

So it’s Women’s Day in South Africa

So it’s Women’s Day in South Africa, and we went down to hear a friend of mine speak at a local event. It was faintly cheering: we got to sing Malibongwe, which is the one struggle song white people can actually sing. There was clapping, and a bit of praying, which went down well. We then settled in for a desperately dull morning, in which we all bemoaned the general state of women in South Africa, and the wave, torrent, oh all right, tsunami of violence that is unleashed on us every day.

Yawn.

Yes, we agreed, we are dying. In fact, more than we can count, because the statistics are so unhelpful, given the level of underreporting of rape. Yes, we agreed, it’s very bad. We must fight patriarchy. We nodded our heads. Yes, indeed we must.

And speaker after speaker belaboured this, as though we had just woken up, and decided to talk about this for the first time. Lordy, it was dull. Except for one moment, one interesting electrifying moment. A woman academic, and feminist, and part of the national Commission on Gender Equality said, in one of the tightest, most frustrated voices I have ever heard, ‘We should go and stop the traffic. We should go to the nearest national road, and protest, and stop the traffic.”

And the hall of women groaned and rumbled, and it seemed like for a moment, for a flicker of time, that they would rise up as one and march, limping and dancing, out into the streets and burn things, and break things, and generally get seriously out of hand. It seemed to me that this wave of the possible reached her across the stage and she caught herself, aware of her responsibilities, and said, ‘No, not that I am suggesting violence or anything. But we must do something.’

The hall settled back down. We went to lunch. But that thought spoken aloud is still ringing in my ears.

 

(Photo Credit: http://theinspirationroom.com/daily/)

Malawian women said today, “The future starts now!”

 

The Maravi Post headline pretty much says it all, “DON’T MESS WITH MALAWI WOMEN!

But actually, today, the women of Malawi said it, and sang it, and prayed it, and danced it, and shouted it, and did it better, much better, than any headline could claim.

The story, in brief, is a familiar one, around the world. Women are attacked in a public place, allegedly for wearing `provocative’ or `untraditional’ clothes. In this instance, vendors, or `vendors’, in the two major cities of Malawi – Lilongwe and Blantyre – attacked and stripped women, ostensibly for wearing pants and mini-skirts.

Bad move. Very bad.

The news media described the incidents largely as `trouser stripping.’ The women understood otherwise. They understood the actions as violence, as violence against women, and as violence against democracy.

First, women were beaten. How do you think a crowd of men forcibly undresses a woman … especially in public? By invitation?

Second, the women know that Malawi has a history of “indecency” laws. Eighteen years ago, the so-called indecency in dress laws were repealed, partly because they were an offense to women, largely because they were part and parcel of the dictatorship of Hastings Kamuzu Banda. An attack on women, an attack on women’s clothes, is an attack on democracy. Anywhere. Even in a `conservative’ country. Just because it’s conservative doesn’t mean women give up on their democratic rights.

Instantly, women started organizing, organizing boycotts of the vendors, demands and campaigns. One such campaign is called Lelo N’kugule, Mawa Undivule? Today I buy from you, tomorrow you undress me? Others call it Venda, Ndikugule, Undibvulenso??? Vendor, I buy from you and you strip me naked?

Good question. A very good question.

Today, Friday, the women of Malawi filled the streets of Blantyre. They brought some men with them, too. Some wore t-shirts emblazoned with “PEACE”, others wore all white. Many wore trousers, some wore mini-skirts … whatever those are.

Women of Malawi today did what they have always done. They organized. They organized for autonomous spaces. Autonomous doesn’t mean separate. It means spaces in which women’s autonomy is more than respected. They spoke of democracy. They expressed outrage, not only for themselves but for the ambitions of the nation. They said, “We are all Sophie Munthali”, one of the women who was beaten and stripped.

Someone asked `the question’, that question that always gets asked in moments of mass assaults on women: “Isn’t this really about economic hardship, about difficult times?” Women’s rights activist Seodi White answered directly, “In times of instability, women are targeted.” She then went on to explain that [a] instability is no excuse, [b] violence against women is an outrage, [c] violence against women is violence against democracy.

Repeatedly, the women invoked dignity and democracy. Don’t mess with Malawi women. That’s the news story, or should be. Malawian women said today, “The future starts now!”

 

(Photo Credit: CNN)

The women of Arlandria are organizing … and they vote

On December 17, 2011, the Alexandria City Council overwhelmingly voted to ignore low- to moderate-income residents of the Arlandria neighborhood who came to City Council to oppose a so-called redevelopment plan. Most of the residents who came and spoke were Latinas. Some were high school or college students. Some were young women workers. Some were women elders, who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. Many were members of the Tenants and Workers United, others small business owners, and some simply neighbors and friends.

Women who had grown up in the neighborhood, joined youth groups and women’s leadership groups and now attend college. Women from outside women’s leadership groups who had moved to the neighborhood because of its diversity and promise. To a person, they described their fears and aspirations, and a planning process that actively excluded them. To a person, they were ignored.

Each woman looked the Council members in the eyes and asked, or pleaded, or demanded that they slow down the process, that they listen, really listen, to what was being said. Each woman explained that she has had a critical role in building and sustaining the vibrant community of Arlandria. Each woman was ignored.

The women argued that the plans for upscale development [a] are a lousy deal, [b] threaten the fabric of the community, and [c] were devised without any real consultation.

Here’s the plan: turn a low-lying strip mall into two massive six-story buildings that will include 478 residential units. If the buildings are too high, as they are by city standards, throw in 28 `affordable’ housing units … out of 478, and get a waiver. This `affordable’ is designed for those earning around $50,000 a year. Basically, no one currently living in Arlandria earns that. So, no one currently living in Arlandria will qualify.

Then, claim that 450 upscale units in a tight neighborhood will have no impact on the rest of the housing market in the neighborhood. Nearby landlords will not raise their rents. No one will be dislocated. There is no need to worry about gentrification.

When the actual neighbors look at you in disbelief, tell them that they’re getting 28 new units that weren’t there before. Those units will go to someone else, but that’s not `our’ problem.

If anything else comes up, such as questions of traffic and parking, questions of public lands and recreational centers, respond with assurances and vague promises that everything will turn out fine when the time comes.

That was the plan and that was the argument presented to the residents of Arlandria by the Alexandria City Council and its staff.

The Council altogether ignored the fabric of the community. For almost thirty years, the Arlandria community has struggled to create a decent place for working people across generations; for Central and South American, African and Asian immigrants and their children, many of them US citizens; a decent place for all low income people; a decent place for all people. The Council refused to recognize that labor of dignity. Sometimes, decades of creating a community fabric must be tossed onto the trash heap of history… in exchange for 28 `affordable’ units.

The City Council did respond, at length, to the claims of lack of inclusion. They insisted that they had tried to `include’ the residents, but the residents had proven themselves to be difficult. The City Council, with one exception, Alicia Hughes, then began to express resentment at the exclusion claims and its claimants.

What’s going on here? The City Council outsourced inclusion, and democracy, to its staff. The staff reported that they were doing the very best job possible. Who monitors the staff? The staff monitors itself. When over forty people came to the City Council to say that the staff had not included them and never had a real consultative process, and that the so-called advisory groups were mostly developers and landlords, what did the City Council do? It turned to the staff, and the staff said, “We tried.”

And nobody on the City Council asked, “Why then do all these people say you have created a culture of exclusion?”

What happened in Alexandria happens everywhere. The State outsources inclusion, under the mask of liberal democracy, and then, when those who have been excluded protest, the State resents their presence, their voices, and their claims.

Meanwhile, in Arlandria, as everywhere, the women are organizing. And, as one Latina college student said, they vote.

 

(Photo Credit: WAMU.org/Emily Friedman)

Ingrid Turinawe’s Long Walk to Work … and Democracy

The choir at Luzira women’s prison

Last week, Ingrid Turinawe, the leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) Women’s League, in Uganda, was sent to the infamous Luzira Prison.

Everywhere one looks, there are “infamous” prisons. For the United States, for example, Guantánamo, with its regime of torture and its regimen of violence, is but the tip of a national iceberg. Every country has at least one. In Uganda, it’s Luzira Prison.

Six years ago, two-thirds of Uganda’s then18,000 prisoners were awaiting trial. Some had been caged for years, for no reason other than not being able to post bond… or because, in the global security climate, they have been deemed `terrorists’, and so … stay in prison for years, without every being charged.

Of the 18,000, prisoners, 5,000 were in Luzira, built in the 1950’s, designed for a capacity of … 500. That’s ten people for every one person’s space. For years. And those were the good times. Last year, the prison system reported over 30,000 prisoners, of whom a little over 1,000 were women. In March 2010, Luzira Upper was at 366 percent of approved capacity; Luzira Women’s at 357 percent. The situation is only expected to worsen over the next decade.

What does overcrowding mean? Inadequate food, inadequate water, inadequate clothes, blankets, mattresses. Most prisoners sleep on the bare floor. The only prison in the entire system that has blankets is Luzira Women’s Prison. The result? Reports estimate that 10% of inmates die in prison, primarily due to malnutrition and AIDs, but really due to lack of this, inadequate that, and none of essential those.

Along with overcrowding, use of isolation cells as “persuasion” is fairly common, in both Luzira Upper and Luzira Women’s Prisons. For pregnant women prisoners, prenatal care is horrible and postnatal care is worse. For prisoners living with mental or psychosocial disabilities, their options are to languish or perish while the State dithers. Many of these prisoners are in Luzira. The same holds for many juveniles held in Luzira adult facilities and awaiting some sort of decision. The same holds for those on Luzira’s death row, where perhaps as many as 25% are innocent, but hey. For sex workers the situation is, at best, dire. For those accused of “homosexuality” … worse.

And of course the open secret of Luzira is the torture of political prisoners, covered by the fog of anti-terrorism. One woman was held incommunicado for six months, during which she was beaten senseless. Then she was taken to Luzira, for a month, before being released on bail. Her crime? Being married to a person of interest. Another woman was abducted by rebels, as a girl. When she was captured, by the army, she was sent, finally, to Luzira, where she applied for amnesty. After seven months, she was released, without amnesty, without a trial and with charges dropped. Nevertheless, she is required to report to the equivalent of a parole officer once a month … in perpetuity.

In Uganda, if one is charged, or suspected, of “treason or terrorism”, Luzira is in the cards.

So, Ingrid Turinawe was sent to Luzira. Why? She has been charged with treason. Because she participated in and led the “walk to work” protests and campaign, now in its second phase. Because she said something’s rotten in the state of Uganda. Because she proposed that democracy, now, is both required and possible … now. Of course, there’s barely a mention of Turinawe, or of the Walk to Work campaign, in the western press, but what else is new? As you read of the Occupy movements, the Indignados, the Uncut movements, the ongoing Arab Spring and Chile Autumn, and all the other manifestations, and as you read of the police “over-reaction”, which is always merely following orders, remember the Ugandans who, since last year, have been Walking to Work and think of Ingrid Turinawe, in Luzira Prison… for the treason of dreaming democracy.

 

(This post originally appeared, in slightly different form and under different title, here: http://africasacountry.com/2011/10/31/ugandas-guantanamo/)

 

(Photo Credit: Afroblush)

We want our revolution NOW

In many parts of the world, prisons have become the principal sites for people living with mental illnesses. In the United States, jails and prisons increasingly house the mentally ill. It is estimated that, in the United States, for every person living with severe mental illness in hospital, there are three currently in prison or jail. In Arizona and Nevada, the number is ten mentally ill people in prison and jail for every one in hospital. For women, the numbers are worse yet. For women living with mental illness in the United States, prison is the new pink. The final coup de grace is when the inmates living with mental illness are described as putting a strain on the prison system. It’s their fault … of course. The same story occurs elsewhere. In Canada, for example, mentally ill prisoners are said to flood the system. Apparently, this is what democracy looks like.

But what happens when people living with mental illness end up in prison? What exactly is their treatment `protocol’? Too often, it’s long term solitary confinement. Colorado may be the solitary confinement capital of the world. In Colorado, it’s customary to lock up mentally ill patients … for their own good. Of those in solitary confinement, it’s estimated that four out of every ten is living with developmental disability or with mental illness. Despite that arithmetic, reformers have yet again failed to persuade the Colorado legislature that perhaps, just maybe, another prison is possible. The madness continues.

Mary Braswell knows something about this form of State, and corporate, madness. Braswell is grandmother to Frank D. Horton. She is also his `conservator’, or legal guardian. Frank Horton is an African American adult living with mental illness, who has had a number of run-ins with the law. At one point, he missed his parole appointment, and so was taken to prison, specifically to the Metro Nashville Detention Facility, run by Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. That’s when things went from bad to worse to near fatal.

According to Horton’s attorneys, his intake papers suggested a history of psychological and mental illness, with a likelihood of schizophrenia. The system `recognized’ the symptoms. And so what happened? Horton was put in general population, where, within a month, he started fighting, or attacked, his cell mate, and was placed in solitary. His cell mate said Horton was hearing voices.

Once in solitary, not surprisingly, Horton’s condition deteriorated … rapidly. He began refusing to leave solitary. Soon, he was allowed to stay in solitary, permanently. This meant nine months without a bath or shower, nine months with no one cleaning his cell. Nine months.

Nine months of guards walking past, knocking the door, asking if he was still alive, and then moving on. Nine months.

Finally, in January 2008, a guard, Patrick Perry, realized what was happening, stepped in and informed the Metro Public Health Department: “Patrick Perry, an officer at the detention facility from August 2006 to January 2008, began to notice that something was wrong late in 2007. In January 2008, Perry attempted to communicate with Horton, but Horton was speaking “gibberish.” Perry testified that Horton’s cell was filthy, that there were several food trays on the floor and bacteria growing in the toilet, that Horton’s beard and hair were “matted” and “out of control,” and that it appeared Horton had not washed himself or had his cell cleaned for months.”

For nine months, Frank Horton was left to live, or die, in filth that grew worse and worse, until, for some, he became indistinguishable from his surroundings.

Frank Horton was removed to a special facility in April 2008. Patrick Perry was fired immediately, on that day in January. Horton’s grandmother, Mary Braswell, has struggled for three years to get some kind of accountability, some element of responsibility, for the abuse into which her grandson was dumped. Two weeks ago, at last, she was given permission to proceed. CCA, no doubt, will appeal that decision.

On one hand, Frank Horton’s story is a common one, and sadly so is that of Mary Braswell, the story of prisoners living with mental illnesses and of the women, grandmothers, mothers, who try to care for them. At the same time, the story of prison driving people into deeper mental illness is also all too common. Young women and men, largely of color and largely low- to no-income, enter into prison, and when they come out, their minds are never the same.

And they call it democracy, this universe of systematic deprivation and devastation of minds and bodies. Rather call it Charenton, the Bedlam where the patients sing: “We’ve got Human Rights, we’ve got the right to starve; we’ve got jobs waiting for work; we’ve got Brotherhood, we’re all covered with lice; we’ve got Equality, we’re equal to die like dogs ….

“Marat, we’re poor, and the poor stay poor.
We want our rights and we don’t care how.
We want our revolution NOW”.

 

(Image Credit: http://redwoodcurtaincopwatch.net)

 

Asylum-seeker Mandana Daneshnia and her daughter haunt democracy

Every day, The Wall Street Journal runs a feature called Photos of the Day. On Monday, October 18, the first photo was of a woman throwing confetti at Evo Morales. The second photo showed riot police hauling off a student demonstrator in Lyons. The third photo was of a mother and child. The mother looks away, the child looks directly at the camera. Here’s the caption: “SEWN SHUT: Iranian asylum-seeker Mandana Daneshnia, who had her mouth sewed shut for a hunger strike, sat with her daughter before a news conference in Athens Monday. A group of about 30 Iranians seeking asylum have been on a hunger strike in Athens for weeks.”

Here’s one version of the story.

Last year, around this time, on October 12, 2009, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the situation of asylum seekers in Greece. It was entitled Greece: Unsafe and Unwelcoming Shores. Here’s how HRW described the asylum system in Greece: “Greece effectively has no asylum system. It recognizes as few as 0.05 percent of asylum seekers as refugees at their first interview. A law adopted in July abolished a meaningful appeals procedure. The effect of the new law is that a person who is in need of international protection as a refugee in Greece is almost certain to be refused asylum at the first instance, and having been refused has little chance of obtaining it on appeal. The new law leaves asylum seekers with no remedy against risk of removal to inhuman or degrading treatment, as required by article 39 of the EU’s procedures directive and articles 13 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result of this legislative change, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) withdrew from any formal role in Greece’s asylum procedure.”

According to the report, Greece acted abysmally, and both the European Union and the United Nations did nothing more than withdraw and withhold. They did nothing to protect asylum seekers, they did nothing to intervene in either a draconian legal system or a Dickensian prison system. Everyone was found guilty: Greece, Europe, the United Nations. The entire `civilized’ and `democratic world.’

A year later, on September 20, 2010, Human Rights Watch returned to Greece to review the situation. What happened in the intervening year? Delay after delay. The year may have intervened, but no one else did. Not the European Union, not the United Nations. No one. What happened? Less than zero. The world stepped backwards.

Meanwhile, on September 1, 2010, a group of Iranian asylum seekers set up camp in the city center of Athens, demanding an audience, pleading for asylum. They began a hunger strike.

On Monday, October 18, after weeks of belligerent non-response on the part of the Greek government, a new government that had come in on the promise of change, six protesters sewed their lips together.

Mandana Daneshnia is one of the six: “Mandana Daneshnia, a former newspaper reporter, said she fled the country after being harassed by authorities for writing about women’s issues. She was one of the seven protesters who sewed their lips. `Women have no rights in Iran. They can’t wear what they want, do what they want, or even watch sporting events. Their testimony in court counts only for half of the one given by a man,” Daneshnia said, writing a statement in Persian, as her husband and young daughter looked on. `I have sewn my mouth to show that women in Iran are strong,’ said Daneshnia, 29, with short dyed-blonde hair and red-framed designer glasses, holding her lips with her hand when occasionally tempted to smile.”

The women in Iran are strong, whether in Iran or in Greece or elsewhere. For those women, the women in Iran, the institutions of democracy, as exemplified by the conditions of asylum seekers, are neither strong nor weak. They are lethal, and they are inhuman. Mandana Daneshnia haunts democracy. Mandana Daneshnia haunts Iran, Greece, the European Union, the United Nations, and anyone who cares about women’s issues and the reporting of women’s issues. As Mandania Daneshia haunts the `freedom loving’, `democratic’ nations, her daughter sits on her lap. How many smiling daughters must sit on the laps of how many mothers with their lips sewn together before asylum is realized?

 

(Photo Credit: Louisa Gouliamaki/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)