Another atrocity in the hellhole that is HMP Bronzefield: Shut it down!

HMP Bronzefield, in Surrey, England, is England’s and Europe’s largest women’s prison. It is run by Sodexo “Justice Services” (because irony is really truly dead). On September 27, a woman, alone in her cell, gave birth to a child. The child died. The Director says, “We are supporting the mother through this distressing time and our thoughts are with her, her family and our staff involved.” Sodexo is “undertaking a review”. The Prisons & Probation Ombudsman, which is supposed to be the agency that investigates deaths in prisons and detention centers, is not conducting an investigation. Surrey Police are investigating the death, because it is as yet “unexplained.” End of story. HMP Bronzefield, In Surrey, England, is England’s and Europe’s largest women’s prison.

Less than a year ago, the Chief Inspector of Prison conducted an unannounced inspection of HMP Bronzefield. He found the prison “to be an excellent institution … an overwhelmingly safe prison”. The Inspector went on the explain this overwhelming safety: “Recorded violence had increased markedly since our last inspection, but most incidents were not serious … Self-harm among prisoners remained high, but overall the care for those in crisis was good.” The prison is overwhelmingly safe except “that the population of prisoners held had become more challenging in recent years”. Where is the safety in increased recorded violence and high rates of self-harm?

According to the Inspector’s report, “Pregnant prisoners were identified and immediately referred to midwifery support. Links with midwife and specialist perinatal services were good. Antenatal services were of the same standard as those in the community.” Where was the midwifery support last week? Nowhere to be seen.

In 2017, Petruta-Cristina Bosoanca was pregnant and a prisoner in HMP Bronzefield. Petruta-Cristina Bosoanca also gave birth alone, unattended, in her cell. Her child survived. What happened to Petruta-Cristina Bosoanca? Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

In 2018, Laura Jane Abbott submitted her Ph.D. dissertation, The Incarcerated Pregnancy: An Ethnographic Study of Perinatal Women in English Prisons. Abbott relates the experiences of Layla, who gave “birth in her cell without midwifery care.” Abbott notes, “Layla’s testimony highlights the ‘institutional ignominy’ and ‘institutional thoughtlessness’ of a woman going into labour and birthing her baby inside her prison cell. Staff portray their experiences of childbirth inside prison and my field notes support other conversations with informants. Layla’s distress as her labour progresses to the birth of her child in a prison cell at night reveals alarming and inappropriate behaviour on the part of the staff.”

What happened a week ago in a cell in HMP Bronzefield? Woman gave birth, alone, unattended. Baby died. Nothing new. The overwhelming majority of women in HMP Bronzefield are living with mental illnesses and economic challenges to their wellbeing. They don’t belong in prison. As long as HMP Bronzefield stands, whether it’s public or private, the State will pretend to try to “fix” it, while using it as dumping ground for women it deems disposable. When HMP Holloway was closed, because of its insufferable conditions, where were many women sent? Bronzefield. As long as “justice services” means “criminal justice”, so long shall women in the care of the State give birth alone, unattended, in prison cells. Begin the process of restorative justice by shutting down HMP Bronzefield and opening the gates. Remember this, no prison ever was, ever is, or ever can be “overwhelmingly safe”. 

(Photo Credit: SurreyLive)

England’s seclusion rooms form a landscape of atrocity and shame

In 2017, New Zealand banned schoolhouse seclusion rooms. On Friday, a report came out indicating that across England primary and secondary schools are routinely using “seclusion rooms”. The report suggested that both the scale and frequency of use is much higher than expected: “Many schools use them as part of an escalating set of disciplinary measures. Our research found over two-thirds of the country’s largest academy trusts have schools that use some form of isolation, although with varying labels from `inclusion units’ and `consequence booths’ to `time-out spaces’ and `calm rooms’.” The isolation cells are used from the first year. Primary school students can stay in for a day at a time; secondary school students can stay in for five consecutive days. The torture of solitary confinement clothed in the language of inclusion, consequence, time-out and calm is the lesson children across England – and Canada and the United States and beyond – are learning in an age of expanding and intensifying zero tolerance. While A Critique of Pure Tolerance once inspired a generation of activists to action, today we need A Critique of Zero Tolerance. We need it, and, even more, our children and grandchildren need it … now.

In August, a report noted that exclusion, or out-of-school suspension, was rampant in secondary schools across England. 45 schools suspended at least 20% of their students, with some schools topping 40%. In September, a follow up report noted the rampant use of isolation booths, variously referred to as “consequences rooms” or “internal exclusion.” The line from “internal exclusion” to alienation to abnegation to death-in-life to lifelong trauma is direct.

August, September, October, another month, another discovery … of a phenomenon taking place all over the country. Founded in 2013, the TBAP Multi-Academy Trust “supports learners who are experiencing difficulty with or have been excluded from mainstream education.” The people at TBAP Multi-Academy Trust know that seclusion rooms don’t work and, equally important, are bad for all children and all learners. Last year, TBAP Multi-Academy Trust Chairman of the Board Paul Dix wrote, “A room with isolation booths is the bleakest sign of an institution giving up. It shouts ‘we don’t know what to do’ at children who often don’t know what they’ve done wrong. Look around inside any isolation room where children are separated for long periods of time from the rest of the school, and I would lay good money that more than 80% of the children in there have additional needs. Some will have a diagnosed special educational need or disability, others will be struggling with hidden that are all too obvious to those who work with them every day: trauma, anxiety, attachment, grief, or plain old-fashioned neglect. The sins of the adult world are soaked up by a minority of children. Then we stick them in a booth and call it education. The booths are a shame on all of us, not the children who are forced to sit in them.”

How many more times must we “discover” that throwing children into seclusion rooms, no matter what they’re called, is wrong? Why do we need to discuss whether the rooms “work” or are too “costly”? What about the cost to children’s lives? What about the cost, as well, to the very concept of education? What does a child learn when exclusion is called inclusion, terror is called calm, and a war on children is called education? We should all be ashamed. Are we?

(Photo Credit: Cambridgeshire Live)

Why did the English government murder Nancy Motsamai?

Nancy and Fusi Motsamai

On March 12, 35-year-old South African Nancy Motsamai died. Actually, she was killed by the English government. Why did the English government hate this woman so?  According to her husband, Fusi Motsamai, “Nancy was the kind of person who would light up the room with her smile. She loved helping others and volunteered to help at the church with different youth programmes. She believed in justice and used to get cross when injustice happened to others and no one was held accountable for it.” Rest in peace and power Nancy Motsamai. Hamba kahle.

The story is short, brutal and all too familiar. The couple had worked in the United Kingdom for over a decade. When they tried to renew their visa, they ran into unspecified difficulties. As a result, they had to report regularly to Eaton House, a Home Office center in west London. On March 7, they showed up for a regular check-in and were told they were to be deported to South Africa that day. While at Eaton House, Nancy Motsamai said she felt unwell. At Heathrow, Nancy Motsamai collapsed. An immigration officer accused her of faking illness. According to Fusi Motsamai, “He told Nancy that he would handcuff her hands and feet and make her walk to the plane like a penguin, and that he would put her onto the plane even if he had to carry her.” He would make her walk to the plane like a penguin.

Fusi and Nancy Motsamai were detained, separately, for a night. A nurse said Nancy Motsamai was too sick to be detained. The nurse was overruled. The next day, Fusi and Nancy Motsamai were released. Nancy Motsamai collapsed. Five days later, March 12, Nancy Motsamai died … of a pulmonary embolism. Then, the English government failed, or refused, to return Nancy Motsamai’s passport to her husband, which meant she could not be transported to South Africa for burial. Despite numerous requests from the family, the so-called Home Office never returned Nancy Motsamai’s passport. Instead, the country’s high commission provided a special travel document, and so, only on April 5, Nancy Motsamai returned to South Africa.

Meanwhile, on March 30, 18 days after her death, the Home Office did manage to text a warming to … Nancy Motsamai, informing her of dire consequences if she did not show up for an April 5th appointment. Fusi Motsamai explained, “I am still so angry inside about what the Home Office did … I just hope that my going public about this might stop the Home Office from treating others in this way.”

The Home Office responds, “Our thoughts and condolences are with Mrs Motsamai’s family at this difficult time. We take our responsibilities towards detainees’ health and welfare seriously. When there are claims that the highest standards have not been met these will be investigated thoroughly.”

Will a “thorough investigation” bring Nancy Motsamai back? Did it bring Angolan asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga? Did it bring Jamaican Christine Case? No, and now the children just can’t stop crying.  Home Office, keep your thoughts and condolences to yourself. Nancy Motsamai would light up the room. Your “responsibility” blots out the sun.

 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Teri Pengilley)

England built a special hell for children, Medway Secure Training Centre

In England, children are being sent into “secure training centres” where they are brutalized by staff. On Monday, the BBC aired an undercover report concerning Medway Secure Training Centre. The program showed children, girls and boys, aged 12 to 17, physically and verbally abused by staff, morning, noon, and night. The program also showed staff conspiring to conceal their misdeeds. While dismaying and heart wrenching, none of this is new or shocking. Physical, verbal and mental abuse amounting to torture is the norm in juvenile centers, and it’s not merely the actions of one or two staff members. Violence against children is State policy.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, responded to the BBC documentary: “Watching this programme made me cry. The deliberate cruelty against children was one of the most upsetting things I have seen in this country. Shocking also was the institutionalised fraud being perpetrated to cover up that abuse.”

Many have noted that Medway is managed by G4S. While certainly the contract with G4S should be rescinded and the money repaid, it’s not only Medway that is “rotten to the core.” It’s the entire institution of State and social responsibility for children. Behind institutionalized fraud lies institutional violence against children, and that, again, is State public policy. Whatever the reason that children end up in cages called “secure training centres”, the bottom line is that the State has decided they are to blame for everything that happens to them from here on out. That’s why deaths of children in custody, such as those of Adam Rickwood, 14 years old, and Gareth Myatt, 15 years old, in 2004, produce investigations and commissions of inquiry and then absolutely no change.

The United Kingdom has three kinds of institutions for “juvenile offenders”: secure children’s homes; secure training centres; and young offender institutions. Secure children’s homes actually look after the children’s welfare and well-being. They cost more than the “training” centers. In the past decade, the number of secure children’s homes has been cut, while the budgets for “training” centers has ballooned. This didn’t just happen. The State chose to send children into the night and fog of secure training, where it was widely known that “force”, call it violence, is used more often and more energetically. When children become training, what else can you expect?

So, what happens now? Some have said, “Enough is enough. We don’t need further reviews or vague promises that lessons will be learned.” Others have begun to describe a “collective shame”: “Far too often it’s children who have been abused and neglected from infancy – many of whom have mental health problems and learning difficulties, and are in need our protection – who end up incarcerated and written off. Worse still, many will experience violence and mistreatment while in prison, as recent reports of abuse by staff at G4S-run Medway secure training centre in Kent show. And Medway, exposed by Panorama, which led shadow home secretary Andy Burnham to call for G4S to be stripped of its youth prisons contract, is far from an isolated case.”

Where there is no collectivity, there is no collective shame. Where there is no memory, there is never enough. The commissions will not produce more secure children’s homes. They will rename secure training centers, relocate them, paint the walls a pastel `soothing’ color, and continue to torture children. England built a special hell for children, and Medway Secure Training Centre is not its name. It’s name is England.

 

(Photo Credit: BBC / PA)