Pennsylvania built a special hell for Miriam White

Yesterday, Ellen Melchiondo reported on a visit to the Restricted Housing Unit in SCI-Muncy, a women’s prison in Pennsylvania. She noted, “In one of the pods is confined Miriam White, who in 1999, at the age of 11, stabbed a complete stranger to death in Philadelphia. Miriam was sent to various institutions before landing in Muncy. I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.” Here is Miriam White’s story.

On August 20, 1999, eleven-year-old Miriam White argued with a cousin. Miriam then grabbed a knife and ran out of her South Philadelphia foster home. She ran down the street, passing some children, turned the corner, and saw Rosemary Knight, fifty-five years old. Miriam ran up to Rosemary Knight and stabbed her in the chest. Rosemary Knight died on the spot.

Rosemary Knight was a hairdresser and the principal wage earner in her household. August 20, 1999, was the twenty-seventh wedding anniversary of Rosemary and Jerome Knight. Miriam did not know Rosemary Knight.

Miriam White was a young “troubled” Black girl. Her infancy and earlier childhood was one of violence and abandonment, followed by a succession of institutionalization and foster homes. In February 1995, Michelle White Stevens took in the then-seven-year-old Miriam and her two younger siblings. In 1999, Stevens adopted the children. By all accounts, the house was a loving household.

Miriam White progressed and crashed, progressed and crashed. She has been diagnosed with severe mental illness and severe intellectual disability.

According to Miriam White, she wanted to hurt someone so that she would be sent back to a juvenile institution. She was careful not to attack children. After she stabbed Rosemary Knight, she ran to nearby hair salon, “trembling and begging for help because she had just stabbed someone.”

Up to this point, the story of Miriam White and Rosemary Knight, and all those around them, is tragic. Then it gets worse.

Pennsylvania is one of the few states in which anyone charged with first-degree murder must be tried as an adult. That includes eleven-year-old Miriam White. So Miriam White was placed in solitary in an adult jail while the adults tried and failed to figure something out. The judge tried and failed to find a compromise. The defense attorneys tried and failed to argue for reason. As her attorney argued, “Who, judge, at Muncy is going to take young Miriam through her first menstrual cycle. . . . The older, nurturing inmates?”

And so, in August 2007, Miriam White, eighteen years old, pleaded guilty in adult court to third-degree murder and possession of an instrument of crime, and was sentenced to 18 to 40 years. According to some legal scholars, it’s doubtful that Miriam White is competent to take a plea or anything else in court.

Miriam White’s “case” is littered with fine language. She “haunts” the criminal justice system. The initial judge’s ruling concluded, “I cannot exonerate Miriam just because I feel sorry for her. I cannot return Miriam to juvenile court just because her life story makes my heart weep. My oath as a judge requires that I decide this case on the basis of the proofs in court. The decertification petition is denied.” Miriam White’s case is “tragic” as it is “heartbreaking.”

That’s how the story is told, but not how the life is lived. Today, sixteen years and two months later, where is Miriam White? “I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.” Justice is served, humanity denied.

 

(Image Credit: Martin Vargas / Solitary Watch)

Tell the US to stop sentencing children to life without parole!

The United States stands alone in the world in sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole. Life without the possibility of parole is torture, but for children it’s a special hell. For girls, it’s worse. That’s the takeaway of this week’s report by Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In his report, Juan Méndez “explores the international legal framework and standards protecting children deprived of their liberty from being subjected to torture or other ill-treatment and from experiencing developmentally harmful and torturous conditions of confinement. He also examines specific statutes and standards applying to prevent torture and ill-treatment of children deprived of liberty, and shortcomings in the practical implementation of legal standards.”

The report references girls’ need for access to gynecologists and education on women’s health; and their need for autonomous space, separated from boys as well as adults. The recommendations include respecting the heightened vulnerability of girls, as well as minority children, children living with disabilities, and migrant children. For migrant minority girls living with disabilities, the vulnerabilities are off the chart. In his last recommendation concerning treatment of children in detention, Méndez singles out girls, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children, and children with disabilities.

The report notes, “Children in detention should be provided throughout the day with a full programme of education, sport, vocational training, recreation and other purposeful out-of-cell activities. This includes physical exercise for at least two hours every day in the open air, and preferably for a considerably longer time. Girls should under no circumstances receive less care, protection, assistance and training, including equal access to sport and recreation.”

And here is the heart, and heartlessness, of the matter: “Girls deprived of their liberty are at a heightened risk of sexual violence, sexual exploitation and underage pregnancies while in detention. The risk of sexual abuse is greater when male guards supervise girls in detention. Girls deprived of their liberty have different needs not only to those of adults but also of boys. Girls in detention are often not only children but also carers, either as mothers or as siblings, and have specific health, hygiene and sanitary needs. Across the globe, girls are rarely kept separately from women in pretrial and post-conviction settings. Similarly, the Special Rapporteur notes that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children are at a heightened risk.”

Imagine that that daily “heightened risk” and intensified vulnerability form the visible, pre-ordained and immutable arc of your life. That is the policy practiced by the United States, alone in the world, and it’s designed for Black children. When it comes to girls, and particularly to Black girls, it’s designed for those whose vulnerability is already a matter of State practice. 80 percent of girls and nearly half of all children sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole have been physically abused. 77 percent of girls and 20 percent of all youth lifers said they have been sexually abused. This is the algebra of torture, cruelty, inhumanity, and degradation. Children sentenced to life without possibility of parole are the child soldiers of the United States. What exactly is the war being waged?

 

(Photo Credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images)

Detention centers: No country for young girls

Two girls, both under five years old, were released after two days and nights in detention. Last night, Basirat and Rashidat, and their mother, Afusat Saliu, were released from Cedars pre-departure `accommodation’. They spent Wednesday at Cayley House, “a non-residential short-term holding facility at Heathrow Airport.” It’s not a facility. It’s a prison. Here’s how their mother, Afusat Saliu, describes their first night: “It was terrible. We had to sleep on the floor. There was no privacy – if you went to the toilet, you went in front of everyone. I felt terrible. Some of the crew at Cayley House were nice, but it was not a good environment for a child.”

No place for a child. In a report released today, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons agrees. Too much force is used too often. Officers show up in full battle gear, don’t announce themselves, don’t knock on the door, batter the door down and rush in. They have two speeds: terrifying and terrorizing: “Whatever one’s views on immigration, the distress described in this report of the families passing through the centre and its potential impact on the children involved is disturbing. It was difficult to see how the children’s welfare was being promoted in line with statutory requirements.”

42 families `passed through’ Cedars last year. Suicide and self-harm measures were initiated 25 times. This is the new math of neoliberal fortress nations. The mothers who seek help are bad mothers, the children who need help are bad girls. They’re defective products that must be removed.

Thanks to a mighty hue and cry, including leaning on Richard Branson not to allow his airline to be used for deportation, Afusat Saliu and her daughters, Basirat and Rashidat, were given a reprieve, while their case is `reviewed.’ In the name of the girls, Afusat Saliu applied for asylum, because she fears her daughters will be forced to undergo female genital mutilation in Nigeria.

Think of all the work and time that has gone into keeping two young girls out of prison.

Those two young girls, those babies, should never have been in prison in the first place. They should never have been forced to leave their home in Leeds and shuttle from one hole to another. They should never have been forced to feel their mother’s distress. You don’t need a government commission – not from the United Kingdom, nor Australia, nor the United States, nor anywhere – to know that. You know in your bones and in your soul.

Detention centers, prisons, are no country for young girls. They are terrible. I feel terrible.

 

(Photo credit: Anj Handa / PA)