Edom Kasaye, Mahlet Fantahun, Zone 9, and the writer’s freedom

On April 25 and 26th, the Ethiopian government arrested nine writers, six of whom are members of Zone 9. In Addis Ababa’s notorious Kaliti prison, Zone 9 is where political prisoners end up. Reeyot Alemu has been there for over 1000 days, for the crime of having written essays and articles critical of the government.

Now, members of Zone 9 sit in Zone 9.

For over 80 days, the nine writers were held without any charges, or better, under “informal accusations”. This past week, they were hastily charged with various forms of terrorism, under the anti-terrorism law passed in 2009.

Freelance journalist Edom Kasaye and blogger Mahlet Fantahun will join Reeyot Alemu in the women’s section of Kaliti. A third woman, Soliana Shimeles, was also charged with terrorism, but she’s outside of the country.

Almost forty years ago, in the throes of the anti-apartheid struggle, Nadine Gordimer asked, “What is a writer’s freedom?” Her answer, in part, was: “A writer needs all … kinds of freedom, built on the basic one of freedom from censorship. He does not ask for shelter from living, but for exposure to it without possibility of evasion. He is fiercely engaged with life on his own terms, and ought to be left to it, if anything is to come of the struggle. Any government, any society – any vision of a future society – that has respect for its writers must set them as free as possible to write in their own various ways, in their own choices of form and language, and according to their own discovery of truth.”

The Zone 9 writers’ slogan, and rallying cry, is “We blog because we care!” What do the writers care about? The truth. The end of censorship, lies, and suppression. The right to write. This week, Ethiopia charged ten writers with the terrorist act of writing, just writing. The rest is fog and mirrors.

In a tribute this week to Nadine Gordimer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o – who knows something about the combination of writing, truth, censorship, lies, imprisonment and exile – wrote:

Dear Nadine Your Name is Hope

You found broken hearts
You put them back together with words
From a pen that flowed ink instead of blood.”

The imprisonment of the nine writers, and charges against ten, is part of an Ethiopian story, as the name “Zone 9” suggests. At the same time, it’s part of a global assault against writing, all writing, under the guise of anti-terrorism. What was once particular to Gordimer’s South Africa or Ngugi’s Kenya or Paolo Freire’s Brazil or Angela Davis’ United States is now a coherent global regime. In that context, thinking of the ten writers charged with terrorism, thinking of Reeyot Alemu and so many other imprisoned writers, it’s time to ask, “Can pens still flow ink instead of blood?” Whose name today is hope?

Lacey Weld, Mallory Loyola and the real witch trials of Tennessee

In the last week, Tennessee became the site of the latest witch trials. On Tuesday, July 15, 27-year-old Lacey Weld was sentenced to 151 months in prison and five years of “supervised release” for manufacturing and using methamphetamine in her ninth month of pregnancy. The sentence exceeds the `traditional’ sentencing limits, because Weld was pregnant. The supplement, the gift, to Weld’s sentence is called `enhancement.’

At more or less the same time, Mallory Loyola was arrested, also in Tennessee, for narcotic use while pregnant. Under a new state law, Loyola was charged with assault, for having tested positive for methamphetamine. The fact that methamphetamine is not included in the Tennessee law didn’t matter. Mallory Loyola is under arrest.

The laws and practices that imprison pregnant women for drug abuse or other substance abuse are anti-mother, anti-poor, anti-family, anti-doctor, anti-women-of-color, anti-poor-women, and more. These laws and practices have devastating consequences, and not only on the women and their children. Everyone knows this …

And yet the laws continue to proliferate and women continue to be threatened, intimidated, harassed, and persecuted. Why? There are many reasons, one of which is that prisons need bodies, the machine needs to be fed. The war against women sleeps with the war for prison. In Europe, in the Middle Ages, tens of thousands of women were caged and killed for their knowledge and science, and in particular for their knowledge of reproductive health methods, including methods of abortion. They were called witches, and they were tortured and killed. In the intervening millennia, much has changed, but not the basic elements of the witch trial. Find pregnant women and women who care for pregnant women, demonize and criminalize them by any means necessary, invoke the community and the nation and protection, and then torture the women until they die in a grand public spectacle.

Lacey Weld and Mallory Loyola, by their own testimony, need help, but that doesn’t matter. Prison beds are hungry, and there are many ways of throwing women behind bars.

Support SCI Coal Township prisoners’ demands for decent food, humane treatment!

Austerity loves prisons but hates people, in particular prisoners. That’s the lesson from SCI Coal Township, a prison in Pennsylvania, where prisoners are peacefully protesting their mistreatment by the State and demanding they be treated as human beings with needs and rights.

In May, prisoners were told that `budget’ woes forced the prison to cut back on food rations’ size and quality. Prisoners’ morning meals were severely reduced, while the Staff Dining Room’s full, extensive, and, considering, lavish menu was untouched. Austerity loves prisons but hates prisoners.

SCI Coal Township prisoners have written and circulated a petition with 22 demands. Many involve the abrogation of their civil and human rights. The food demands are basically three:

First, rescind the cuts and restore the former menu, which wasn’t great to begin with.

Second, eliminate the special food privileges of the staff and have everyone eat from the same pot, as it were. Prisoners argue that the Staff Dining Room is a money pit that should be addressed.

Third, if none of the above is met, at least authorize prisoners to receive monthly 60-pound food packages from family and friends. Neighboring states New Jersey, New York, and Ohio already do so for their prisoners. As the SCI Coal Township prisoners say, “If the DOC places the budget over our nutritional needs we request a means to provide for our own nutritional needs.”

SCI Coal Township is also facing a court case in which its censorship of political and human rights literature is being challenged. Austerity loves prisons. Cut off food, cut off access to information and knowledge and education, cut off access to literature and culture. Call it a good day’s work.

Support the SCI Coal Township prisoners, if you can, by reading, signing, and circulating their petition, here.

In Greece, austerity builds its own gulag

Austerity loves prisons. From the United States, where debtors prisons are seeing a return, to Australia and the United Kingdom, where immigration prisons choke with people and atrocities, austerity loves its prisons. In Greece, austerity has built its very own gulag, out of prison hospitals, immigration prisons, prisons within prisons, and the free floating fear of going to prison for indebtedness, inability, or any of the other `failings’ that are part and parcel of being human.

But this year, the State may have to start paying its debts, not to multinational agencies and stock brokers but rather to ordinary human beings.

The Korydallos Prison Complex is Greece’s main prison. The Korydallos Prison hospital is the only prison hospital in Greece. In February, hospital inmates went on a hunger strike, which included refusing medications. The vast majority of the Korydallos hospital prisoners are HIV positive. Their complaint was simple: inhuman overcrowding. Korydallos prison hospital is meant to have no more than 60. It currently houses over 200. Prisoners’ testimony, and leaked photographs and videos, describe the place as a hellhole. They’re right. People come in and get lost in the crowd and often die there: “There’s a 23-year-old who’s already been here for a month without getting a check-up. We enter the hospital with a medical condition or a disability and leave with a chronic illness. Do you know why you don’t hear of deaths in prisons? Because when someone is near death, they move him to a public hospital. That’s where his death is recorded.”

Many of those in the hospital are awaiting trial. Many others are in for minor offences, and many others are in for survival economic offenses: “We’re human beings. Many of us are in prison for financial crimes; we haven’t done anything violent. We don’t understand why we’re being treated like this.” Austerity loves prisons, and Greek austerity loves a good gulag.

On June 26, the European Court of Human Rights decided that Greece had violated the rights of Mariana de los Santos and Angela de la Cruz, two women from the Dominican Republic who had been arrested as undocumented residents. The two lodged a complaint concerning the conditions of their imprisonment in Thessaloniki and in Athens. In Thessaloniki, the cell was overcrowded, and the amount of money allocated was insufficient to purchase a meal. In Athens, along with overcrowding, “they described numerous sanitary and hygiene problems, particularly the fact that there had been only a single shower and a single toilet for all of the female detainees.” Overcrowding, hunger, debt, and no facilities: austerity loves its immigration prisons.

On June 23, prisoners across Greece started a hunger strike that went on for over ten consecutive days. Along with overcrowding and the general architecture of despair, the prisoners were, and are, protesting new laws that create a new kind of maximum-security prison, called type-C prison. These are designed to house the `most dangerous of the dangerous,’ but that’s a fluid concept. It includes “terrorists”, who more often than not are young militant anarchists; members of “criminal organizations”, such as the Golden Dawn, and “prisoners who lead mutinies or hunger strikes like the one under way at the moment.”

Prisoners call C-type prisons the Greek Guantanamo: “a Greek ‘Guantanamo Bay’, a prison within a prison, without leaves, without visits, without tomorrow”. The gulag is national and global: “We start a mass hunger strike in all prisons across Greece. We claim our rights, and we fight to remain humans, instead of human shadows locked up and forgotten into despair.”

Prison guards are also on strike because of overcrowding. According to the guards, the current average on any given shift is one guard to 500 prisoners. Austerity hates workers, loves prisons.

From the cleaning women of the Greek Ministry of Finance to the Kordyallos Prison hospital to the immigrant detention prisons to all the prisons, the cry is the same: “We claim our rights, and we fight to remain humans, instead of human shadows locked up and forgotten into despair.”

Australia is `shocked’ by its routine torture of children

Australia routinely throws asylum seekers into prisons, mostly in remote areas or, even better, on islands. Among `detained’ asylum seekers, children represent the greatest percentage of self-harm and suicidal behavior, according to Gillian Triggs, President of Australia’s Human Rights Commission. According to Triggs, between January 2013 and March 2014, there were 128 reported self-harm incidents by children in detention. Triggs characterized these numbers as “shockingly high.”

The numbers are high. The stories are heartbreaking. The pictures drawn by children are devastating. One girl draws her own portrait. It’s a close up of her face, pressed against bars. Her eyes are blue, her tears, streaming down her face, are blood red. All the self-portraits are similar: the children are crying and are all in cages. Doctors and others report that children can’t sleep, suffer trauma, regress, suffer clinical depression, self-harm, and die inside.

There is no shock here. This has been Australia’s public policy for over a decade, and the policy has only worsened. As Gillian Triggs noted, “Children are being held for significantly greater periods of time than has been the case in the past, and that leads virtually inevitably to greater levels of mental health disturbance.”

Leads virtually inevitably to greater levels of mental health disturbance. Just call it ordinary torture, and be done. The delivery of medical services is worse than toxic, and the stays get longer and longer. Today, Australia holds more or less 1,000 children in “closed immigration detention.”  The longer children stay in “closed immigration detention”, the more likely they are to suffer mental health crises and the more severe those crises will become.

At a hearing of the Australian Human Rights Commission this week, Triggs asked, “Is it acceptable to have children held on Christmas Island in shipping bunkers, containers, on stony ground, surrounded by phosphate dust in that heat?” The government representative replied, “The last time I looked, president, there was no shipping container. They are containerised accommodation, they are not shipping containers.” Unfortunately, “containerised accommodation” does clarify everything. The State sees these children as less than less than less than human.

A child will die in one of those cages, and that child will have been a human. Perception matters, as Australia’s women asylum seekers and their children well know. Torture matters. The torture of children matters. Children matter. Tell Australia, and tell all the nations of the world that throwing asylum seeking children into cages. Children matter. It’s not shocking.

Considering that domestic work is mainly carried out by women and girls

Five men on the US Supreme Court decided this week that women workers [a] aren’t really workers and [b] don’t really work. Therefore, women workers don’t deserve the protections, and the power, that a trade union can confer on its members. Many have written on this decision, and many more will. Much of the response has avoided that frontal attack on women workers, preferring instead to focus on labor unions or on household workers. Although the majority opinion doesn’t specify women, it’s clear that the workers under attack are women.

On June 16, 2011, the International Labor Organization recognized as much, when it passed the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The Convention defines domestic work as “work performed in or for a household or households”, and defines domestic worker as “any person engaged in domestic work within an employment relationship.” The ILO was careful to note that its Convention applies to all domestic workers.

But before the ILO launched into the nuts and bolts of decent work for domestic workers, it set the global table, specifying the place of domestic work in the global economy and the place of women and girls in domestic work. In other words, the International Labor Organization recognized and considered women as the key.

And so, without further ado and as an alternative to the narrow, misogynistic world view of the U.S. Supreme Court, here’s a sampling of the opening of the Text of the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers:

“Recognizing the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy, which includes increasing paid job opportunities for women and men workers with family responsibilities, greater scope for caring for ageing populations, children and persons with a disability, and substantial income transfers within and between countries, and

“Considering that domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and of work, and to other abuses of human rights, and

“Considering also that in developing countries with historically scarce opportunities for formal employment, domestic workers constitute a significant proportion of the national workforce and remain among the most marginalized, ….

“Recognizing the special conditions under which domestic work is carried out that make it desirable to supplement the general standards with standards specific to domestic workers so as to enable them to enjoy their rights fully, and ….

“Having decided upon the adoption of certain proposals concerning decent work for domestic workers, which is the fourth item on the agenda of the session, and

“Having determined that these proposals shall take the form of an international Convention;

“adopts this sixteenth day of June of the year two thousand and eleven the following Convention, which may be cited as the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011.”

End juvenile life without parole now!

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole. In `America’, when we say life without parole, we mean it. Currently, about 2570 children are serving life without parole. With more than 500 people convicted as juveniles and given mandatory life sentences without parole, Pennsylvania leads the nation and the world in the practice of devastating children’s lives.

Two years ago almost to the day, in Miller v Alabama, the United States Supreme Court outlawed mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles. The Court did not ban life sentences without parole, but rather chose to ban the mandatory aspect. Three weeks ago to the day, that same Supreme Court refused to hear a case, Cunningham v Pennsylvania, which concerned the retroactivity of their earlier decision. If mandatory juvenile life without parole became wrong, on Constitutional grounds, in June 2012, shouldn’t that Constitutional reasoning apply to all those children who came before and now struggle to survive in an inhumane situation? For the Supreme Court, the time is not right.

The time is not right for many states across the United States. Last week, the Sentencing Project released a report, Slow To Act: State Responses to 2012 Supreme Court Mandate On Life Without Parole, which showed a national reluctance to abide by the Supreme Court mandate. The Supreme Court decision struck down laws in 28 states: “Two years later, the legislative responses to come into compliance with Miller have been decidedly mixed. A majority of the 28 states have not passed legislation. Frequently, the new laws have left those currently serving life without parole without recourse to a new sentence. Though 13 of the 28 states have passed compliance laws since Miller; the minimum time that must be served before parole review is still substantial, ranging from 25 years (Delaware, North Carolina, and Washington) to 40 years (Nebraska and Texas). Most states, not only those affected by Miller, still allow juveniles to be sentenced to life without a chance of parole as long as the sentence is imposed through individual review rather than as a result of a mandatory statute.”

State after States continues to insist that prison is the answer, that a policy of mass despair and death-in-life is the best thing for `some children.’ Juvenile life without parole laws supposedly addressed a sudden eruption of predatory and feral violence committed by incorrigible children. As Deborah LaBelle, Executive Director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, has noted, that means Black and Latino.

In Miller v Alabama, the Supreme Court decided that children are children and that children matter. No matter what they do, children are children, and this means, among things, they have a greater capacity for rehabilitation, assuming responsibility, healing and repairing. Mandatory juvenile life without parole denies children their identities as children. All juvenile life without parole denies children not only their existence as children, but also the possibility for all of us that a community cannot be built on the manufacture of despair. Hope matters.

Pennsylvania, despite your legislature and your Supreme Court, take your position as the world’s leading incarcerator of children for life without parole, and turn it inside out. End juvenile life without parole, all juvenile life without parole. Do it now.

Musasa: A sheltering tree for and of women of Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, two out of every three women and girls have experienced a form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. According to a 2006 study, 32% of women in Zimbabwe reported physical abuse by marital partners since the age of 16 years. That was then. Now it’s worse.

The 2006 study was conducted for the Musasa Project, one of the oldest women’s and feminist organizations in Zimbabwe. The Musasa Project was founded in 1988 in response to the escalating violence against women. Immediately, the women of the Musasa Project recognized that their work would involve service provision, advocacy, community organizing, and often raising a ruckus. The women of the Musasa Project have been leaders in every step of the women’s struggles in Zimbabwe. At the national level, this has meant from the earlier Constitutional processes to the domestic violence legislation campaigns to the more recent Constitutional processes to today.

According to their Executive Director Netty Musanhu. “I am sure you are aware of the crisis that the country has been in for the last decade. Things are getting worse – women are bearing the brunt of all that. We are seeing an increase in rape and sexual violence. We ask ourselves the question, if we are having high levels of sexual violence in times of relative peace, what does this mean?”

Despite an ongoing war on women, in which one in three girls is raped before the age of 18, Zimbabwe is officially a post-conflict country. It’s `at peace.’ Crisis is not conflict, according to the men who lead multinational agencies and form public opinion and governmental policy.

Meanwhile, by the government’s own assessment, at least 1500 children were raped in the first five months of 2014. To no one’s surprise, the overwhelming majority of rapes was committed by close relatives, parents or guardians.

The national government this week launched a National Action Plan on rape, which could be a good thing. It has said it is declaring war on rape, which cannot be a good thing. Sexual violence generally, and rape specifically, cannot be addressed with the means or mentality of warfare.

What exactly would war on rape mean, anywhere? What specifically would it mean in Zimbabwe, in which remand prisons are choking with women and men awaiting trial for years in cages in which, often, there is no usable water, food, electricity, or health care, in which people have died of starvation while awaiting trial?

In Shona, musasa means sheltering tree. The women knew what they were doing when they chose that name. The organization works from an explicitly intersectional place, in which domestic violence is HIV and AIDS which are poverty and wealth, which are access to safe spaces. For that reason, the Musasa Project continually supports evidence-based research to see what the situation is, while they sustain a physical shelter for women and children; meet and work with the government, especially legislators and police; run a hotline; monitor communities; and generally try to keep ahead of the arcs of violence. They always keep their eyes on the prize: women’s emancipation through the establishment of women’s power.

In Zimbabwe, elections loom large, and the patriarch is going to go out with a bang. Women who oppose violence, women who work their whole lives to transform violence into justice and peace know that a war on violence is not the answer. Musasa is the answer: a growing, flowing, sheltering tree that connects, one day, sheltering earth to sheltering sky.

Children in torture chambers in schools across the United States

Disturbing reports came out this week that show that children, overwhelmingly children living with disabilities, are kept in solitary confinement across the United States. In some places, the rooms are called “seclusion rooms” and, in other places, “scream rooms.” Call them what they are: solitary confinement, the hole, torture chambers.

Torture is not too grand or extreme a description. Children have committed suicide in these rooms, in schools like the ones around the corner from you. Children have come home with injuries which needed surgery. Often, staff caused these injuries. Across the country, children, and their parents, live with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. The list goes on.

This is part of a national war on children. The incarceration and torture of children in schools occurs at a time when girls are being sent to jail for status offenses while boys are not. Taken together, this is the national policy of protection for children, for children with special needs, and for girls. And if you’re a girl with special needs, you’re in trouble. We have traveled far, and quickly, from the days of “suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

At the national level, the only shock here are the numbers, which are assumed to be lower than the actual incidences, and the shock, the fact that, despite report after report after report after report, each report is `surprising’. Amnesia has always been the alibi for the citizens of the Torture State. It allows us to forget that our elected representatives killed legislation that would end the policy of school-based solitary confinement. It allows us to forget that some places in the country, like Montgomery County, Virginia, have done away seclusion rooms and replaced them with healthier, more reliable systems that actually work. It allows us to forget both evidence and hope.

So as not to forget, here’s a story, taken from a US Senate staff report issued this past February. The report finds such cases occur across the country. Minnesota is an instance, not an exception:

Minnesota: In January 2004, an eight-year-old girl began attending Jefferson Elementary School in the Willmar Public School District. Her mother described her as a `little girl who loved to go to school, even though the child had been diagnosed with a communication disorder and designated as developmentally delayed with speech and language impairment at age three.

“Since kindergarten, the girl’s IEP had included a behavioral intervention plan that authorized the use of restraints and seclusions when she exhibited certain behaviors. Eventually, the school district and her mother had the child assessed by an outside evaluator, who did not recommend the use of restraints or seclusions. However, the techniques remained in the girl’s behavioral intervention plan during the 2005 to 2006 school year. The mother said she had agreed to the use of seclusion, in an area the school called a `quiet room,’ only if necessary. However, some reports indicate the girl’s teacher secluded her forty-four times in one school year.102 The girl’s mother also said the teacher made the child sit at a `thinking desk’ perfectly still for thirty minutes straight and demeaned and belittled the child when she could not hold this posture. If the girl fidgeted or made any noise, her teacher would yell at her and sometimes put her into restraints, including a prone hold.103 During one incident in April 2006, the teacher forced the girl into the seclusion room while she was on her way to the bathroom, causing the child to urinate on herself.

“Aides reported that the teacher’s classroom, which was somewhat hidden in the basement of Jefferson, was `more a punishment/torture area than a classroom,’ and `run very much like a secret room that you are not supposed to talk about.’”

Suffer the children for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Help ensure dignity and respect for farmworker women!

Today, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers launched a new campaign: “Earlier this year, the Fair Food Program won the support of Catapult, a pioneering crowdfunding platform that works with groups around the globe to advance the rights of women and girls.  And today, we have the great pleasure of announcing the launch of the Catapult online campaign, “Ensure dignity and respect for farmworkers” — an effort to raise $25,000 in 150 days to help pay for a new auditor for the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), the Fair Food Program’s indispensable third-party monitoring body.  Now you can help support the FFSC’s crucial, day-to-day human rights work in the fields by checking out the online fundraising campaign here.”

This is a great campaign, a real opportunity to take the struggle for farmworker women’s dignity and respect, and all women workers’ dignity and respect, to a new level.

Across the United States farmworker women struggle and organize to end sexual violence in the fields. Currently over a half million women work in the agricultural sector, the vast majority of whom are undocumented Latinas. Last year, Rape in the Fields highlighted women’s struggles in the fields of California, the orchards of Washington State, and the egg and meat processing plants of Iowa. If you’re in the United States, pretty much whatever is on your table is composed of super-exploitation and extreme violence against women.

Farmworker women are saying, No! They’re saying the abuse is not acceptable and, importantly, it’s not inevitable. When Dolores Huerta says, “Sexual harassment is an epidemic in the fields,” she’s not sighing and giving up. She’s saying an epidemic needs a campaign to eradicate and transform it. When Maricruz Ladino, Olivia Tamayo, Angela Mendoza, Cesilia Lua, Danelia Barajas, Magdalena Alvarez look straight into a reporter’s camera or a jury’s eyes, and describe the weariness as well as intensity, they are spreading the word: Now! Now is the time!

Maricruz Ladino says, “The time came when I said, `No more.’ I made a complaint…. It wasn’t about the money because that does not give you back the integrity you lost as a woman, your self-worth as a woman. I was heard. That’s why I think there was justice. But a part of me died, and no one can give that back to me. This type of thing did not only happen to me. It was happening to many, many more women. And if I stay quiet, then it is going to keep happening. That’s why I want to talk about it now, so that everybody can see themselves in me, so that they won’t stay quiet anymore. They must react, not with violence but with the laws that protect them. Documented or undocumented, you have to speak.”

You have to speak, as women like Esther Abarca, Sandra Garcia, Lupe Gonzalo, Silvia Perez, Nely Rodriguez, and hundreds of others have done and are doing. Across the country, women have organized local farmworker women’s groups, have met with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, have filed law suits and more. But now is the time. Now is the time to move from local to national, to create permanent structures that will do more than respond to this abuse and that atrocity and this occasion of mass rape.

Representative Luis Gutierrez, of Illinois, says, “I learned a long time ago that when it comes to these situations, believe the women. Believe the women.” Believe the women. Believe the women who say, NOW IS THE TIME!