What happened to Brianna Beland? Just another death in the Charleston County Jail

Brianna Beland

In August 2017, 31-year-old Brianna Beland “died” in the Charleston County Jail, the same jail in which Joyce Curnell “died”, in July 2015. What happened to Brianna Beland? The same thing that happened to Kellsie Green, in Alaska; Jessica DiCesare, in Massachusetts; Madaline Christine Pitkin, in Oregon, and so many other drug dependent women who needed help and got jail. Brianna Beland is just another day in the life of the cruel and usual treatment of women in jails across the United States, where women go to jail and die.

The story of Brianna Beland’s death is almost as short as her life. In April 2017, Brianna Beland was arrested for shoplifting a pack of coloring pens, worth $3.94. Brianna Beland had no previous convictions. She did have a debilitating heroin habit. She also had a four-year-old daughter and a partner. Brianna Beland was given a May court date, which she missed. Her partner died in June “while fishing off the coast of Virginia.” Brianna Beland worked cleaning vacation rentals and was studying to become a paralegal. On Monday August 14, she was picked up on a bench warrant and given a choice of 25 days in jail or paying a fine of $1,030. Brianna Beland “chose” jail. On August 16, Brianna Beland started vomiting and feeling nauseous. On August 17, she passed out in the yard. On August 18, Brianna Beland was moved to the infirmary. Brianna Beland kept falling out of bed; she couldn’t walk or move. She said she felt that she was burning up and asked for help. The nurse left Brianna Beland to attend to other patients “because it took priority over a patient being hot.” The nurse returned an hour or so later, and “found” Brianna Beland “unresponsive”. On August 19, a little while after midnight, Brianna Beland was pronounced dead. In December 2018, her family sued the Charleston County Jail, the doctor, and the medical service.

Brianna Beland’s story mirrors that of Joyce Curnell, who also “died” in the Charleston County Jail two years earlier. Joyce Curnell also was arrested for shoplifting, also had no prior record, also was picked up on a bench warrant. Given the “choice” between jail or paying $2200, Joyce Curnell chose to pay, monthly. She couldn’t keep up the payments, and so “chose” jail. Joyce Curnell struggled with alcoholism. Her son believed that in jail Joyce Curnell would get help.  Joyce Curnell went into the jail, vomited time after time, told the staff she needed help, was given a garbage bag, and, within 27 hours of entering the jail, was “found” dead.

Both Brianna Beland and Joyce Curnell lived in trailers. For working poor women, and especially those who live and struggle with alcohol and drug addiction as well as with mental health issues, the contemporary architecture of the United States is simple and direct: take a trailer, overlay it with a jail, and overlay the two of them with a graveyard. The families sue, and generally win, but there’s neither justice nor peace nor resolution therein. There is no justice nor peace in a land in which a woman life is worth the same as a $3.94 pack of coloring pens.

(Photo Credit: Live5News)

In Sudan, women demand freedom … again!

On December 19, 2018, in Sudan, people took to the streets to protest a precipitous rise in bread prices. Since then, the protests have persisted and grown. As so often in food uprisings, the price of food was the visible spark that revealed an undergrowth of fire, and, again, as so often, women of Sudan set and sustained the spark. Remember June 2012, when women students responded to astronomical increases in transportation and food prices? A few university women students took to the streets, shouting “Girifna!” “Enough is enough!” Within days, their small demonstration inspired a sandstorm, which was met with severe State repression. Remember the Sudanese women of June 2012? Remember September 2013, when, again in response to austerity measures this time involving gasoline prices, women took to the streets? This time the protests started in rural areas and then moved to the cities. Then others joined in and, again, the protests turned into a national crisis, which, again, was met by severe repression. Remember the Sudanese women of September 2013, and the Sudanese Women’s Union of the 1950s and 1960s, and the Sudanese who have organized continually from the 1950s on, for women’s autonomy and national dignity? Remember them? They’re back.

While the world press has only fitfully noticed the ongoing protests across Sudan, it has taken note of the leading role of women in those demonstrations. On Friday, December 28, across Sudan, people protested in the streets and were quickly met with force: “The demonstrations were the most widespread since the protests began in the city of Atbara on December 19 in response to the government raising the price of bread from one Sudanese pound to three. They were also notable for the large number of women taking part, including one led by women in the Tuti Island area of Khartoum.”

As the demonstrations grew and persisted into January, more and more women joined in, despite or because of the government’s increasingly violent response: “Dressed in headscarves, they can be seen in nearly all the footage shared on social media, which in turn has helped to convince even more women to take to the streets.” Twenty-six-year-old Aseel Abdo explained, “I will continue to protest, even if it takes years to bring down this regime … This regime has some of the worst laws against women. You could be arrested for wearing trousers or if your scarf is not covering your hair properly.”

As the demonstrations grew and persisted into February, women took to the frontlines of the demonstrations. They organized in prison, they organized on the streets, and they called for revolution. That was not a surprise. As women’s rights activist Hala Al-Karib noted, “The price of bread was a trigger for protests, but it’s not about bread, it’s about equality. It’s about dignity, it’s about freedom. The government has an Islamic militant ideology which at its core aims to exclude women from the public space. For 30 years, women in Sudan have fought against this oppression, so it’s no surprise they are out in significant numbers now … I am very hopeful and I haven’t been this hopeful before. There is such a strong demand for change and, as women, we have played a very strong role in opposing this regime. There’s no turning back now.”

Women have marched to women’s prisons to protest the incarceration of their sisters, demanding freedom, chanting, “Long live the struggle of Sudanese women!” When the security forces attacked women, they used all-women Facebook websites to identify the perpetrators and demanded justice.

Today marks the beginning of the third month of persistent, sustained and expanding protests in Sudan. Call it a wave, a revolt, a revolution, a sandstorm, whatever you call it, remember that women are setting and sustaining the momentum. Long live the struggle of Sudanese women! It’s about freedom. Remember the Sudanese women of 2018 and 2019?

(Photo Credit: News24 / AFPTV / AFP)

Today’s witch-hunt: Caroline Mwatha and Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz

“The witch-hunt, then, was a war against women; it was a concerted attempt to degrade them, dehumanize them, and destroy their social power. At the same time, it was in the torture chambers and on the stakes on which the witches perished that the bourgeois ideals of womanhood and domesticity were forged. In this case, too, the witch-hunt amplified contemporary social trends. There is, in fact, an unmistakable continuity between the practices targeted by the witch-hunt and those banned by the new legislation that in the same years was introduced to regulate family life, gender and property relations.”            
Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation

The news this week reminds us that the witch hunt is thriving and in process. In Kenya, human rights defender Caroline Mwatha disappeared and then was found, dead. Police quickly determined that the cause of Caroline Mwatha’s death was a “botched” abortion. While questions abound concerning that report, not in question is the severity of Kenya’s restrictions on abortions and on women’s access to reproductive health care and justice. In El Salvador, yesterday, Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz walked out of the hellhole of Ilopango Women’s Prison, where she had been held for almost three years for “aggravated homicide”, which judgment was based on Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz not having sought prenatal care while she was pregnant. We live in the world that spins between Caroline Mwatha and Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz.

On February 6, Caroline Mwatha was reported missing. Caroline Mwatha lived and worked in the Dandora neighborhood of Nairobi, where she had founded the Dandora Community Justice Centre. Caroline Mwatha was well known for her investigations into extrajudicial killings, specifically, and police abuses more generally. She was a fierce and dedicated human and women’s rights defender and warrior. At the same time, she was a pregnant woman living in Kenya. According to certain reports, Caroline Mwatha chose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. According to all reports, Kenya is an especially dangerous place in which to make that choice. That danger is caused by especially harsh restrictions as well as by government political policies. In November 2018, Marie Stopes Kenya, the single largest provider of safe abortions in the country, was forced to close its abortion operations. Meanwhile, also last year, the government reported that every year in Kenya about 2,600 women die from unsafe abortions. That’s seven women every dayWhat killed Caroline Mwatha? Evelyn Opondo, Africa director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, put it simply: “Caroline did not have to die. Her death was preventable. She is just one of so many women who are killed needlessly due to unsafe abortion in clinics run by ‘quacks’.” Caroline Mwatha did not have to die, but she was executed by state policy.

In July 2017, Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz was found guilty of aggravated homicide. Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz was a high school student at the time, who was repeatedly raped by a gang member. She became pregnant. She didn’t know she was pregnant. She knew that she had stomach pains, but, because she also was bleeding, she thought she wasn’t pregnant. Then In April 2016, she gave birth in the bathroom of her family’s home. She passed out. When she regained consciousness, she was arrested. At the trial, medical experts couldn’t ascertain whether the fetus died in utero or after the birth. The prosecution maintained that Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz had not sought prenatal care because she didn’t want the child. The judge agreed, and sentenced Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz to thirty years in prison. After a little less than three years in the hellhole of Ilopango Women’s Prison, Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz was granted a new trial. Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz can stay out of prison until a new trial, April 4. Mariana Moisa, of Agrupacion Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, or Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, noted, “In 2019 we shouldn’t be fighting for the presumption of innocence when a woman loses a pregnancy. We shouldn’t have to be proving that motherhood is not related to crime. We should have full human rights as Salvadoran women.”

Kenyan activists mourn the death of Caroline Mwatha. Salvadoran activists celebrate the release of Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz. These are pages in the history of the witch-hunt. While both Kenya and El Salvador explain their anti-abortion policies as a consequence of their being “religious”, the tie that binds the two is the marriage of patriarchy and capitalism at whose altar the power and knowledge of autonomous, self-aware women is demonized and criminalized. Caroline Mwatha wanted help, and instead she was given a death sentence. Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz needed help, and instead she was given a 30-year-sentence, which is akin to a death sentence. That’s the modern witch-hunt, and it must end now. It’s time, it’s way past time, to demand justice for Caroline Mwatha, Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz, and all the women subjected to the witch-hunt. Shut it down … now!

Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz 

(Image Credit: Hivisasa) (Photo Credit: BBC / AFP)

Don’t build better prisons; build a better world!

According to a report released today, the culmination of two years study of women prisoners in HMP Drake Hall in England, 64 percent of the 173 women interviewed and analyzed were living with brain injury. 64% of women prisoners are living with brain injury. The overwhelming majority had sustained traumatic brain injury due to domestic violence. 96% of the women reported that they had experienced “domestic abuse victimization.” The report notes, “Women with undiagnosed brain injuries, without the provision of specialised and informed support, may struggle to engage in rehabilitation programmes necessary to reduce recidivism, resulting in a higher risk of reoffending.”

Brain injuries would cause women towards behaviors that would land them in jail, particularly “emotional dysregulation (inability to control anger, aggression).” Women end up in jail for short terms. Upon release, the women predictably return to jail within the next year. In jail, the behaviors associated with brain injury – poor memory, lack of concentration, slowness to process information, poor impulse control – keep women from succeeding in any way. It’s a perfect system of entrapment wedded to abandonment. What is left after all this? Damaged women, dead women. Women prisoners self-harm at a rate five times that of men prisoners. Year after year, studies show that for women in England and Wales, `safety in custody’ means harm, death, hopelessness. Much of this is old news.

What is new is the documented prevalence of brain injury among women prisoners. Part of the study involved the establishment of a Brain Injury Linkworker service, which provided the women with desperately needed assistance from trained professionals. While the results are positive and encouraging, there’s one glaring missing from the study. Should these women have been in prison in the first place? Many of the so-called offenses derive in large part from brain injury, and that only increases and intensifies with the repeat offenses. While installing a Brain Injury Linkworker service in every prison and jail, beginning with women’s prisons, is important, more important and immediate should be providing care and assistance to women before they ever enter the criminal justice universe. Perhaps, instead of building better prisons, we might try to build a better world. Another world is possible. 

(Image Credit: The Mental Elf)

Tracy Whited and, once again, the hellhole that is the Harris County Jail

Tracy Whited

Welcome to another year in the hellhole that is the Harris County Jail. On Saturday, January 12, 42-year-old Tracy Whited was picked up on a misdemeanor. She had allegedly knifed her ex-boyfriend’s car. She then tried to walk away from booking, and so was hit with a second misdemeanor. When Tracy Whited appear in court, the hearing officer rejected a no-cash personal bond. Instead, Tracy Whited was hit with a $3000 bail, which she could not afford. On Monday morning, Tracy Whited was found, by another inmate, hanging with a bedsheet from her bunkbed. On Monday, after being found hanging and cut down, Tracy Whited was issued a personal bond. She was in hospital by then. On Wednesday, Tracy Whited died. Tracy Whited was the fifth `apparent’ suicide in the Harris County Jail in two years. The Harris County Sheriff says jail conditions are improving. A state Senator says he’s considering putting the Harris County Jail under state supervision, basically putting it in receivership. The two sides argue, and Tracy Whited is dead.

The Harris County Jail has been sued time and again for its violations of prisoners’ Constitutional rights. In the past two years, the Harris County Jail has been found in noncompliance five times. Again, in the past two years, the Harris County Jail has been home to five “apparent” suicides. The jail is overcrowded, fetid, and worse. Who’s overcrowding the jail? People awaiting trial … innocent until proven guilty. According to the Harris County Jail’s most recent reports, this is what the jail population looks like on the last day of typical recent months. On the last day of October 2018, of 9794 inmates, 8301 were pretrial. On the last day of September 2018, of 9804 inmates, 8482 were awaiting trial. In August 2018, of 9677 inmates, 8261 were awaiting trial. The Harris County Jail monthly census report, going back to January 2015 shows that, while the numbers may vary, though only slightly, the percentages stay more or less fixed. On any given month, well over 80% of those sitting, and often dying, in Harris County Jail are pretrial, the overwhelmingly majority of whom are there because they couldn’t afford bail. No. The overwhelming majority are there because Harris County insists that everyone must pay to play. That’s why it’s called criminal justice.

Tracy Whited was only the most recent in this cavalcade of those not rich enough to qualify for something like justice, and so poor enough to be condemned to death. In August 2018, Debora Lyons was picked up on a theft charge. Her bail was at $1500. Within days, she was found hanging from a bedsheet in the Harris County Jail. These deaths are not accidents nor are they suicides. They are a public program of abandonment. Debora Lyons last year and Tracy Whited this year were `left to their own devices’, which means they were left to hang from bedsheets.

In 2013, a women, referred to as Jane Doe, was rapedJane Doe lives with bipolar disorder. In December 2015, Jane Doe testified against the man who raped her. Midway through her testimony, she broke down. Initially, Jane Doe was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward. Once “stabilized”, Jane Doe was sent to the Harris County Jail, where she stayed for 28 days, waiting for the trial to proceed. Jane Doe “was imprisoned in the hellhole of the Harris County Jail for no reason other than being a rape victim who struggles with a mental disability.”

In jail, Jane Doe was assaulted, insulted, verbally abused, demeaned, and worse. She was put in with the general population, even though there is a mental health unit in the jail. She was assaulted by staff who said they were confused and thought she was the rapist. In the end as throughout, Jane Doe cooperated with officials and completed her testimony, in January 2016.

In July 2016 Jane Doe sued Harris County. In July, “Jane Doe” was renamed “Jenny”. Jenny’s mother sued Harris County as she pushed legislators to address the nightmare situation. In April 2017, the Texas Senate unanimously and without debate approved “Jenny’s Law” requires a defense attorney be appointed for witnesses and victims and that would receive a full hearing before a judge could sign a writ of attachment and send them off to jail in order to secure their testimony at trial. Jenny’s mother wrote, “Putting a victim in jail should never be an option. Today Jenny is still struggling with the entire trauma she endured by the rapist and also being re-victimized by the justice system.”

The line from Jenny to Tracy Whited is direct. Tracy Whited is dead because she couldn’t come up with $3000. Debora Lyons couldn’t find $1500. How much is your life worth? Atrocities will continue in the Harris County Jail, and beyond, until the bail-to-prison pipeline is shut down, once and for all. Maybe one day, Texas will enact a Tracy’s Law, ending bail and beginning the long slow walk to justice and healing. Until then, corpses will continue to pile up. It’s in the numbers.

(Photo Credit: Houston Chronicle)

Dafne McPherson Veloz and Leyla Güven ask, “When will we know freedom?”

Leyla Güven leaves prison

On Friday, January 25, 55-year-old Leyla Güven walked out of Diyarbakır Prison, in southeastern Turkey. Leyla Güven had been on hunger strike for 79 days and was in poor health when she was released. Leyla Güven had been in prison since January 2018. On Thursday, January 24, 29-year-old Dafne McPherson Veloz walked out of prison in San Juan del Río, in Querétaro in north central Mexico. Dafne McPherson Veloz had spent three years and four months in prison of a 16-year sentence. News media report Leyla Güven as “released” from prison, as “freed”. News media report also describe Dafne McPherson Veloz as “freed” and “released.” Leyla Güven still faces trial and a possible sentence of 100 years. Upon leaving prison, Dafne McPherson Veloz said, “They stole those years from me, but I made myself stronger and harder.” What is freedom in this world, this world where women are routinely falsely accused and held? When the age of mass and hyper incarceration is over, will we have any means of recognizing freedom? Will we know freedom?

In 2015, Dafne McPherson Veloz worked in department store. She was the mother of a three-year-old child. One day, Dafne McPherson Veloz felt abdominal pains. They grew severe. She went to the restroom. The pains persisted. Finally, to her great surprise, Dafne McPherson Veloz gave birth to a child, who subsequently died of asphyxiation. Dafne McPherson Veloz went into shock and fainted in the bathroom. Immediately afterwards, she was charged with and convicted of homicide and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Dafne McPherson Veloz spent over three years behind bars, all the time maintaining her innocence. Doctors say she suffered from hypothyroidism, the symptoms of which masked the pregnancy. Although Dafne McPherson Veloz went to the doctors, none mentioned that she was or might be pregnant. Dafne McPherson Veloz and her attorneys have argued consistently that her trial was improper, both because of inadequate evidence and because the judge relied on “stereotypes” of how a woman, a “good mother”, should live. In other words, Dafne McPherson Veloz “should have known” she was pregnant and so she was found guilty of murder.

Prior to her arrest, Dafne McPherson Veloz was not well known. Leyla Güven, on the other hand, is a prominent Kurdish activist, an elected official who has been detained before. Leyla Güven is an MP for the People’s Democratic Party, a pro-Kurdish party; and is a Co-Chair for the Democratic Society Congress. According to a recent statement by Angela Davis, “Leyla Güven … has been on an indefinite hunger strike for the last two months. Having dedicated her political efforts over the years to the struggle against the Turkish state’s illegal military invasions and occupations of Kurdish regions and against Turkey’s continuing human rights abuses, she now offers her life in protest of the isolation of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and other Kurdish political prisoners. Ms. Guven is a major inspiration to people throughout the world who believe in peace, justice and liberation. I join all those who support her and stand in condemnation of the repressive conditions of Mr. Ocalan’s imprisonment.” Leyla Güven faces more than 100 years in prison for the crime of having criticized Turkish military operations in the predominantly Kurdish town of Afrin in northern Syria. 

We could name other women prisoners in Turkey and Mexico, and pretty much everywhere else in the world. Mexico has its particularities as does Turkey, and so the disturbing aspect here is that of the mirroring. When Dafne McPherson Veloz walked out of prison, she said the prosecutors “didn’t investigate… They didn’t do a thing … That’s why there are people inside who shouldn’t be in prison.” She added, “The only thing I can say to other women who are in my situation is never lose hope.”

Where women’s life time is stolen, what is freedom? Where women continue to be threatened, what is freedom? Where women must live with the trauma and memory of having been caged, what is freedom? Where prisons become hellholes that house 85-year-old women and two-year-old girls, and everyone in between, what is freedom? It’s time, it’s way past time, to investigate freedom itself, to do something, to pull not only the innocent but the scarred out of prison. It’s time once again to never lose hope. It’s the only thing I can say.

Dafne McPherson Veloz minutes after being told she will leave prison

(Photo Credit 1: Bianet) (Photo Credit 2: El Pais)

In Mexico, journalist Lydia Cacho persisted, and yesterday she won

Lydia Cacho

Yesterday, January 10, 2019, the Mexican government formally and publicly apologized to Lydia Cacho for having kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured her seventeen years ago. For far more than seventeen years, Lydia Cacho has insisted on uncovering and reporting the truth concerning violence against women and children. She persisted. This week, in response to the apology, Lydia Cacho said, “If women such as myself have struggled for human rights to the point of risking our lives, the least the government can do is to protect its journalists … They told us that journalism was men’s work and that human rights are mere sentimentality. I have already forgiven my torturers because I never allowed them to colonize either my body or my soul.” She persisted.

In 2003, Lydia Cacho started writing a series on a pedophilia sex ring in Cancun. The police did nothing in response, and so in 2004, Lydia Cacho wrote Los demonios del Edén (The Demons of Eden: The Power That Protects Child Pornography), which detailed the conditions and horrors of the ring. In December 2005, police officers from Puebla kidnapped Lydia Cacho, drove her almost a thousand miles to Puebla, where she was held and subjected to death threats, rape threats and other forms of psychological terror. After a half day in jail, she was released, but the threats continued. Tape recordings revealed a plot to kidnap, rape and murder her. Lydia Cacho sued the governor of Puebla for having violated her human and civil rights, as a woman and as a journalist. In 2007, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled against Lydia Cacho. She persisted.

For the next twelve years, Lydia Cacho continued to research and write exposes of violence against women and children in Mexico and beyond. She continued to press for the dignity of journalists as well as women and children. She continued to press for the dignity of Mexico as well. Last year, Last August the United Nations Commission on Human Rights declared that Lydia Cacho’s rights had been violated. Yesterday, finally, the government of Mexico agreed. The Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Alejandro Encinas declared: “On behalf of the Mexican State, I offer you a public apology for the violation of your human rights in the exercise of your right to freedom of expression.” He then enumerated the five categories of rights violations for which he, and Mexico, were atoning: violation of the right to freedom of expression; arbitrary detention; torture as an instrument of investigation; violence and discrimination based on gender; impunity and corruption encouraged by institutions. Olga Sánchez, the Head of the Ministry of the Interior, added: “We are here today to offer apologies on behalf of the Mexican government to Lydia Cacho and to confirm that the government of the Republic of Andrés Manuel López Obrador will not be subservient to private interests”. 

Lydia Cacho persisted. Thanks to Lydia Cacho,impunity no longer holds carte blanche in Mexico. Journalism matters. Women matter. Elections matter. The truth matters. In this period of menace, of expanding assassination and torture of human rights and women’s rights defenders and of journalists, exposing the demons of Eden matters. Today’s good, if fragile, news: Lydia Cacho persisted, and yesterday, we all won.

(Photo Credit: Animal Politico)

Born, not in a manger, but in a prison cell or to a woman whose legs were shackled

The year ends with a childbirth in New York in which the mother, Jane Doe, was shackled, even though New York law prohibits that, and the report of a childbirth in Western Australia where the mother was thrown into a cell and left, alone, to give birth, alone. In one instance, those who came arrived with chains; in the other, no one came at all. For the past few years, we’ve followed and shared the stories of those born, not in a manger, but rather in solitary confinement or in a prison cell and those born to women whose legs were shackled. Today’s a good day to remember those, and so, without further ado …

Let’s talk of those women who were thrown into cells, alone, to give birth.

Texas’ Minimum Security Death Row for Women:  In 2013, in Texas, Autumn Miller was force to give birth to Gracie Miller in a holding cell toilet. Guards then rushed in, shackled and handcuffed the mother, and took mother and daughter to the hospital. Gracie died four days later, in her shackled mother’s handcuffed arms.

How many women are forced to give birth in solitary confinement?: In 2014, Nicole Guerrerofiled a lawsuit against the Wichita County Jail, in Texas, and others for having forced her to give birth in solitary. The baby died. It’s a terrible story, and it’s an increasingly common one.

In England, women in prison give birth without midwife. Who cares?: In November 2018, a report detailed the conditions of childbirth in England’s prisons. The study centered on Layla who was forced to give birth without any care, 

In Western Australia, Bandyup Women’s Prison is still (akin to) torture: In December 2018, the Inspector of Custodial Services for Western Australia released a report that focused on the experiences of Amy, an Indigenous woman who was forced to give birth, alone, in a prison cell.

In each instance, the women – Autumn Miller; Nicole Guerrero; Layla; Amy – said they were in labor, and in each instance, the staff disbelieved and did nothing … or worse.

Let’s talk about shackling women in childbirth:

Women prisoners haunt the modern era: Our journey begins in 2009, when New York State passed the anti-shackling Bill S01290A, which “prohibits the use of any restraints during labor”. Remember that, and remember that it was 2009.

Did Mother’s Day end early this year?: In 2010, Pennsylvania passed its own anti-shackling law. In 2014, pregnant women prisoners were still being shackled, routinely, including during childbirth.

In New York, Jane Doe was shackled in childbirth, despite New York’s anti-shackling laws: And finally, just this month, “Jane Doe” sued the NYPD because, earlier in the year, they had insisted on shackling her, in childbirth, despite the prohibition on such shackling since 2009.

So, where is that shining star, the one that will lead us to healthy childbirths for all, irrespective of status and location? States are passing anti-shackling laws:

Shackling the birthing, dead and dying: All in a day’s work: In 2014, Nevada outlawed shackling women in childbirth, thanks largely to Valorie Nabors, who had been incarcerated in the at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center and refused to accept the shackling she had undergone as inevitable or acceptable.

In January 2014, Maryland passed the Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women Act. In February 2014, Massachusetts stopped shackling women in childbirth. In March 2018, North Carolina stoped shackling women in childbirth.

The news has been difficult … and partial. Jails are largely opaque and seldom report the conditions of childbirth. Immigration detention centers are worse. When laws are passed, as in New York and Pennsylvania, constant monitoring and intervention is needed. But for now, let us thank the wise women and their supporters who campaign tirelessly for the dignity of women … everywhere. The struggle continues.

In Western Australia, Bandyup Women’s Prison is still (akin to) torture. Shut it down!

Inside Bandyup Women’s Prison

On December 12, Neil Morgan, the Inspector of Custodial Services for Western Australia, released a scathing report summary, benignly entitled The birth at Bandyup Women’s Prison in March 2018. Just in time for Christmas, the report tells the story of Amy (not her real name) who gave birth, alone in a cell, at Bandyup Women’s Prison, the only women’s prison in Western Australia. The Inspector’s media release on the report opens: “The Inspector of Custodial Services, Neil Morgan, has voiced serious concerns about a birth at Bandyup Women’s Prison on 11 March 2018. Despite pleading for help multiple times for over an hour, a woman (‘Amy’) gave birth alone in a locked cell at 7.40pm. Staff observed events through a hatch in the cell door, but the door was not unlocked for several minutes after the birth.

On releasing a summary of his report into the birth, Mr Morgan said: `I wanted to know how such an event could occur in a 21st Century Australian prison and to prevent it happening again.’” What do we imagine a 21stCentury prison, Australian or otherwise, is, and especially for women? Bandyup Women’s Prison has been known as a hellhole for years, and yet … there it is.

Here is Amy’s story, reduced to a timeline. At 5:30, Amy made a cell call, saying she was in labor. She was taken Bandyup Health Centre. The nurses were not told of the cell call. So, they gave her paracetamol, or acetaminophen, and sent her back to her cell. At 6 pm, the prison went into night lock down. At 6:30, Amy made a number of cell calls. She sounded distressed and said she was in labor. Custodial staff came to the door, and talked to Amy, through the door. Amy became increasingly distressed. Nursing staff arrived around 7:35, a full hour later. According to the Inspector’s report, “By this time, Amy’s distress was palpable, and she clearly needed help. However, the nursing staff could only assess her through the locked cell door, because the only person with cell keys was a senior staff member in the gatehouse.” At 7:40, alone, in a cramped cell, Amy gave birth: “Excessive delays continued even after Amy had delivered her child. Due to poor record keeping, we cannot put a precise time on it, but it took somewhere between seven and 12 minutes before the officer from the gatehouse arrived with the keys, and the cell door was opened. This finally allowed assistance to be provided. Amy and her baby were transferred to hospital that evening.”

Why was Amy in prison? The Inspector’s report begins: “On 30 January 2018, a woman we will call ‘Amy’ appeared in court. She was in the late stages of pregnancy and was granted bail subject to a number of conditions. However, she was unable to meet the conditions and was taken to the Melaleuca Remand and Reintegration Facility (Melaleuca). On 17 February 2018, Amy was moved to Bandyup Women’s Prison (Bandyup).” Amy was in prison because she couldn’t pull together enough money to post bail. 

Why was Amy in prison? Amy is an Indigenous woman, living in Australia. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population. Amy is an Indigenous woman living in Western Australia. Western Australia has the highest imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Australia and boasts the highest rates of Indigenous prisoners awaiting trial

Bandyup Women’s Prison has been acknowledged, for years, as a hellhole. In 2015, it was the most overcrowded prison in Western Australia, famous for an Indigenous woman’s death in custodygross mismanagement of vulnerable individuals and populations, sponsoring a culture of despair, and worse. In 2015, Neil Morgan, the same Neil Morgan, issued a damning report. Three years later, the State is shocked to discover the conditions of the 21stCentury Australian prison. The time for inspections,reports, shock and discovery is over. How many more women must give birth, alone, in a filthy cramped cell, simply because they can’t pay the exit fee? How many more Indigenous women must suffer torture and death behind bars for having committed the crime of being-Indigenous-woman? How many more Amy’s? Close Bandyup Women’s Prison today. Shut it down!

(Photo credit: The West Australian)

In Maryland’s women’s prison last year, Emily Butler didn’t die. She was executed.

Maryland has one women’s prison, the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, MCIW. On November 12, 2017, 28-year-old Emily Butler was “found dead in her cell from an apparent suicide.” Emily Butler wasn’t “in her cell”; she was in solitary confinement, which Maryland claims does not exist in its prisons. On Friday, Disability Rights Maryland and a community fellow from the Open Society Institute of Baltimore released their findings concerning Emily Butler’s death. The report’s findings are both grim and all too familiar. Emily Butler was not “found dead”. She was executed, by the State of Maryland.

Starting in 2008, Emily Butler had been receiving community-based mental health services for depressive, bipolar, and post-traumatic stress disorders. MCIW knew of her conditions. Remember that the staff knew all about Emily Butler’s psychiatric history. On Friday, November 10, 2017, Emily Butler and a friend argued. Butler threw coffee at her friend. Her friend was not injured, but Emily Butler was thrown into solitary confinement. There she stayed until her death. She was only allowed outside of her cell to bathe. According to the Disability Rights Maryland report, “Ms. Butler was not a danger to herself or others in MCIW because she acted impulsively and threw coffee on her friend during a dispute. Her friend was not injured and did not want to see Ms. Butler placed in segregation. Her segregation sentence was about punishment, not safety. Ms. Butler only became a danger to herself after she was placed in segregation.”

Emily Butler took the isolation hard. First, solitary confinement is torture. Second, Emily Butler had reason to expect that she was going to be paroled in April 2018, and a stay in segregation would delay that. She was distraught and said so. She knew she needed help and asked for it. None came.

The report finds that a mere six weeks prior to Emily Butler’s death, another woman, “Elaine”, had attempted suicide under similar circumstances. While Elaine was in the inpatient mental health treatment unit, IMHTU, she threw urine at a staff member. Elaine lives with “with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder -traumatic stress disorder.” The staff knew that. The staff also knew that Elaine has a long record of self-injury and aggression and can’t stand stress. Despite all that, Elaine was thrown into solitary: “After Elaine was transferred …  to disciplinary segregation, she was observed in her cell standing on the sink and tying a sheet to the vent in the ceiling and around her neck. An officer intervened and stopped Elaine’s actions … She wanted to harm herself because she was scared about pending criminal assault charges for throwing the urine and that she had other stresses related to her family … She was upset that staff on the segregation unit did not take her seriously when she said that she was suicidal and wanted to speak with mental health staff … She said she attempted to hang herself after getting no response to her request for help. Elaine spent a few days on the IMHTU after this incident, and was then returned to the disciplinary segregation unit despite her evidenced need for mental health services …. Less than six weeks after Elaine was discovered with a sheet tied to the vent and around her neck, Emily Butler was discovered, also in the segregation unit, hanging from a sheet tied to a vent in her cell.

Three days after Emily Butler “was found dead,” The Baltimore Sun editorial board wrote, “It’s tempting to dismiss Emily Butler’s death as an unfortunate accident in an otherwise well-run corrections system where such mistakes are rare. But the reality is this is the fourth reported case of an inmate committing suicide this year, and it appears to be part of a pattern linking such deaths to the kinds of physical confinement inmates experience behind prison walls. There’s a difference between firm disciplinary measures that help ensure the safety of inmates and staff and cruel or unusual punishments that in effect amount to human rights abuses. Maryland needs to constantly rethink where that line should be drawn — and then make sure it stays on the right side of it. Emily Butler and others like her shouldn’t have to die by their own hands in order to teach the state that lesson.”

The State of Maryland executed Emily Butler for the crime of needing and asking for help. How many more such women must suffer such torture? Do more than say Emily Butler’s name. In her name, shut down all forms of solitary confinement, in prison and beyond. 

(Photo Credit: Baltimore Sun)