Jacob Blake’s shackles form the landscape of the United States of America

Earlier this week, Jacob Blake’s father reported that his son – shot seven times in the back by policemen, paralyzed from the waist down, fighting for his life – was not only under constant police guard but was also shackled to his bed. Jacob Blake Sr remarked, “Why do they have that cold steel on my son’s ankle? He couldn’t get up if he wanted to. So that’s a little overkill to have him shackled to the bed.” Shackling is what police and prison staff do. Ask the myriad pregnant women who have suffered childbirth while shackled to a bed. It’s the American way.

Earlier this month, a newly published book, Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women, notes, “In 2017, around 225,060 women in the United States were imprisoned in state and federal prisons and jails, and over a million more were on probation or parole. In 2019, approximately 1,400 incarcerated women were pregnant. Giving birth in prison is a horrific experience, both physically and emotionally. Prisoners have recounted being shackled to the bed, and many say they weren’t allowed to have anyone in the room with them other than the hospital staff. One in eight incarcerated parents will lose their parental rights. And incarcerated mothers are the most likely to lose their children to foster care.”

In May 2020, South Carolina banned the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners) in childbirth. This was a major victory, won after years and decades of struggle and organizing. A number of states, almost half the states in the United States, continue to allow shackling pregnant women (prisoners) in childbirth, and the bans of other states are riddled with loopholes and confusion. 

According to the American Psychological Association, “Women subjected to restraint during childbirth report severe mental distress, depression, anguish, and trauma.”  This practice is what Jacob Blake Sr. witnessed, it is what Jacob Blake suffered. Shackles are baked into the fabric of the United States, and not only the so-called criminal justice system. Severe mental distress, depression, anguish, trauma: those are the constitutive, if not Constitutional, elements of justice in America. They are what we apply and what we seek for those who must be controlled. There was no overkill in Jacob Blake’s hospital room, sadly. There was only the United States of America at it again. Jacob Blake is no longer shackled to his bed, but the shackles have not been removed.

(Photo Credit: National Museum of African American History and Culture)

How many deaths does it take til we know that too many people have died? In prison, it’s not Covid that kills, it’s prison.

On April 28, Andrea Circle Bear died in federal custody, becoming the first woman to die of Covid-19 while in federal custody. Andrea Circle Bear was convicted of a minor offense and should never have been in prison in the first place. When Andrea Circle Bear was sentenced, she was five months pregnant; she should never have been in prison. You know what killed Andrea Circle Bear? Prison. On Saturday, August 15, Wendy Campbell died, of Covid-19, in federal custody. You know what really killed Wendy Campbell? Prison. Both Andrea Circle Bear and Wendy Campbell died in FMC Carswell, in Fort Worth. Wendy Campbell is the fifth woman to die at FMC Carswell. You know what killed all five women? Prison. FMC Carswell is a petri dish of inhumane conditions. So is Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, in eastern Washington state, according to a nurse who works there. From sea to shining sea and beyond, you know what’s killing inmates? It’s not Covid. It’s prison. And thus far we have done absolutely nothing to change that situation. Instead, we blame “the pandemic” for the constructed environments we have built.

Day after day, we `discover’ that clusters have formed in prisons, jails, immigration detention centers. We claim to express shock that overcrowded toxic spaces are overcrowded and toxic. In India, we `discover’ that overcrowded toxic prisons and jails are overcrowded and toxic. In Malawi, we `discover’ that overcrowded, toxic, far from home jails are overcrowded and toxic. In Mexico, we `discover’ that overcrowded, toxic, famously lethal prisons are overcrowded, toxic, and deadly. In Namibia, we `discover’ that overcrowded, toxic prisons and jails are overcrowded and toxic. We also `discover’ that inmates know the situation and are terrified.

In North Carolina, we `discover’ that a pregnant woman, in this instance eight-month-pregnant Brittany Cowick, has to organize, got to Federal court and more in order to be released to house arrest from a local jail that has reported high rates of Covid-19 infection. 

These `discoveries’ all occurred within the last 48 hours. They will recur in the next 48 hours. After a half century of mass incarceration, the time for discovery is over. How often must we `discover’ that the largest prison clusters are in jails and prison? Where is the outrage at this repeated farce of innocent discovery? Six months into the pandemic, why must pregnant women and their allies struggle so hard to be released from deathtrap jails, prison, detention centers of all sorts? What is the point of a word like “vulnerable” or a phrase like “compassionate release” in this landscape? You know what killed Wendy Campbell? Prison. And you know who put her there? You did, I did, we all did. Stop discovering, release them now. How many deaths does it take?

(Photo Credit: The Guardian/Tannen Maury/EPA)

The struggle to end the shaming of Black girl students in schools continues

In the past three days, a Black 15-year-old girl student was finally released from juvenile detention in Michigan. She had been incarcerated for 78 days for the crime of not having completed her homework. At the same time, a 7-year-old Black girl student in Jamaica was informed by the High Court that when, as a 5-year-old, she was told to cut her dreadlocks or be forced to leave school, her Constitutional rights had not been violated. At the same time, England’s Department of Education reported that, in many regions, Black students face three times as many fixed term exclusions as do White students. Girls are particularly targeted for their hair, or at least that’s the official reason. This is the world of Black Girl Education today, a world that believes that Black girls pose a particular danger to themselves and, even more, to `the world’. 

In Michigan, a Black 15-year-old girl student known as Grace was sent to juvenile detention for having violated probation. Her `violation’ was not having completed her online school assignments. According to her mother, when Grace’s school went online, Grace had trouble keeping up. The Judge decided that Grace’s difficulty, as well as her learning disabilities and other issues, constituted a threat to the community, and so sent her to juvenile detention, where she would “thrive” and the community would be saved. This all happened in the Oakland County court. Over the last four years, the Oakland County Court adjudicated around 4800 juvenile cases, of which 42% concerned Black youths. 15% of Oakland County youth are Black. After a major campaign, Grace has been `released’ to home detention.

For Black girls, the assault on their integrity is even more intense. Four years ago, girls were being forced into the juvenile `justice’ system at an alarmingly increasing rate, largely because girls were arrested more often than boys for status offenses and were more severely punished for those offenses. Those `offenses’ are not crimes. That’s what makes them `status’ offenses. If the girls were older, there would be no offense, no crime. But they are girls, and they must be protected from themselves. This is the vicious cycle that has been constructed in exactly the same period that has witnessed girl power on the rise: “In a 2010 national census of youth in custody, girls comprised 16% of all detained youth but 40% of those were detained for a status offense. At one time and in some states, girls comprised more than 70% of youth detained for status offenses.” This is the United States’ program of no girl left behind. This is girls’ education in the United States, and, in the past four years, the situation for Black and Brown girls has only grown worse. Despite activists’ great work, the school-to-prison pipeline has not only grown but is sucking in Black and Brown girls at a faster and faster rate. In that context, there’s no surprise that a judge would say that sending a young Black girl student to prison is the best thing for her, for her wellbeing and her education. Boys will be boys, and girls will be jailed, especially Black girls

Meanwhile, on Friday, Jamaica’s high court ruled that a school was within its rights to tell a 5-year-old girl student that she must cut her dreadlocks or leave school. The girl student, identified as Z, and her parents have challenged the school for two years. Z is now 7 years old. By all accounts, she is an excellent student. By all accounts, she has not in any way prevented others around her from pursuing their education. To the contrary, she is described as an ideal student and learner who helps her fellow students. Z’s desire to learn must give way to the politics of hair, of Black girls’ hair, and that’s Constitutionally fineZ’s parents have sworn to challenge the ruling and to continue the struggle.

Meanwhile, in many parts of England, Black students are disciplined three times as often as their White counterparts. Their offense, other than Being Black? “Black hairstyles, kissing teeth and fist-bumping.” “Black hairstyles” can send a child student, more often than not a Black girl student, into isolation or expulsion. An assistant head of school remembers a Black girl student who was told to cut her Afro because other students “couldn’t see the board … These may be small, micro things that you are doing to change yourself, but after a while it really wears you down. It’s the message that you are almost not good enough. You are having to tame your hair, tame your blackness, and it’s happening from when you are a child.”

This is happening in the same year that Ruby Williams won an out-of-court settlement of £8,500 for the abuse she suffered, for her hair, for Being Black, from the age of 11 years old on. It’s happening when you are a child, when you are a student. What is the child student learning, what is Black girl’s education in this world? 

Four years ago, almost to the day, Liepollo Lebohang Pheko wrote about a similar situation in South African schools: “Black Girl – you MATTER. Your HAIR matters, your LANGUAGE matters, your CHOICES matter and your VOICE matters. In case I haven’t told you today – you are valuable, loved, precious and powerful. Speak even if your voice shakes and fight even while you are scared. I LOVE you Black Child, Black Girl, and I stand with you. You give me such hope and courage. #Racism and imperialism ARE falling #Afros and Dreadlocks are Rising.”

Four years later, from the United States to Jamaica to England and beyond, say it loud, say it proud: “Black Girl – you MATTER. Your HAIR matters, your LANGUAGE matters, your CHOICES matter and your VOICE matters.” The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press)

Why do we continue to leave pregnant women in deathtrap jails, prisons, detention centers?

Tammy Jackson

At the beginning of March, we asked if Florida would finally stop shackling women prisoners in childbirth. At the end of June, Florida’s Governor signed the Tammy Jackson Healthy Pregnancies for Incarcerated Women Act. Last year, Tammy Jackson gave birth, alone, in a cell in the North Broward Jail, in Pompano Beach. The new law bans shackling pregnant women prisoners; invasive body cavity searches; and the use of solitary confinement; and requires medical examinations at least once every 24 hours. While this is welcome news, it begs the question why it took Florida so long to address the ongoing violence against women in its prisons and jails. Why? Why are pregnant women shackled while pregnant, in childbirth, and after delivery? Why? Across the United States, women, alone in their cells, give birth to children. They are alone because … because they are incarcerated. That justifies all acts of violence and violation, especially against women. Remember, Andrea Circle Bear, the first woman to die of Covid 19 in federal prison, was pregnant when she was sent to prison. Remember, Andrea Circle Bear should never have been incarcerated in the first place, and should never have remained incarcerated. Why is it so hard to release pregnant women from clear and imminent danger?

Every month, the reports come out, and every month, for the past few months, prisons and jails have been the epicenters of Covid infection and mortality. Has that mattered to prison authorities or the public at large? No. Have pregnant women, the most vulnerable sector of the the incarcerated population, been released? No.  In North Carolina, pregnant prisoners were told they would be released. It hasn’t happenedThe women worry and organize, their families worry and organize, and meanwhile … What? 

This week, faced with a monster outbreak of coronavirus in its prison system, and in particular in San Quentin, California is beginning to consider releasing prisoners. Included in that process is the following: “The department also said it is `reviewing potential release protocols’ for those who are pregnant or in hospice.” Why only now are those processes being reviewed? Why is it so very difficult to understand that pregnant women, and those in hospice care, are at particular risk? What is it about a prison uniform that fatally hides one’s humanity? Meanwhile, part of California’s `process’ of reducing prison overcrowding is to keep people in jails. What could possibly go wrong with that plan? Equally nightmarish stories of the abuse of pregnant women in immigrant detention centers continue to pile up as well.

This is the age of mistreatment and abuse of pregnant women. Pregnant women prisoners are the tip not so much of an iceberg as of a continent-wide subterranean volcano. Why are pregnant women being warehoused in jail cells where the staff ignores and `forgets’ them? Why are pregnant women being stuffed into prisons and immigrant detention centers, where they are only meant to suffer and die? If not, we would release them. Period. Meanwhile, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill that would provide medical care for women before and after childbirth, in both prisons and jails. At the same time, “the legislature struck down proposed bans on shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant women this year.” The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: New York Times)

We regret to inform you there will NO credible investigation of the stillbirth at Styal prison

Styal prison

The prison service has launched an investigation following the death of a baby in prison … The stillbirth of a baby at Styal prison in Wilmslow, Cheshire, on Thursday has been confirmed by the Ministry of Justice. It is the second stillbirth of a baby born to a woman in prison in the space of nine months.” We regret to inform you that there will be no credible investigation of this incident at Styal prison, just as, despite the fact that eleven so-called investigations were conducted after last year’s stillbirth at HMP Bronzefield, nothing came of them. Investigations of ongoing atrocities that produce absolutely no change are not investigations. They are coverups. 

The story, such as it is, this time is that a young woman was held in HMP Styal. She did not know that she was pregnant. She did know that she was in excruciating pain. She did tell the staff, who told her to take two aspirins and chill out. The pains increased. Finally, someone realized that the woman was pregnant. By then, it was too late. Now, the Prison Service expresses their deep concern, and the headlines, which are far and few between, suggest that the impending investigation is the real story. In that case, there is no story, because there will be no credible investigation.

What exactly will the Prison Service investigate. Will they, once again, investigate the rash of suicides at HMP Styal between February 2018 to May 2019? Will they investigate, once again, the “epidemic” of women’s self-harm and suicide at HMP Styal between August 2002 and August 2003, the epidemic that prompted the Corston Report: a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, published in 2007? Will they investigate the brutal conditions at HMP Styal, as documented in HM Chief Inspector of Prisons’ 2012 report? Will they investigate the Chief of Inspector of Prisons’ 2009 warning of the real and present danger of more deaths occurring at HMP Styal, if services for the vulnerable were not improved? How will the Prison Service investigate its own refusal to act for at least the past eighteen years? There will be numerous performances of investigation and concern, but there will be no credible investigation.

A chapter of the story is this: A woman was in real pain, and the staff meant to take care of her ignored her. The story is the active act of ignoring women to death. Here’s another chapter of the story: despite earlier promises, during the current pandemic, the English Prison Service has released only six pregnant women. In fact, HMP Prison Service has only released one in forty of women prisoners who applied for early release. The story is the active act of ignoring women to death. We regret to inform you that there will be NO credible investigation of the stillbirth at Styal prison. Rather than pretending yet again to investigate, shut Styal once and for all, and release the women who are held there. 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Don McPhee)

Jails, prisons, detention centers are still COVID death traps, where, despite promises, people in large numbers are left to die. Where is the global outrage?

Two months ago, prisons and jails made up seven of the ten largest COVID clusters in the United States. Hands were wrung, voices raised, promises made. Today … the situation remains the same, and not only in the United States. In the past six days, we’ve `learned’ that prisons in Turkeythe United KingdomMexico are scandals and worse. In the jails of Maharashtra, in western India, prisoners are tested for COVID … but only once they’re dead, and even then there’s no contact tracing. Across the United States, COVID carceral policy is referred to as a massacrepunishment by pandemic, a death sentence, and a death trap. Over the weekend, COVID cases in the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona `surged’ by 460%. This list is the smallest fraction of the so-called news over the past six days. As national trends more or less flatten, prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers rates zoom skyward. In response, prisons use solitary confinement more intensely and more oftenwhich only drives infection and self-harm rates higher and higherSome are saying it’s already too late. Women are at the center of this map of abandonment and deceit. Where are the women? Everywhere. Where is the global outrage? Nowhere to be seen.

According to a recent report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, in England, women prisoners’ rate of self-harm has risen precipitously since March. Women prisoners generally have higher rates of self-harm than male prisoners, largely because so many are living with trauma and mental illness, generally. This has been exacerbated by a new policy of 23-hour a day lockdown. Again, most of the women are in jail and prison for non-violent so-called offenses that would not have been considered criminal in earlier times. One woman, currently held at London’s HMP Downview, has petitioned the United Nations for help. Meanwhile, despite all the promises concerning prisoners living with underlying conditions, as of yet, a trickle has actually been allowed early release, fewer than 30 a week. Yet again, women are at the core of this policy of abandonment and abuse. Despite earlier promises, as of early this week, a sum total of six pregnant prisoners had been released. Twenty-nine pregnant women are still waiting to be released. Of 34 women in mother-and-baby units, 16 have been released. The English government spent £4,000 for electronic tags, to facilitate the release of prisoners. The money was delivered, the tags were delivered, the prisoners remain in solitary confinement in deathtrap prisons and jails. They call it compassionate release.

The same story is true in the United States. In North Carolina, pregnant prisoners were told they would be released. It hasn’t happened. The prisoners and their loved ones are losing hope, and so the system is working perfectly. Seven women currently housed at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, KCIW, are suing for release. All of the women have serious underlying conditions; the rates of infection are rising precipitously; practically no one is being released. In Louisiana, the men’s prisons have somewhat dodged the COVID bullet … for now. But the women’s prisons, which are more dilapidated and more overcrowded, are recording infection rates between 60% and close to 90%. Nothing is being done to address the situation in Louisiana’s women’s prisons, less than nothing. Almost no one is getting `compassionate release’ and no one in charge has a plan, other than solitary confinement, to address the severe overcrowding. From sea to shining sea … 

Again, this is the news from only the past six days. Promise that you’ll release pregnant women, and then do nothing. Promise that you’ll take care of those with underlying conditions, and then do nothing. Or worse, institute universal solitary confinement protocols. The situation in prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers has been referred to as “the hidden scandal”, but it’s neither hidden nor, actually, scandalous. It’s the logical consequence of five decades of mass and hyper incarceration; of urban development through racist and misogynist violence under the name of policing; and of abandonment as the only real public and mental health system provided. Where is the global outrage at this situation? Nowhere to be seen. But hey, just remember, we’re all in this together.

(Photo Credit: KentuckyToday)

In Canada, Joelle Beaulieu refuses the death sentence of incarceration

Around the World of Covid, the news these days is pretty grim, and the news from prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, juvenile detention centers is worse. In those places of confinement, generally, rates of infection are rising precipitously and, despite much hand wringing and loud sighing, the State and nation-states have done little to nothing to less than nothing. Given the past decades increased investment in mass and hyper incarceration, this comes as no surprise. But there is good, or at least hopeful, news, and that is in prisoners’ individual and collective actions and resistance. April saw prison uprisings, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and other actions in Sierra LeoneArgentinaColombia, the United States and beyond. Everywhere, prisoners echo the banner resisting prisoners hung from the rooftop of the Devoto prison in Buenos Aires: “Nos negamos a morir en la cárcel.” We refuse to die in prison. In Virginia, Cynthia Scott, 50 years old, African American, currently incarcerated at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, agreed: “I was not sentenced to death, and I don’t want to die here.  But I am afraid I will when the coronavirus comes.” In Canada, on April 21, Joelle Beaulieu, a member of the Ojibwe Nation, incarcerated in a Canadian federal prison in Joliette, Quebec, said NO! to the death sentence of conditions in the federal prisons and sued the Correctional Service Canada for its response, or lack of response, to the Covid pandemic. I was not sentenced to death. We refuse to die in prison.

At the end of April, Joelle Beaulieu sued on behalf of all federal inmates who had been imprisoned in federal prisons in Quebec since March 13. What happens to one happens to all. What happened to Joelle Beaulieu is she was incarcerated at Joliette Women’s Institution. She worked as a cleaner. Joelle Beaulieu worked in highly trafficked, congested areas. When she heard about the pandemic, she asked for gloves, mask and protective gear. The authorities only gave her gloves. When Joelle Beaulieu began developing symptoms, she was given Tylenol. For a week, her symptoms intensified. Finally, after a week, Joelle Beaulieu was tested. Then Joelle Beaulieu was sent to her cell, into what amounted to solitary confinement, for 15 days. She requested either a Native elder or a mental health professional. No one was provided. She says guards did not wear masks or gloves until after she tested positive. Prisoners were told to wash their hands, but were not given disinfectant.

Joelle Beaulieu believes she is “patient zero” of the Joliette Women’s Institution. Within two weeks, the number of Covid positive cases rose from 10 to 50, and by the time Joelle Beaulieu filed her case, more than half the residents had tested positive. On April 21, Quebec reported 114 positive cases. Of that 114, 51 were Joliette Women’s Institution prisoners. Of the women in Quebec who tested positive for Coronavirus, almost all were `residents’ of Joliette Women’s Institution. Joliette Women’s Institution is no outlier, and Joelle Beaulieu’s situation is in no way exceptional. According to Emilie Coyle, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, “Every time we speak with women who are inside the prisons, whether it’s in Joliette or other federal institutions  – they let us know they feel as though they’re not getting the right information. They’re kept in the dark. And that’s particularly concerning for them because they’re trying very hard to participate in keeping themselves safe and healthy.”

In Buenos Aires, when prisoners resisted, they released a statement which said, in part, “We are a mirror of the very society that forgets us and drowns in its own misery, silencing its own true reality:

Those who give up will never win.
We refuse to die in prison.
For a world without slavery and without exclusion.”

From the rooftops of a jail in Buenos Aires to the women’s prison of Virginia to the women’s prisons of Quebec, people are resisting the dehumanization of slavery and exclusion, engaging in the Great Refusal which is the Great Affirmation. They will not be kept in the dark nor will they be silenced. In Canada, Joelle Beaulieu, member of the Ojibwe Nation, said NO to the inhumanity, insisted she was not sentenced to die in prison, and lit a match to light the way to a world without slavery and without exclusion. Others will follow. The struggle continues.

(Photo credit: Sol915)

South Carolina will stop shackling women (prisoners) in childbirth!

In March, we asked if South Carolina would pass legislation outlawing the shackling of women (prisoners) in childbirth. Two months and a few days later, we now have the answer. Yes! More than yes, a resounding and expansive yes. While the Governor has yet to sign the legislation, he has said, on more than one occasion, that he would sign it. Last year, the South Carolina House of Representatives passed the bill, presented by Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican representing Daniel Island, by a vote of 104 – 3, but the bill wasn’t sent over to the Senate in time. This year, the House voted 117 – 0, and Senate voted 42 – 0 to pass the bill. This happened in the midst of the South Carolina focusing on coronavirus related issues. Apparently, no one was more surprised that Nancy Mace, who noted, “This is a really big one. It took a lot of people coming together on both sides of the aisle to make it happen, and I’m just really humbled to see that even during a crisis, in South Carolina, we’re getting things done in a nonpartisan way to make our state better.” 

This is a really big one. Not only did the legislature unanimously endorse the bill, they expanded it. The original bill essentially brought South Carolina into compliance with the federal First Step Act, passed in 2018, which bans the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners). Looking at the situation and seizing the moment, legislators, from both parties, decided to add the following: “requiring availability of menstrual hygiene products, access to adequate nutrition, an end to solitary confinement for pregnant prisoners and weekly contact visits between incarcerated people with low- or minimum-security classifications and their children.”

South Carolina’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity noted, “The legislature took the right step in banning shackling of incarcerated women during pregnancy, labor and postpartum recuperation, ending an inhumane practice that 42 other states have already opposed. Restoring dignity and treating people with compassion is a common-sense reform to our criminal justice system. We thank the legislature for passing this bill and we urge Governor McMaster to stop this cruel policy.”

In South Carolina, as elsewhere, women, prisoners, supporters invoked dignity. In South Carolina, this week, legislators demonstrated that dignity must include the recognition and abolition of cruelty and then proceed to the respect for all human beings, generally, and, here, for women in their specificity and particularity. Not shackling is a good start, but it remains a negation of a negation. Taking care of pregnant women, no matter where they are, is simply the right thing to do. Meanwhile, this week, members of the Michigan Senate began debating a bill, in committee, that would ban the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners). The struggle continues.

(Image Credit 1: Radical Doula)  (Image Credit 2: New York Times / Andrea Dezsö)

In Brazil, domestic workers’ children demand dignity for domestic workers!

“Domestic workers replaced black house slaves as markers of class differences and power in Brazilian society.”   Maurício Sellmann Oliveira

As of May 5, Brazil leads Latin America in both reported cases of Covid-19 – 110, 156 cases – and reported deaths, 7,458Brazil has almost as many cases of Covid-19 as Peru, Ecuador and Mexico combined. Domestic workers form the center and fiber of this necro-narrative. Brazil has more domestic workers than any other country in the world, seven million and counting. Almost all are women, and the overwhelming majority are women of African descent. In January 2018, Brazil officially ratified the ILO’s Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers, according some protections to those with more or less permanent appointments. That accord left out the millions of women of color who work by the day. That was before Jair Bolsonaro became President, before the coronavirus pandemic, before the attempt to shred all protections for workers, women, women workers. On March 17, 63-year old Cleonice Gonçalves, a domestic worker in the wealthy Rio neighborhood of Leblon, died of Covid-19. Cleonice Gonçalves was the first Covid-19 fatality in Rio da Janeiro and the fifth in Brazil. Around the same time, Cleonice Gonçalves died, Juliana França – daughter of a domestic worker and goddaughter of a domestic worker, teacher and actress, resident of Rio da Janeiro – began an online petition, “Manifesto by the daughters and sons of domestic workers”, demanding health and labor protections for all domestic workers, demanding concrete and material dignity and respect for all domestic workers. Juliana França started the campaign in the name of her mother, Catarina dos Santos. The Brazilian chapter of the Coronavirus epic is a giant triangle, and at the respective apexes are Cleonice Gonçalves, Juliana França, and Catarina dos Santos.

Cleonice Gonçalves’s story is all too familiar. She worked as a live-in maid four days a week, in the Leblon neighborhood of Rio da Janeiro, a neighborhood reputed to be the most expensive real estate in the country. She’d travel two hours to the working-class suburb of Miguel Pereira. She worked for the same family for decades. Her employers went on a trip to Italy and came back suspecting they had contracted Covid-19. They were tested immediately. They never informed Cleonice Gonçalves. Why would they? On March 13, Cleonice Gonçalves complained of pain while urinating, and went to the doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and sent her back to work. Cleonice Gonçalves was diabetic and lived with high blood pressure. On March 15, Cleonice Gonçalves began having trouble breathing. She went to the hospital and, again, was sent back to work. Her employers continued to remain silent about their own suspicions concerning their health. Her condition continued to deteriorate, her employers continued to tell her nothing. On March 16, hearing of Cleonice Gonçalves’s situation, her family sent a taxi and brought her home. On March 17, Cleonice Gonçalves died. On March 17, Cleonice Gonçalves’s employers’ test result came back: positive. The employers are now thriving. End of story.

Juliana França decided another story is possible. Juliana França’s 57-year-old mother and 75-year-old godmother have work histories similar to that of Cleonice Gonçalves. Working class live-in maids who travel long distances from working class suburbs to upscale neighborhoods, both have worked decades for their current employers. When the pandemic struck, both women’s respective employers insisted that they should continue working. The pandemic? Nothing serious, overblown, listen to the President. Juliana França understood the pressures on her mother and godmother and all the women like them, and so she created the manifesto, “For the lives of our mothers”, demanding paid quarantine leave, health benefit protections, worker protections. Juliana França has also created a network that is linking domestic workers to donors. When Juliana França’s mother, Catarina dos Santos, showed the petition to her employers, they gave her paid leave.

As elsewhere, the story of Covid-19 in Brazil is a story of violent inequality, inequality that structured national and community lives prior to the pandemic and has intensified within the pathological onslaught. At the same time, it is the story of women, overwhelmingly women of color, refusing to accept abuse, for themselves and for their loved ones, refusing to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Remember the martyrdom of Cleonice Gonçalves and remember the Great Refusal of Juliana França and Catarina dos Santos. After too many martyrs, it’s time, it’s way past time, for enforced decent work for domestic workers now! Please consider signing the petition, here.

(Image Credit: Change)

What happened to Andrea Circle Bear and Sarah Lee Circle Bear? American `justice’

FMC Carswell

Andrea Circle Bear died in federal custody Tuesday, April 28. Andrea Circle Bear is the first woman to die of Covid-19 while in federal custodyAndrea Circle Bear was convicted of a minor offense and should never have been in prison in the first place. When Andrea Circle Bear was sentenced, she was five months pregnant; she should never have been in prison. 

Andrea Circle Bear’s story is a familiar one for Native women in the United States. Andrea Circle Bear lived in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian reservation. In April 2018, Andrea Circle Bear was arrested and admitted to selling a small amount of methamphetamine. In March 2019, Andrea Circle Bear was charged. While awaiting trial, Andrea Circle Bear stayed in the Hughes County Jail, in Pierre, South Dakota. In November, Andrea Circle Bear was released for one day to attend divorce proceedings. On January 15, 2020, Andrea Circle Bear was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison. At the time, she was five months pregnant. Because of her pregnancy, Andrea Circle Bear was transferred to Federal Medical Facility Carswell, the only designated medical facility for women in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. FMC Carswell is in Fort Worth, Texas. 

When Andrea Circle Bear was removed from South Dakota, she was described as appearing to be healthy. Up to this moment, both the Hughes County Jail and Hughes County itself have no reported incidents of Coronavirus. The same cannot be said for Federal prisons in Texas.

As a newly arrived prisoner, Andrea Circle Bear was placed in quarantine on March 20. On March 28, due to concerns about her pregnancy, Andrea Circle Bear was taken to the hospital. She was returned to FMC Carswell the same day. On March 31, exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms, Andrea Circle Bear was taken back to the local hospital, where she was put on a ventilator. On April 1, Andrea Circle Bear underwent a caesarean, and gave birth. On April 4, Andrea Circle Bear was confirmed Covid-19 positive. On Tuesday, April 28, Andrea Circle Bear died. 

According to Andrea Circle Bear’s grandmother, Clara LeBeau, Andrea Circle Bear never belonged in prison in the first place and certainly should never have been shipped off to Texas. Andrea Circle Bear was the mother of five children. Because of earlier caesarean section births and other underlying medical conditions, she was considered a high-risk OB/GYN patient. Clara LeBeau told the court as much, and so did Andrea Circle Bear. According to Clara LeBeau, “She was concerned. She’s going somewhere to have her baby where she’s just not knowing the doctors and staff like she does here at the hospital in Pierre. I was concerned too, it bothered me. I said, ‘You shoulda told ‘em you were high risk,’ and she said she did. I guess they didn’t pay attention.” Andrea Circle Bear called her grandmother from Carswell: “She said ‘I told ‘em I was sick, I was in there four or five days and I was telling them but they didn’t pay attention.’ She said please call my grandma and tell her she’ll know and she’ll pray for me,’ but they didn’t even do that … I really believe it was their fault. If they’d known she was high-risk, they shouldn’t have even flown her. That was the start of everything.”

On July 6, Sarah Lee Circle Bear was “found” unconscious in a holding cell in Brown County Jail in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Sarah Lee Circle Bear was 24 years old, the mother of two children, aged one and two. She was picked up for a bond violation, a minor offense. According to other prisoners, before being transferred to a holding cell, Sarah Lee Circle Bear told her jailers that she was suffering excruciating pain. The staff told her to “knock it off” and “quit faking”. Inmates called to the staff to help her. The staff came, picked Sarah Lee Circle Bear up off the floor, dragged her out of the cell, and transferred to a holding cell. Later, they “found” Sarah Lee Circle Bear “unresponsive.” Seeking justice, the family sued. Just this January, it was announced that the federal law suit would go forward, sometime this year.

Sarah Lee Circle Bear was Andrea Circle Bear’s sister-in-law. 

If they’d paid attention, if they’d known. They paid attention, they knew. They didn’t care. As Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley noted, “Andrea should never have been in jail in the first place. Period. That she was there at all is cruel and negligent.” Cruel and negligent … but not unusual. Senator Dick Durbin concurs: “Andrea Circle Bear committed a low-level nonviolent drug offense, but she did not deserve to die, and an innocent child did not deserve to lose his mother. The Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons must act to prevent more death and suffering, and they must act now.” If history is any indication, Andrea Circle Bear’s death will not compel any federal agency into any action, other than a cover-up.

What happened to Andrea Circle Bear and Sarah Lee Circle Bear? Nothing much. Just another two Native American woman dead in custody somewhere in the United States, missing and murdered.

(Photo Credit: Federal Bureau of Prisons)