Amalia Leal: We came to seek refuge, and instead we found punishment.

Women prisoners, almost exclusively Central American and Mexican, at T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, recognized Thanksgiving by engaging in a hunger strike, both in their own name and in solidarity with largely Bangladeshi hunger strikers in Alabama and California. It’s a small world after all, in the global gulag of asylum seeker and refugee detention.

The stories of the women intersect with the story of T. Don Hutto and of the current U.S. regime. T. Don Hutto opened, as T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, in 2006. From the outset, it was a nightmare. Finally, after three years of prisoner protests, supporter protests and law suits, the government decided to shut it down … sort of. In 2009, T. Don Hutto was into a women’s immigration prison, and it’s been a special hell for immigrant women. The Correction Corporation of America runs T. Don Hutto, and they must be very proud of it, since they named the facility after T. Don Hutto, one of the company’s three founders.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is equally proud of T. Don Hutto: “The T. Don Hutto Residential Center (TDHRC) represents a unique and pioneering setting, offering the least restrictive environment permissible to manage persons in administrative U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. In keeping with the director’s call for civil detention reform, TDHRC represents a clear departure from historical detention settings. Residents experience expanded services that include free and open movement, recreational and educational participation, food services and medical and mental health care. TDHRC’s person-centered philosophy guides every interaction with the residents by understanding the often complex circumstances surrounding their detention. TDHRC continues to fulfill the mission of ICE while at the same time recognizing and valuing the dignity of the individual.”

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, over 100 mostly Bangladeshi prisoners Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, Theo Lacey Facility in Orange County, California, and Otay Detention Facility in San Diego went on hunger strike. Behind them was another Bangladeshi women’s hunger strike.

In October 54 South Asian women started a hunger strike at ICE’s El Paso Processing Center. Five days later, 14 Indian and Bangladeshi women began a hunger strike at ICE’s La Salle Detention Facility in La Salle, Louisiana. La Salle and El Paso hold women and children.

At the time Francisca Morales Macis, a Mexican domestic abuse survivor, was being held at T. Don Hutto. She heard of the hunger strike, and started her own. Within days, over 100 women were on hunger strike. The women described horrendous conditions, including extraordinarily long waits for adjudication. The average wait in the Houston immigration court is 703 days. Francisca Morales Macis and Amalia Arteaga Leal, a Honduran refugee, were identified as the chief organizers of the hunger strike. Both were peremptorily transferred to the South Texas Detention Center, in Pearsall, Texas. South Texas Detention Center is an overwhelmingly male detention center. ICE says this was not retaliation because there was no hunger strike. How could there by a hunger strike in a person-centered institution?

According to Amalia Arteago Leal, “They brought us here from the T. Don Hutto detention center because there was a hunger strike there. Many people were protesting because we want our freedom. We have spent a lot of time appealing our cases, and we are not receiving answers, and when they call us, they always tell us that they are postponing us or giving us other dates, and the truth is, we’ve spent a lot of time in detention and we can’t tolerate this much time … I think that it’s unjust that they have detained us for so much time, because I think we have the right to bond. We came to seek refuge, and instead we found punishment. What I want people to understand is that they should support us, because it’s true that we have entered the United States for a second time, but I want to apply for bond. I’m on strike because I want my freedom. I can’t tolerate imprisonment anymore, because I am between four walls and I think this has a psychological impact. We come from our own country with our problems, and many times, we can’t get out of these problems — we’re trapped, imprisoned — and now, we’ve come to another form of imprisonment. For me, I think it’s an injustice.”

The women in T. Don Hutto know the truth. It’s a prison, where `person-centered’ treatment ranges from abuse to torture. Shut it down, today. Set the women free now. It’s way past time.

 

(Photo Credit: Grassroots Leadership / Twitter / Colorlines)

Texas built a special hell for immigrant women and children

Today, December 18, 2014, is International Migrants Day. On December 18, 1990, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. What better way to honor that convention than to build the biggest, baddest prison for migrant women and children? Welcome to Texas, welcome to the United States of America, welcome to hell.

Here’s how the United States builds hell. First, constitute migrants and immigrants as a threat. Include asylum seekers and refugees in this. Then, quickly translate threat into criminal element. Then build the prisons, et voilà! Hell! Homeland Security keeps building prisons for immigrants and migrants. It builds “family detention centers” for women and children. It then outsources the job to a limited number of mega companies. They keep failing at the job and then keep getting new contracts. The prisons keep “running into difficulties”, ranging from lack of health care and education and recreational facilities to overcrowding to sexual exploitation and violence by the staff.

Early this week, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson toured a site in Dilley, Texas, that `promises’ to be the largest “family residential center” in the country. By end of May, it will hold 2400 “family members,” overwhelmingly women and children, overwhelmingly from Central America. Meanwhile, earlier in December, after some debate and resistance, Karnes County agreed to expand its “family residence” from under 600 to close to 1200 beds. Forcing children and women to live behind razor wire is a growth industry in south Texas this year. Homeland Security sees dropping children into cages as “a deterrent.”

Here’s a typical story from Karnes: “Ana and Victor are from El Salvador, and along with their mother, Alta Gracias, and their 2-year-old brother, Martín, they have been held at the Karnes detention facility for over two months … As the years passed and her children grew up, Alta worried about raising her children in an environment rife with extreme poverty and violence … She was afraid her daughter’s pretty face and her son’s rambunctious spirit would get them into trouble. So she did what any good parent would do: look for a brighter future for her children. Because her husband was already in the United States, it seemed like the best option, despite the hazardous journey.”

Here’s another typical story from Karnes: “This fall, Zadia and her son Jose came to the United States to escape years of physical abuse by her common-law husband. With the help of members of their church, Zadia and Jose fled Honduras. But rather than find refuge, they have been locked up for the last seven weeks in Karnes City, Texas, at one of the federal government’s new detention centers for migrant families.”

The typical is actually worse. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and others have written letters, filed complaints, and sued the Federal government because of the conditions at Karnes. MALDEF has documented numerous cases of sexual abuse, extortion and harassment of women. The ACLU cites numerous women, who fled domestic violence at home, only to be locked behind bars in Texas.

None of this is new. It repeats the violence against women that marked T. Don Hutto Residential Center, five years ago also in Texas, and the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona and the Artesia “Family Residential Center” in New Mexico. Everyone of them a colossal snake pit of sexual violence, extortion, harassment of women and children. Everyone of them a death-in-life sentence for hundreds and thousands of children and their mothers. Each time the violence is “discovered”, the “residents” are shipped like so much cargo to the next killing field.

Honor International Migrants Day by celebrating the miracle of freedom, freedom of movement, association, life, choice and love. Celebrate the miracle of being truly human. Close the prisons. Tear down the walls. Beat the guns into plowshares and the barbed wire and batons into pruning hooks. Welcome the migrants with open arms. Welcome the stranger as yourself.

 

(Image Credit: NewInt.org)

Prison is bad for pregnant women and other living things

 

A report entitled Expecting Change: the case for ending the immigration detention of pregnant women was released today. It describes the nightmare that is Yarl’s Wood. The report bristles in its portrait of a system built of violence, planned inefficiencies and incompetence, and general disregard for women. You should read this report.

At the same time, a question haunts the report. So much of it is commonsensical that one feels compelled to wonder about the groundwork and horizons of social justice research. Here’s an example: “Asylum seeking women have poorer maternity outcomes than the general population. Many women in the sample were victims of rape, torture and trafficking.” The vast majority of women asylum seekers are fleeing sexual and other forms of violence, and so it comes as no surprise that they have poorer maternity outcomes than the general population. They also have poorer health outcomes generally, including mental and emotional health. They are asylum seekers.

On the one hand, we could discuss `the system’. We could talk about the planning that goes into systematically “failing to recognize” and “failing to appreciate” the particularities of women prisoners’ lives and situations. We could talk about the political economy of that planned failure, about who benefits and howbut we’ve done that already.

Instead, let’s imagine. Imagine what we could be researching and developing if we weren’t constantly working to undo over three decades of intensive, systematic and, for a very few, profitable mass incarceration.

Here’s where we are today. We have to conduct a multi-year study to prove that pregnant women asylum seekers shouldn’t be in prison.

We have to conduct other studies to prove that prison is an inappropriate place for children seeking asylum. We have to conduct another series of studies to suggest that maybe prison isn’t the best place for children, and that adult prison might be an even worse option. We need another multi-year study to `prove’ that sexual violence against children in juvenile prisons is epidemic. We need that same study to `demonstrate’ that the majority of acts of violence against those children, our children, were perpetrated by adult staff members.

We need another study to prove that the reason that self-harm and hunger strikes are so common, so everyday, in immigrant prisons is that the conditions are inhuman and dire. Prisoners have given up hope as they refuse to give up hope. We need many studies to demonstrate adequately that LGBT immigrants suffer inordinately in immigration prisons, and we need many more studies to demonstrate that the same is true for immigrants who live with disabilities. And then of course we’ll need more studies to prove that immigrant prisoners living with HIV have a tough time behind bars. We’ll need studies to prove that the prisons for immigrants and migrants and asylum seekers are extraordinarily cruel, and then we’ll need other studies to prove that the cruelty of those prisons is actually quite normal, and quite like the cruelty of all the other prisons.

We’ll need studies to prove that immigration prisons embody the architecture of xenophobia, and we’ll need other studies to prove that the asylum system is “flawed”. We’ll need other studies to understand that the xenophobia and the flaws are gendered. And then we’ll need meta-studies that will analyze the curious phenomenon of the complete lack of improvement. These studies will note, with compassion, that after decades of detailed research, the prisons are still hell.

I am grateful for the work scholars have performed. It’s often impossible work, and yet individuals and groups, such as those at Medical Justice who produced today’s study, do that work, and do it with grace. At the same time, imagine. Imagine what we could be researching and learning if we weren’t still drowning in our own Hundred Years’ War of Mass Incarceration. Imagine.

 

(Image Credit: Medical Justice)

The F-word: The vicious cycle for women in prison

A report following an unannounced inspection of Styal women’s prison by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick has made serious criticisms of the prison’s provision for women with mental health problems.

…the jail’s Keller Unit, which looks after vulnerable inmates, is still ‘wholly unsuitable. He said prison officers often had to use force to remove ligatures from the necks of women intent on harming themselves. And he said the plight of the women in the unit was ‘more shocking and distressing than anything I have yet seen on an inspection’. … there were too many women serving very short prison sentences, and mental health services were stretched.

Many of the difficulties experienced by prisoners are exacerbated by the excessive use of jail terms as sentences for people whose needs would be better served – and who would be less likely to re-offend – if, instead, better services were offered to them in the community.

It’s a vicious cycle: inadequate welfare provision pushes the prison population up, which makes it harder for prisons to cope, which worsens the problems that prisoners continue to face after they are released – a dynamic heartbreakingly exemplified in the awful story of Neil Carpenter, sent to prison by magistrates to “get [him] over the hardest part of winter”.

It’s a strange kind of fiscal austerity in which the enormous expense of jail terms has come to be positioned as any kind of alternative to proper social services.

Custodial sentences are especially unsuitable in the particular circumstances faced by many foreign national women, who form a seventh of the prison population in England and Wales and whose experiences are discussed in a recent briefing by Hibiscus and the Prison Reform Trust. These women are disproportionately sentenced to short prison sentences for non-violent, non-sexual and non-robbery offences:

Foreign national women are far less likely than UK nationals to have committed serious violent or sexual offences or robbery. Only 15% of foreign nationals are serving sentences for serious crimes compared to 41% of UK nationals. A disproportionate number of foreign national women are in prison for drug or immigration related offences. The briefing’s findings reveal that the average length of sentence given in 2009 for drug offences was six years, with findings of guilt after entering not guilty pleas resulting in sentences of up to 15 years. The average sentence for false documentation was eight months and for deception 12 months.

The briefing points out that too little is done to effectively ascertain whether offending by foreign national women is connected to trafficking or coercion, and to rethink sentencing accordingly:

Worrying cases are also uncovered where the woman has been smuggled into the country to escape persecution or has entered the country on debt bondage or other forms of people trafficking and for whom survival has necessitated accepting work in illegal activities or use of fake documents to survive. …

Despite the fact that the UK government has ratified the European Convention on Trafficking, with its emphasis on victim protection, there is little attention given by their legal representatives to identifying evidence of exploitation or persecution, or women acting under duress, and the standard advice given is that there is no option but to plead guilty on the immigration related charges.

These women are therefore sentenced, with the assumption of deportation, before they can disclose the necessary information to be assessed as victims or genuine asylum seekers. Failure to get appropriate legal advice on immigration issues in the early stages of court appearances thus prejudices any chance of a positive asylum or residency outcome, as they are slotted into the category of “foreign criminals”.

 

The inside of Styal Prison

This was first published at The F-Word, here:  http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2012/01/women_in_prison_2. Thanks to Jolene Tan and all the people at The F-Word for this collaboration.

(Photo Credit 1: Manchester Users Network) (Photo Credit 2: BBC)