What goes on in New Jersey’s county jails? Overcrowding. Suicide. Death.

Hudson County jail

In 2018, New Jersey was embroiled in a federal investigation into rampant sexual abusein the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for women. That investigation culminated in several criminal investigations, indictments of correctional officers and a committee hearing that hopefully will bring some positive changes to the state prison – if positive changesand prisoncan be put together in the same sentence. But what is going on in New Jersey’s county jails may be even more insidious and too often falls under the radar. Twenty of the state’s 21 counties have jails, and they operate with little oversight from the state DOC.

According to the latest figures available from the DOJ, the Garden State jails have the highest per-capita death rate among the 30 states with the largest jail populations. The biggest driver of rising death rates was suicides committed by people suffering from untreated drug addictions and mental illnesses.

The rate of suicides in New Jersey county jails has risen an average of 55% each year between 2012 and 2016. With the exception of Hudson County, these deaths have garnered very little government attention, and action. Hudson County increased spending on mental health and stepped up screenings as part of the intake process for prisoners. Even so, in Hudson County, of 17 recorded deaths at the jail since 2013, officials could only find six incident reports. Between June 2017 and March 2018 alone, six inmates died in the Hudson County jail.  

Cynthia Acosta committed suicide at the Hudson County jail. Acosta had been receiving help for drug abuse and admitted herself to an inpatient mental health program at Christ Hospital in Jersey City, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Medication was helping to stabilize her, according to her brother, David Acosta. 

Ready to find her own place and about to file for housing assistance, Cynthia Acosta needed a copy of her identification record. She drove to a government office in Hoboken despite having a suspended driver’s license and was arrested by North Bergen police officers for past traffic violations. Her medicine was left in the car after her arrest. Three days later she was dead. 

Cynthia’s death was preventable. Having been booked in the Hudson facility, she was housed in the combined medical and mental health unit, “a small, windowless, triangle-shaped room bordered by three cells, a shower and a nurses’ station.” The Director of the jail has acknowledged that the nurses didn’t have enough training and resources to deal with mental health issues. Neverthelss, he claimed defended that inmates were properly monitored … despite the suicide rate.

The issues do not stop at North Jersey. In Cumberland County, a man from Vineland became the seventh inmate to die from suicide at the county jail since 2015. The Atlantic County Jail has had six suicides in the past three years. Housing inmates and then completely disregarding their need for mental heath has become normalized across New Jersey. Multiple lawsuits against county jails have become the new norm, with family members demanding answers. 

Meanwhile, county contracts with ICE have led to massive overcrowding in county jails. Bergen County jails nearly tripled its capacity for federal detainees. Hudson county is at 134% of its capacity. The three biggest county governments – Bergen, Hudson, and Essex – are now earning a total of $6 milliona month to hold immigrants in their county jails. Bergen County’s contract with ICE contributes to 7.4% of Bergen’s “miscellaneous” non-tax revenues. Holding undocumented immigrants is big business.

Hidden in plain sight, New Jersey’s county jails contribute to such notorious abuses and neglect that they should be front and center of media headlines. But being quiet and closing our eyes is very good for business.

Cynthia Acosta and brother David Acosta

(Photo Credit 1: Reena Rose Sibayan / Jersey Jour/ NJ.com) (Photo Credit 2: David Acosta / NJ.com)

Resistance in the age of registries and internment

The headline reads, “Japanese American internment is ‘precedent’ for national Muslim registry, prominent Trump backer says”.

Prisons do not and will never make us safer. Everything along the spectrum that includes racist “internment camps”, which are prisons by another name, and a “national registry” of people who are Muslim is a hastening and intensifying of carcerality in our society. To be clear, the United States already has racist prisons. They’re called jails and prisons. And we already have prisons for immigrants in our country. They’re called detention centers, and the people imprisoned in them are often not counted in published numbers about this country’s gargantuan prison population.

In a fascist moment, the mode of resistance is clear: to imbue your every action with anti-fascism. This means that if there is a national registry of people who are Muslim or who are perceived to be Muslim, all people of all faiths and backgrounds need to go register for it. This means opening your home to your neighbors or to anyone who needs to hide. Solidarity is not even an option, it’s the choice of survival over necropolitics. Are you still in denial, do you still think this is far-fetched?

As everyone tries to process current events, I see people drawing a lot of comparisons between this moment and Nazi Germany. Those comparisons are important and not melodramatic, but there are some issues with them.

First, the comparison implies that previously this country wasn’t already a white-supremacist nation, wasn’t founded on racism, genocide, and slavery; hasn’t been a bloody colonizer, hasn’t destabilized/invaded other countries, hasn’t created classes of citizens that put some closer to survival and some to death. Of course, it has. And it has already been rounding up people based on ethnicity/nationality and sending them out of the country, in the millions, already. Most of all under Obama, sorry-not-sorry. The only answer to this systemic violence is to demand an abolition of borders themselves.

Second, the comparison brings us to a question of citizenship and legality, and again I see people missing some aspects of that. For example, the idea that the difference (between now and Nazi Germany) is that Jewish people WERE citizens, while undocumented people here are not. Let’s unpack that. Citizenship — and laws themselves — is not a divine mandate, nor an intrinsic natural feature. Actually, the idea that citizenship/lawfulness IS a natural feature is a tenet of Nazism, of eugenics, of racism. (I’d say “antisemitism” but the category “Semite” itself is a racist and meaningless invention, and doesn’t actually specifically refer to Jews.) Citizenship is, the law is, arbitrary and ever changing. It operates on the whim of the state, and it is a weapon that can be deployed against anyone. Citizenship is NOT a stable category. YOUR citizenship, if you have it, will NOT protect you. Your whiteness, if you have it, will not protect you. If you stand idly by while people are deported/rounded up/added to a registry, you’re not only complicit, you’re ignorant. If it can happen to anyone, it could happen to everyone. This is why our demand must be an abolition of borders and other forms of violent containment, including prisons, poverty — capitalism.

“If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night.”
 Angela Davis

“If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” James Baldwin

 

(Photo Credit 1: Intro to Women’s Studies S12) (Photo Credit 2: Fortune / Michael B. Thomas / AFP)

What happened to Sandra Bland? The routine tortured death of Black women in jail

#BlackLivesMatter activist and outspoken critic of police brutality Sandra Bland was “found” dead in a Texas jail. The jail claims Sandra Bland killed herself. The FBI is investigating. Waller County, where the jail is located, is now “discovered” as fraught with racial tensions, “racism from cradle to grave.” Some describe the circumstances as “mysterious”.

Sandra Bland’s arrest, for a minor traffic violation, was caught on video. At one point, she is thrown to the ground, and she yells, “You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that? I can’t even hear.” After that, all is silence.

That’s the ordinary of U.S. jails, and so is abuse, torture, rape and death, especially for Black women. That’s not overstated. The jails of America are filling up to choking as the prisons are “releasing”, and women, and especially Black women, have been the principle actors, and targets, of this new phase of mass incarceration. At Women In and Beyond the Global, we have been covering this trend for years. Here are just some of the individual women’s stories we’ve followed.

In 1998 Gina Muniz was incarcerated in the LA County Jail and the California state prison system for her first arrest, related to the theft of $200 related to a rapid onset of drug addiction-in the aftermath of her father’s death. The theft was bizarrely classified as a carjacking, although no one was harmed, and no car was stolen. Muniz received life in prison; her lawyer told her she was agreeing to seven years when she pled guilty. Six months after Muniz was arrested, she was dead: “Gina Muniz, September 2000, handcuffed to her deathbed and under 24-hour-guard in Modesto Community Hospital. Next to her is her daughter Amanda. Gina suffered horribly for six months from diagnosed but untreated cervical cancer. When it was diagnosed in L.A. County Jail, early and aggressive treatment would more than likely have saved Gina’s life. Grace Ortega, her mother, was finally able to win compassionate release for her daughter two days before her death, so that she could die at home”. Compassionate release.

Amy Lynn Cowling went for a drive on Christmas Eve, 2010 in East Texas. 33 years old, a grandmother of a one-day old child, bipolar, methadone dependent, and with only one kidney, Amy Lynn Cowling was picked up for speeding, then arrested for some outstanding warrants on minor theft charges and traffic violations. Five days later, in the Gregg County Jail after a day of wailing and seizures, of excruciating pain and suffering, of agony, Amy Lynn Cowling died. Amy Lynn Cowling died after five days of her family begging and pleading with the prison staff to make sure they gave her the life sustaining medicines she needed. The pills were just down the hall, in Amy Lynn Cowling’s purse, in the jail storage room. Nobody went, nobody came. Amy Lynn Cowling died.

A year before, in Onondaga County Justice Center, in upstate New York, Chuneice Patterson, 21 years old, Black woman, died similarly, screaming and writhing in pain and ignored.

In 2012, Autumn Miller was in the Jesse R. Dawson State Jail, in Dallas, Texas, for a probation violation. She was in for a year. Miller knew something was wrong. She asked for a PAP smear and for a pregnancy test. She was denied. Her cramps and pain increased. One night, her pains became too intense for guards to ignore, and they took Miller down to the `medical unit’. There are no doctors at Dawson overnight, and so guards `took care’ of Miller. The guards said Miller merely had to go to the bathroom, gave her a menstrual pad and locked her in a holding cell. Despite Miller’s pleas, nobody came in to check, and so Autumn Miller gave birth to Gracie Miller, in the holding cell toilet. Guards then came 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.

Alisha was tried and charged as an adult in DC Superior Court when she was 16 years old. She was sent to DC’s Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF). There are no special units for female youth at CTF, so Alisha was sent to solitary confinement. For weeks at a time, she was on lockdown for 23 hours a day, unable to attend school, and could not participate in any programming available at the jail. Her attorney fought to move her to a more appropriate place that could also address her mental health concerns, but she remained there for a year and a half. In solitary confinement, she attempted suicide.

In early February 2015, Natasha McKenna was killed by six officers in the Fairfax County Jail, in northern Virginia near Washington, DC. McKenna was 37 years old. She was the mother of a 7-year-old daughter. She was living with schizophrenia. She was a diminutive woman, 5 feet 3 inches, 130 pounds. And she was Black. She was killed during a so-called cell extraction, when six deputies tackled her and took care of business.

This is the cruel and usual treatment of women in U.S. jails, across the country. There is no mystery here. There is no mystery concerning what happened to Sandra Bland. Hers was a death foretold. #SayHerName I can’t even hear.

 

(Photo Credit: Facebook) (Video Credit: YouTube)

The cruel and usual treatment of women in jails

 

In the United States, jails are filling up, with particularly catastrophic consequences for women. Caging more and more women in jails for longer and longer periods of time is how the State protects its interests … and `its women.’

The Vera Institute released a report last week on the misuse of jails in the United States. It details the ways in which jails have become the repository for the poor, mentally ill, of color. For women, the situation is dire: “Serious mental illness, which includes bipolar disorder, schizophre­nia, and major depression, affects an estimated 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jails—rates that are four to six times high­er than in the general population … While most people with serious mental illness in jails, both men and women, enter jail charged with minor, nonviolent crimes, they end up staying in jail for longer periods of time. In Los Angeles, for example, Vera found that users of the Department of Mental Health’s services on average spent more than twice as much time in custody than did the general custodial population—43 days and 18 days respectively … Although women still make up a relatively small proportion of the jail population—14 percent in 2013— their share has been steadily increasing, up from 11 percent since 2000 … In 2005, 79 percent of women in jail were mothers, with nearly 250,000 children between them.”

The key here is serious mental illness affects 31 percent of women in jails. Mental illness has a gender here, and it’s women. Somehow, that salient feature drops out of the various news reports, which focus on the warehousing and punishing of the poor for their poverty and often of people of color for their race and ethnicity. Women, mostly poor, mostly women of color, and an extraordinarily high number of whom are living with mental illnesses, are being piled into jails across the country, in increasing numbers and for longer periods of time. As the Vera report notes, the money that pays for this adventure comes from “the same pool of tax revenue that supports schools, transportation, and an array of other public services.” So, first cut the services that might help these women, then pop them in jail, and then, in order to pay the freight, cut the services even further. And for the quarter million children, who are left behind, show no mercy.

Women haunt the entire prison project of the United States. Last month, California `celebrated’ its prison population dipping below the federally mandated level, which is 137.5 percent of capacity. So, the prison system is still overcrowded but not unconstitutionally so. The one exception here is the Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the world, built to house at most 2,000 prisoners. It currently has 3,383. That’s almost 170 percent of capacity, but it’s not cruel and unusual. It’s cruel and usual. The same is happening in the more than 3000 city and county jails across the country. It’s cruel and usual, and so it’s fine.

 

(Infographic: Prison Policy Initiative)