A victory for Prisoners’ Rights in Zimbabwe!

Once again Veritas, a nongovernmental organisation based in Zimbabwe, which provides information on the work of the Parliament of Zimbabwe and the Laws of Zimbabwe and makes public domain information widely available has succeeded in advancing human rights through the Constitutional Court.  This time the rights are those of prisoners who have been sentenced to life imprisonment.  Yesterday 19th July, 2016 in a landmark judgment in the case of Makoni v Commissioner of Prisons and Another, brought by Veritas, the Court ruled that life prisoners will now be eligible for release on parole like all other prisoners.

The parole system allows the Minister of Justice, on the advice of a Board, to grant prisoners early release from prison before they have fully served their sentences.  Prisoners can be released on parole on various grounds – for example humanitarian reasons – that they have become too old or ill to be kept in prison, or, that their good behaviour in prison shows that they have reformed and will not return to a life of crime.

Only one class of prisoner was completely debarred from release on parole:  prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment.  Under section 115 of the Prisons Act the Minister was permitted to release any prisoner on licence – i.e. on parole – “other than a prisoner who has been sentenced to death or to imprisonment for life”.  What this meant was that however young a person might have been when sentenced to life imprisonment, he [and they were almost all male] would remain in prison for the rest of his life.

It was this that Veritas challenged in the Constitutional Court, arguing that sentencing someone to prison with no hope of release violated the person’s dignity and amounted to cruel or inhuman punishment in contravention of section 53 of the Constitution.

The key question for the CC was what standard to apply in determining prisoners’ rights. A high standard would mean that more prisoners’ rights will be recognized in practice. A lax standard, would mean placing a burden on prisoners that is difficult to meet, which might mean that prisoners’ rights are more theoretical than real. In this case it seems the CC has marked out a distinct approach to the question of prisoners’ rights. The CC has abandoned a cautious approach and deference to prison administration. This is a hallmark of a CC that is really trying to take a progressive approach.

The Constitutional Court agreed with Veritas’ arguments.  In a unanimous judgment delivered by Judge Patel J the Court decided that:

  • The Constitution ushered in a departure from the old approach to punishment, which emphasised retribution, towards one of social re-integration and rehabilitation of prisoners.
  • “Whole life imprisonment”, i.e. imprisonment for life without the possibility of release, constitutes a violation of human dignity and amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment in breach of sections 51 and 53 of the Constitution.
  • The power of the President to order the release of life prisoners under his power of mercy in terms of section 112 of the Constitution is entirely discretionary and cannot be enforced or questioned by courts of law.  As such it does not afford adequate redress for the purpose of enforcing such prisoners’ fundamental human rights under the Constitution.
  • There was no justifiable reason, based on the public interest, to distinguish between life prisoners and other prisoners in the matter of parole; hence the exclusion of life prisoners from the parole process contravened their right to equal protection and benefit of the law under section 56(1) of the Constitution.

The court accordingly ordered that, until the Prisons Act was amended to bring it into line with the Constitution, its provisions should be applied so as to extend the right of parole to every prisoner, including those sentenced to imprisonment for life.

This case highlights the limitations of the archaic Prisons Act in its failure to respond to and redress human rights abuses and the need for redress to protect and advance the status of prisoners’ rights.

The judgment is a landmark in the advancement of human rights in Zimbabwe.  It serves as a reminder that prisoners, however heinous their crimes may have been, are human beings entitled to humane treatment. This decision of the Zimbabwe Constitutional Court is a contribution to the progressive constitutional jurisprudence which the court is building up for Zimbabwe.

 

(Image Credit: Veritas)

Getting A Conversation Started About Women Serving LWOP in Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Sharon Wiggins

I set up twelve wooden fold-up chairs around four long, wooden, primitively made tables that I arranged in an open square. One chair was for me. In the middle of the education building at the Solebury Meetinghouse, in a quasi-rural -suburban place an hour outside of Philadelphia I was prepping the room for a free public meeting or rather a conversation that I had been wanting to have for over a year; ever since Peachie died.

The squared stage I set up surrounded by an even dozen chairs appeared warm and balanced-conducive for a conversation about the struggles that women and girls experience while serving life without parole in Pennsylvania. If by chance fewer people showed up for the meeting, the arrangement wouldn’t look empty and feel cold. If by chance more people showed up, there was room to sit behind those seated at the table. I placed my agenda and handouts in a well made basket; a gift from a friend many years a go.

This room, I am comfortable in. In this room, once or twice a month for three and a half years I held Cub Scout den meetings. Two years a go, I welcomed the Fight For Lifers to present their educational initiatives at a meeting I had organized. Scouting and life sentences. There has got to be a connection: the responsibility that we have to be informed citizens? That might be it. By the way I am not a Quaker.

My plan was to share the devotion I have for Naomi, Marie, Sheena, Juvenile Girl, Avis, Joyce, Jessie, Tequilla and others. And to convince the citizens of Bucks County that these are just a handful of the women I have become acquainted over the last three years as an Official Visitor with the Pennsylvania Prison Society and who have earned and deserve to be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the the free world. But because I have been thinking about this problem of no parole in Pennsylvania for lifers for three years, I have come to realize that the average person in my part of the state, knows nothing about this injustice. Not only for adults, but definitely not about juveniles serving this capital equivalent sentence.

So, because of that I needed to give some historical information about mandatory sentencing, the shut down of commutation and comparisons to other states and countries in order to illustrate with as much punch as possible how Pennsylvania is in a time warp and in terms of penological practices, about as progressive as a closed, oppressed Asian nation. And I realized that before I could concentrate on women’s issues, I was half way through the meeting discussing general prison issues that affect both men, women and their families: the cost of making phone calls, lousy food and medical care, staff turnover, lack of educational opportunities, isolation in remote parts of the state affecting visitation, commutation futility, well trained staff, leadership turnover and that for lifers, doesn’t get any easier or cheaper.

I tried to illustrate all of these struggles with the views and experiences of a woman or grown up juvenile girl serving life. I shared the accomplishments that the women are proud of, the sentence of life that they received that clearly does not reflect their degree of guilt, decades of isolation and the absurdity of being deemed unworthy and too dangerous to live in the free world. Ever. The small and nearly empty visitor’s room at Muncy and Cambridge Springs speaks loudly: where are the male relatives? How can women become better and more effective leaders while incarcerated? How can their voices be heard?

The excessive power that the victim’s rights groups have over our criminal justice system and their success in hijacking any sense of compassion and mercy to our most marginalized members of our society has retarded our spiritual growth. The ignorant and lazy elected officials who do nothing to not only educate themselves about this tragedy, can’t even take the time to meet a women serving life for decades has trumped any chance of Pennsylvania to be an evolving and decent place to empathize with those who have served many decades in prison and who have served their time so well, that many have more to be proud of then those who have never served a single day in prison.

The meeting was attended by nine engaged and thoughtful people. Four of us were already in this struggle and the remaining five came with some knowledge of the absurdity of our overly punitive incarcerated state and have the desire to learn more. The woman from her book club will undoubtedly be more effective in her upcoming group discussion on the book “Doing Life.” I guess this is a step in the right and just direction.

 

(Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Life without parole: The staggering work of heartbreaking

Two recent reports, taken together, describe a United States in which the violence of mass and hyper incarceration has become an intrinsic part of the contemporary American project. As at least one writer noted years ago in a different context, the rule of law is the force of law. And that force is coming down on Black populations with particular intensity.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s report, A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses, has attracted attention and sparked conversation, although thus far not beyond the circle of usual participants. The ACLU findings, while horrible, are not all that surprising. The so-called War on Drugs has fueled the life without parole, or LWOP, economy. Pretty much any hint of `drug involvement’ can land a person in jail for life without parole. Most of the LWOP prisoners are first-time drug offenders.

Here’s the heart of living-death: “There is a staggering racial disparity in life-without-parole sentencing for nonviolent offenses. Blacks are disproportionately represented in the nationwide prison and jail population, but the disparities are even worse among the nationwide LWOP population and worse still among the nonviolent LWOP population. Based on data provided by the United States Sentencing Commission and state Departments of Corrections, the ACLU estimates that nationwide, 65.4 percent of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 17.8 percent are white, and 15.7 percent are Latino. In the 646 cases examined for this report, the ACLU found that 72.9 percent of these documented prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 19.8 percent are white, and 6.9 percent are Latino.”

Staggering? Yes. Surprising? Not at all.

According to the ACLU, 3, 279 people are serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes. Of that group, 2,074 are in federal prisons and jails. Of the 2074, 1757 are Black. That’s 60%. 91.4% of Louisiana’s LWOP prisoners are Black, and so Louisiana wins the Race Race to the Bottom.

The individual stories are heartbreaking… and not surprising. Life without parole is a death sentence. It emerges not only from the War on Drugs, but also from a national belief that rehabilitation does not work, that `criminals’ are not human and so must be caged.

As the Sentencing Project report, Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America, suggests, the initial impetus for the LWOP was the elimination of the death penalty. So, state-by-state, over twenty years, the `nation’ replaced the instant of death with a lifetime of dying.

The Sentencing Project findings, while useful, are also not surprising. Serious crime is down, and the number of LWOP prisoners, in the same period, has more than quadrupled. Last year, over 159,000 people were serving life sentences. Close to 50,000 were LWOP.

One in nine prisoners is in for life, and, as the Sentencing Projected documented earlier in the year, this includes an increasing number of juveniles, of children. Around 10,000 people have been sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent offenses. Almost half the `lifers’ are Black. Nearly 10,000 people have been sentenced to life behind bars for crimes that occurred before they turned 18. Around 2,500 of that 10,000 were sentenced to life without parole. Children waiting to die.

More than 5,300, or 3.4%, of prisoners sentenced to life are women.

According to the Sentencing Project, the United States boasts 5,361 women serving life sentences. That’s up 13.2% since 2008. Who are these women?

Women serving life sentences often have particularly tragic histories. Among the females serving LWOP for offenses committed in their teenage years, the vast majority experienced sexual abuse in their childhood. Among women convicted of intimate partner violence-related homicides, the majority have been battered. This is even more evident among women serving life sentences. Statistics from nationally representative inmate survey data show that 83.8% of life-sentenced women were sexually or physically abused and that abuse is significantly more common among female lifers than male lifers or female prisoners not serving life sentences.”

Who are the women serving life sentences, and even more those serving life without parole? They are the abandoned. Growing up in a period in which public and social services, caring services, were slashed, growing up in a time and place in which needing help was criminalized, as girls they were left to fend for themselves. Today, they are the fantastic products of a national social factory, one that stretches from `Welfare Queens’ to `Drug Mules’.

There is no surprise in this, and there is no `genius.’ There is only the staggering work of heartbreaking.

 

(Photo Credit: ACSlaw.org / lawanddisorder.org)

A specter haunts Pennsylvania

Sharon Wiggins died in March. Wiggins was a 62-year-old Black woman living with serious health problems. But it wasn’t her health that did her in. What killed Sharon Wiggins was the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Sharon Wiggins died behind bars at SCI-Muncy, the maximum security and intake `facility’ for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania, as well as the site of its death row for women.

Wiggins entered Muncy at the age of 17, convicted initially to death and then, a few years later, to life without parole. She spent 45 years behind bars. When she died she was the oldest and the longest serving woman prisoner in Pennsylvania. That’s no mean feat. Pennsylvania has more prisoners who began as juvenile lifers than any other state in the Union. Effectively, this means Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any place else in the world.

Reports suggest that Wiggins set out, early on, to improve her life, to atone for her crimes, sins, and mistakes. She finished a degree at Penn State and when on to tutor and to manage tutoring programs. She completed thousands of educational certificate programs. She mentored others; she took care of women and helped women grow, and not only women prisoners. Nancy Sponeybarger, a former counselor at Muncy, has said, “As I got to know her a little bit, she was the one person who always made me feel my humanity.”

On another occasion, Sponeybarger elaborated, “She’s grown into a really insightful, compassionate, capable older woman – despite all the odds, because it’s not like you have a ton of role models when you’re in prison, especially when you’re tossed in there as a little girl.”

Especially when you’re tossed in there as a little girl.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to mandatory life sentences without parole. Wiggins applied for release, and she and her lawyers and supporters hoped that she would be released, at last: “I want to know what it feels like to wake up by myself. Here, you live on public view. There’s always a big piece of glass on your door. I want to wake up by myself. I want to know how it feels to walk down the street. I want to know how it feels to sit in the car and hear the rain just beat down. I want to know how it feels to sit with my sister and have a cup of coffee.”

The State dragged its feet, and Sharon Wiggins died. She never got to know.

Pennsylvania leads the nation and the world in the incarceration of children for life without parole. Last year, nationally, close to 1600 people were serving out juvenile life sentences without parole. Of the girls, almost 80% reported physical abuse, and over 77% reported sexual abuse.

And it gets worse. Historically and immediately, juvenile justice institutions are designed for boys. They don’t work for boys, mind you, but for girls, they’re particularly and specifically toxic, lethal even. The research on this systematic `oversight’ is abundant and easily available.

Custody for girls virtually guarantees that that their unique needs are not met and they react differently to their treatment than boys. Sentencing young girls to LWOP (life without parole) in adult court exacerbates girls’ unique issues in several ways. First, with the small number of women in the prison population, girls are often sent to women’s prisons with adult offenders rather than to separate units for youth offenders.  Girls are all too often subjected to sexual abuse and rape while in prison. Male corrections staff at women’s prisons may use coercive methods to initiate sexual relationships with inmates, or may abuse their position to obtain sexual favors. Sentencing girls to serve a life sentence in adult prison creates circumstances that are very traumatic and that should raise the specter of a punishment that is cruel and unusual.”

A specter haunts Pennsylvania, the specter of a punishment that is cruel and unusual, the specter of compassion and decency, the specter of justice for Sharon Peachie Wiggins. It is the specter of those children tossed in there as little girls.

 

(Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Florida has a drug problem

The State of Florida, the so-called Sunshine State, has a drug problem, a drug crisis actually. The State seems hooked on psychotropic drugs for children. And not just any children. The most vulnerable children. Foster children. Children in prison. Children in various forms and modes of `custody’.

Two years ago, on April 16, 2009, Gabriel Myers, a seven-year-old child, hanged himself. Gabriel was in foster care. At the time of his death, Gabriel was prescribed psychotropic medications. The State of Florida Department of Children and Families appointed a work group, the Gabriel Myers Work Group, to look into both the circumstances of Gabriel’s death, and life, and that of all children in State foster care.

Gabriel was placed in foster care in order to take him out of a traumatically abusive household. He was “brought into care June 29, 2008.” Ten months later, he was dead. It happens that quickly, and it happened that torturously slowly as well. Gabriel saw psychiatrists and therapists. He was described as “overwhelmed with change and possibly re-experiencing trauma.” He engaged in self-destructive behavior.

The Work Group found that, while there were many caring adults around Gabriel, in the end he was “no one’s child.” No one adult took full responsibility, and so there was no one to notice or address failures, gaps, and lapses in treatment. For example, there was no one to ask hard, even belligerent, questions about the effects and impact of psychotropic drugs on a child. According to the Work Group, there was no sense of urgency: “Because the perception of time for a child is compressed, a demonstrated sense of urgency by adults is vital.”

The Work Group found that, while nationally 5% of all children receive psychotropic medication, among Florida’s foster kids, the rate was 15.2%. Florida has all sorts of protocols and regulations, but if there’s no one, no adult, with a vital and demonstrated sense of urgency, the drugs flow. Gabriel’s tragedy was one of repeatedly missed opportunities for real treatment, for real help, for real care. That was the Report of the Gabriel Myers Work Group, November 19, 2009.

That was two years ago. And today?

Today, Florida distributes psychotropic drugs, with what amounts to abandon, to children in prison. Doctors are prescribing psychotropic drugs more often than ibuprofen. In 2007, according to a report last week, the Department of Juvenile Justice bought more than twice as much Seroquel as ibuprofen for its state-operated jails and homes for children.

Again, there’s little or no oversight. By its own admission, the State doesn’t know where most of the drugs are. This is called a “functionality” concern. There’s little or no oversight, as well, concerning conflict of interest between prescribing doctors and the pharmaceutical corporations.

What’s going on in Florida? According to Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office represents children in juvenile court, it’s battery: “If kids are being given these drugs without proper diagnosis, and it is being used as a ‘chemical restraint,’ I would characterize it as a crime. A battery – a battery of the brain each and every time it is given.”

According to Dr. Glenn Currier, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester in New York, the doses are extraordinarily high. When asked about a case involving one young female prisoner, Dr. Currier remarked: “I have heard of doses that high in large adult males. But not in girls.”

Florida used to put juveniles in prison for life, without any chance of parole, for non-homicide offenses. Last year, in Graham v Florida, the US Supreme Court ruled that it could no longer do so. In the 1990s, Florida sent 7000 children to adult courts. That’s more than the rest of the country, combined.

What’s going on in Florida is a crisis, a crisis of care, a crisis of urgency. The State is distributing deadly drugs to its most vulnerable children. And that’s a crime.

 

(Image credit: CCHR International)

 

Child-ghosts in the society of the spectacle

In November 2008, La Promesse, a school in Port-au-Prince, collapsed. Three stories came crashing down, at least 84 children and staff were killed, over 150 injured. It was not an earthquake that brought death to those children. It was shoddy construction, it was greed. Immediately afterwards, the mayor of Port-au-Prince stated that over half of Haiti’s building were poorly built and unsafe.

Michele Voltaire Marcelin tried to understand, to live with, the calculations that leave children suffering and dead under the weight of preventable destruction. She tried to understand the promise we make to our children:

The Promise
— For the Haitian schoolchildren who 
died under the rubble of “La Promesse”

children die
do not talk to me about prayer
or paradise
talk is cheap
children die
and my anger supercedes my grief
remember
it was a november morning like any other
when the plaster the brick the mortar
came crashing down
children die
under the rubble of the promise
women cry
the air is heavy as lead
the air is filled with dust
we live in heartless times
and children die
looking for paradise

Children die. We live in heartless times and children die. Those children become child-ghosts. We live in an age of spectacle in which children die and living children are treated as dead. Both are child-ghosts.

Sunday morning, May 16, seven year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones lay asleep in her bed, when Detroit police rushed in with guns drawn and, quickly, blazing, and killed her. An accident, they said, in apology, as explanation. `A Tragedy in Detroit, With a Reality TV Crew in Tow’, according to The New York Times. The police were participating in an A&E reality show, The First 48. For some, this is an issue about reality shows, for others police violence, for others the value of the lives of people of color, of girls of color. These are all worthy lines of lines of inquiry.

At the same time, Aiyana Stanley-Jones is precisely not a tragedy because her story is too familiar and too often repeated. She is one with the girls of La Promesse, young, Black, dreaming, and killed. A ghost-child.

The next day, Monday, the US Supreme Court decided that “juveniles who commit crimes in which no one is killed may not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.” “An incredibly important win for kids who’ve been condemned to die in prison”? Perhaps. A step in the right direction, but not a long enough nor a strong enough step? Probably. A ruling that addresses neither the inequities of life without parole nor the cynical inequalities of the parole system? Most likely.

Sentencing a child to life without the possibility of parole turns that child into a child-ghost. Once he or she, and the majority are he (and he of color, at that) is sentenced, the game is over, the play is done, the curtain is drawn. All that matters is the spectacle of society being defended, the courtroom drama that assures that humans will be protected from monsters. How? By sending them to the beyond. That those monsters actually are still alive is irrelevant. Who really cares about ghosts produced in a society of spectacle? No one.

And what of those children whose only crime is that of seeking safety?

On Wednesday, the British Home Office announced that children would no longer be held at Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre in Scotland. The decision came soon after a Pakistani woman asylum, Sehar Shebaz, and her 12 month old daughter Wania were arrested on Monday, and sent to Dungavel. People protested. The Home Office said fine … and then prepared to ship Sehar and Wania Shebaz to Yarl’s Wood.

Yarl’s Wood … again: “Anne McLaughlin, SNP MSP for Glasgow, called for an immediate end to the policy across the rest of the UK. Ms McLaughlin has been a key activist in the high profile campaign to prevent Florence Mhango, from Malawi, and her 10-year-old daughter Precious, who were held at Dungavel and Yarl’s Wood, from being deported after seven years in the UK. She said: `From Precious we know the horrific impact detention at Dungavel has on young children, but we also know that her experience at Yarl’s Wood was no better. By removing children immediately to Yarl’s Wood they are being taken away from the support networks and services they have built up in Scotland. The House of Commons has been highly critical of child detention in Yarl’s Wood and we must see this practice brought to an end across the UK as soon as possible.’”

A child seeks asylum and is sent to prison. A woman seeks asylum, with her child, and is sent to prison. Does it matter which prison? Out of sight, out of mind, out of luck, out of options, out of light, out of life. They are ghosts, and they are treated as such.

Today is May 22, 2010. May 22, 2009, seven girls perished in an altogether preventable fire in Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in Jamaica: Ann-Marie Samuels, Nerrissa King, and Rachael King, Georgina Saunders, all 16 years old; Kaychell Nelson and Shauna-Lee Kerr, both 15, and Stephanie Smith, 17. The Prime Minister called it a tragedy. Of course. A video and petition campaign has begun to make sure that the Prime Minister and the Director of Public Prosecutions work harder, work better so that the tragedy is not repeated.

These child-ghosts, these girl-ghosts, under the rubble, under the gun, behind the bars, in the flames, they are children, living, breathing, human children. In fact, they are our children. We must teach them as we ourselves must learn and live the lesson of the Griot, “You got to be a spirit! You can’t be no ghost.”

 

(Photo Credit: Herb Boyd / Voice of Detroit)