What happened to Jessica DiCesare? Just another jail suicide in Massachusetts

Jessica DiCesare and her two sons, now 15 and 7 years old

What happened to 35-year-old Jessica DiCesare last year? On July 8, 2017, Jessica DiCesare, mother of two, was “found” dead in her cell in the Barnstable County Correctional Facility, in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. The investigation officer found a note, which read, in part, “This place is so fucked … this is not justice, nor innocent until proven guilty, nor `good for the common wealth’. We are treated like sub-animals here …. I’m losing my mind / I want to die.” On July 7, following a panic attack, Jessica DiCesare wrote a note to the jail staff, which read, in part, “Being in segregation is deteriorating my mental status, as well as my physical health. I have no prior convictions, no prior jail time, and was placed here almost one month ago. I have PTSD … Being locked in here is bringing my mental health status back 10 years … also having been taken off my meds I have been on. I went from running a successful business to mental deterioration because of being locked up 23 hours a day … I also suffer major depression, bipolar disorder, prior hospitalizations for suicidal feelings and am losing my mind in here.” Am losing my mind in here. Despite the pleas from a social worker who had read the note, the supervisor of mental health clinicians decided that DiCesare did not require any special attention.  What happened to Jessica DiCesare? The routine torture of women in jails in Massachusetts and across the United States. On July 11, 2017, Jessica DiCesare was pronounced dead.

Jessica DiCesare was initially picked up for drug and theft charges. Her bail was set at $500. Her mother, Sue DiCesare, and brother, Richard DiCesare decided not to pay. Since high school, Jessica DiCesare had struggled with substance abuse and mental illness. Mother and brother both thought Jessica DiCesare would be safer and maybe get some help while in jail awaiting trial. Now, Sue DiCesare says, “The guilt we feel for not bailing her out is huge.”

From schools to streets to courts to jails and prison, everyone who comes into contact with the aptly named criminal justice system is meant to struggle with this guilt. It’s an additional fee levied on “those who chose”, chose to be poor or of color or immigrant or woman or LGBTIQ or living with mental illness or living with drug addiction. Those who “made poor choices” carry an impossible debt they never incurred. You know who doesn’t feel huge guilt. The medical supervisor at Barnstable County Correctional Facility, who insisted that Jessica DiCesare did not warrant special attention.

And so now, jail officials intone their version of “prayers and thoughts”, namely that jail is not designed to be a mental health institution nor an addiction treatment facility . “Every suicide is a tragedy.” How long before the individual tragedies are seen, collectively, as an epidemic? At what point do we recognize that jail is the public health crisis? When do Sue and Richard DiCesare stop being made to feel guilty?

In 2017, fourteen people died of suicide in Massachusetts’ prisons and jails, the highest number since the last peak, in 2014. Of the 14, 4 were in Massachusetts prisons and 10 were in Massachusetts jails, where prisoners include people awaiting trial and people sentenced to up to 2 ½ years. Massachusetts houses about 20,000 people in jails and prisons, with about 10,000 in each. Three weeks prior to Jessica DiCesare’s death, 21-year-old William Jarosiewicz “was found dead” in his cell at the same Barnstable County Correctional Facility. Jessica DiCesare joins the circle of  Tanna Jo Fillmore, Madison Jensen, Madaline Christine PitkinSarah Lee Circle BearChristina TahhahwahAmy Lynn CowlingAshley EllisKellsie GreenJoyce CurnellSandra BlandKindra Chapman, Kellsie Green and so many other women who have “been found” in America’s jails. Jessica DiCesare begged for help; her family pleaded for help. When did asking for help become a death sentence?

 

(Photo Credit: Cape Cod Times) (Infographic Credit: New England Center for Investigative Reporting)

Massachusetts Stops Shackling Women (Prisoners) in Childbirth!

 

Yesterday, we asked, “Will Massachusetts stop shackling women prisoners in childbirth?” Today, the Governor gave his answer. Yes! Governor Duval Patrick today said, “We will end finally, completely and immediately the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in labor.” Yes!

The struggle does not end with the Governor’s regulation. As Senator Karen Spilka, who sponsored the bill currently in the Massachusetts legislature, noted, “It’s not necessary, it’s inhumane, and it can be very detrimental to the woman and the baby. We need to codify this to strongly send a message that we are a state that treats our women humanely and wants to foster their health and wellness.”

Or, as Governor Patrick succinctly said, “Regulation is good, but here law is better.”

The bill puts the shackling of women prisoners in childbirth in the context of pregnant women’s rights to well being, to decent and affirmative health care. Shackling pregnant women is inhumane and misogynistic. It hates women as women.

Senator Karen Spilka and Representative Kay Khan, along with the women and men of ACLU, NARAL, The Prison Birth Project, and others will keep the struggle going for passage of the legislation. But for today … YES! Yes, women prisoners are women. Yes, it is wrong to shackle pregnant women. Yes, it is right to support women’s right to health, well being, and being women. Yes!

 

(Image Credit: RadicalDoula)

Will Massachusetts Stop Shackling Women Prisoners in Childbirth?

 

Massachusetts and Maryland legislatures are considering abolishing the practice of shackling women prisoners in childbirth. Last Friday, the Massachusetts legislature moved, inched, a little closer to banning the practice: “In a step toward joining the 18 states that have passed legislation restricting the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Public Safety has released a bill that would prohibit such shackling in Massachusetts during labor and childbirth, post-delivery recuperation, and transportation to the hospital. The bill, sponsored by Senator Karen Spilka, has now passed the first hurdle to passage.”

This bill has languished in committee for ten years. Each year, it would come up in the House, be assigned to the Judiciary Committee, and sit. Each year that happened, for ten years. Finally, this year, Senator Karen Spilka said enough already, and moved the legislation in the Senate. Last Friday, it moved out of committee.

The bill does more than end shackling, although that would be something in itself. It “promotes safe pregnancies for female inmates.” The authors of the bill understand that shackling women prisoners is part of a program to deny that pregnant women prisoners are, indeed, women who are pregnant. Childbirth is childbirth is childbirth. Women should never be shackled during childbirth.

Yet they are.

Marianne Bullock is Co-Founder, with Lisa Andrews, of The Prison Birth Project. She has worked in Western Massachusetts with over 100 pregnant women prisoners: “Passing this bill is crucial. Ending the practice of shackling and restraint of pregnant, laboring and postpartum women in Massachusetts will allow mothers throughout the commonwealth to give birth with dignity—free of restraint.”

Senator Karen Spilka argued, “Shackling pregnant women interferes with a physician’s ability to treat mothers and their newborns, and it is an inhumane, unacceptable practice. This bill is an important and necessary step toward improving reproductive health for female prisoners and ensuring safe, healthy outcomes for women and their babies.” She added, “It still is amazing to me that in 2014 we have to work to even pass such a bill. I believe very strongly we need a single standard in these situations when women are pregnant and incarcerated, and the standard should be no shackles.”

The standard must be no shackles. If Massachusetts passes the bill, and that’s not at all a foregone conclusion, it will become the 19th state to do so. In more than half of the United States, the simple truth that women in childbirth should not be shackled is neither simple nor true. Whether the ordinary and everyday spectacle of the shackled woman in childbirth reiterates the motif of slavery or that of the witch-hunt, the point is it must end. Now. The alibi of modernity expressed in the surprise that in 2014 we still have this work to do must be set aside, and instead of surprise, we should be ashamed and disgusted with ourselves, for living in a place and time where women in childbirth are shackled. Stop shackling pregnant women now!

 

(Image Credit: RadicalDoula)