Marta Orellana must just live with the devil that haunts her

Marta Orellana

In the 1940s, the United States sent doctors to Guatemala to address syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid. Not to stop them but rather to spread them. Specifically, the U.S. Public Health Service wanted to know if penicillin after sex would prevent sexually transmitted diseases. So the doctors went to Guatemala and `recruited’ some 5500 soldiers, mental patients, children, sex workers into the program. They told them nothing, actually less than nothing. They infected the mental patients, all women; the children, all girls in orphanages; and the sex workers, all women, and then sent them to the soldiers. For Guatemalans, this was “the devil’s experiment.”

Marta Orellana was one of those orphans. She was nine years old when she was injected. For years, for decades, she lived with syphilis but was told that she had “bad blood”. She was in pain, and tired, her entire life. As she puts it, a “loving and patient” husband helped her overcome intimacy issues.

More than sixty years later, the United States [a] acknowledged the event, [b] apologized to the government of Guatemala, and [c] appointed a commission. The commission met yesterday and heard `shocking’ testimony. The story that attracted the most attention thus far is this: “a woman who was infected with syphilis was clearly dying from the disease. Instead of treating her, the researchers poured gonorrhea-infected pus into her eyes and other orifices and infected her again with syphilis. She died six months later”.

There are other stories, and others will follow … of injections, of pain and suffering, of abuse; of torture, grand and petty, slow and swift. Of 13,000 infected Guatemalans, around 700 received any treatment. 83 died.

The Commissioners have found the research to have been “grievously wrong”, “chillingly egregious”, “morally culpable”, unjust, tragic, shameful, reprehensible, “cruel and inhuman”, unethical.

The medical researchers did not act in a vacuum nor were they without context or history. The problem isn’t that they were unethical but rather that they were ethical men engaged in `ethical’ violence. In the same way that the experiments in the Nazi death camps, occurring in the same period, didn’t require justification because they were part of a moral crusade, a longstanding war against Jews, people of color, gay and lesbian people, the disabled, the experiments in Guatemala didn’t require justification because they were part of a longstanding war against the indigenous and the rural, against women of color, against the weakest and the most marginal who somehow … somehow … pose the ultimate threat.

The US medical researchers in Guatemala were not rogues, renegades, or outlaws. They were ethical White men who saw as part of their dominion over all living things the obligation to decide the fate, and design the excruciating death, of women, people and nations of color.  The United States of America has apologized to the Republic of Guatemala. Marta Orellana must just live with the devil that haunts her.

(Photo Credit: Rory Carroll / The Guardian)

Who will write a requiem for Josefa Rauluni?

Once upon a time a man named Josefa Rauluni left the island nation of Fiji for Australia, where he applied for asylum, or “protection”. He was turned down. He was taken to Villawood Detention Centre, a private facility run by Serco. He continually appealed the decision. He continually appealed to the State for asylum, for protection. He maintained he feared for his life if he returned to Fiji. The State responded with a deportation notice. The State told Josefa Rauluni that he would be deported on September 20, 2010.

The night of September 19, Josefa Raulini sent two faxes to the Ministerial Intervention Unit at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. They read, ”If you want to send me to Fiji, then send my dead body”. The State did nothing.

And so, on the morning of September 20, 2010, Josefa Raulini informed the guards, “I’m not going, if anyone goes near me, I will jump“. The guards did nothing. They did not try to reason with him. They did not try to calm him down. Finally, they tried to use force. As they moved in, Josefa Raulini jumped from a first floor balcony railing. He dove, head first, hit the ground, and died.

And the State did nothing to stop him.

It turns out the State could only do nothing because the Villawood staff has no suicide prevention training. Imagine a prison for asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected and who are awaiting imminent deportation.

Now imagine no one with suicide prevention training. The State `forgot’.

Today is the second day of an inquest into Josefa Rauluni’s death. It is the first of three such inquests into Villawood `suicides’. Josefa Rauluni did not commit suicide. He was pushed. Not by a physical hand but rather by a State whose efficiencies include the absence of mental health care providers in a place designed to drive its residents suicidal and mad.

“”If you want to send me to Fiji, then send my dead body”.

Who will write a requiem for Josefa Raulini and for all the imprisoned asylum seekers  who have perished in State custody? Who will write a requiem for the terrible years?

Fifty years ago, in 1961, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova concluded writing “Requiem”, an account of “the terrible years of the Yezhov terror”, 1935 – 1940, during which she spent seventeen months, every day, waiting in a line outside the Leningrad prison, waiting for someone who would never return.

The poem begins:

“No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger’s wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time, that place.”

Who will stand for the time and place, who will give witness to the life and death, of Josefa Raulini? Will we have to wait thirty years, and more, for the foreign sky that offers haven rather than death? Until then, Josefa Raulini haunts the contemporary prison-State.

 

(Photo Credit: http://www.matavuvale.com)

Where do the children live? Prison

I’ve been here for two weeks, and this is my third time in. I’m in the sixth grade. I was in placement but I ran away. They accused me of assault against my mom, but she scratched herself and said I did it. My dad lives in Atlanta and works in a barbershop. -E.Y., age 11 Juvenile Detention Center, Houston, Texas.

For the past forty years, the planet has been engaged in a global prison lockdown and a worldwide prison – building binge, which have resulted in the confinement of more women than ever before. This build up of lockdowns began in the United States in 1973, and has since blossomed, or mushroomed, into a global frenzy of incarceration of working class women of color and indigenous women.

The hyper-incarceration of women affects children, especially in those communities in which single women predominate as heads of households. The assault on children is more direct, however. At the same time that women, especially working class women of color and indigenous women, are being caged, their children are also being locked up as never before.

What is a child? A child is one’s offspring, a child is a minor. A child is a child, and tell me, where do the children live?

Given the prison boom, there are more offspring behind bars than ever before. Typically, the task and labor of maintaining social and sustaining contact is left to mothers, secondarily to female partners.  This is the lesson of Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, in California. When children are sent to prison, mothers are launched into a global reclamation and reconstruction project that, for many, never ends.

For example, Diana Montes-Walker’s son is an adult man in his 20s, living with bipolar disorder, complicated, predictably, by alcohol and drug dependencies. Equally predictably, her son `encountered’ the state criminal justice system, in this instance the California system. Ever since her son has been in prison, he has suffered one form or another of solitary confinement. Either he was in solitary in prison, or he was in solitary in so-called medical facilities that are actually prisons for inmates with `special needs’. In the latter, he is in solitary, but, according to his mother, with a little more freedom. He made it into the `better’ solitary confinement because his mother pushed, shoved, organized, shouted, wrote, met incessantly with everyone. And now, Diana Montes-Walker drives back and forth to scheduled meetings with doctors and social workers who don’t appear. And her son stays in solitary, and she has no idea how he’s doing.

Why is this happening to Diana Montes-Walker’s son, and so many others like him, young men and women living with mental disabilities and illnesses of one form or another? Why is he in prison? He is in prison because public mental health budgets have been shredded and then vaporized. Prisons are the new public mental health institutions. Meanwhile, Diana Montes-Walker, inhabits a State-sponsored hell, built because it’s more efficient to have her run around and take care of her son, more efficient and less costly.

Where do our children live? In prison.

In Turkey, close to 500 children live in prison with their mothers, who have been convicted. Why are they in prison? “Financial difficulties”.  For the children, three to six, there might be a kindergarten. For those under three years old, they spend the entire time in the cell with their mothers. These children are not in prison because of their mothers’ “financial difficulties”. They are in prison because of the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the State and because of the social structures that support that State.

Because of `financial difficulties’, Mississippi’s one juvenile detention center is run by a private corporation, the GEO Group. According to parents of the children being held there, the place is a horror, another State-sponsored hell. Fights break out, and the staff ignores calls for help and protection. Worse, the staff is accused of brutalizing children. Parents gaze upon their wounded and maimed children and feel a pain they describe as torturous. The lawyers describe the prison as barbaric and unconstitutional. The children describe the place as a war zone.

War zone is too nice a phrase for a place in which civilians are butchered for profit.  Child prisoners, children’s bodies and lives, bloat the coffers of private industry. They are an extractive resource whose market value continues to grow. Where do the children live? They live, and often die, in prison.

 

(Photo Credit: Richard Ross, Juvenile In Justice http://richardross.net/juvenile-in-justice)

 

The orphan children of asylum seekers haunt Australia

Seena weeps at the funeral of an eight-month-old baby, drowned on the rocks of Christmas Island

On Wednesday, December 15, 2010, a wooden fishing vessel carrying an untold number of asylum seekers and refugees, thought to be Iranian and Iraqi Kurds, crashed off the shores of Christmas Island. The residents watched in horror, the nation watched in horror. Some of the dead were fished out of the rough seas. Others were never found. Estimates suggest that 50 people perished that day.

The survivors were either sent to hospital in Perth or sent to detention centers on Christmas Island. Prime Minister Gilliard called the event a `terrible human tragedy’.

Yesterday, Tuesday, February 15, 2011, two months to the day, eight of the dead were buried in two separate funerals in Sydney. Twenty-one survivors were flown in from Christmas Island and Perth, where they have been detained for the last two months.

Among those survivors was a nine-year old boy named Seena.

Seena lost both of his parents in the tragedy. Seena’s brother drowned that day as well. His father’s body was fished out of the waters. His mother was never found. Seena spends every day staring and waiting for new boats to arrive, for his mother to arrive. At the funeral, Seena said, “Leave me alone. I just want to go to my father. I just want to see him, I just want to see him.” According to one cousin, he wanted to be “buried with his father”.

Seena is nine years old. He has cousins, aunts and uncles, who live in Sydney. They have begged the State to let the child stay in Sydney, where he has an extended family network, where there are mental health providers ready to attend to him. “We are more than happy to take responsibility for him,” his cousin explains.

They are more than happy to take responsibility.

The State however is not happy to take responsibility for this nine year old child. The State initially planned to ship him back, with the others, back to Christmas Island, back to isolation, back to desolation, back to endless and daily waiting for his mother to arrive. If Seena is returned to Christmas Island, who will take care of him? His aunt, who is also a prisoner there. His aunt, who is in even worse psychological condition than he is.

Tonight, Seena is at Villawood Immigrant Detention Centre, outside of Sydney, … again. Seena spent the day before his father’s funeral in Villawood. When ten relatives came to see him, his spirits lifted. Seena is a nine-year old child. Of course, seeing his relatives cheered him up.

Seena is meant to be flown back to Christmas Island tomorrow, Thursday, morning. Perhaps he has been, perhaps not. The State now says it will consider the family’s request.

What does it take for the nation-State to be happy, more than happy, to take responsibility for the children in its midst?

Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child reads, in part:

“No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment….Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age.”

Australia ratified that ConventIon in December 1990, twenty years almost to the day of Seena losing his family and being sent to Christmas Island. More countries have ratified the Convention than any other human rights treaty in history. If there is anything like a global consensus, it is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

And yet … protecting, securing and sustaining the rights of the child and the rights of children is viewed as a bureaucratic obligation. Which nation-State is more than happy to take responsibility for the child?

Seena is nine years old. Seenah haunts Australia. The orphan children of asylum seekers haunt the world.

 

(Photo Credit: Sydney Morning Herald / Getty Images)

 

Mental health haunts the prison state

For prisoners living with mental illness, the situation today, in the face of severe budget cuts following decades of imposed austerity in the name of efficiency and the pursuit of profit, is a hellhole.

In Jamaica, prisoners living with mental illness are trapped in a human rights nightmare. Prisoners living with mental illness require more supervision and more assistance, and that means an investment of resources. Instead, those prisoners living with mental illness are left to fend for themselves and for one another. That means those prisoners living with mental illnesses stay for long periods in soiled clothes and environments, suffer rapid deterioration and decline, and spend longer periods in prison than healthy prisoners. Not surprisingly, the situation is particularly lethal for elder prisoners.

In Canada, 35 per cent of the 13,300 prisoners in federal penitentiaries have a mental impairment requiring treatment. That’s triple the 2004 estimations and way higher than the general population. It’s a flood. And what happens when someone with mental illness goes into prison: “The mind-bending isolation of a segregation cell brings no peace to a depressed or unhinged mind. Nor does an environment of slamming cell doors, fear and intimidation.”

And what is isolation … really? If it’s long-term, it’s torture. According to Dr. Atul Gawande, “The people who become psychotic in solitary confinement are people who often have attention deficit disorder or low IQ or issues of prior mental illness. … There’s a very high rate of psychosis and people flat-out going crazy under the confinement conditions. And so, then what I puzzle over is, does it actually reduce our violence in our prisons? The evidence from multiple studies now is that not only that it has not reduced violence, it’s increased the costs of being in prison.”

Long-term solitary confinement is torture because it targets those living with mental illnesses. The same could be said for prisons and jails.

In the United States, somewhere between 16 and 20 percent of prisoners are living with mental illnesses. In California, there are nearly four times as many people with serious mental illnesses in jails and prisons than there are in hospital. Ohio reports that the mental health system “has shifted the problems to prisons and homeless shelters.” Arizona and Nevada have the highest ratio of prisoners living with mental illness. Some call this a tragedy. Some say prisons and jails have become the new asylums. Prisons and jails have become the New Bedlam, and we are all the wardens.

A thirteen-year-old girl in Ottawa kicked in the back window of a police cruiser. The State determined that she was mentally ill and had her institutionalized. Where? Ottawa “shifts the problem” to Utah: “the … province’s Ministry of Health and Long Term Care … has funding arrangements with U.S. facilities to provide residential treatment to Ontario residents”. After nine days, the girl was deemed too violent, and `shifted’ to a children’s hospital. Now the parents face the possibility of having to pay astronomical hospital fees while their daughter faces the near certainty of incurring further criminal charges. Only prison awaits her. This is the practice of `shifting the problems.’

The withering of the welfare state has produced national programs, public policies, and popular ethics of `shifting the problem.’ In the United States, in the past fifty years, the number of psychiatric beds has been reduced by 90 percent. In the 1950s, there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 persons. Now, it’s one bed for every 3000. Where have those beds gone, where have those resources gone, and most importantly where have those people living with mental illness gone? Prisons. Jails. The New Bedlam. They went into the hellhole, they are in the hellhole, and we are the wardens.

 

(Image Credit: http://www.mentalhealthy.co.uk)