What happened to Raynbow Gignilliat? The routine torture of solitary confinement

Raynbow Gignilliat

“They didn’t treat her for two months and she was left in a manic state. Basically, in all aspects, I would call it torture,” said attorney Jack Jacks, discussing the final months of Raynbow Gignilliat’s short life. Raynbow Gignilliat, 39-year-old mother of three, was arrested in October 2013. She was sent to the Sandoval County Jail, in Bernalillo, New Mexico, where she spent two months in solitary confinement. Then she was sent to an emergency room. Then, against doctors’ orders, she was returned to solitary. In January 2014, Raynbow Gignilliat was sent to the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute. In the Spring 2014, Raynbow Gignilliat was released from the hospital and all charges against her were dropped. By June 2014, Raynbow Gignilliat was dead. The reports say she “committed suicide”, but her family and supporters know that Raynbow Gignilliat was killed by State torture.

From the moment Raynbow Gignilliat encountered the so-called criminal justice system to today, almost three years after her death, from beginning to end, this is a story of State violence, viciousness and brutality. Raynbow Gignilliat had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For most of her life, she had managed her mental health without medication. Then, things fell apart, largely due to a messy divorce and custody battle. In late October 2013, Raynbow Gignilliat was arrested on a domestic battery charge, following a dispute with her mother, with whom she was living. Her mother called the police, hoping they would take her daughter to the hospital. Instead, they arrested her and sent her off.

After about two weeks in custody, Raynbow Gignilliat was moved into solitary confinement, also known as segregation. Remarkably, there are no records to explain this move. Once in solitary, Raynbow Gignilliat’s health deteriorated swiftly. Staff watched as she covered herself in feces, punched herself, dunked her head in her toilet water, hallucinated, screamed. Staff watched Raynbow Gignilliat’s increasing and intensifying dementia for six weeks. Finally, they sent her to an emergency room, where doctors said she should be sent to a psychiatric hospital or she would die. Instead, she was returned to solitary confinement, where she sat for another month, begging for help in the only way she could, through self-harm.

Finally, in January, Raynbow Gignilliat was moved to a hospital where she received treatment. While there, all charges against her were dropped. When Raynbow Gignilliat was released from the hospital, she was free … to kill herself. Her family says the damage had already been done. She was not the same woman.

Last week, Sandoval County agreed to a settlement of $1.8 million, to be distributed to trust funds for each of Raynbow Gignilliat’s children. The jail’s medical provider, Correct Care Solutions, has also settled, for an undisclosed amount. Sandoval County is quick to note that its insurance company covers this sort of thing, and so Sandoval County is only on the hook for $15,000.

Meanwhile, the case of Raynbow Gignilliat led to the discovery of the abuse and torture of Sharon Vanwagner, who was also booked in the Sandoval County Jail in October 2013, who lives with psychosis and delusions, who spent three months in solitary confinement, who deteriorated rapidly and dramatically, and whose charges were ultimately dropped.

What happened to Raynbow Gignilliat and Sharon Vangwaner, what is happening to so many women living with mental illness in county jails across the country? “Basically, in all aspects, I would call it torture.”

 

(Photo Credit: KOAT TV)

South Carolina built a special hell for those living with mental illness: prison

South Carolina’s prisons and jails are overcrowded, under-resourced, and toxic. People, like Joyce Curnell, regularly die in agony, begging for help. Jails are fatally overcrowded. For example, the Pickens County Jail, built for maximum 91 prisoners, currently holds close to 200. South Carolina’s prisons and jails are bad, but for those living with mental illness, the prisons and jails are absolutely infernal. They are described as negligent, outrageous, abusive, where cruel becomes usual, appalling and worse. People living with mental illness spend years in solitary confinement, engaging in self-harm, and scores have died in agony, begging for help. Finally, after twelve years of struggle, this might just change, thanks to prisoners themselves and to Protection and Advocacy for People Living with Disability.

In 2002, Protection and Advocacy and the Death Penalty Resources Center approached a prominent South Carolina law firm and asked for help concerning the systemic abuse of prisoners living with mental illnesses. The lawyers took on the case. In 2005, three inmates – T.R., P.R. and K.W. – and Protection and Advocacy sued the South Carolina Department of Corrections and its director, William R. Byars, Jr. They laid out a horror story of abuse, neglect, mayhem, torture, pain, suffering, and death. The details were horrifying as was the scale. In 2012, the case went to trial. In 2014, Judge Michael Baxley ruled decisively against the State. He opened his remarks noting, “It has been the privilege of this writer to serve the State of South Carolina as a general jurisdiction judge for fourteen years. At the time this case was heard, Court Administration reported there were more than 5,000 new case filings per year for each of our state’s circuit court judges. Thus, over 70,000 cases of every imaginable sort have come to this Court over the years. This case, far above all others, is the most troubling … The evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness.”

Judge Baxley handed down his decision January 2014. South Carolina immediately leapt to the defense of its clearly abusive and troubling treatment of those living with mental illness. Meanwhile, self injury and harm continued unabated. A year later, in January 2015, an agreement between the parties was reported, but that proved not to be the case. Finally, this week, a final agreement – with real goals, timelines, independent checks and assessments, and a budget – was signed.

South Carolina built a special hell for those living with mental illnesses. Its ratio of mentally ill in prison or jail to mentally ill in hospital is 5.1 to 1, one of the worst in the country. South Carolina is near the bottom of state rankings when it comes to “availability of public psychiatric beds, efforts to divert mentally ill individuals, per capita state mental health expenditures, and almost every other measure of treatment for mentally ill individuals.” Furthermore, when it comes to investing in prisoner healthcare, it’s the second worst state in the country. Only Oklahoma is worse.

For decades South Carolina has tortured people living with mental illnesses. It was State public policy, everyone knew. Everyone knew that seriously mentally ill people were sent to solitary more than others, and everyone knew that they stayed in solitary for much longer. Judge Baxley wrote repeatedly that the State was aware of what was happening under and within its administration. This torture was public knowledge, and so the question lingers, “What is that public?” Why does it take spectacular deaths for us to acknowledge the torture we already knows? Why does it take heroic struggles that last for years for us to say that we cannot torture people because they live with mental illnesses? Who are we who know and then turn away? Who are we? This case, far above all others, is the most troubling.

 

(Image Credit: The Atlantic)

Pennsylvania built a special hell for women living with mental illness

Pennsylvania has a special treatment for those living with severe mental illness: torture. If someone who’s been arrested cannot assist in his or her own defense, the judge orders competency restoration treatment. If the defendant’s competency is restored, the case goes forward. If it is not restored, the case is dismissed and the person either is released or “civilly committed.” That’s what is supposed to happen. In Pennsylvania, there’s a third way, a purgatory of uncivil commitments. In Pennsylvania, people sit in county jails, more often than not in solitary, for months and years, waiting for a bed. In recent years, at least two people have died while waiting. They may have been the lucky ones.

Last week, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed suit on behalf of eleven plaintiffs, whom they describe as part of “hundreds of people with severe mental illness who have been languishing in Pennsylvania’s county jails.” The lead plaintiff, J.H., is a homeless African-American man in his late 50s from Philadelphia who suffers from schizophrenia. J.H. was arrested for having stolen three Peppermint Pattie candies. For that crime, he has been sitting in the Philadelphia Detention Center for over 340 days, waiting for treatment. What becomes a dream deferred? “J.H.’s mental state has visibly deteriorated over the past eleven months in jail. Prior to his most recent detention, J.H. never displayed hostility, was relatively engaged during conversations, and was willing and able to answer simple questions. Now, he is visibly agitated, hostile, and unable or unwilling to engage in conversation.” The rest is silence.

Federal courts have decided that any delay longer than seven days between a court’s commitment order and hospitalization for treatment is unconstitutional. In Philadelphia, the average wait is 397 days. From January to September 2015, 23 individuals arrested in Philadelphia entered into restoration treatment. Of that group, three waited more than 500 days, one of whom waited 589 days. What do you think happens to someone living with severe mental illness who “awaits transfer” for 400 and more days?

Of the eleven plaintiffs, seven are African American. Two are women, both of whom are African American.

L.C. is a Black woman in her mid-20s “who suffers a mental impairment.” She’s been in and out of the criminal justice system. On November 13, 2014, L.C. was found incompetent to stand trial. After not becoming competent at the Philadelphia Detention Center, the court committed L.C. to competency restoration treatment on February 12, 2015. “L.C. has been detained for more than eight months (over 250 days) in the Philadelphia Detention Center since the order, awaiting an opening for treatment.”

What is like to await an opening? “L.C.’s mental state has deteriorated substantially during her stay at the Philadelphia Detention Center. In November 2014, L.C. was not competent but she was conversant with her public defender. In December, L.C. was screaming answers to questions, seemingly trying to talk over whatever she was hearing. By February 2015, L.C. had declined severely. She still screamed answers to her lawyer’s questions, but now the answers did not make sense. She also could not remain seated. In early June, she refused to see her lawyer at all. By late June, she sat through an interview sucking her thumb, refusing to make eye contact, and staring blankly. In late August, L.C. would not respond to any questions from her lawyer.”

On June 26, 2014, Jane Doe, in her early 40s, was found incompetent to stand trial. 480 days later, nearly 16 months, Jane Doe is still awaiting transfer: “Jane Doe’s mental and physical health has deteriorated in the nearly 16 months she has been waiting. She has lost noticeable weight. Prior to her most recent confinement at the Philadelphia Detention Center, Jane Doe would have discussions with her lawyer about her case. For the past year or more, she has refused to discuss the case and instead talks about having aliens and space ships in her body, and about being married to Jesus Christ. She has become much more delusional.”

According to ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Witold Walcak, “Our clients in this case are the forgotten among the forgotten. Most of these people have no family, friends or champions in their lives, and no one listens or understands them; they truly are voiceless and defenseless, unable to challenge their unjust and blatantly illegal imprisonment.”

Jane Doe, L.C., J.H. and all the others are now voiceless and defenseless. They weren’t when they were arrested. They were all at varying levels of discursive competence. Each could talk with his or her attorney. They simply needed help, treatment, and the embrace of the human. Instead, they were cast to the Commonwealth rung of hell, a factory that crushes bones, souls and minds in order to produce anguish, delusion, silence, after which all is blank.

 

(Photo Credit: Stephanie Aaronson / Philly.com)

Michelle Cusseaux’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave

On August 14, 2014, just days after Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, a police officer in Phoenix, Arizona fatally shot Michelle Cusseaux, a 50-year-old Black woman living with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression. Michelle Cusseaux had called for a taxi to take her to the hospital. When the taxi didn’t show, she called her case manager. The case manager called the police to take her to an inpatient mental health facility. Four police officers came. Words were exchanged. Police took the door down. A few minutes later, Michelle Cusseaux lay with a single bullet in her chest. She died soon after. A week later, on August 22, activists carried Michelle Cusseaux’s casket to City Hall. The march was led by Frances Garrett, Michelle Cusseaux’s mother. Michelle Cusseaux’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but her soul goes marching on.

The Phoenix police knew why they were going to Michelle Cusseaux’s residence. They called Frances Garrett to determine if she had ever had a gun. She had not. They knew this situation. Their knowledge made no difference; their knowledge executed another Black women, another Black woman living with mental illness. Michelle Cusseaux’s death echoes that of Shereese Francis, in Brooklyn, in 2012.

Each time, the family mourns and calls for independent investigations. Each time, a mother stands up and asks, “Why?” Shereese Francis’s mother, Eleen Francis, faces Michelle Cusseaux’s mother, Frances Garrett. The nation is blanketed with Mothers of Mourning who had nowhere to go, who called the police to help them, and now …

They knew. They knew, because of the orders, the orders to pick her up and take her in to a facility,” Frances Garrett explains. They knew, they knew. On March 18, 2015, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said the killing of Michelle Cusseaux was justified. They knew, they knew, and they continue to know. #SayHerName

 

(Image Credit: Tara Jacoby / http://justice.gawker.com) (Photo Credit: Matthew Hendley / http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com)

When you define a person by their diagnosis

On June 26, on the Iowa radio talk show “Mickelson in the Morning,” presidential candidate Mike Huckabee lashed out at the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for the logic of his opposition to marriage equality. While comparing same-sex marriage to polygamy, as Roberts did, begs for condemnation, Huckabee’s argument did more harm than good. In moving from his decision one day for the Affordable Care Act to his decision the next against marriage equality, Huckabee argued, Chief Justice Roberts showed that he “needs medication for schizophrenia.”

By exploiting a sensationalized and incorrect image of schizophrenia on public radio, Huckabee fuelled rampant misconceptions and stigmas that cause many of the estimated 2 million Americans who live with schizophrenia an unimaginable burden of hurt and suffering. Stigma is one of the reasons that nearly 70% of Americans with schizophrenia believe they are able to work and that a job would improve their lives, but only around 15% of them have a job.

Mary Giliberti, Executive Director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) called Huckabee out:

As political tactic, Governor Huckabee has exploited the stigma that traditionally has surrounded mental illness in order to attack the competence and credibility of someone with whom he disagrees … Such a remark would never be tolerated about needing chemotherapy for cancer or insulin for diabetes. It represents political ‘stigma-slinging’ at its worst. It doesn’t matter whether a person agrees or disagrees with the Supreme Court. It doesn’t matter whether a person is a Republican, Democrat or independent. To use mental illness as a metaphor to win political advantage does a terrible disservice to those who are diagnosed with this condition and often use medication as part of hard-won journeys to recovery. Stigma, perpetuated by any candidate’s statement, can lead to people’s reluctance to seek mental health care and devastating, even life threatening consequences … NAMI hopes that all the presidential candidates will speak out against stigma during the course of the 2016 election campaigns and will support policies to address the failing mental health system for those with schizophrenia and other serious mental health conditions.”

The media contributes to the stigma that surrounds schizophrenia in myriad ways. Apart from cheap laughs or ill-conceived parallels, as the one Huckabee tried to pull off, the media perpetuates misconceptions about mental illnesses in more subtle ways, for example by defining people who live with mental illness by their condition, as if that’s all they are.

Last August, the members of Fountain House, a New York based organization that works with and supports people with serious mental illnesses, called The New York Times to task for “often refer[ing] to people by outdated phrases such as `the mentally ill’ and `schizophrenics.’ Every time these careless labels are used, this language denies our human dignity and adds to the many challenges that people with mental illness already face. If you live with a mental health condition, or you know and love someone who does, you understand that words matter. When you define a person by their diagnosis, that person goes from being a brother, a writer, a sister, or a painter to being merely `the mentally ill’. It’s hurtful.”

 

(Maria Hengeveld will have more to say on schizophrenia, stigma and employment in an upcoming article in The Atlantic later in June.)

(Image Credit: http://www.nami.org)

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)

How women in jails die: Another world is possible!

Michelle Mata lives in San Antonio, Texas, and she lives with mental illness. Until recently, that meant living with the near certainty that at some time she would need help, and, instead of help, the police, with no training in mental illness treatment or crisis intervention, would be called: “Mental illness is the only disease that when you’re in a crisis, the cops are called. You’re having a heart attack, you don’t call the police … I’m a mother. I’m a sister. I’m a friend. I’m a volunteer. I’m all these people. I contribute to my community, and I have a mental illness. My diagnosis is major depression, with psychotic features, dissociative identity disorder, and panic disorder … I want to be treated the way you want your mother to be treated if she was ever diagnosed with a mental illness. If I’m in a crisis, you know, I’m in a crisis, and I don’t, I don’t understand what’s going on around me.”

It’s a common story, an American story, happening every day across the country, and with dire results. Women in crisis “resist arrest”, are handcuffed, shackled, and sent to jail. And then what?

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report yesterday on mortality in local jails and state prisons from 2000 to 2012: “The number of deaths in local jails increased, from 889 in 2011 to 958 in 2012, which marked the first increase since 2009. The increase in deaths in local jails was primarily due to an increase in illness-related deaths (up 24%) … Suicide continued to be the leading cause of death in local jails”.

Among women prisoners, from 2000 to 2012, suicide was the most common “unnatural cause of death”. In 2000 and 2001, 91 women died in jail. In 2012, 122 women died in local jails. Starting in 2003, the number of women dying in local jails has never dipped below 111. That’s a minimum 22% mortality increase … and rising.

From 2000 to 2012,1457 women died in local jails. Of that number, 312 committed suicide and another 172 died of drug or alcohol intoxication.

On any average day in 2012, 100,000 women were in local jails. That’s up from 68,000 in 2000, and from 2000 to 2005, the numbers stayed well below 100,000. Today, 100,000 is the norm. The “good news” is that the suicide rate among women in jail has gone down from 30 out of 100,000 to 25 out of 100,000. But more women in jail are dying of suicide, and if you throw in drug and alcohol intoxication, it’s a crisis.

Most women in local jails are awaiting trial or are being processed. Twenty some years of zero-tolerance `urban redevelopment’ have combined with the gutting of mental health services to create today’s perfect storm of suicide and self-harm by women being held in local jails.

San Antonio decided to go another way. About a year ago, the San Antonio Police Department instituted a Crisis Intervention Training program for its police officers, and Michelle Mata is one of the trainers. Since the program went into full effect, officers have not used force even once on someone in crisis. People in crisis are going to treatment centers rather than jail. People living with mental illness and people living with people with mental illness report they are leading better lives. Another world is possible. Ask Michelle Mata.

Boys will be boys, and girls will be jailed

Girls are entering into the juvenile `justice’ system at an alarmingly increasing rate. One reason is that girls are arrested more often than boys for status offenses and are more severely punished for those offenses. The thing is those `offenses’ are not crimes. That’s what makes them `status’ offenses. If the girls were older, there would be no offense, no crime.

But they are girls, and they must be protected from themselves. This is the vicious cycle that has been constructed in exactly the same period that has witnessed girl power on the rise: “In a 2010 national census of youth in custody, girls comprised 16% of all detained youth but 40% of those were detained for a status offense. At one time and in some states, girls comprised more than 70% of youth detained for status offenses.” This is the United States’ program of no girl left behind. This is girls’ educational program in the United States.

Why are girls so lucky, when it comes to prison? One answer is paternalism, which expresses itself as a need to protect girls from themselves and the world; a curious comfort with “with using locked confinement to access services for girls with significant needs”; and intolerance towards “girls who are non-cooperative and non-compliant.” Boys will be boys, and girls will be jailed.

At the same time, “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are twice as likely as other youngsters to be detained in a juvenile detention facility for status offenses.” Why? LGBTQ youth often run away from home or, more precisely, from family rejection. According to one report, 40 percent of homeless youth self-identify as LGBTQ. Living on the streets means engaging in “survival crimes”, like theft. But it also involves an expanding and intensifying universe of so-called status offenses. Once again, LGBTQ youth are jailed to protect them from themselves.

This program for LGBTQ kids is the United States national education program. In schools LGBTQ children suffer harsher punishment, both formal and informal, for truancy, absenteeism, and dress code violations. A vicious school-to-prison pipeline drives the “non-cooperative and non-compliant” further and further into the ground … or else.

Today, the Treatment Advocacy Center released The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey. Here are the numbers: “In 2012, there were estimated to be 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness in prisons and jails. There were also approximately 35,000 patients with severe mental illness in state psychiatric hospitals. Thus, the number of mentally ill persons in prisons and jails was 10 times the number remaining in state hospitals.” Since 2008, the situation has worsened.

From girls to LGBTQ youth to those living with severe mental illness, the crime committed is that of living, of being alive. And what of those at the crossroads of this nightmare, what of young lesbians who are living with severe mental illness? They are marked as non-cooperative and non-compliant, many times over. They were never meant to survive.

 

(Photo Credit: https://youngfolksrevolution.wordpress.com)

California’s cruel and usual prisons: who cares?

Exercise cages for prisoners at California State Prison, Corcoran

The Supreme Court handed down its decision this week on the California prison system. The decision, by Justice Anthony Kennedy, and the dissenting opinions, are riveting reading, from beginning to end.

The decision involves two cases. The first, Coleman v. Brown, concerns prisoners with serious mental disorders. The second, Plata v. Brown, concerns prisoners with serious medical conditions. The Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a lower court decision that mandated California reduce the size of its prison population should stand. By a 5 – 4 vote, the Court decided it should.

Many issues are engaged here. Is overcrowding the primary cause for the longstanding “needless suffering and death” that occurs in a system that has double the residents it is designed to hold? If California were not mandated to release prisoners, or otherwise reduce the prison population, would it do so on its own? Is the relief sufficiently `narrow’ to meet the legal requirements of `narrowly drawn’ and `no further than necessary’? Are the remedies imposed overly intrusive?

The public discussion has focused on overcrowding, but consider the grammar of Justice Kennedy’s argument. Here’s an example: “Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets. A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic.  Prison officials explained they had `no place to put him.’ Other inmates awaiting care may be held for months in administrative segregation, where they endure harsh and isolated conditions and receive only limited mental health services. Wait times for mental health care range as high as 12 months. In 2006, the suicide rate in California’s prisons was nearly 80% higher than the national average for prison populations; and a court-appointed Special Master found that 72.1% of suicides involved some measure of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention, and were therefore most probably foreseeable and/or preventable.’”

The situation for prisoners with serious medical illness is equally dire and cruel.

Overcrowding in California prisons has led to “serious constitutional violations”. But overcrowding is not the crisis. Overcrowding is the symptom. The two cases, Coleman v. Brown and Plata v. Brown, speak to the responsibility of the State to take care of the most vulnerable.

“A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. If government fails to fulfill this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation.”

The California prison crisis is not overcrowding. The crisis is not the sum total and ratio of human bodies to square feet, of good and `bad’ beds to properly residential spaces, of toilets to hundreds of individuals, of medical care providers to mentally and medically ill. The crisis is human dignity. The crisis is sustenance. The crisis is responsibility. The prison crisis in California is a crisis of State and a crisis of society. It is a crisis of care. Care haunts the Plata v. Brown decision. Care haunts California. Care haunts us all.

 

(Photo Credit: James L’Etoile)

 

Ashley Smith died while seven guards followed orders and watched

 

Ashley Smith

Ashley Smith was 19 years when she was allowed, or encouraged, to die. At the time, she was a prisoner of the Grand Valley Institution for Women, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.

According to the Canadian government, Grand Valley is in many ways a model women’s prison. Organized around cottages, allowing for maximal self-sufficiency, it fosters a sense of personhood and humanity through what might be called normative social contacts. Women prisoners are allowed a certain level of discretionary time, quiet time, social time, alone time.  According to a 2005 commission report, by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, Grand Valley, or GVI, is a relatively open and `healthy’ prison, fostering “safety, respect, purposeful activity and reintegration”. It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, but as prisons go, it’s pretty good.

When thinking of Ashley Smith’s story, remember that the place in which she was allowed, or encouraged, to die is one of the model women’s prisons in Canada and in the world at large. This is as good as it gets.

Ashley Smith was a `troubled’ youth, in and out of trouble for minor offenses. She needed help, and in New Brunswick, where her family lived, the public mental health system could not address her needs. And so, instead, she was allowed to go `into the system.’

In March 2002, at the age of 14, Smith was sentenced to one year of probation for harassing phone calls, assaulting strangers on the streets, insulting bus passengers and drivers. A year later she was ordered into a youth center for probation violations. There she underwent psychiatric evaluation that suggested borderline personality disorder, among other possibilities. She was released. Seven months later, while at home, Ashley Smith threw apples at a postal worker. For that she was returned to the youth center, where she spent most of her time in solitary. From then on, she stayed pretty continuously in prison.

In October 2006, Ashley Smith was moved to federal prison, for violations committed while in prison.  A year later, she hanged herself.

In less than a year, her last year on earth, Ashley Smith was transferred seventeen times, from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan. Different prisons, same treatment.  Full body constraints. Shackles. Solitary confinement.

On August 30, 2007, Ashley Smith was returned to the Grand Valley Institution for Women.

During her time at GVI, Ashley Smith somehow made ligatures, strips of cloth clearly intended for self-harm. In a two-month span, fifty ligatures were confiscated. On September 24, 2007, Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, visited Ashley.  At her request, Pate filed a grievance, pleading for release from segregation and transfer to a hospital.

Smith knew she needed help. She knew that segregation was a death sentence. She had spent almost the entire preceding eleven months in solitary confinement. That’s a cell 6 feet by 9 feet: no books, no mattress, no writing implements; often, no clothes. The prison calls it `therapeutic quiet.’ While in federal custody, Ashley Smith received much `therapeutic quiet’, but never a comprehensive psychological assessment.

Pate’s grievance was placed in a grievance box that is only checked once the box is full. The box never filled. In the meantime, Ashley Smith hanged herself.

Seven guards watched and did nothing. They did nothing because they had received orders, in September, to not intervene. Ashley Smith had attempted suicide on numerous occasions. If guards entered to stop her, their actions were considered `use of force’, and involved videotaping, paperwork, and hearings. Rather than waste resources, the prison instructed the guards to not enter as long as Smith was breathing. Once dead, it’s no longer use of force.

This week, almost four years later, the coroner’s court began its inquest. Psychologists argue that Ashley Smith did not commit suicide. She thought people would come to her. She was trying to get help.

Seven guards watched and did nothing, which is to say, they did a great deal. They followed orders.

And Ashley Smith struggled to get help.

There are `ghastly’ videotapes of Ashley Smith’s death. Some say, “Ms. Smith’s death should haunt Canada.” Indeed, it should. At the same time, it would be more apt to say that Ashley Smith haunts Canada and the world. Ashley Smith was sick, she needed help, tried to get help. How did the State respond? It condemned her to live in a box for her last year on earth in a box, preceded by an endless series of cages.

Seven guards watched and did nothing. They were not alone in doing nothing. Ashley Smith haunts everyone.

 

(Photo credit: UWaterloo.ca)