Life & Times of Ms K

 

Ms K is dead. Her death was exemplary. A woman enters prison for the first time, a troublesome woman, and within weeks is found hanging in her cell. Here’s her story, as recounted in Learning from PPO Investigations: self-inflicted deaths of prisoners – 2013/14, the most recent report from the Prison and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales:

Ms K had a history of mental ill health. After a long period of stability she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after a number of attempts to kill herself.

She was discharged to the care of the community team but was arrested almost immediately, when she threatened to kill her former partner.

She was remanded to prison after a doctor decided she would not benefit from further hospital treatment. It was her first time in prison.

A nurse immediately began ACCT procedures and recommended constant supervision. However, prison staff set four observations an hour.

She tried to hang herself twice in the first evening, and was moved to a safer cell and constantly supervised. Nearly two weeks after arriving in prison she was referred to a psychiatrist, who did not believe she should be in prison and immediately began to organise a transfer back to hospital. Tragically, Ms K died before this could take place.

Frequent ACCT case reviews were held and most were multi-disciplinary. However, there were several occasions when prison managers chose not to follow, and sometimes not to ask, the advice of clinical staff. Clinicians said that their opinion was not listened to, which was particularly troubling for a prisoner with such severe mental health problems.

Ms K was difficult to manage and her moods were unpredictable, extreme and liable to change quickly. She made a number of serious and determined attempts to hang herself.

An enhanced case review process could have helped ensure more consistency in the staff involved in her care, and made sure all input was given sufficient weight.

For the Ombudsman researchers, Ms K’s case is “one example” of the “failure” to “consider enhanced case review process” when a prisoner’s history suggests “wide ranging and deep seated problems.” Ms K’s death was, and is, exemplary.

Last year, prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high. The majority of prisoners who engaged in suicide were White men. For men and women of all group, hanging was the preferred method of dying. Ms K’s death was, and is, exemplary.

There is no tragedy here, and, despite the Ombudsman’s best intentions, there is nothing to learn. Ms K’s death is a miniscule part of a global assembly line at which employees dutifully stand and wait for the next body to ignore. The prisons of England and Wales, with their mounting piles of prisoners’ corpses, are a tiny part of the global work of necropower: “I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead … Under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred.”

Ms K is dead. Her death is an example. Nothing more.

 

(Image Credit: Open Democracy / National Offender Management Service)

In Zimbabwe, prison = death

The Republic of Chikurubi is getting worse. Last week, Zimbabwe’s “justice ministry” and prison officials revealed that at least 100 prisoners died from hunger and starvation this year. At least 100. Given Zimbabwe’s prisons, they could as easily have been remand prisoners as convicted prisoners, but really, what difference does it make? They’re dead, and they died a long, slow, painful, harrowing death. If that’s not torture, what is?

There is shock but no surprise here. Four years ago, a report on death and disease in Zimbabwe’s prisons began: “A bare struggle for survival, with food at its core, has come to define prison life in Zimbabwe. Describing the conditions in two of the capital city Harare’s main prisons in late 2008, a prison officer explained: “we’ve gone the whole year in which—for prisoners and prison officers—the food is hand to mouth…They’ll be lucky to get one meal. Sometimes they’ll sleep without. We have moving skeletons, moving graves. They’re dying.” Prison staff have had to convert cells and storage rooms to “hospital wards” for the dying and to makeshift mortuaries, where bodies “rotted on the floor with maggots moving all around”. They have had to create mass graves within prison grounds to accommodate the dead. In many prisons, the dead took over whole cells, and competed for space with the living. Prisoners described how the sick and the healthy slept side by side, packed together like sardines, with those who died in the night. A former prisoner, a young man, struggled to convey the horror of these conditions: “That place, I haven’t got the words…. I can describe it as hell on earth—though they say it’s more than hell.” Another simply said, “The story of the prisons is starvation”.”

As prisoners lose the bare struggle for survival, humanity loses the bare struggle for dignity. Doctors, lawyers, ex-prisoners, prisoners’ family and friends, prison staff, and others have written repeatedly that Zimbabwe’s prisons are death traps. Some talk about “necropolitics”, the power politics of death. They say necropolitics is “the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.” In Zimbabwe’s prisons, it’s not about living and dying. It’s about ways of dying. There’s torture, and there’s starvation. Life or death is not the currency. The currency is pain and suffering.

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe National Water Authority, which is a government agency, has shut off water to Marondera Prison: “About 500 inmates at the Marondera Prison are at risk of contracting waterborne diseases after the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) disconnected water supplies over a $375,000 Bill… The complex has not had water since December 4th raising prospects of an outbreak of diseases such as cholera.” The officer in charge of the prison describes it as “a time bomb.”

Torture. Death by starvation. Cholera. In the prisons of Zimbabwe, the time bomb has long exploded. It’s beyond time for a real change.

 

(Photo Credit: News Day Zimbabwe)