In New York, Jane Doe was shackled in childbirth, despite New York’s anti-shackling laws

In March 2018, North Carolina officially ended the shackling of women (prisoners) in childbirth. At that time, Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, a medical anthropologist and OB-GYN said, “Passing laws and changing policy is only one step – there needs to be training and accountability and oversight to make sure that it doesn’t actually happen.” In 2009, New York outlawed the use of physical restraints on pregnant women during labor and delivery. In 2015, New York outlawed the use of physical restraints on pregnant women during in-custody transportation and the eight-week postpartum recovery period. For nine years, “physical restraints” on pregnant women during labor and delivery has been banned. Tell that to Jane Doe, who was forced in February of this year to undergo labor and delivery while her ankles were shackled and her wrists were handcuffed to the bed. Who did this? The New York Police Department. Why? Because they could. Because she was already a Jane Doe, as far as they were concerned.

The attending doctors asked the police to remove the restraints. The police said no. The doctors said New York state law bans the use of restraints. The police replied that the NYPD’s Patrol Guide required restraints and, importantly, the Patrol Guide supersedes state law. According to Dr. Sufrin, 26 states ban the shackling of women in labor. The Federal Government does not ban the shackling of women in labor and delivery, although the so-called First Step Act, currently awaiting discussion in the U.S. Congress, would address the issue. It seems unlikely, though, that the Congress will act on this.

The problem with the so-called banning laws is that they are rife with so-called “extraordinary circumstances” loopholes, which leave a great deal to the discretion of prison staff and police: “While [a number of] states and the District of Columbia have laws governing shackling of pregnant individuals, none have an outright ban on the practice.” 

The history of shackling pregnant women (prisoners) in the United States is the ongoing history of slavery. While we remove statues and rename schools and other institutions, we should pay closer attention to and abolish the shackling of prisoners, all prisoners, beginning at the very least with pregnant women (prisoners). In 2014, the Correctional Association of New York interviewed 27 women who had given birth in New York prisons after the 2009 law was passed. 23 of them had been shackled during childbirth. How many more times must we hear or read similar accounts before we take real action? It’s time to bring slavery to an end. End the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners) and all people. Do it now!

New York votes to remove guns from domestic abusers: Will they also disarm the police?

Praising New York’s reaction to the rising concerns of gun violence in the country, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he will sign into law legislation that would amend state law that passed after the Sandy Hook killings that previously prohibited domestic abusers from owning pistols and revolvers, but only applied to some selected misdemeanors.

Governor Cuomo said, “New York is once again leading the way to prevent gun violence, and with common sense reform, break the inextricable link between gun violence and domestic violence. Half of the women who are murdered in this country are murdered by an intimate partner.” Firearms had been used in 35 domestic killings in 2016 in New York State.

The law, which is being changed slightly to align with federal law, passed 41-19 in the Senate and 85-32 in the state Assembly. When enacted, it can prevent someone from getting or renewing a license for a gun if the person is the subject of an arrest warrant for alleged crimes.

While a step in the right direction, the law raises a question: if you’re going to disarm domestic abusers, will you disarm the police officers that make up a significant portion of the perpetrators of domestic abuse?

In an information sheet by the National Center for Women and Policing, two studies have illustrated the staggering violence in police families, with the survivors often unable to rely on the precise institution that should protect them from such abuse: “At least 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence, in contrast to 10 percent of families in the general population.” A third study done with older and more experienced officers found a 24 percent rate; meaning that domestic violence is two to four times more common among police families.

Reports against police families are handled informally, usually without an official report, investigation, or even a check of the victim’s safety, often in direct contradiction to legislative mandates and departmental policies regarding the appropriate response to domestic violence crimes. Often police officers who are found guilty face no consequences for their actions.

If we’re discussing taking guns away from abusers, police officers who are violent to their families should be disarmed just like any other abuser that will be disarmed in New York, not to mention prosecuted and immediately terminated from their position, as an article in The Atlantic noted, “If there’s any job that domestic abuse should disqualify a person from holding, isn’t it the one job that gives you a lethal weapon, trains you to stalk people without their noticing, and relies on your and discretion to protect the abused against domestic abusers?”

In any conversation surrounding gun violence and domestic abuse, the police need to be held accountable for the violence they perpetrate, not just out on the streets, but in their homes and against the ones they supposedly love.

Now is the time to discuss and act about disarming the police.

 

(Photo Credit: For A World Without Police)

Prisoners die in agony, begging and screaming for care

Amy Lynn Cowling went for a drive on Christmas Eve, 2010. 33 years old, a grandmother of a one-day old child, bipolar, methadone dependent, and with only one kidney, Amy Lynn Cowling went for a drive in East Texas, where she was picked up for speeding, then arrested for some outstanding warrants on minor theft charges and traffic violations. Five days later, in the Gregg County Jail, after a day of wailing and seizures, of excruciating pain and suffering, of agony, Amy Lynn Cowling died. Amy Lynn Cowling died after five days of her family begging and pleading with the prison staff to make sure they gave her the life sustaining medicines she needed. The pills were just down the hall, in Amy Lynn Cowling’s purse, in the jail storage room. Nobody went, nobody came. Amy Lynn Cowling died.

Gregg County Jail is `troubled’. Since 2005, nine prisoners have died there, one of suicide, eight from `health conditions.’ Prisoners are dying, and prisoners are coming out hurt and injured. Across the country and across the world. Some suggest that Amy Lynn Cowling’s death `exposes health care problems in local jails.’ History suggests otherwise.

Ashley Ellis was twenty-one years old when she went for a drive one night, in 2007, in Rutland, Vermont. She hit a motorcycle and partially paralyzed its driver. Two years later, she was convicted of misdemeanor negligence. Ellis was sent to the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, Vermont.

In the two years between the accident and the sentencing, Ellis had gone from120 pounds to 86. She was depressed. She was under treatment for anorexia. This treatment required her to take regular potassium pills. She told the staff at the prison. Ellis’s doctor faxed the prison all the necessary information concerning her illness and treatment. At that time, the prison health services were outsourced to a private corporation, Prison Health Services, or PHS.

Ashley Ellis told the Prison Health Service staff that she needed the potassium pills, to live. They said they were out, they give her food, they did not provide the pills. After two days in prison, Ashley Ellis died. That was August 2009. In January 2010 Vermont suspended its contract with Prison Health Service, because the contract had `expired’. Prison Health Service advised its employees not to speak to anyone. The investigation went nowhere.

The medical examiner found that Ashley Ellis had died in part because of denial of access to medication. As we noted last year, a similar case occurred in New York, at about the same time. Chuneice Patterson, a prisoner in the Onondaga County Justice Center, in Syracuse, New York, screamed, writhed for nine hours in pain before dying of an ectopic pregnancy. She pressed the emergency button. Nobody came.

The New York State Commission of Correction concluded: “Chuneice Patterson was a twenty-one year old black woman who died on 11/12/09 at 8:30 a.m. from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy while in the custody of the Onondaga County Sherriff at the Onondaga County Justice Center….Had Ms. Patterson received adequate and competent medical care, her death would have been prevented.”

It’s too soon to say the exact cause of death for Amy Lynn Cowling. It’s too late to claim that another women dying in prison exposes anything. As attorney, prison expert and University of Texas faculty member Michele Deitch notes, “Until it affects a family like this, no one knows how bad things are.” As long as incarceration means isolation, as long as prison is a form of exile within the borders of one’s own state, as long as prisoners are invisible to `citizens’, they will continue to die in agony, begging and screaming for care.

 

(Photo Illustration: Todd Wiseman / Callie Richmond / The Texas Tribune)

 

Ultimate responsibility for the ordinary

On May 22, 2009, a fire broke out in the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre, in Alexandria, St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. Seven girls were burned to death. Five died the night of the fire: Ann-Marie Samuels, Nerrissa King, and Rachael King, all 16 years old; and Kaychell Nelson and Shauna-Lee Kerr, both 15. Later, two more died from the fire: Georgina Saunders, 16, Stephanie Smith, 17.

There were 23 girls in a small space. Sixteen managed to crawl through the fire, to the narrow windows, and out.

Armadale was shut down. An inquiry was launched. The Armadale Enquiry Commission met for over nine months. Its report roundly condemns the government. The fire was set by a spark from a tear gas canister, tossed in the room by a guard. The straw bedding ignited.

On March 2, 2010, Prime Minister Bruce Golding reported to Parliament. The Jamaican press reports that the government “accepts `ultimate responsibility’ for Armadale.” Advocates on all sides debate the government response.

In his remarks, the Prime Minister, not surprisingly, frames the story as tragedy. He opens with tragedy: “The report of the Commission of Enquiry into the tragedy that occurred at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre on May 22, 2009 is being tabled in the House today.”

He closes with tragedy: “The awful tragedy that occurred at Armadale should not have been allowed to happen. We must ensure that no such tragedy ever again occurs. Some wards of our juvenile correctional institutions have turned out to be exceptionally good and successful adults. We must strive to ensure that they are not the exception but become the norm.”

He articulates `ultimate responsibility’ as a function of tragedy: “While public officers must be held accountable for the discharge of their duties, the government must accept ultimate responsibility for the circumstances that led to the Armadale tragedy and for the inadequate facilities provided to care for children who are placed in juvenile correctional or remand facilities. Resource constraints do impose a heavy burden on public officers who work in these facilities but it cannot explain or excuse negligence or inertia.”

What exactly is the tragedy here, and how is ultimate responsibility to be understood?

Almost one hundred years ago, there was another fire, women killed, tragedy invoked.

March 25, 1911: “Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.”

What happened that Saturday, in New York City? When the fire struck, the workers, almost all women, almost all recent immigrants, ran to the fire exits and found them locked, rushed to the windows only to find that the ladders and the water hoses didn’t reach that high. The young women then decided … to die by the flame or to leap and die in the fall. Who had decided to build such tall buildings? Who had decided to lock the doors?

The Triangle fire had been replayed as tragedy, as destiny, as horror story, as political catalyst. Now it would be examined once more, as a question of justice: Was it right to hold anyone personally responsible? And if it was right, was it possible?”

There is no distance in time or miles between the 1911 Triangle Waist Factory, New York, fire, and the 2009 Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre, St Ann Parish, one. What, then, is the tragedy; is it possible to hold anyone responsible?

If women are locked in, sooner or later the fires will kill them. If women are forced into overcrowded spaces, sooner or later the fires will kill them. How can planned death be accidental? How can a horrible event that is not destined but rather designed by human beings and perfectly obvious in its detail, how exactly can that event be called a tragedy?

The nobility of the tragic that was so quickly, so easily painted across the face of these two events is a means of obscuring their ordinariness. And it is the ordinariness of the deaths at Armadale and at Triangle that haunts. These are stories of the ways in which death sentences are imposed on women workers, on women prisoners, on women.

Someone was meant to die at Armadale, and that someone was meant to be a young woman, a girl. Which girl, how many girls, remained open. But someone was meant to die there, in a fire. And someone did. And she was a young woman, a girl. And absolutely no one can claim ultimate responsibility for that until they have transformed the everyday world of ordinary women and girls in which women are the fastest growing prison population, and women are the majority of sweatshop workers.

 

(Photo Credit: Armadale: Children on Fire // UNICEF Jamaica / YouTube)