Will Ohio stop shackling pregnant women prisoners?

Yesterday, October 9, 2019, Ohio’s Statehouse News Bureau reported, “The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved changes to a bill, SB18, that would ban prison guards from shackling pregnant inmates. The amended legislation would eliminate the practice for an entire pregnancy instead of just the third trimester, which was the original proposal.” The primary sponsors of this bill are Nickie Antonio, Democrat; and Peggy Lehner, Republican. Speaking of shackling pregnant women prisoners, Nickie Antonio noted, “I think it’s harsh. It really comes up against ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment when a woman’s pregnant to do that. To move her from place to place … All of the practice and policies in the department of corrections, originated for male prisoners. There was not consideration of women in jail, in prison.” 

Last year, when she was still a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, Nickie Antonio sponsored a similar bill. That bill was co-sponsored by eight Democrats. No Republicans supported the bill, and, after one hearing, it died … or, better, was killed. Elections matter. Thus far, in the Ohio Senate, no one has testified against the proposal. When Nickie Antonio sponsored the new bill in the Senate, she explained that when she first heard of the practice from Maureen Sweeney, a nurse in Ohio, she thought, “It’s barbaric, it’s humiliating for the woman.”

How usual is this cruel and humiliating practice in Ohio? “No one tracks how many pregnant inmates are shackled in Ohio so it’s impossible to know how common the practice is. Women who were restrained often don’t want to talk about the experience. But more and more women are entering Ohio’s jails and prisons – an increase driven by drug-related offenses.” No one knows because those in charge don’t care.

How usual is this cruel and humiliating practice across the United States? Although the United States is home to 4% of the world’s female population, it houses over 30% of the world’s incarcerated women (this does not include women in immigrant detention centers). Women’s incarceration in the United States is at an all-time high. Incarcerated women are disproportionately located in local jails, and a large proportion are awaiting trial. For pregnant women, this means those who have not been convicted of anything are thrown into facilities where the staffs are untrained and unprepared to make any kind of informed decisions concerning pregnancy or childbirth. The women may be formally innocent until proven guilty, but as pregnant women they have been condemned.

For pregnant women behind bars, the State of Condemnation is a State of Abandonment. As noted by Carolyn Sufrin, the lead author of Pregnancy Outcomes in US Prisons, 2016–2017a groundbreaking study published earlier this year, “There are barely any data, aside from a 2004 survey, on prison pregnancy rates. The only publicly available statistics about prison births are from a 1999 report. And there is no systematic information, not even outdated data, about miscarriages, stillbirths, abortions, maternal deaths or other pregnancy outcomes in prison. This is a profound omission. Women who don’t count don’t get counted. And women who don’t get counted don’t count. This lack of statistics shows just how little we care for incarcerated pregnant people.”

How usual is the cruel and humiliating practice of shackling pregnant women across the United States? On one hand, who cares? No one in charge. On the other hand, little by little, more and more states, like Ohio, are moving forward. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, ACOG, “32 states currently restrict the use of restraints for limited duration, but few states broadly restrict the practice throughout pregnancy and postpartum.” Thirteen states “broadly restrict restraints throughout pregnancy, labor, delivery, postpartum, including transport to a medical facility”: California, Connecticut, Nebraska, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah. That list was published in June 2019. Since then, Georgia passed the Georgia Dignity Act, which bans the shackling of pregnant and postpartum women. Formerly incarcerated women, led by Pamela Winn, a formerly incarcerated woman who had experienced the horror of being shackled in childbirth, pushed and testified, until the legislature’s walls came tumbling down.

Across the United States, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their supporters reject the logic of “women are America’s fast-growing segment of prisoners”, a logic that says that the cruelty and horror visited upon their bodies and selves is merely a consequence of the gendered mathematics of the American decades long experiment in mass incarceration. They say that dignity for women is justice for women; it is time to let dignity and justice roll down like waters, across the land. Prison is bad for pregnant women. Shackling pregnant women, sending pregnant women and post-partum women into solitary are atrocities. Meanwhile, in Ohio, “the bill could get a vote on the Senate floor as early as this month.”

(Image Credit 1: Radical Doula) (Image Credit 2: Colorlines / Stokely Baksh)

What happened to Robin Arraj? Cuyahoga County “Justice”

The Cuyahoga County Jail, located in the Cuyahoga County Justice Center in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, is a bad place. It’s “problem-plagued” and marked by “inmate deaths and inhumane conditions”. Today, people protested the “inhumane” conditions as well as Cuyahoga County’s failure to do anything about those conditions. It was the U.S. Marshals who described the conditions as “inhumane”. That was November 2018. Eight people died in that jail in 2018. A woman prisoner fell in a puddle of water from a leak that had gone on for days. No one did anything about the leak. The prisoner, Tammy Decosta, fell, hit her head, told officials she was having trouble with her eyesight, officials did nothing. Tammy Decosta is now legally blind… and suing the county. Prisoners are strapped to chairs and beaten. The beatings are videotaped. Nothing happens. This is Cuyahoga County Jail, where Robin Arraj “died” in 2017. Last week, Robin Arraj’s family sued the Cuyahoga County Jail, located in the “Justice” Center. What happened to Robin Arraj? Justice.

Terrance Dubose is 47 years old and lives with mental illness. He is an inmate at Cuyahoga County Jail. On July 16, 2018, he was strapped to a chair and beaten, punched in the face numerous times. He was left in that chair for hours. The officer who punched him did the same thing to a woman prisoner, Chantelle Glass, in 2012. Nothing happened to that officer. Terrance Dubose is still housed in Cuyahoga County Jail. Robin Arraj is still dead.

In June 2017 Robin Arraj, 51 years old, entered Cuyahoga County Jail. She was supposed to stay there three days. Three days. She “was found unresponsive” on her first day in the jail. Robin Arraj was living with and being treated for opioid addiction. She was prescribed methadone. She informed the staff of her medical needs. The State “failed”, refused, to give Robin Arraj treatment, and so she went into withdrawal, became hypertensive, and “was found unresponsive”, one day into a three-day sentence. 

The Cuyahoga County Jail determined that Robin Arraj died “of natural causes.” There was nothing natural in her death. The overcrowding of the jail was not natural. The “inhumane” conditions were not natural. The refusal to provide appropriate treatment are not natural. They’re criminal.Now lawmakers call for reform, intensified oversight, and unprecedented scrutiny. Where were they during the years of institutional inhumanity and violation of Constitutional and human rights as well as dignity and decency? Nowhere to be seen. And so, as so often, it is left to the family and other loved ones to carry the burden, to sue the State to get a little bit of justice in the name of their loved ones who were sacrificed on our modern-day altars. What happened to Robin Arraj? Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Cuyahoga County Justice happened, and it’s happening across the United States.

(Photo Credit: Cleveland.com)

#FreeBresha: Bresha Meadows is in prison for saving her family from domestic violence

A specter haunts the United States, and she is a 15-year-old Black girl named Bresha Meadows, who sits in an Ohio prison today for having saved her mother and two siblings. Bresha’s mother, Brandi Meadows, calls her daughter a hero. Martina Latessa, Bresha’s aunt on her mother’s side and also a Cleveland police officer who specializes in domestic violence cases, says that Bresha was “born into a nightmare” and that Bresha had come to her aunt begging for help from the extreme violence of her father, Jonathan Meadows. Bresha’s cousin, Ja’Von Meadows-Harris, reports that when, as a child, he lived with the Meadows, he was severely, regularly beaten by Jonathan Meadows. In July 2016, then 14-year-old Bresha Meadows ended the violence when she took her father’s gun and fatally shot him. She was arrested that day, and charged with aggravated murder, which could have resulted in a life sentence. She has spent the last ten months in the Trumbull County Juvenile Detention Center. Her family and friends think she’s a hero; the State throws her into a cage, potentially for life.

On Monday, Bresha Meadows “pleaded `true’ — the functional equivalent of a guilty plea — to a charge of involuntary manslaughter, accepting the terms of a settlement deal that her lawyer said will allow her access to psychiatric treatment and the eventual possibility of a clean record.” Bresha Meadows will not be “allowed access to psychiatric treatment.” She will be institutionalized for six months, treatment for which her family will have to pay. That “eventual possibility of a clean record” only occurs after two years of probation.

While the family and Bresha’s lawyer are relieved, they also recognize that this plea deal means two more months in jail and then six months in a different sort of confinement. As Mariame Kabe, one of the organizers of the #FreeBresha campaign, explained, “What’s important is how they’re feeling and how she’s feeling … The position of the #FreeBresha campaign is that plea deals are coercive and they’re a violent means of social control … We’re committed to supporting Bresha’s freedom, and she’s not free yet.” The #FreeBresha campaign stated, “The #FreeBresha campaign is infuriated that 15-year-old domestic violence survivor, Bresha Meadows, has been forced by Ohio prosecutors to submit to a plea deal that would keep her in juvenile detention for a full year (which includes 10 months of time served) and an additional 6 months of incarceration in a `treatment facility.  Though an earlier version of the plea deal would have released Bresha to the `treatment facility’ today, the final plea deal has increased Bresha’s time in juvenile detention for another two months. Prosecuting Bresha, including the pointless punitivity of adding time in juvenile detention, should be condemned by all who care about the well-being of children.” The State just couldn’t let Bresha Meadows out immediately, and that inexplicable two months is criminal justice for Black girls and women in this country.

After a lifetime of enduring and witnessing excruciating and extreme violence, of begging for help from family, friends, the State and strangers, a Black girl-child stood up and on her own saved her family. Language matters, and we should tell Bresha Meadows’ story in the language her family uses. She is a hero. News media have continually headlined and framed Bresha Meadows’ story as one of “fatal shooting.” That is not the story. The story is Bresha Meadows’ saved her mother and her two siblings and herself. “The #FreeBresha campaign will continue to push for Bresha’s freedom until she is truly free.” We should all do the same. We should treat our children and our heroes with dignity, reverence, and love. #FreeBreshaMeadows

 

(Photo Credit 1: The Grio) (Photo Credit 2: Verso Books)

Criminalizing Black Women: Mom Jailed For ‘Stealing An Education’ for Her Children

I have not written about the Kelley Williams-Bolar case previously because I did not have the words to describe how I felt about it. When I first read about the case, I immediately started to tear up and my emotions were in turmoil. I didn’t understand the strong feelings and then I realized that the case recalled ancestral memories of slavery for me. Kelley Williams-Bolar was being accused of “stealing an education” for her children.

Here is some brief background on this case…

Prosecutors in Ohio brought criminal charges against Kelly Williams-Bolar of Akron and her father. The state accused the pair of “allegedly falsifying residency records of two of the woman’s children formerly enrolled in the Copley-Fairlawn City Schools.” The most serious of the charges brought against Ms. Williams was tampering with records which is a “third-degree felony carrying potential penalties of one to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.” Her 64-year old father was charged with “one count of grand theft for aiding and abetting his daughter in her alleged deception to obtain educational services from Copley-Fairlawn schools.”

Bolar-Williams said her two girls were enrolled in the Copley-Fairlawn school system four years ago — in August 2006, according to court records — over ”safety issues.”

During the trial, several pieces of evidence were presented supporting Ms. Williams’ claims that she was in fact living with her father when she enrolled her children in the suburban school district. However what was also made clear was the lengths to which the school district went to “prove” that she was in fact not a resident in their catchment area:

School officials, according to trial testimony, hired a private investigator in an attempt to document the activities of Williams-Bolar on more than a dozen school mornings.

In several hours of the videotaped surveillance — much of which was shot under cover through a wrought-iron fence — the jury saw Williams-Bolar dropping off her children at a school bus stop within a short walk of her father’s home on Black Pond.

However, when Williams-Bolar took the stand in her own defense on Friday, O’Brien introduced evidence showing that she had 2008 and 2009 W-2 statements from her employer, Akron Public Schools, sent in her name to the address of her father in Copley Township.

Williams-Bolar works as a teaching assistant with special-needs children at Buchtel High School.

The defense also produced 2005 mailed correspondence to Williams-Bolar — more than a year before her children were enrolled in the schools — from the Copley-Fairlawn district. It, too, was sent to her father’s home.

More specific details about the trial can be found here. On January 15th, Ms. Williams was convicted by a jury after 7 hours of deliberation. She was sentenced by the judge to 10 days in jail, three years of probation and community service for falsifying residency records. As if this were not enough, here is more from the judge in this case:

Cosgrove noted Williams-Bolar faces another form of punishment.

Williams-Bolar, a single mother, works as a teaching assistant with children with special needs at Buchtel High School. At the trial, she testified that she wanted to become a teacher and is a senior at the University of Akron, only a few credit hours short of a teaching degree.

That won’t happen now, Cosgrove said.

”Because of the felony conviction, you will not be allowed to get your teaching degree under Ohio law as it stands today,” the judge said. ”The court’s taking into consideration that is also a punishment that you will have to serve.”

Williams-Bolar addressed Cosgrove briefly before being sentenced, saying ”there was no intention at all” to deceive school officials.

She pleaded with Cosgrove not to put her behind bars.

”My girls need me,” she said. ”I’ve never, ever gone a day without seeing them off. Never. My oldest daughter is 16.

”I need to be there to support them.”

Williams-Bolar’s two girls, now 16 and 12, are attending schools elsewhere. They left the Copley-Fairlawn district before the 2009 school term.

Ms. Williams-Bolar was interviewed later and expressed stunned disbelief that she would be jailed for this offense. She believed that if she were convicted she would be sentenced to probation at most.

Kelley Williams-Bolar took an extended pause, pondering as she sat in jail Thursday.

Tears came to her eyes as seconds ticked away. She’s a single mother of two daughters in the middle of a 10-day jail term — a convicted felon — all because of the school the girls attended.

Years ago, she said she took her daughters from Akron’s public housing after their home was burglarized and placed them with their grandfather in Copley Township.

Take a step back to consider everything that is at play in the story of Ms. Bolar-Williams. Here you have a black single mother who was living in public housing with her two daughters. After a traumatic incident of their home being burglarized, she moved her daughters to their grandfather’s home so that they could be safe and attend a good school. A school district spent thousands of dollars to hire a PI to investigate this black woman and her children. Why exactly was this? Are public schools in Ohio so flush with extra cash that they can afford such luxuries? If Ms. Williams and her children had been white would the school have gone to this trouble to expose them as supposed ‘criminals?’ I think that any fair-minded observer would have to say ‘no’. Now we have a tragedy on our hands with lives being destroyed. A 40 year old woman who was putting herself through college to become a teacher is having that dream dashed. What lesson do you suppose her daughters are learning in all of this? Are they learning that America is a just society? Are they learning that they can ‘be anything that they want to be’ when they become adults?

I would say that they have learned a bitter lesson about American INjustice and oppression. This is a form of state violence that the Williams family has been subjected to. Ms. Williams has been accused of defrauding the district for over $30,000 in educational costs because her daughters did not meet the residency requirement. At least four lives have been destroyed over $30,000? Surely that cannot be just!

Apparently this case is causing a lot of controversy in Ohio as well it should. Reporter David Scott writes about some of the reaction. However, I want to point to the words of commentator Boyce Watkins who wrote this:

This case is a textbook example of everything that remains racially wrong with America’s educational, economic and criminal justice systems. Let’s start from the top: Had Ms. Williams-Bolar been white, she likely would never have been prosecuted for this crime in the first place (I’d love for them to show me a white woman in that area who’s gone to jail for the same crime). She also is statistically not as likely to be living in a housing project with the need to break an unjust law in order to create a better life for her daughters. Being black is also correlated with the fact that Williams-Bolar likely didn’t have the resources to hire the kinds of attorneys who could get her out of this mess (since the average black family’s wealth is roughly 1/10 that of white families). Finally, economic inequality is impactful here because that’s the reason that Williams-Bolar’s school district likely has fewer resources than the school she chose for her kids. In other words, black people have been historically robbed of our economic opportunities, leading to a two-tiered reality that we are then imprisoned for attempting to alleviate. That, my friends, is American Racism 101.

This case is a textbook example of how racial-inequality created during slavery and Jim Crow continues to cripple our nation to this day. There is no logical reason on earth why this mother of two should be dehumanized by going to jail and be left permanently marginalized from future economic and educational opportunities. Even if you believe in the laws that keep poor kids trapped in underperforming schools, the idea that this woman should be sent to jail for demanding educational access is simply ridiculous.

In her own words, Ms. Williams said from jail:

”If I had the opportunity, if I had to do it all over again, would I have done it? . . . ,” she said. After almost a half-minute of silence, she answered her own question.

”I would have done it again,” she said. ”But I would have been more detailed. . . . I think they wanted to make an example of me.”

Yes indeed, the state of Ohio wanted to make an example of a black single mother trying to find a way to ensure a successful future for her children by giving them a chance to have a good education… Welcome to America in the 21st century, still racist and unjust.!

Mariame Kaba, http://www.usprisonculture.com/blog/.

(This first appeared here at Prison Culture. Thanks to Mariame Kaba for writing it and for sharing it with Women In and Beyond the Global.)