Elizabeth Seitz, Mersiha Tuzlic, Riva Depasse, Jill Hendricks, Kiari Day say NO! to being tortured

“The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.” Charles Dickens

Allegheny County Jail, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, routinely throws pregnant women into solitary confinement, for days on end, for minor offenses and less. Five women – Elizabeth Seitz, Mersiha Tuzlic, Riva Depasse, Jill Hendricks, Kiari Day – have refused to accept the injustice and  indignity. Yesterday, December 19, their attorneys went to Federal Court to sue the Allegheny County Jail. This is Mersiha Tuzlic’s story, and it’s happening in jails across the country.

On May 27, 2016, Mersiha Tuzlic, was thrown into solitary. On June 18, she wrote a handwritten request to the warden, Orlando Harper, dated 6 -18 -16, which reads:

“Dear Warden,

I’ve been put under Inv. Status on 5-27-16 for allegedly smoking crack! I’m 3 months pregnant and hand no problem giving a urine specimen. It was clean. I don’t understand why I’m still locked up and the other inmate that refused the urine test is free??? I’ve been extremely compliant and haven’t complained – even though I’ve only received 1 hour of rec and 1 shower this Entire time. I feel really grimy and unsanitary. I’m pregnant, restless, neurotic and emotional. The captain who put me in inv status isn’t responding to my inquiries. I don’t know what else to do. I just want to sit in the gym for a while. I’m claustrophobic, and it’s getting to me. If there’s anything you can do at all — anything — please consider helping me! I’m high-risk pregnancy as is, and this is driving me nuts. Thank you for listening.

Ma and baby 🙂 “

The Warden responded to the plea for help: “IF THIS IS A PROBLEM, DON’T COME TO JAIL”

Welcome to the Commonwealth of Petty Dictators, where throwing pregnant women into solitary confinement for no reason at all isn’t enough of an assault on their dignity. When they ask for help, find ways to further diminsh them. Show these women how really powerful you are. The god of small things battles the devil of small men, and in Allegheny County, for too long, the devil has been winning.

In 1842, Charles Dickens visited Pennsylvania, saw the new system of solitary confinement, and called it out: “Very few … are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree.”

Tell the warden of Allegheny County Jail that torturing women is no joke. Write to the Allegheny County Jail here or call them at 412-350-2000. Stop the torture of women in jails.

(Photo Credit: ACLU of Pennsylvania)

#ShutDownBerks: 17 Senators, including Tim Kaine, say, “Shut down Berks!”

The United States built a special hell for immigrant women and children, Berks Family Detention Center. About 30 Central American women and children asylum seekers are currently held in Berks. Children aged 2 to 16 make up almost half the prisoners. The mothers have organized. They have gone on work strikes and hunger strikes. They have protested the toxic environment for their children, and they have protested the abandonment of their children. They have protested the inhumanity, cruelty and violence that is visited upon their children and upon them. Last month, 17 United States Senators, including current Vice-Presidential candidate Tim Kaine, wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson: “The lawmakers note that women and children as young as two-years-old have been in detention for nearly a year or longer at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania. The letter expresses concern that children at the detention facility are exhibiting serious health problems and experiencing psychological harms associated with prolonged detention.”

The letter was signed by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Senator Robert P. Menendez (D-N.J.), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.)

Here’s their letter:

September 27, 2016

The Honorable Jeh Johnson
Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C. 20528

Dear Secretary Johnson:

We write to reiterate our strong belief that the policy of family detention is wrong and should be ended immediately. Although we were encouraged to hear your announcement in August that the average length of detention for asylum-seeking mothers and children from Central America’s Northern Triangle has been reduced to 20 days or less, the ongoing use of family detention remains unacceptable.

We are particularly concerned about the children who have been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for prolonged periods at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania. These children range in age from two to sixteen and many have been in detention for nearly a year or longer. Recent reports from a number of media sources indicate the children are exhibiting serious health problems and experiencing psychological harms associated with prolonged detention.

Detention of families should only be used as a last resort, when there is a significant risk of flight or a serious threat to public safety or national security that cannot be addressed through other means. We urge you to review these cases individually and release these children with their mothers immediately unless there is compelling evidence that they pose a specific public safety or flight risk that cannot be otherwise ameliorated through alternatives to detention.

The mothers of these children fled three of the most dangerous countries in the world to seek refuge in the United States. The brutal physical, gender-based, and sexual violence in the Northern Triangle is well-documented. Many of these mothers have asylum claims based on rape, severe domestic violence, and murder threats, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a stay barring the deportation of some of them until those claims can be fully resolved. The decision by ICE to detain these women and children while they pursue their claims has placed these mothers in the impossible position of choosing between their legal right to seek long-term refuge in the United States and the immediate well-being of their children. It is unconscionable to keep these children locked up and goes against our most fundamental values.

There is strong evidence and broad consensus among health care professionals that detention of young children, particularly those who have experienced significant trauma as many of these children have, is detrimental to their development and physical and mental health. This evidence has been reinforced by specific examples of children in the Berks County facility who are experiencing adverse health outcomes due to detention. Reports indicate that room checks conducted by facility staff every fifteen minutes lead to habitual sleep deprivation among the children, and a pediatric assessment of a six-year-old child suffering from chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder indicates that after prolonged detention the child is now showing signs of extreme stress and anxiety.

Last week, the President hosted the Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis. During this summit, the United States asked other countries to follow our lead and provide protection and increased resources for the millions of people currently facing persecution around the world. However, this summit took place against the backdrop of a system of family detention in the United States that is inconsistent with our country’s longstanding commitment to provide safe and humane refuge to those fleeing persecution. The ongoing use of family detention is wrong. The prolonged detention of the mothers and children in Berks is taking a significant toll on their mental and physical wellbeing. We urge you to review these cases immediately and use your authority to release these children with their mothers unless there is compelling evidence that they pose a specific public safety or flight risk that cannot be mitigated through alternatives to detention.

Sincerely,

 

(Image Credit: Grid Philly / Jameela Walgren) (Photo Credit: Democracy Now)

#ShutDownBerks: The mothers of Berks Family Detention Center demand justice!

The United States built a special hell for immigrant women and children, Berks Family Detention Center. While U.S. immigration policy has swung between hang-em-high and hang-em-higher, the one constant since 2001 has been Berks Family Detention, which from the beginning has been criticized for inhumane treatment and general brutality towards its prison populations, largely women and children. Last year, the women inside Berks turned up the heat, and the Center’s license was revoked. That hasn’t mean the prison closed, though. It continues to operate, without a license, while appealing the decision. Meanwhile, the brutality continues. The most recent turn is an outbreak of what could be shigellosis, which would be particularly dangerous for children. Despite documented symptoms, the Center has refused treatment. The response of ICE has been, “Go back to where you came from.” Increasingly poor health and more and more damaged bodies is part of the plan, especially for immigrant women and children.

A mother of a five-year old daughter wrote, “My daughter has been having diarrhea for about three weeks now and we went to see a doctor but they did not give us any medication not even serum. With every passing day her behavior is getting worse and the psychologist just tells me to be patient. I need you to give me the adequate medication and that you give me the opportunity to take my case outside of here. I am not a criminal. You gave the opportunity to other persons that have been deported to leave, why did you not give it to me. It has been more than four months that I have been detained.”

ICE responded, “Thank you! You may dissolve [sic] your case at any time and return to your country. Please use the medical department in reference to health related issues.”

You may dissolve your case at any time and return to your country, which means, “Die here, in custody, or at home. It’s all the same to us, and thank you! Have a nice day.”

This week, mothers inside Berks petitioned to be heard, concerning the license issue and more. They want to describe the conditions inside and the impact on their children and on themselves. According to Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach, “As the minority chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I am intimately familiar with lawful and appropriate detention conditions and protocols. While the Berks facility is not a state prison under my purview, it is a facility in our Commonwealth that is currently holding human beings, including children, against their will in conditions that seem negligent, abusive, and tragic. Though the legal status of the facility is in question, the treatment of human beings should not be.”

The treatment of human beings should not be in question, but it is. The very humanity of human beings, Central American women and children, is continually denied and diminished, by the “humane treatment” of Berks Family Detention Center. Berks is a prison designed as a house of the dead, with a cheerful “Thank you!” over its entrance door.

Last month, thirty mothers in Berks wrote an open letter: “Our children have suffered psychological damage, and many of them have suffered health-wise, because of this confinement, and not to mention the racist abuse and poor treatment from certain members of the staff in this detention center, but especially by the agents of ICE that play and mock our dignity as immigrants. We came here seeking refuge. We came to this country to save our lives and the lives of our children.”

They came as refugees and were dumped into cages, where they were told to rot or return. This is the syntax of asylum: you may dissolve your case at any time and return to your country. #Not1More #ShutDownBerks #SetHerFree

 

(Photo Credit: vamosjuntos.org)

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)

Pennsylvania built a special hell for Miriam White

Yesterday, Ellen Melchiondo reported on a visit to the Restricted Housing Unit in SCI-Muncy, a women’s prison in Pennsylvania. She noted, “In one of the pods is confined Miriam White, who in 1999, at the age of 11, stabbed a complete stranger to death in Philadelphia. Miriam was sent to various institutions before landing in Muncy. I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.” Here is Miriam White’s story.

On August 20, 1999, eleven-year-old Miriam White argued with a cousin. Miriam then grabbed a knife and ran out of her South Philadelphia foster home. She ran down the street, passing some children, turned the corner, and saw Rosemary Knight, fifty-five years old. Miriam ran up to Rosemary Knight and stabbed her in the chest. Rosemary Knight died on the spot.

Rosemary Knight was a hairdresser and the principal wage earner in her household. August 20, 1999, was the twenty-seventh wedding anniversary of Rosemary and Jerome Knight. Miriam did not know Rosemary Knight.

Miriam White was a young “troubled” Black girl. Her infancy and earlier childhood was one of violence and abandonment, followed by a succession of institutionalization and foster homes. In February 1995, Michelle White Stevens took in the then-seven-year-old Miriam and her two younger siblings. In 1999, Stevens adopted the children. By all accounts, the house was a loving household.

Miriam White progressed and crashed, progressed and crashed. She has been diagnosed with severe mental illness and severe intellectual disability.

According to Miriam White, she wanted to hurt someone so that she would be sent back to a juvenile institution. She was careful not to attack children. After she stabbed Rosemary Knight, she ran to nearby hair salon, “trembling and begging for help because she had just stabbed someone.”

Up to this point, the story of Miriam White and Rosemary Knight, and all those around them, is tragic. Then it gets worse.

Pennsylvania is one of the few states in which anyone charged with first-degree murder must be tried as an adult. That includes eleven-year-old Miriam White. So Miriam White was placed in solitary in an adult jail while the adults tried and failed to figure something out. The judge tried and failed to find a compromise. The defense attorneys tried and failed to argue for reason. As her attorney argued, “Who, judge, at Muncy is going to take young Miriam through her first menstrual cycle. . . . The older, nurturing inmates?”

And so, in August 2007, Miriam White, eighteen years old, pleaded guilty in adult court to third-degree murder and possession of an instrument of crime, and was sentenced to 18 to 40 years. According to some legal scholars, it’s doubtful that Miriam White is competent to take a plea or anything else in court.

Miriam White’s “case” is littered with fine language. She “haunts” the criminal justice system. The initial judge’s ruling concluded, “I cannot exonerate Miriam just because I feel sorry for her. I cannot return Miriam to juvenile court just because her life story makes my heart weep. My oath as a judge requires that I decide this case on the basis of the proofs in court. The decertification petition is denied.” Miriam White’s case is “tragic” as it is “heartbreaking.”

That’s how the story is told, but not how the life is lived. Today, sixteen years and two months later, where is Miriam White? “I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.” Justice is served, humanity denied.

 

(Image Credit: Martin Vargas / Solitary Watch)

Pennsylvania built a special hell for women: The Restricted Housing Unit of SCI-Muncy

Women serving time at SCI-Muncy Prison in Pennsylvania

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has two state prisons for women, Cambridge Springs and Muncy; both are named after the town in which they are located. Cambridge Springs is in the far northwest and Muncy in the central region; there is no such facility for the place where most prisoners come from, southeast, specifically, Philadelphia. That says a lot right there, but I will not be commenting on the hardship for visitation this places on family, friends, the potential for educational opportunities and advocacy, the lifeblood of the women. Muncy houses the prototypical prison within the prison: the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU), which I recently visited.

To enter the RHU, one goes through a locked gate before being buzzed inside. Upon entering, you immediately get a sense of being hermetically sealed: no sounds or smells from outside, no feeling of fresh air. There are four “pods” that are triangular shaped, two on each side of the wide, sterile hallway. From the center of the RHU and above is the interior Correctional Officers watchtower, or “bubble”. There is no long line of cells that would justify being called Death Row; Death Triangle would be more appropriate. However, the two capital cases are housed next door to each other, so there is a mini-death row within one RHU pod. The two women sentenced to death are no different in their crimes than some women serving life; they just had very different judges. Inside this pod is a small multipurpose room where only they can watch TV and do arts and crafts. There is a yard connected to each pod: it is concrete with a chain link roof, perhaps to provide shade. The RHU doesn’t have tables and chairs for the women to eat or socialize. Food is delivered through the wicket, and socializing is done by screaming through the doorjamb. There is one flat screen TV on the wall, which would be very difficult to view through the small, narrow window on the cell doors. Counseling is done inside of a phone booth size, wire mesh cage; the woman sits inside this cage to receive her therapy. Each woman is in a single, solitary cell. Visitation is used as a behavioral management tool. If they act up, visitation is withheld. If a woman is reluctant or refuses to leave her cell, the correctional officers have two choices: either leave her in the cell to suffer or forcibly remove her. The correctional officers usually take the path of least resistance and do nothing. If they do get a visit, or if they are allowed a visit, it is done behind plexiglass via a phone. After the visit, the women are strip searched. It has hard to imagine why the need for a strip-search; they wear an orange jumpsuit and are handcuffed and chained are around the feet.

One pod is completely empty. It houses the Young Adult Offenders, (YAO). It is currently being transitioned into a DTU: Diversionary Treatment Unit. It is no different than the RHU pods, except for a small fitness room and the tables and chairs in the center of the pod. I say leave it empty.

In one of the pods is confined Miriam White, who in 1999, at the age of 11, stabbed a complete stranger to death in Philadelphia. Miriam was sent to various institutions before landing in Muncy. I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.

Long-term confinement can last many years in the RHU. It’s mind boggling why the prison system doesn’t realize that their methods and policies are failing the women. On this particular day, I saw no therapy being conducted. No visits were taking place. No activity was taking place outside of the cells. And that was no coincidence. Sadly, it was just another day in the RHU.

(For more information on the RHUs in Pennsylvania prisons, check here for the class action lawsuit that the Disabilities Rights Network of Pennsylvania filed and won. For results of the lawsuit and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections response, check here. And here’s the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Access to Mental Health Services Handbook.)

 

(Photo Credit: Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee)

#ShutDownBerks: The mothers of Berks Family Detention Center demand justice now!

The United States built a special hell for immigrant women and children, Berks Family Detention Center. The only thing “family” about Berks are the lies the State promulgates: “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) established the Berks Family Residential Facility (“Berks”) in March 2001. Designed as a non-secure residential facility to accommodate the unique needs of undocumented children and their families, Berks became the first of its kind in the U.S. dedicated to keeping families and children together while undergoing immigration proceedings. Located in Leesport, PA, the eighty-five (85) bed facility that was once a nursing home is nestled in a quiet, small-town community. Berks … provides non-violent, non-criminal families with a variety of supportive services throughout their stay.” There is nothing supportive in or about Berks. That’s why the mothers of Berks Detention are on work strike. That’s why supporters will show up next Saturday, July 11, to demand the State shut it down … now.

While the U.S. immigration policy has swung back and forth between hang-em-high and hang-em-higher, the one constant since 2001 has been Berks Family Detention, and from the beginning it has been criticized for its inhumane treatment and general brutality towards its prison populations, largely women and children. Recently the women of Berks have been turning up the heat.

In April, seventeen mothers held, with their children, in Berks “camp” wrote a letter to ICE, demanding their release. ICE never responded. Cristina and her twelve-year-old son were held at Berks for 14 months: “When I started my journey to the US, all I could think about was keeping my son safe. But after several months locked up, my son didn’t even want to eat anymore. He cried all the time and kept telling me he wanted to leave, but he doesn’t understand the danger we’d face if we were sent back. He still wakes up shaking with nightmares from the trauma.” ICE continued to claim that Berks is top of the line.

On June 10, ten mothers launched a work strike. The women demand to be released and that Berks be shut down. They also demand the “free world” take responsibility for the systematic abuses taking place inside Berks: exploitation, harassment, violence. ICE continues to claim that Berks is top of the line … and perhaps it is, but it’s a line that must end today.

On Friday, June 19, at 3 a.m., one of the Mothers of Berks, 34-year-old Ana and her 12-year-old daughter were awakened and sent off to the airport, where they were whisked back to Guatemala. A judge has since ordered that Ana and her daughter be returned to the United States, citing a violation of “due process.” When Ana, in Guatemala, heard of the judge’s order, she responded, “I just want to come back.” Ana and her daughter. fled Guatemala because of partner domestic abuse. Ana and her daughter have already spent over a year in Berks.

The State tries to pass off “family detention centers” as an attempt to preserve the family, but the women and children inside those jails know better. They are prisons designed to punish immigrant women, overwhelmingly women of color, Latinas, indigenous from the Global South, for being women: “The treatment of immigrants … signals, both to immigrant communities, and to the neighbors and other citizens who observe them, that these families can be disrupted at will: children can be separated from their parents, parents can be deprived of their ability to care for or even to discipline their children without findings of inadequacy and without recourse. These families are in fact abjected: expelled from the community symbolically, before they are expelled concretely. They are reduced to beings for whom the quintessentially human imperatives of care and nurturance, and the possibilities of family formation and preservation, seem not to apply.”

As one mother inside Berks explained, “When I left the violence of my county, I never thought I would end up in a place like this. It is safer here, yes, but it is just as bad. I’m crying because I just want to leave. I don’t know when I will.” #ShutDownBerks. Do it now.

 

(Photo Credit: http://aldianews.com) (Image Credit: http://vamosjuntos.org)

A Tour of SCI Muncy: Always an elephant in the room

Pennsylvania’s SCI-Muncy, opened as Muncy Industrial Home for Women in 1920.

On March 10, 2015 I toured SCI Muncy along with seven members of a Pennsylvania non-profit. Of the seven, four of us visit Muncy on a regular basis. The day began with a meeting with Superintendent Robert Smith, Re-entry Coordinator and media spokesperson Troy Edwards, Assistant to Smith, Renee Shrimp, the health care administrator and a couple of Unit Managers and a couple of other people.

The meeting and conversation was lead by our questions and concerns. If we didn’t ask, nothing was freely offered. No one asked us about our work with the women. They didn’t seem to really care if we were there or not. This was my second meeting with Smith, when he was Acting Superintendent and he knows how hard it is for me to keep it together when wanting better care for the women and more involvement with their confinement. All of our needs were met, though there always seemed to be an elephant in the room. If we didn’t like what we heard or if we disagreed, that line of thought quietly evaporated. We all seemed to be on our best behavior.

There’s a lot at stake at times like this. How much pushing for the real truth can I do or objecting to policy without experiencing potential retaliation and my visits becoming denied? Questions and comments had to go nameless. Situations were described with just enough detail so as not to reveal the actual source. Occasionally names were mentioned, since the prisoner’s needs and situation were so obviously known to all. I hope that some of the concerns we raised made the staff realize that we are watching and we want to be part of the solution.

In the bathroom connected to this meeting room, I noticed many beautiful black and white photos mounted on board depicting woman at Muncy with their faces turned away from the camera involved in work: sewing, washing dishes, stuffing pillows with straw. I assumed they were taken before Muncy became part of the PA DOC in 1953. They were on the floor, fallen and stuck between the cabinet and the floor, gathering dust and scratches. I wanted to smuggle them out. On the windowsill was a large box of documents that belong to a current prisoner. I didn’t have time to go through them. But it seemed rather cold and careless to be dumped there.

After an hour and 45 minutes, I had talked and listened enough and needed to get moving. As I peeked on the tour itinerary that was in front of Smith, I asked him if we were touring the unit where Sharon Wiggins lived and died. It wasn’t on the schedule, but Superintendent Smith knows my devotion to Sharon and he agreed to take us there. It was our first stop and we went into Bethune Unit.

Bethune is neither a cottage nor a trailer/modular. It’s kind of a prefab gym. I immediately noticed all the various shades of over cleaned, dull surfaces of brown and beige: the flooring, walls, painted metal. It was all metal, vinyl, plastic materials. I immediately saw my friend Naomi Blount. We were not allowed to hug, but we managed some arm holding. She showed me her cell. This was the first cell in a woman’s prison that I have seen and entered. No doubt the cell had been personalized, but the condition of the “furniture” was shockingly awful. Rickety old metal that revealed several layers of multiple colored paint. The floor space between the bunk beds isn’t wide enough to do sit-ups. The mattress wasn’t as wide as the bed frame. It would tough to lay on one’s side without touching the wall and having a foot hang off the edge. The window was tiny. Only one seat at the table. A new plastic toilet seat. Oddly, the ceiling is a drop panel type.

The setting of Muncy is rural. During the summer the aroma of cow manure permeates. The rest of the year, it smells like creosote from a rail road tie processing company across the 405. The original residential “cottages” are almost a century old. To accommodate the increase in population, they added huge, attached trailers with low ceilings. It looks cheap and shoddy, because it is.

When the women sit on the top bunk bed, their heads are a couple of feet from the ceiling. There is no privacy. The newest housing is where the new arrivals are classified; it also holds punitive punishment, various mental health “treatment” units, young adult offenders and death row. The infirmary in another kind of warren. There, the psychiatric observation cells are located, medicine is distributed, dialysis is given and terminally ill women die. No one wants to recuperate in the infirmary. It is ugly, impersonal, poorly lit and brown-beige.

We had lunch in the officer’s dining room. The walls were adorned with unsigned prisoner-made art. As you finish your tray of food, you leave it on the table to be taken away by a prisoner employee. I thought that was rude on our part as visitors.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and didn’t see the education building, library or chow hall. That will be another tour.

 

(Photo Credit: Karen M. Morin, Historical Geography Journal)

Youth has constitutional significance: Ending life without parole

Sharon Wiggins died last year. Wiggins was a 62-year-old Black woman living with serious health problems. But it wasn’t her health that did her in. What killed Sharon Wiggins was the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Sharon Wiggins died behind bars at SCI-Muncy, the maximum security and intake `facility’ for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania, as well as the site of its death row for women.

Wiggins entered Muncy at the age of 17, convicted initially to death and then to life without parole. She spent 45 years behind bars. When she died she was the oldest and the longest serving woman prisoner in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has more prisoners who began as juvenile lifers than any other state in the Union. This means Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any place else in the world. It’s the Pennsylvania way.

South Carolina has a better way.

A couple weeks ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court took the United States another step towards ending life without parole, LWOP, for those convicted of having committed crimes while juveniles. The Court’s decision in Aiken et al v Byar has been described as “notable for its breadth” and “groundbreaking.” It could be.

Fifteen South Carolina prisoners, including Jennifer L. McSharry, petitioned the Court to reconsider the constitutionality of their having been sentenced to life without parole, to death-in-life, when they were children. The Court largely agreed with the fifteen, arguing, “Youth has constitutional significance. As such it must be afforded adequate weight in sentencing.”

The Court’s judgment is based on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v Alabama, which decided that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. That decision built on, and expanded, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v Florida, which found that life without parole for juveniles who had not committed murder was unconstitutional. Each decision has expanded the space for decency, common sense, and humanity, and these from a Court not renowned for any of those qualities.

The South Carolina Supreme Court had to decide on whether Miller v Alabama was retroactive. That is, if it’s wrong today, does that mean it was wrong before we came to our senses? The Court answered decidedly Yes: “We conclude Miller creates a new, substantive rule and should therefore apply retroactively. The rule plainly excludes a certain class of defendants— juveniles—from specific punishment—life without parole absent individualized considerations of youth. Failing to apply the Miller rule retroactively risks subjecting defendants to a legally invalid punishment.”

Sentences have consequences, and they too must be subjected to at least a constitutional review. There’s more to the South Carolina decision, and it all expands the application of Miller v Alabama. Would that earlier courts had decided that perhaps the impact of punishment should be thrown into the equation, rather than rely on mandatory sentences. Would that earlier courts had decided, and long ago, against a system that cared more waging a war on this and a war on that than it cared about the actual individuals and whole populations thrown into increasingly overcrowded, underfunded, toxic environments. Would that all of this had never had to come to courts at all.

Would that this had all happened long before Sharon Wiggins ever entered prison. Since 2008, the number of women sentenced to life without parole has risen precipitously, and who are they? “Among the females serving LWOP for offenses committed in their teenage years, the vast majority experienced sexual abuse in their childhood.” They are the abandoned, the sacrificed. But the end may be near. For Jennifer L. McSharry in South Carolina and thousands of women across the land, a change could be coming. They stand a chance, a bare chance, of not becoming another such sacrifice.

 

(Photo Credit: TakePart.com)

We had an abortion, we’re fine, thank you!

Making access to abortion more difficult is a way to change the nature of women’s lives. It also unsettles the social position of women in those countries that in the sixties and seventies, after a century or so of illegality, legalized access to contraception and to abortion.

In Texas, a recent court decision authorized HB2, a bill designed to make access to abortion more humiliating and difficult, even impossible for the most vulnerable women. Last week Democracy Now broadcast from San Antonio, “the last outpost for legal abortion in Texas,” in order to focus on this new attack on women’s lives. The shows featured Jeffrey Hons, CEO of Planned Parenthood in Texas, and Lindsay Rodriguez, President of the Lilith Fund, which provides financial support to women in Texas who cannot afford an abortion.

Responding to Senator Wendy Davis’ revelation in her new campaign memoir that she had an abortion, Hons explained, “A woman should be allowed all the privacy to have this healthcare and not have to reveal it to every one and then, at the same time…it’s as though when a woman will have the courage to share a story, that it humanizes it, and it makes everyone realize that these decisions are very complicated, very personal, very difficult…”

It was also very difficult also for a young woman in Pennsylvania to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, because services were too far and too expensive. Her mother went to the Internet and found a way to help her daughter. She purchased mifepristone (formerly called RU-486) and misoprostol pills, which was what she could afford. For that `crime’, the mother was sent to jail. She had no access to suitable services and yet was denounced by the hospital, condemned by the judicial system and pilloried by the media.

In Texas and other places where abortion is formally legal, abortion has remained taboo as if it were an unspeakable last result or an impossible choice for women. Women are meant to be ashamed because [a] they have violated the privacy of the household and [b] they are women seeking reproductive health. In recent years, safety and security rhetoric has led to the re-emergence of the argument that endangering the life of the mother justifies curtailing her right to control over her body.

On September 27, 2014, Sabine Lambert addressed these issues at the “Feminist Struggles and Reflections to Advance Society” forum in Paris. Lambert belongs to the collective group “We had an abortion, we’re fine, thank you” (nous avons avorté, nous allons bien, merci). The group formed to create spaces to liberate women from the politics of guilt and shame regarding their decisions by exchanging stories and insights with other women. Instead of leaving abortion in the private sphere, they present abortion as a possible occurrence in women’s lives that carries no particular shame or guilt. After all a woman spends more time avoiding pregnancy than being pregnant.

In France, abortion is free, a recognized as a right, and still relatively easy to access. Nevertheless, it is often described as a traumatizing event carrying terrible consequences for the mental well being of women. In recent years, these descriptions have become more prevalent. The idea that abortion should be averted by any means has prevailed, despite the fact that abortion has always existed and contraception will never be an absolute means of reproductive control.

In France and across Europe, the notion of post-abortive syndrome has surfaced. This so-called syndrome has no scientific support. Nevertheless, a well known professor of medicine wrote in a popular medical publication that scientific studies should not be necessary to prove that a woman who had an abortion is inclined to psychological distress and extreme suffering. In Texas, a Republican delegate candidate has argued that women who have undergone abortion are prone to drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. Both doctor and delegate are wrong.

Women who have gone through abortions know better. According to Sabine Lambert, we need to go beyond the right to control our body and recognize that our mind is also ours. On her group’s website many women have written that they felt ashamed for not feeling negative after their abortions. Describing their experiences, which were not always easy, the women say they do not regret anything. Many say that in their mind the result of a sexual encounter was not the fetus. Sabine suggested that the image of the monstrous woman underlies the stigmatization of abortion. The woman who had an abortion and feels fine commits a double transgression. First she refuses maternity, and second she’s ok. She deviates twice from the patriarchal feminine social norm.

Sabine’s group organized to demand a woman’s right to abort with head held high. The right to abort should not be limited to begging for the crumbs of tolerance or struggling for a loosening of the noose around the neck. There is no shame or guilt for the women in Texas, Pennsylvania or France. We should demand respect for their decision, as we should recognize their struggle as political, not private.

 

(Photo credit: IVG, je vais bien, merci!)