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!)

From Texas to Paris, women fight for their lives

From Texas to Pennsylvania to France, women’s rights have to be re affirmed. Moreover, the engagement implies defending an idea of society that goes beyond the right to abortion or women’s right to control their bodies.

In September, in Paris’ City Hall, the forum “Feminist Struggles and Reflections to Advance Society” summed up the current need to switch to the offensive. The Deputy Mayor of Paris opened the forum recalling that feminist struggles always upset the men and women who want to go further in social regression at times of economic crisis. Maya Surduts, President of the National Coordination of Associations for the Right to Abortion and Contraception, concurred, “We are at a turning point. The status of women is being called into question in this society.”

Maternity and the right to decide are under attack as is as the conception of women as full citizens, in France and in the United States.

In the United States, two recent cases of mistreatment of women show that an individualistic, utilitarian, patriarchal, neoliberal idea of society normalizes cruelty.

A woman in rural Pennsylvania has been sentenced from 9 to 18 months in jail for providing, through an online vendor, RU 486 to her 19-year-old daughter, who wanted to end an unwanted pregnancy. The nearest abortion clinic is 75 miles away. The woman was reported to the authorities by the local hospital where they went when her daughter had stronger stomach cramps. The details of the story show the intricate manipulations of events that led to the charge that sent this woman to jail. A state senator commentating on the case accused her of endangering the welfare of a child. It is not clear which child he is referring to. In this judgment, the fact that a fetus is not an unborn child fades away along with the acknowledgment that her daughter is a person and not a womb made to carry children.

She was also charged with “offering medical consultation about abortion without a license”. The daughter did not have health insurance, and the mother and the family seemed to have limited resources. The reality is that the mother had no information about abortion and, working in this vacuum of respect for rights to help her daughter, used the Internet to cut costs. The judge ruled, “This was somebody taking life and law into their own hands”. In fact, this situation is created by a system that plays with women’s lives without any respect for the latter. It works by creating a halo of shame and guilt around the woman, a halo that obscures the shame that the state has for not fulfilling its responsibilities.

Meanwhile in Texas last week, a court decision authorized HB2 to go into effect. This bill imposes restrictions on abortion centers, demanding them to meet the standards of hospital surgery departments. There is no medical reason for that requirement. Nevertheless, it forced 13 clinics to close immediately.

Constraints imposed on women who decide to have an abortion are also medically unnecessary. Now, a woman must arrange four visits to the clinic with the same doctor in a very rigorous timing. She must undergo an unnecessary and invasive vaginal probe ultrasound. Then she has to listen to the description of the development of a fetus, completing her physical torture with a psychological one.

With this measure, women from the western part of Texas will have to travel up to 500 miles round trip to an abortion clinic in San Antonio, the last area where the eight remaining clinics are located. The situation’s worse for the large population of people who live in the Rio Grande Valley without documentation or who have work permits that allow very limited travel. Meanwhile, immigrant women will have to go through immigration check points to reach an abortion clinic, basically depriving immigrant women from this area of their rights.

From the United States to Europe, new measures and laws add devastating constraints on women. In Europe, austerity measures stripped women of their way of life, work, and access to public services, most notably in Greece.

Although in France abortion is free of charge and guaranteed by law, a certain rationale of profitability combined with austerity measures has made access to abortion centers and hospitals trickier. Forced restructuration has closed many locations where women had access to reproductive services. While the Pennsylvania and Texas cases would be inconceivable in France for now, Maya sees the attacks on labor laws and on public services as the point of entry to make women the first to be harmed and exploited. She emphasized that immigrant women are always in the forefront. She added that these situations are unacceptable and that it is time to retake the initiative to defend the rights that protect the majority of the population.

Getting A Conversation Started About Women Serving LWOP in Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Sharon Wiggins

I set up twelve wooden fold-up chairs around four long, wooden, primitively made tables that I arranged in an open square. One chair was for me. In the middle of the education building at the Solebury Meetinghouse, in a quasi-rural -suburban place an hour outside of Philadelphia I was prepping the room for a free public meeting or rather a conversation that I had been wanting to have for over a year; ever since Peachie died.

The squared stage I set up surrounded by an even dozen chairs appeared warm and balanced-conducive for a conversation about the struggles that women and girls experience while serving life without parole in Pennsylvania. If by chance fewer people showed up for the meeting, the arrangement wouldn’t look empty and feel cold. If by chance more people showed up, there was room to sit behind those seated at the table. I placed my agenda and handouts in a well made basket; a gift from a friend many years a go.

This room, I am comfortable in. In this room, once or twice a month for three and a half years I held Cub Scout den meetings. Two years a go, I welcomed the Fight For Lifers to present their educational initiatives at a meeting I had organized. Scouting and life sentences. There has got to be a connection: the responsibility that we have to be informed citizens? That might be it. By the way I am not a Quaker.

My plan was to share the devotion I have for Naomi, Marie, Sheena, Juvenile Girl, Avis, Joyce, Jessie, Tequilla and others. And to convince the citizens of Bucks County that these are just a handful of the women I have become acquainted over the last three years as an Official Visitor with the Pennsylvania Prison Society and who have earned and deserve to be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the the free world. But because I have been thinking about this problem of no parole in Pennsylvania for lifers for three years, I have come to realize that the average person in my part of the state, knows nothing about this injustice. Not only for adults, but definitely not about juveniles serving this capital equivalent sentence.

So, because of that I needed to give some historical information about mandatory sentencing, the shut down of commutation and comparisons to other states and countries in order to illustrate with as much punch as possible how Pennsylvania is in a time warp and in terms of penological practices, about as progressive as a closed, oppressed Asian nation. And I realized that before I could concentrate on women’s issues, I was half way through the meeting discussing general prison issues that affect both men, women and their families: the cost of making phone calls, lousy food and medical care, staff turnover, lack of educational opportunities, isolation in remote parts of the state affecting visitation, commutation futility, well trained staff, leadership turnover and that for lifers, doesn’t get any easier or cheaper.

I tried to illustrate all of these struggles with the views and experiences of a woman or grown up juvenile girl serving life. I shared the accomplishments that the women are proud of, the sentence of life that they received that clearly does not reflect their degree of guilt, decades of isolation and the absurdity of being deemed unworthy and too dangerous to live in the free world. Ever. The small and nearly empty visitor’s room at Muncy and Cambridge Springs speaks loudly: where are the male relatives? How can women become better and more effective leaders while incarcerated? How can their voices be heard?

The excessive power that the victim’s rights groups have over our criminal justice system and their success in hijacking any sense of compassion and mercy to our most marginalized members of our society has retarded our spiritual growth. The ignorant and lazy elected officials who do nothing to not only educate themselves about this tragedy, can’t even take the time to meet a women serving life for decades has trumped any chance of Pennsylvania to be an evolving and decent place to empathize with those who have served many decades in prison and who have served their time so well, that many have more to be proud of then those who have never served a single day in prison.

The meeting was attended by nine engaged and thoughtful people. Four of us were already in this struggle and the remaining five came with some knowledge of the absurdity of our overly punitive incarcerated state and have the desire to learn more. The woman from her book club will undoubtedly be more effective in her upcoming group discussion on the book “Doing Life.” I guess this is a step in the right and just direction.

 

(Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Support SCI Coal Township prisoners’ demands for decent food, humane treatment!

Austerity loves prisons but hates people, in particular prisoners. That’s the lesson from SCI Coal Township, a prison in Pennsylvania, where prisoners are peacefully protesting their mistreatment by the State and demanding they be treated as human beings with needs and rights.

In May, prisoners were told that `budget’ woes forced the prison to cut back on food rations’ size and quality. Prisoners’ morning meals were severely reduced, while the Staff Dining Room’s full, extensive, and, considering, lavish menu was untouched. Austerity loves prisons but hates prisoners.

SCI Coal Township prisoners have written and circulated a petition with 22 demands. Many involve the abrogation of their civil and human rights. The food demands are basically three:

First, rescind the cuts and restore the former menu, which wasn’t great to begin with.

Second, eliminate the special food privileges of the staff and have everyone eat from the same pot, as it were. Prisoners argue that the Staff Dining Room is a money pit that should be addressed.

Third, if none of the above is met, at least authorize prisoners to receive monthly 60-pound food packages from family and friends. Neighboring states New Jersey, New York, and Ohio already do so for their prisoners. As the SCI Coal Township prisoners say, “If the DOC places the budget over our nutritional needs we request a means to provide for our own nutritional needs.”

SCI Coal Township is also facing a court case in which its censorship of political and human rights literature is being challenged. Austerity loves prisons. Cut off food, cut off access to information and knowledge and education, cut off access to literature and culture. Call it a good day’s work.

Support the SCI Coal Township prisoners, if you can, by reading, signing, and circulating their petition, here.

 

(Image Credit: http://decarceratepa.info)

End juvenile life without parole now!


The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole. In `America’, when we say life without parole, we mean it. Currently, about 2570 children are serving life without parole. With more than 500 people convicted as juveniles and given mandatory life sentences without parole, Pennsylvania leads the nation and the world in the practice of devastating children’s lives.

Two years ago almost to the day, in Miller v Alabama, the United States Supreme Court outlawed mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles. The Court did not ban life sentences without parole, but rather chose to ban the mandatory aspect. Three weeks ago to the day, that same Supreme Court refused to hear a case, Cunningham v Pennsylvania, which concerned the retroactivity of their earlier decision. If mandatory juvenile life without parole became wrong, on Constitutional grounds, in June 2012, shouldn’t that Constitutional reasoning apply to all those children who came before and now struggle to survive in an inhumane situation? For the Supreme Court, the time is not right.

The time is not right for many states across the United States. Last week, the Sentencing Project released a report, Slow To Act: State Responses to 2012 Supreme Court Mandate On Life Without Parole, which showed a national reluctance to abide by the Supreme Court mandate. The Supreme Court decision struck down laws in 28 states: “Two years later, the legislative responses to come into compliance with Miller have been decidedly mixed. A majority of the 28 states have not passed legislation. Frequently, the new laws have left those currently serving life without parole without recourse to a new sentence. Though 13 of the 28 states have passed compliance laws since Miller; the minimum time that must be served before parole review is still substantial, ranging from 25 years (Delaware, North Carolina, and Washington) to 40 years (Nebraska and Texas). Most states, not only those affected by Miller, still allow juveniles to be sentenced to life without a chance of parole as long as the sentence is imposed through individual review rather than as a result of a mandatory statute.”

State after States continues to insist that prison is the answer, that a policy of mass despair and death-in-life is the best thing for `some children.’ Juvenile life without parole laws supposedly addressed a sudden eruption of predatory and feral violence committed by incorrigible children. As Deborah LaBelle, Executive Director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, has noted, that means Black and Latino.

In Miller v Alabama, the Supreme Court decided that children are children and that children matter. No matter what they do, children are children, and this means, among things, they have a greater capacity for rehabilitation, assuming responsibility, healing and repairing. Mandatory juvenile life without parole denies children their identities as children. All juvenile life without parole denies children not only their existence as children, but also the possibility for all of us that a community cannot be built on the manufacture of despair. Hope matters.

Pennsylvania, despite your legislature and your Supreme Court, take your position as the world’s leading incarcerator of children for life without parole, and turn it inside out. End juvenile life without parole, all juvenile life without parole. Do it now.

(Image Credit: Pennsylvania Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth)

Did Mother’s Day end early this year?

Mother’s Day seemed to end early and abruptly this year.

In Australia, under the proposed new national budget, women who have a child, otherwise known as mothers, face paying 30% more on student loans than their male counterparts. No matter that another government policy encourages women to have three children, one for ma, one for pa, and for the nation down the road: “These aren’t choices we force on men. These are penalties we extract from women, based on their gender.”

Speaking of penalties, this week, the Pennsylvania ACLU revealed that in Pennsylvania, pregnant women prisoners are routinely shackled, including during childbirth. Pennsylvania is one of the states that actually has a law, the Healthy Birth for Incarcerated Women Act, which prohibits this kind of treatment. That law was passed in 2010. The ACLU has written to the Attorney General of Pennsylvania asking her to `clarify the law.’

Speaking of clarifying the law, Marissa Alexander still can’t catch a break. For having shot once in the air and not endangered anyone, in order to ward off an abusive partner, Marissa Alexander still faces a possible 60 years behind bars. While her lawyers may have all sorts of new evidence, the prosecuting attorney says the evidence isn’t new enough and the judge is worried about the precedent set by having a second Stand Your Ground hearing. Happy Mother’s Day.

But for the women farmworkers of Immokalee, it may just be a Mother’s Day to celebrate. For the fourth year in a row, farmworker mothers, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, stormed the ramparts of Publix, armed to the teeth with hope, a vision of a decent and dignified future for all, a dream of industrial democracy, and a letter, which read:

“May 11, 2014
Mother’s Day

To Publix:

We are farmworker women.  This is the fourth celebration of Mother’s Day in which we are writing to Publix to ask that you join the Fair Food Program.

As mothers, we work in the fields to support our families, especially to help our children through school.

As mothers, we do not make enough to fully support our family.  And the little that we do make is not easy to earn: We work under the sun and rain of Florida.  We do everything so that you can have tomatoes:  we plant, we tie up the plants, we harvest, and then we do it all again the next season.  In spite of all that, it seems that you do not understand and do not want to hear the voice of farmworkers.

Publix profits from the sweat of those of us who work in the fields.  We deserve respect and we deserve a fair wage.

Now is the time to join the Fair Food Program to protect the rights of workers and ensure a fair wage, with the penny per pound that 12 other corporations are already paying.  What are you waiting for, Publix?

Sincerely,

The Women’s Group of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers”

After delivering the letter, Lupe Gonzalo reported, “Publix presumes to say that they support families — but in reality, we don’t see this support. And we are not afraid to tell them that what they are saying is not true.  We are not afraid to come and protest in front of their stores.  Because we are speaking the truth, with our heads held high. For all of us, when we speak to our children, we tell them the truth.  And we tell them that Publix has not signed onto the Program because they are afraid.  Even children can see that.  But what does Publix say to its children?  Only lies?  Is that how they are educating their children?  That is not how we prepare our children for the future.”

Others, like Nely Rodriguez, mother of four, agreed. Now is the time!

Thanks to the work of women like Marissa Alexander, Lupe Gonzalo, Nely Rodriguez, maybe Mother’s Day didn’t end early this year, because, for them, the struggle of women continues, and that’s what Mother’s Day is all about.

(Photo Credit: Coalition of Immokalee Workers)