Surveiller et punir … et mourir

Next year will mark 50 years since the publication of Michel Foucault’s groundbreaking Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison. That was February 1975. Two reports issued this week concerning the state of prisons in France and in Scotland suggest that the “birth of prison” continues unabated to this day. While it’s not particularly surprising that prisons born of the will to knowledge expressed as a toxic mix of discipline and punishment, it still makes one wonder what our collective, and often individual, investments are in such an inhumane and cruel institution.

Today, the French section of the International Observatory of Prisons published Au coeur de la prison: La machine disciplinaire. According to the report, in 2022 almost half of incarcerated people were “the subjects of incident reports”, resulting in 69,174 “disciplinary sanctions”, including over 100,000 days in solitary confinement. Take a discrete population in a controlled space. Criminalize every action. Impose cruel and unusual punishments on at least half the population. Tell them it’s for their own good, for their “rehabilitation”. These are lessons they have to learn. And there you have it, a disciplinary machine: “In prison, the list of faults punishable by disciplinary sanctions is potentially infinite, referring to categories of behavior that are sufficiently vague to encourage arbitrariness, behind mentions of `protection of order’ or ‘normal functioning’ of the establishment.” In 2022, half the sanctions led to solitary confinement, often for as long as 30 days, in violation of European prison rules. What comes of rampant solitary confinement, “the heart of the disciplinary response”? High rates of self-harm and suicide, unsurprisingly. An example of the arbitrariness of the disciplinary machine: “The standards governing the clothing of women prisoners are stricter than those for men.” For incarcerated women, bared shoulders or visible knees can lead to solitary confinement.

Yesterday, the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice released Nothing to see here? Deaths in custody and FAIs in Scotland – 2023, its third report on deaths in custody in Scotland. The Centre reports that four people die every week in Scotland while detained or under the control of the state. Between October 2022 and September 2023, 244 people died in state detention or care. Police contact deaths are increasing. Deaths have been increasing among those in mental health detention. Since the pandemic, deaths have been rising among those in migration detention and asylum “accommodation”. Deaths have been rising among looked after children and young people. Deaths among those held in prison “have been rising for many years, and this accelerated in the pandemic.” The death rate in prison in 2021-23 was 618 (per 100,000) compared to 242 in 2008-10. Between 30% and 50% were suicide and drug deaths. “Suicide and drug deaths in prison are increasing, and drug deaths are much higher in Scotland than in prisons in other places, including England and Wales, Australia and Europe.” More people sentenced to prison for longer terms have been committing suicide. Despite the rising numbers, most of the official documents refer to the deaths as “regrettable but inevitable”. Where are the women in this scenario? “The average age at death of … women who have died in prison since 2004 is 37 years; for men, the overall average since 2004 is 46.” Regrettable but inevitable.

Regrettable but inevitable is the theme for both reports. Create a disciplinary machine and what do you get? Regrettable but inevitable harm, often leading to death, within the prison or beyond, and not only for the incarcerated. Throw people into the hole and if they self-harm or kill themselves, it was regrettable but inevitable. The system had no part in that, there was no torture, there was no execution, there was only carceral agency. Build a structure where women “die” at an age nine years younger than that of men, and this in Scotland where the current life expectancy is 80.7 years for women, 76.5 years for men. So, women are “losing” 44 years, more than half an expected life span. Regrettable but inevitable.

Near the end of Discipline and Punish, Foucault wrote, “Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labour, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” Fifty years later, so-called democracies are still committed to and investing in essentially the same prison system. Is it surprising? No, it’s regrettable and inevitable.


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Louise Bourgeois, “Cell XIV (Portrait) / Tate)

A day or two in the life (and death) of an incarcerating world

Estimated tuberculosis incidence in prisons (cases per 100 000 person-years) by country in 2019

We’ve passed the hottest day in recorded history. How’s it going, otherwise? Let’s consider the world of prisons, jails, and other forms of locking people up and away. Here’s how we’ve been, at least how we’ve been recorded over the last couple days. Yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights condemned France for its cruel and usually overcrowded and otherwise degrading prisons. Also this week, France’s Inspector General of Places of Deprivation of Liberty condemned the prison in Perpignan for “undignified conditions”. Ireland has the highest number of prisoners and the greatest levels of overcrowding in its history. Women in the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility are suffering state torture and dying at alarming rates. A teenage Aboriginal girl held in Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Center tried to kill herself. Authorities refused to notify anyone. Why would they? It’s just another Aboriginal prison statistic. And finally, globally, nearly half of all TB cases in prisons and jails go undetected. Incarcerated people are dying. This is a skim of the past four days.

In 2020, 32 incarcerated people from six prisons sued France for inhumane conditions, especially for intense overcrowding. At the center of this was the Fresnes Prison, the second largest prison in France and one of three prisons `serving’ the Paris region. At the time, France’s prisons were at around 116% capacity. Fresnes Prison was at close to 200% capacity. The European Court of Human Rights convicted and fined France for violating inmates’ rights, specifically “the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment and … the right to an effective remedy”. Fresnes Prison had already been convicted for similar offenses two years earlier. Yesterday, the same European Court of Human Rights again convicted and fined France, again for violation of rights in Fresnes Prison. This time, along with the general conditions, especially the overcrowding, the plaintiffs also protested full body searches. Today, France’s prisons are at 120% capacity. Given the mass arrests of those protesting police violence, that situation is expected to worsen. Meanwhile, the Inspector General of Places of Deprivation of Liberty published her findings concerning the conditions at the Perpignan Prison, in Pyrénées-Orientales Department in southern France. The report begins by noting that a place designed for no more than 132 persons currently houses 315, or 239% capacity. From there the report went downhill: “endemic overcrowding, toxic material accommodation conditions, unsanitary conditions, proliferation of pests, systematic searches, disproportionate use of force and means of restraint”. This is not the first time that the prison in Perpignan has been cited. Plus ça change …

Speaking of the eternal return of the same, the Irish prisons are overcrowded at a historic level. The most overcrowded is the Dóchas Centre, which is at almost 120% of capacity. The Irish government is reported to be “scrambling” now in response, despite this being a longstanding issue. Rather than build more mental health facilities and more support services, the response has been to build more prisons.

Yesterday, a one-on-one companion observer for incarcerated women at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility (WNMCF) published her observations of the lethal conditions in the institution, where last three years three of her patients died of suicide and many others attempted suicide: “not only did the prison staff fail to save these women’s lives, but the abuse, neglect, disregard, and maliciousness of prison staff pushed them to the point of desperation that made them feel death was the only option.” They didn’t fail, they refused. In 2022, New Mexico paid over $860,000 to settle allegations of rape and sexual abuse at its women’s prisons. Again, staff “failed” to respond to appropriately, “looking the other way”. They didn’t fail; they refused. There’s a humanitarian crisis at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility … and beyond.

There’s a humanitarian crisis at the Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre as well. The Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre is the only juvenile detention center in South Australia. This week, it was reported that an Aboriginal teenage girl tried to commit suicide in early 2023, and the detention center didn’t inform anyone for months. Actually, they never did actually report the incident. They didn’t see the need. The girl, a sexual abuse survivor, was arrested on some minor offences. Bail was recommended, but because of mental health issues, she was remanded for assessment. When she tried to commit suicide, the staff intervened and took her to the hospital. Then, they reported that they took her to the hospital as a precaution. It was only two months later, when her attorney read court-ordered hospital psychiatric reports, only then did she find out that her client had tried to kill herself. The prison staff never informed her of that. They didn’t fail, they refused. Lately, children at Kurlana Tapa have been locked in their cells 23 hours a day, and incidents of self-harm have skyrocketed. Australia finds this “shocking”.

Finally, a study came out, reported on this week, that studied the global situation of tuberculosis in prisons and jails in 2019, that is prior to Covid. The study found the following: “The high incidence rate globally and across regions, low case-detection rates, and consistency over time indicate that this population represents an important, underprioritised group for tuberculosis control. Continued failure to detect, treat, and prevent tuberculosis in prisons will result in unnecessary disease and deaths of many incarcerated individuals.” Nearly half of TB cases among incarcerated people go undetected. Again, not failure, refusal.

From France to Ireland to the United States to Australia to entire world, prisons and jails are dangerous and often lethal. If we know, as we now do, that prisons and jails, especially but not only overcrowded institutions, breed tuberculosis which goes `undetected’ if we know, as we now do, that sending people to those places results in `unnecessary disease and deaths’, and we won’t discuss the concept of necessity here, how can we continue to send people, women, children, anyone, to those places? Just another day or two in the life (and death) of an incarcerating world.


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Infographic Credit: The Lancet Public Health)

Hope in a time of choler: Malaysia takes beginning steps away from necropolitics

“I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead … Under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred.”

                                                                        Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics

Twenty years ago, Achille Mbembe’s seminal article, “Necropolitics”, was published. In the intervening two decades, the world has committed itself to the various ways of destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds. From environmental devastation to mass eviction to brutal warfare to brutality against vulnerable populations seeking assistance to brutality against those deemed destined for vulnerability and beyond, cruelty, suffering, misery followed intentionally miserable deaths has been the script. But in the past few months, Malaysia, no great bastion of either civil or human rights, decided enough is enough, and it’s time, way past time, to put a pause and perhaps even step away from the necropolitical order.

On April 3, Dewan Rakyat, or lower house, of Malaysia’s Parliament, voted for legal reforms that would abolish the mandatory death sentence for 11 offences. The full reforms called for the suspension of the death penalty for 34 offences, including kidnapping. While Malaysia has had a moratorium on death sentences since 2018, they did not close death row, and so judges have continued to send people convicted of these acts to death row, all in the name of rule of law. Executions would be replaced with whipping and imprisonment for as much as 40 years. This is in direct contrast to Malaysia’s neighbors, especially Singapore and Myanmar, who have returned to executions in recent years. The reforms also do away with imprisonment for a person’s natural life. On April 11, the Dewan Negara, or upper house of parliament, passed the reforms. They’re not perfect and they’re not all-encompassing (the death penalty can still be applied to those convicted of drug trafficking, but it’s no longer mandatory), but they are a step in the right direction.

Then, on May 22, the Dewan Rakyat passed a bill removing Section 309 of the Penal Code, a clause that punished suicide attempts with up to 1 year in jail, a fine, or both. Between 2014 and 2018, 11% of people who attempted suicide were prosecuted, again all in the name of the rule of law. Deputy Minister Ramkarpal Singh explained, “We are taking the approach to do away with punitive action and move towards rehabilitative measures. We hope that more people who are in need of help will come forward and seek treatment, and, at the same time, we will be able to reduce the number of suicide cases in future”. With suicide rates and rates of depression rising generally, and in particular among adolescents and young adults, the campaign to decriminalize suicide began with a youth campaign, launched in 2020.

Malaysia’s prisons are massively overcrowded, with as many as almost 42% of those incarcerated awaiting trial. Malaysia’s immigration detention centers are notoriously opaque, but we do know that 150 detained persons, included children, died in those centers last year alone. The detention centers are overcrowded as well, and those who resist deportation are sentenced to indefinite detention. In March, organizers of a Women’s Day rally were called into the police for questioning because of allegedly pro-LGBTQ+ posters. Malaysia is no bastion of human or civil rights. But it has taken important steps recently that could lead to other positive steps. Another world, one in which redemption and freedom grow, is possible.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: New Naratif)

As children die in detention, the state `struggles’ with overcrowding

On Wednesday, May 17, Anadith Tanay Reyes Alvarez, an eight-year-old girl born in Panama to Honduran parents, died while in U.S. border custody. She had been detained for a week — more than twice the amount of time the government generally aims to hold migrants, particularly children. On Wednesday, May 10, Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza, a 17-year-old Honduran boy died in U.S. border custody. Here’s how these tragedies were described: “In the past week the authorities have struggled with overcrowding at border facilities.” “In recent weeks the U.S. has struggled with large numbers of migrants coming to the border.” Authorities have struggled? The U.S. has struggled? What about Alvarez’s parents, who now call for justice, who now struggle to remind the world, “My daughter is a human being, they had to take care of her”. What about Espinoza’s mother, Norma Saraí Espinoza Maradiaga, who struggles to get answers, “I want to clear up my son’s real cause of death. No one tells me anything. The anguish is killing me. They say they are awaiting the autopsy results and don’t give me any other answer.” Stories matter. How stories are told matters. Nation-states with overcrowded prisons, jails, juvenile detention centers, immigrant detention centers do not `struggle’ with the overcrowding. If they did, they would do more than take timid steps to `address overcrowding’. They would end the everywhere-to-prison pipelines that crisscross the globe. Consider the last month of overcrowding, in no special order, as an example. And here, though obvious, it must be said these reports are only from places that actually allow any sorts of reporting.

In London, Ontario, the province settled a $33 million lawsuit concerning the conditions in London’s Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre, built for a maximum of 150 people, often holding as many as 500.

In the Indian state of Bihar, 59 jails, including eight central prisons, are built for a maximum of 47,750 people. Currently, they hold 61,891 people, described as “languishing” while the state “struggles with overcrowding”. Meanwhile, the Amphalla jail, in Jammu, “against a holding capacity of 426 prisoners has more than 700 inmates”.

Cyprus’s prisons, with a maximum capacity of 100, hold 146 people, making it the most overcrowded prison in Europe. After Cyprus, in descending order, come Romania, France, Greece, Italy, Sweden, Croatia, Denmark. French prisons are designed to house at most 60,899 people. As of April 1, they housed 73,080. At 120% of capacity, that’s “an all-time record”.

In late April, in Ireland, the Dóchas Centre, built to hold no more than 105 women, housed 170 women – 162% of its original capacity. Remember the 2021 Chaplains Report on the Dóchas Centre “being used as a dumping ground”? Two years later, the state is still `struggling’.

The UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture visited Madagascar prisons, for the first time, and found many were “close 1000% …. With half of its prison population in pre-trial detention, Madagascar should reconsider its criminal policies and enact urgent measures, including alternatives to imprisonment, to reduce this grave level of overcrowding that constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions of detention, contrary to international law standards.”

On Friday, May 19, Zimbabwe started releasing 4000 incarcerated people. Why? With a capacity of 17,000, Zimbabwe’s prisons house over 20,000 people. Uganda was `shocked’ to learn, this week, that its prisons, with a maximum capacity of 20,036 people, currently holds 74,444 people, or an occupancy rate of 371.6%: “With the rising numbers, prison authorities are struggling to feed their daily average of 81,729 prisoners”. Authorities are struggling, incarcerated people are starving.

Kenya’s prisons at more than 200% capacity. As elsewhere, as pretty much everywhere, there aren’t enough beds to go around. People are sleeping on the floor. The answer? A new campaign: “One prisoner, one bed, one mattress”. Interior Principal Secretary in the State Department for Correctional Services Mary Muthoni is looking to acquire 60,000 mattresses and beds to address the floor sleeping crisis. This is how the state `struggles’. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 incarcerated people are serving sentences of less than three years, and 41% of the prison population are bailable remand incarcerated people. They are people who have not been tried but cannot afford bail. In Nigeria, where 82 correctional centers are over capacity, 80% of those incarcerated are awaiting trial.

When an eight-year-old girl or a 17-year-old boy dies in an overcrowded detention center; when hundreds of thousands of people are starving in overcrowded prisons and jails; when hundreds of thousands of people are sleeping on the bare floor; when millions are locked down for days; the story is not that the state is struggling. The story is torture. End torture now. Stop sending people to prisons, jails, juvenile detention centers, immigrant detention centers.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Tannen Maury / EPA)

Where are the women? In Ireland, and beyond, incarcerated and sleeping on the floor

Dóchas Centre

Perhaps April is indeed the cruelest month, but when it comes to prison overcrowding, abuse, and general disregard for human dignity or life, it’s just another month. Take Ireland, for example. Reports started circulating at the beginning of the month that Irish prisons were dangerously overcrowded. On April 10, The Irish Times reported, “Fourfold increase in prisoners sleeping on floor as officials warn of safety risks in Mountjoy”.  Since the beginning of the year, the number of prisoners sleeping on the floor has increased by 400% … in a mere three months. The pandemic must be over, and this must be what `return to normal looks like’. The epicenter of this increase is Mountjoy Prison, which is at 110% capacity. In response, prison administrators are planning to buy bunk beds. That should take care of the problem, right? No. People sleeping on the floor presents a safety hazard to both incarcerated people and staff, according to an internal memo. But here’s the thing. This article is 20 short paragraphs long. It isn’t until the seventeenth and eighteenth paragraphs that the reader learns who exactly is being endangered: “Overcrowding is worse in the Dóchas Centre women’s prison which, with 172 prisoners, is operating at 118 per cent capacity. Limerick men’s prison, which was recently expanded, is at 130 per cent capacity (274 prisoners) while Limerick women’s prison is at 175 per cent (49 prisoners).” Where are the women? Sleeping on the floor and reduced to the margins of their own stories.

As of the most recent prison census, on April 13, Dóchas Centre, the women’s section of Mountjoy, remains at 118%. The Limerick women’s section is currently at 179%. Bunk beds won’t fix that, and everyone knows as much. Building more jails won’t address the situation either.

Chaplains who service Ireland’s prison release regular reports. The most recent one for Dóchas Centre, in 2020, reported, “Most recently a prisoner was remanded to the Dóchas Centre after having spent over a year in a psychiatric facility. The prisoner was clearly unwell and confused to the extent that after a few days in custody the prisoner wanted to know what hospital she was in. From as soon as she arrived in the Dóchas Centre the prisoner remained in bed all day. Prison was obviously not the place for that prisoner, yet the prisoner had been charged, arraigned in Court and remanded to prison. After considerable intervention by the Governor and Health Care Staff, the prisoner was removed back to the psychiatric facility that she had come from …. While Staff were dealing with this prisoner two other prisoners on the same landing were even more difficult to deal with: both were self-harming and both were violent. Both of the prisoners had been treated for mental illness before coming to prison. One of the prisoners had been brought to the Dochas Centre infected with Covid 19. The other prisoner was returned to the psychiatric facility where she had been a patient. That prisoner however was returned to the Dochas after she behaved in the same violent way that she had behaved in when she was being held in the Dochas previously. Obviously she had been referred to the psychiatric facility for specialist treatment. How was she expected to receive that treatment when she was returned to the Dochas? This is a clear example of the Dochas being used as a dumping ground.”

 “The Prison Service is too well aware of how prisons are constantly being used as the dumping ground for other agencies’ problems. Offenders whose offence is rooted in mental illness invariably get sent to prison because the State cannot accommodate them elsewhere. This imposes a duty of care on the Governor and his Staff which the normal exercise of their duty was not designed for. Prison Officers are not trained to handle psychiatric cases …. Covid has preoccupied all our thinking for almost a year. Hospitals filled to capacity are part of everyday discussion. At this time of terrible fear and anxiety in the community, no one is going to be surprised to hear that the Central Mental Hospital has no bed space available either. The difference however is that the CMH had no available space before the Covid 19 pandemic. Most prisons have prisoners suffering from mental illness who have been waiting for a bed in the CMH for over a year.” According to the Chaplain’s Report, the situation is “soul destroying. No one seems to care.”

The Chaplain concludes, “Government could find the resources to rescue the collapse of the banking system. Government could find the resources to pay workers to stay at home during the pandemic. Government could find the resources to protect the vulnerable from a life of addiction, homelessness and petty crime. Government instead sends the weakest and most vulnerable in society to prison at the cost of the taxpayer and the fabric of society.”

What has happened in the intervening three years? Women are no longer dumped into beds. Now, they’re dumped on the floor. Further, women have been even more deeply erased from the public record. They’re there, somewhere near the end of the rare account, as an afterthought. Where are the women? Dumped on the floor, dumped from their own stories. The Prison Service is too well aware …

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Irish Examiner)

In the Philippines, prisons are at 332% capacity. Releasing a few people will do little to nothing

In the Philippines, detained people, incarcerated people, are referred to as PDLs, persons deprived of liberty. At Monday’s Cabinet meeting, the first of the year, Philippines President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. directed the Department of Justice to release those PDLs who are already eligible for parole in order to relieve overcrowding in the prisons. If history is any guide, this gesture may reduce overcrowding, slightly, and even that is doubtful, but it will not relieve overcrowding. According to the Bureau of Corrections latest data, as of November 2022, the prison capacity is 12, 145, and the prison population at that time was 50,226, or 414% of capacity. The one women’s prison, the Correctional Institution for Women – Mandaluyong, CIW-Mandaluyong, has a capacity of 1,008. In November, according to the government, it housed 3,341 WPDLs, women persons deprived of liberty. That is, it was at 332% of capacity. Releasing a few persons here and a few there will not do anything, especially since the prisons take in more people than they release anyway.

In September, the Bureau of Corrections, BuCor, released 371 PDLs. 37 were WPDLs. Since then, every month the government has called for more releases. Meanwhile, every month the prison population has risen: 49,515 in September; 50,141 in October; 50,226 in November. How is this possible, if people are being released to decongest the prisons? In September, 788 PDLs died; 5,011 were released; and 6,625 were admitted. Similarly, in October, 857 PDLs died; 5,627 were released; 7,358 were admitted.

Where and who are the women? In November 2021, 874 WPDLS, almost half the female prison population. listed unemployed or jobless as their profession. Next `businesswomen’, 454; then vendors, 394; then housekeeper/housewife/caretaker, 376; then laundrywoman, 111. After that, the categories drop even more significantly. Who are the women? Overwhelmingly low-income women operating in the informal sectors.

When Marcos suggested the release of PDLs, he noted, “Wala naman silang magaling na abugado (They don’t have good lawyers). So that’s why we are in favor now to release many of them. They just needed representation to set them free.” They just need representation to set them free. Why are the prisons so fatally overcrowded in the Philippines? They don’t have good lawyers. They just need representation to set them free. The deprivation of liberty begins and ends right there. Don’t build more prisons, which is what is being planned. Don’t release 300 here, 300 there, when you know they will be replaced by 400 one month, 500 the next. And as pretty much everywhere else in the world, the prison sentence doesn’t end when people are released, and this is especially true for women who have been deprived of liberty. Women face particular stigma post-incarceration. As human rights attorney Catherine Alvarez explained, “There is a perspective in society that a woman is not fit to become a mother because she committed a crime.” Rather than relieving congestion, try preserving and sustaining liberty.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Jire Carreon / Rappler) (Image Credit: Pacita Abad, “Caught at the Border” / PacitaAbad)

In Mexico, Aurelia García Cruceño left prison. She never should have been there in the first place.

Last Tuesday, December 20, Aurelia García Cruceño walked out of, or was released from, Centro de Readaptación Social de Iguala, the local jail in Iguala, in Guerrero, in southwestern Mexico. She never should have been in prison in the first place. In 2019, Aurelia García suffered a miscarriage and was arrested for having had an abortion. Today, Aurelia García is 23. She spent the last three years in jail, in a state that decriminalized abortion in May 2022, in a country whose Supreme Court unanimously declared penalizing abortion as unconstitutional. And yet …

In 2019, Aurelia García Cruceño, a 19-year-old Náhua woman, lived in the town of Xochicalco, in the Chilapa de Álvarez Municipality, in the state of Guerrero. A town leader raped Aurelia García, who, because of the man’s stature in the community, felt she couldn’t accuse him, at least not successfully and not without further endangering herself. And so, in June 2019 she fled to her aunt’s house, in Iguala. Aurelia García had no idea that she was pregnant. She also spoke no Spanish.

Four months later, on October 2, 2019, Aurelia García began suffering intense pain and bleeding. Finally, after a week, she endured a miscarriage, an “involuntary abortion”. Her aunt walked in, saw Aurelia García lying, passed out, on the bed, covered in blood, and called the ambulance, who took her to the hospital. When Aurelia García awoke, she was handcuffed to the bed. She was then charged with homicide, tried, convicted, sentenced, imprisoned.

Again, Aurelia García Cruceño was 19 years old at the time and spoke no Spanish. The lawyers assigned to defend her spoke to her in Spanish, without any Náhuatl speaking translator present. The attorneys told her to plead guilty and take a 13-year sentence. Otherwise, they explained, she’d be imprisoned for 50 years. Aurelia García agreed and signed papers. She had no idea what she was agreeing to nor understood the papers she signed.

At no time was a Náhuatl speaking translator provided, not in the hospital, not by the police, not by her attorneys, not by the Court. And yet …

Feminist and human rights attorneys, organizations and activists jumped to Aurelia García’s defense, once they heard of the case. They brought Aurelia García’s case to court for five separate hearings, and finally arrived at something like justice, or at least the beginnings thereof.

When Aurelia García walked out of prison, she was accompanied by her parents, Agustina Cruceño Naranjas and Alberto García Palazin, and her defense attorneys Verónica Garzón Bonetti and Ximena Ugarte Trangay. Aurelia García, who learned to speak Spanish while in prison, smiled and said, “I made myself strong to be able to move forward and beyond … I am going to study hard and hopefully I will achieve my dream of becoming a teacher … And I want to make sure that what happened to me never happens to anyone else. We cannot stay silent; we must talk and tell what is being done to us.”

Aurelia García Cruceño should never have been in prison. Her abuse by the State is an assault on women generally, on young women, on Indigenous women, on working poor women. As Aurelia García and her allies have noted, she was not alone in Iguala’s Center for Social Readaptation, far from it. In fact, the court has yet to hear the case of Maira Onofre Gómez, held in the same prison for exactly the same `crime’. How many more women must suffer this form of injustice, in Mexico and beyond? For now, Aurelia García Cruceño is with her family and supporters, waiting and preparing for the next trial, where she is suing the State for damages, and preparing for her future life, her dream, of becoming a bilingual teacher for Náhuatl-speaking indigenous children. May that kind of justice prevail.

Aurelia García Cruceño

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Amicus / Twitter) (Photo Credit: La Jornada)

As 2022 ends, where are the women? Increasingly, in prisons and jails and under attack

In 2022, despite the obvious dangers of Covid transmission, jails and prisons around the world remained overcrowded. Despite decades of evidence-based research that demonstrates the negative health impact of overcrowding carceral institutions, despite volumes upon volumes of harrowing testimony, despite common sense and a sense of humanity, in 2022 jails and prisons around the world remained overcrowded. In Pakistan and India, women’s jails remained overcrowded, largely with women awaiting trial. The same held true in the United States, especially in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. There was much talk this year of “compassionate release” but in fact very little release or compassion. In a year in which the global prison population was at an all-time high, women were the fastest growing prison population, still and again.  That, in a nutshell, is 2022, but wait, there’s more. This week, the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics released two reports, Jail Inmates in 2021 and Prisoners in 2021. Where are the women? Yet again, increasingly in jails and prisons.

From June 2020 to June 2021, the number of people held in jails rose 16%: “The number of males confined in local jails increased 15% from 2020 to 2021, while females increased 22%.” From June 2019 to June 2020, the number of women confined in local jails decreased 37%. The decrease was a response to the Covid pandemic. What is the increase a response to?

From June 2020 to June 2021, the number of people in prisons decreased by 1%: “The overall decline reflected a decrease in prison populations in 32 states that was offset by an increase in 17 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).” Where are the women in this modestly decreasing population? “Twenty-three states and the BOP each had more female prisoners at yearend 2021 than at yearend 2020. The number of females in the BOP prison population increased more than 7% (up almost 800) from yearend 2020 to yearend 2021 … The BOP had approximately 5% more sentenced females and 1% more sentenced males at yearend 2021 than at yearend 2020.”

And who are the incarcerated women? “Among females of all ages at yearend 2021, those who were black (62 per 100,000) or Hispanic (49 per 100,000) were imprisoned at a higher rate than those who were white (38 per 100,000), despite the larger number of white females in the U.S. prison population … Female incarceration rates showed larger proportional differences by race at age 18 to 19 than for any age group. Among females ages 18 to 19, the 2021 imprisonment rates for those who were American Indian or Alaska Native (14 per 100,000) or black (13 per 100,000) were more than 6 times the rate for those who were white (2 per 100,000) … Sixty-four percent (6,300) of females in federal prison on September 30, 2021 were serving time for a drug offense.”

The story these numbers tell is interesting to the extent that we’ve been here before,  so many times. While there was a narrative circulating that the return to normal would hearken to our better angels, in fact, as with housing and eviction, the return to normal for women, especially for women of color, and most especially for young women of color, has been nothing short of catastrophic. That was 2020 to 2021, much of which was with Omicron raging across the country. And yet … And yet, the numbers of incarcerated women rose and rose.

Neal Marquez studies health care and infection in prisons and jails. Most recently he has published co-authored articles on racial and ethnic Inequalities n COVID-19 mortality in Texas prisons and life expectancy and COVID-19 in Florida state prisons. In Florida, Covid contributed to a 4-year reduction in life span of incarcerated people, and this happened in a single year. In Texas, Covid deaths were twice as high among Black and Latinx incarcerated people as among White. As Marquez noted this week, “It’s well-known that jails and prisons are at high risk of infectious disease spread, Marquez said, listing influenza, H1N1, and tuberculosis as examples of diseases that have spread quickly in prisons, with higher mortality compared with the general population.” Why do infectious diseases spread so quickly and with so much more deadly force? Overcrowding, limited access to health care, lack of appropriate equipment and staff figure prominently, prohibitively steep medical copays, and the fact that “people in prisons tend to have worse prevalence of long-standing health conditions than the general population”.

This week, it was reported that women lack basics in crisis-hit Lebanon’s crowded prisons; the `overcrowded’ Gorakhpur district jail, in northern India, is at 325% capacity; the United Kingdom’s “overflowing prisons put safety at risk”; and,  “due to overcrowding”, the Fulton County Jail, in Georgia, transferred incarcerated to women to the Atlanta City Jail, a move that has been “long talked about”. That’s the news this week … and it’s only Wednesday. Where are the women? In prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers and under attack. It may only be Wednesday for some, but for incarcerated women across the United States and around the world, it’s December.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Lauren Stumblingbear / Krannert Art Museum) (Infographic Credit: Penal Reform International)


FCI Waseca did not fail to assure the safety of incarcerated women; it refused to do so

This week, Utah’s Legislative Auditor General submitted a performance of health care in Utah’s state prisons. The Auditor found “systemic deficiencies”: “The lack of follow-up and patient monitoring is a systemic concern that extends beyond the Covid pandemic.” Reading this report, it’s a wonder that anyone survives Utah’s prisons. In fact, they don’t. According to a report earlier this year, “people in Utah’s prisons were five times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the average Utahn.” While five times more likely is high, it’s not much higher than prisons across the United States, boasting four times the infection rate of the country’s general population. And then there’s FCI Waseca, a low-security Federal prison for women, located in Waseca, Minnesota. FCI Waseca houses 756 women, of whom, according to the latest number from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 132 are currently infected with Covid. That’s the most of any Federal prison. The next in line is a Federal prison in Pollock, Louisiana, with 30 incarcerated people infected. FCI Pollock houses 1,556 incarcerated people. Less than 2% of FCI Pollock is infected with Covid; 17% of those in Waseca are Covid-infected.  Waseca accounts for 47% of all infected incarcerated people in the U.S. Federal prison system. These numbers provide the profile for “low security”.

At 199 Covid infections per 100,000, Waseca County has the highest rate of Covid infection of any county in the United States. Minnesota state prisons house 7,323 incarcerated people. Of that population, 95 are currently Covid infected, far less than 1%, although one prison, MCF Lino Lakes, 70 of its 911 incarcerated residents are Covid infected, a little under 8%.

Since the start of the pandemic, around 450 incarcerated women have tested positive for Covid. On Wednesday, December 8, the ACLU sued both FCI Waseca’s warden and the Director of the U.S. Bureau of Federal Prisons, claiming that the prison failed to take measures to contain Covid. FCI Waseca failed to release women with medical conditions to home confinement and failed to reduce the prison population sufficient for any kind of social distancing. That was no failure, that was refusal.

FCI Waseca is organized as dormitories with bunk beds kept close together. Everything is done in fairly tight common, social spaces. None of that was changed in any way in response to Covid. In August, a group of around 40 women was transferred from a facility in Oklahoma, a facility which was reporting Covid infections. The women from Oklahoma were placed in bunk beds in a unit with other bunk bedded women right next to them. Within weeks, most of the women in that unit tested positive for Covid.

What is there to say? FCI Waseca refused to address Covid, refused to respect women’s Constitutional rights to safety, refused to imagine an alternative to packing them in until it’s time to go. “Low security” should not be a death sentence nor should it mean being endangered. In fact, nothing should be a death sentence, but there we are. Two years into a pandemic, and we continue to cling desperately to the charnel house as the only way. If nothing else, by this point, perhaps people will stop saying, “The prison failed” to do this or that. There was no failure, there was only refusal, in broad daylight for all to see and without any remorse whatsoever.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Kayla Salisbury / The Marshall Project)

Covid Operations: In prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, the United States refuses to address Covid

In June, the Florida Department of Corrections ended all Covid-related pandemic emergency protocols. This includes reporting, and so now, although cases increase and people behind bars are dying, the state issues no reports. It’s none of your or our business. Go away. Florida is not an outlier. The whole country has refused do care for people behind bars. According to the most recent Prison Policy Initiative analysis, the United States gets an F, the Federal Bureau of Prisons gets an F. 42 state prison systems get F or F+. The highest grade went to New Jersey, C. Another study, looking at jail populations, finds that one of the best forms of Covid mitigation – along with vaccination, mask mandates, social distancing – is jail decarceration: “The globally unparalleled system of mass incarceration in the US, which is known to incubate infectious diseases and to spread them to broader communities, puts the entire country at distinctive epidemiologic risk …. Public investment in a national program of large-scale decarceration and reentry support is an essential policy priority for reducing racial inequality and improving US public health and safety, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity.” As to immigrant detention centers, “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has proven itself ill-equipped to manage the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in its detention facilities.” This applies as well to the “nongovernmental detainee facilities across the country”, such as the Otay Mesa Detention Center, site of the largest Covid outbreak among detained migrants … thus far. Say what you like about Florida, when it comes to concern for the vulnerable, for care of those people living and suffering in prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, it’s just one of the guys.

As the Prison Policy Initiative analysis suggests, this shouldn’t have been so complicated or difficult. Reduce the prison population. Reduce infection and death rates behind bars. Vaccinate everyone living behind bars. Address basic health and mental health needs through easy policy changes: waive video and phone call charges; provide masks and hygiene products; suspend medical co-pays; require staff wear masks; require staff be tested regularly. That’s it. It’s not complicated. It’s not hard. Everyone failed. I know … New Jersey got a C, California a C-Everyone else got a D or F.New Jersey vaccinated and released many living behind bars, but New Jersey’s infection rate in prisons was almost four times higher than the state COVID infection rate, and the prison Covid mortality rate was almost double that of the state.

Four states – California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey – made significant efforts to reduce prison population, partly through early release, early medical parole, suspension of incarceration for technical violations of probation and parole. Even with that, no state actually passed: “the nation’s response to the pandemic behind bars has been a shameful failure.” The response is shameful because there has been no response, and here I don’t only mean on the part of prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers. Where is the outrage? Where is the attention? Other than the usual suspects, who really cares? The failure is shameful because it is part and parcel of the national project. This is us, brutal and bankrupt in our lack of concern.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Infographic Credit: Prison Policy Initiative) (Photo Credit: The Guardian / Tannen Maury / EPA)