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)

In Australia, Aboriginal women and girls disproportionately sent to prison and jail are disproportionately strip-searched. We know. What are we going to do about it?

The Alexander Maconochie Centre 

Excessive strip-searching shines light on discrimination of Aboriginal women in the criminal justice system”. An article with that headline appeared yesterday. While the research and argument of the article is unimpeachable, one wonders about the shining light. The discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women by and in the Australian so-called criminal justice program is a longstanding open secret. In 2018, Human Rights Watch issued a report, which noted, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population, and 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous peers.” A version of that statement, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population”, had appeared in major reports in 201020112012201320142015,2016, and 2017. Now it’s 2021, and where are we … and who are we?

Last year, the Redfern Legal Centre reported that police in New South Wales continued to strip search children, some as young as 11 years old. In one year alone, NSW police conducted 96 strip searches of children. To no one’s surprise, those strip searches disproportionately assaulted Aboriginal children. This was no surprise, because strip searches generally target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and especially women and girls. Not only was the practice continuing, it was actually rising in number for Aboriginal children. Redfern is pursuing a landmark class action suit against the New South Wales police. While that would be important, these searches have occurred, for decades, in plain sight. Where are we … and who are we?

In January of this year, former Western Australia and New South Wales police came forward to discuss their experiences as police officers. They described a routine, and cynical, process of boosting arrest numbers by targeting Aboriginal communities, and especially children. Although strip searches are supposed to be only for “exceptional and extreme circumstances”, Aboriginal children were routinely strip searched. Their crime, their exceptionality, their extreme circumstance, was their bodies, their culture, their identity. One police officer remembered that strip searching a 10-year-old Aboriginal child was “one of the worst moments” of his eight-year career as a police officer. What was that moment for that 10-year-old child, one wonders, and where is he … and who is he now?

In March, it was reported that, earlier in the year, a 37-year-old Aboriginal woman was strip searched by four guards, in riot gear, in front of male detainees. Why? Because. This occurred at the Alexander Maconochie Centre, in the Australian Capital Territory. The Australian government boasts that the Alexander Maconochie Centre is “a human rights compliant” facility. Aboriginal leaders disagree. So does the woman, who wrote, “Here I ask you to remember that I am a rape victim, so you can only imagine the horror, the screams, the degrading feeling, the absolute fear and shame I was experiencing.”

Here I ask you to remember. 

In the first week of July, the Human Rights Legal Centre reported that from October 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021, there had been 208 strip searches conducted on women detainees at the same Alexander Maconochie Centre. Of those, 121, or 58%, were performed on Aboriginal women. At that time, Aboriginal women comprised 44% of the women held at the Alexander Maconochie Centre. Just being Aboriginal women made them exceptional and extreme. Again to no one’s surprise, of the 208 searches, three resulted in the discovery of contraband. The others were the price Aboriginal women pay for being Aboriginal women in Australia.

The lack of surprise is the point. In 2003, Debbie Kilroy, Director of Sisters Inside Inc, wrote, “Prisoners are strip-searched because it is a highly effective way to control women … Routine and random strip-searching is conducted in order to punish women and to control them.” The strip searching of women in Australia’s prisons is routine, but hardly random, in that it targets Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls, who are sent in disproportionate numbers into “human rights compliant’ prison and jail hellholes. We know. We’ve known for a long time. What are we going to do about it?

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Andrew Finch / City News)

In Ireland, the Dóchas Centre is a dumping ground for women living with mental health issues

Dóchas Centre

In Irish, dóchas means hope.  Every year, Chaplains who serve Ireland’s prisons issue a Chaplains Report. Usually, these reports are fairly modest, tame even, describing the situation in the various prisons. These reports seldom make news. This year, however, the Chaplains reported that the situation in Irish prisons has become dire, and the direst prison is the Dóchas Centre, nestled in the larger Mountjoy Prison, in Dublin. According to Ireland’s Department of Justice, the Dóchas Centre is a “closed, medium security prison for females aged 18 years and over. It is the committal prison for females committed on remand or sentenced from all Courts outside the Munster area.” The Chaplain’s report is more succinct: Dóchas has become “a dumping ground” for women living with mental health issues.

According to the Dóchas Centre Chaplain, “Most recently a prisoner was remanded to the Dochas 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 Dochas 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.”

While the Chaplain states repeatedly that the staff at the Dóchas Centre are doing the best they can, the best they can was never meant to address the needs of women living with mental health issues: “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 tax-payer and the fabric of society.”

There are currently 3866 people held in prisons in Ireland. According to the Justice Minister, over 1700 prisoners are awaiting mental health and substance abuse services. Across Ireland, close to half of all those living in prisons are waiting for treatment. In the Dóchas Centre, bedridden women, dumped and abandoned by the State, stare at the prison walls and imagine they’re being helped. In Ireland, today, dóchas means hope. 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Irish Examiner)

Keeping Appalachians out of the prison system

The people in Appalachia are currently battling two public health crises at once: the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis. Though overdose rates declined significantly across the country, they remain the highest in Appalachia and are surging again, currently at the highest rate since the start of the opioid epidemic in the late nineties. 

Overprescription, expansion of incarceration, and decades of economic stagnation created a breeding ground for addiction in the region. During COVID, the people of Appalachia are under more stress than ever before, leading more folks to relapse. When transportation modes and job opportunities are limited, it is significantly harder for those with substance use disorders to access proper treatment for their addiction. Compounding that, rehabilitation centers have severely decreased the number of patients they can take in order to follow pandemic safety protocols. 

Growing up in the mountains of southwest Virginia on the edge of Appalachia, the opioid epidemic hit us fairly hard though many areas nearby were worse off. All of the people I personally knew who passed due to heroin overdoses were women. All of them were single mothers. I don’t believe this is a coincidence. 

According to a 2017 report by the Health Resources and Services Administration, women were most affected by the opioid crisis, experiencing higher rates of usage, hospitalizations, and overdoses compared to their male counterparts. Though the epidemic is commonly framed as only impacting white people, the report found that the crisis affected women across all racial identities and ethnic groups equally. 

This comes as no surprise as women were disproportionately affected by the “War on Drugs”. While men are being incarcerated at a decreasing rate, the opposite is true for women who are currently propping up the carceral state. The “War on Drugs” fueled the mass expansion of prisons and jails and led to the imprisoning of large numbers of Black Americans and also introduced women as the fastest growing prison population. Whereas before women were mostly locked up in mental institutions, prison became the new way to control and abuse women. Even today, the majority of women incarcerated in the US are there for non-violent drug crimes. I want to emphasize this disproportionately affects BIPOC and transgender women even in Appalachia, a region with little racial and ethnic diversity. 

Poverty, sex work, and drug abuse are all risk factors for incarceration that often overlap. Across the region but particularly in West Virginia, many women with opioid addictions turned to selling their bodies on the streets as a form of survival. While some women choose to enter the sex work industry to make money to satisfy their addiction or trade sex for drugs directly, others are trafficked. The criminalization of drugs and sex work has created a vicious cycle of addiction, prostitution, incarceration, and relapse and uniquely affects women, both cis and trans.  

This gendered experience in the prison system is only exacerbated by the reality that a majority of incarcerated women (60%) are mothers, most of whom are single. Removing any parent from a home is severely destabilizing and increases the likelihood of an incarcerated individual’s own children from being locked up. 

In Appalachia, the foster care systems are currently being overloaded as a direct result of the opioid epidemic. Being under the intense surveillance of the state from such a young age conditions those within it in such a way that a quarter of foster children will end up in the justice system within just two years of aging out of care. In West Virginia, the state hit the hardest by the opioid epidemic, saw a 70% increase of children in the foster care system in the past six years. About 85% of the children in West Virginia’s foster care have at least one parent with an addiction issue. The currently overwhelmed foster care system is compounding the children’s odds of winding up in prison or jail as it’s more likely for them to be institutionalized and placed in a group home. Young girls in foster care, particularly black girls, are the most vulnerable to sex trafficking. Though not fully visible yet, in the next decade we can expect the incarceration rate in Appalachia to rise significantly partly due to the foster care to prison pipeline. 

It feels like there will always be a way for those affected by poverty and addiction in Appalachia to fall into the hands of the justice system. So, what is the solution? 

In the words of Angela Davis in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, “…with respect to the project of challenging the role played by the so-called War on Drugs in bringing huge numbers of people of color into the prison system, proposals to decriminalize drug use should be linked to the development of a constellation of free, community-based programs accessible to all people who wish to tackle their drug problems.”

Though Davis addresses the need to rehabilitate BIPOC individuals, this approach, along with the decriminalization of sex work, will be crucial in reuniting families, healing those with substance use disorders, and keeping Appalachians out of the prison system. 

If the necessary change is not acted upon now, the carceral state will continue to seep further and further into the mountain ground, as deep as the coal deposits once did. 

(By Hadley Chittum)

(Picture Credit: Kiki Ljung – Folio Art / NBC)

Why do we continue to leave pregnant women in deathtrap jails, prisons, detention centers?

Tammy Jackson

At the beginning of March, we asked if Florida would finally stop shackling women prisoners in childbirth. At the end of June, Florida’s Governor signed the Tammy Jackson Healthy Pregnancies for Incarcerated Women Act. Last year, Tammy Jackson gave birth, alone, in a cell in the North Broward Jail, in Pompano Beach. The new law bans shackling pregnant women prisoners; invasive body cavity searches; and the use of solitary confinement; and requires medical examinations at least once every 24 hours. While this is welcome news, it begs the question why it took Florida so long to address the ongoing violence against women in its prisons and jails. Why? Why are pregnant women shackled while pregnant, in childbirth, and after delivery? Why? Across the United States, women, alone in their cells, give birth to children. They are alone because … because they are incarcerated. That justifies all acts of violence and violation, especially against women. Remember, Andrea Circle Bear, the first woman to die of Covid 19 in federal prison, was pregnant when she was sent to prison. Remember, Andrea Circle Bear should never have been incarcerated in the first place, and should never have remained incarcerated. Why is it so hard to release pregnant women from clear and imminent danger?

Every month, the reports come out, and every month, for the past few months, prisons and jails have been the epicenters of Covid infection and mortality. Has that mattered to prison authorities or the public at large? No. Have pregnant women, the most vulnerable sector of the the incarcerated population, been released? No.  In North Carolina, pregnant prisoners were told they would be released. It hasn’t happenedThe women worry and organize, their families worry and organize, and meanwhile … What? 

This week, faced with a monster outbreak of coronavirus in its prison system, and in particular in San Quentin, California is beginning to consider releasing prisoners. Included in that process is the following: “The department also said it is `reviewing potential release protocols’ for those who are pregnant or in hospice.” Why only now are those processes being reviewed? Why is it so very difficult to understand that pregnant women, and those in hospice care, are at particular risk? What is it about a prison uniform that fatally hides one’s humanity? Meanwhile, part of California’s `process’ of reducing prison overcrowding is to keep people in jails. What could possibly go wrong with that plan? Equally nightmarish stories of the abuse of pregnant women in immigrant detention centers continue to pile up as well.

This is the age of mistreatment and abuse of pregnant women. Pregnant women prisoners are the tip not so much of an iceberg as of a continent-wide subterranean volcano. Why are pregnant women being warehoused in jail cells where the staff ignores and `forgets’ them? Why are pregnant women being stuffed into prisons and immigrant detention centers, where they are only meant to suffer and die? If not, we would release them. Period. Meanwhile, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill that would provide medical care for women before and after childbirth, in both prisons and jails. At the same time, “the legislature struck down proposed bans on shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant women this year.” The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: New York Times)

In Canada, Joelle Beaulieu refuses the death sentence of incarceration

Around the World of Covid, the news these days is pretty grim, and the news from prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, juvenile detention centers is worse. In those places of confinement, generally, rates of infection are rising precipitously and, despite much hand wringing and loud sighing, the State and nation-states have done little to nothing to less than nothing. Given the past decades increased investment in mass and hyper incarceration, this comes as no surprise. But there is good, or at least hopeful, news, and that is in prisoners’ individual and collective actions and resistance. April saw prison uprisings, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and other actions in Sierra LeoneArgentinaColombia, the United States and beyond. Everywhere, prisoners echo the banner resisting prisoners hung from the rooftop of the Devoto prison in Buenos Aires: “Nos negamos a morir en la cárcel.” We refuse to die in prison. In Virginia, Cynthia Scott, 50 years old, African American, currently incarcerated at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, agreed: “I was not sentenced to death, and I don’t want to die here.  But I am afraid I will when the coronavirus comes.” In Canada, on April 21, Joelle Beaulieu, a member of the Ojibwe Nation, incarcerated in a Canadian federal prison in Joliette, Quebec, said NO! to the death sentence of conditions in the federal prisons and sued the Correctional Service Canada for its response, or lack of response, to the Covid pandemic. I was not sentenced to death. We refuse to die in prison.

At the end of April, Joelle Beaulieu sued on behalf of all federal inmates who had been imprisoned in federal prisons in Quebec since March 13. What happens to one happens to all. What happened to Joelle Beaulieu is she was incarcerated at Joliette Women’s Institution. She worked as a cleaner. Joelle Beaulieu worked in highly trafficked, congested areas. When she heard about the pandemic, she asked for gloves, mask and protective gear. The authorities only gave her gloves. When Joelle Beaulieu began developing symptoms, she was given Tylenol. For a week, her symptoms intensified. Finally, after a week, Joelle Beaulieu was tested. Then Joelle Beaulieu was sent to her cell, into what amounted to solitary confinement, for 15 days. She requested either a Native elder or a mental health professional. No one was provided. She says guards did not wear masks or gloves until after she tested positive. Prisoners were told to wash their hands, but were not given disinfectant.

Joelle Beaulieu believes she is “patient zero” of the Joliette Women’s Institution. Within two weeks, the number of Covid positive cases rose from 10 to 50, and by the time Joelle Beaulieu filed her case, more than half the residents had tested positive. On April 21, Quebec reported 114 positive cases. Of that 114, 51 were Joliette Women’s Institution prisoners. Of the women in Quebec who tested positive for Coronavirus, almost all were `residents’ of Joliette Women’s Institution. Joliette Women’s Institution is no outlier, and Joelle Beaulieu’s situation is in no way exceptional. According to Emilie Coyle, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, “Every time we speak with women who are inside the prisons, whether it’s in Joliette or other federal institutions  – they let us know they feel as though they’re not getting the right information. They’re kept in the dark. And that’s particularly concerning for them because they’re trying very hard to participate in keeping themselves safe and healthy.”

In Buenos Aires, when prisoners resisted, they released a statement which said, in part, “We are a mirror of the very society that forgets us and drowns in its own misery, silencing its own true reality:

Those who give up will never win.
We refuse to die in prison.
For a world without slavery and without exclusion.”

From the rooftops of a jail in Buenos Aires to the women’s prison of Virginia to the women’s prisons of Quebec, people are resisting the dehumanization of slavery and exclusion, engaging in the Great Refusal which is the Great Affirmation. They will not be kept in the dark nor will they be silenced. In Canada, Joelle Beaulieu, member of the Ojibwe Nation, said NO to the inhumanity, insisted she was not sentenced to die in prison, and lit a match to light the way to a world without slavery and without exclusion. Others will follow. The struggle continues.

(Photo credit: Sol915)

Nicoletta Dosio: “I will carry to the end with joy”

Nicoletta Dosio

Nicoletta Dosio is a 74-year-old Italian activist, feminist, Communist who, in 2012, protested against the Turin – Lyon high speed rail project, TAV. At the end of last year, Nicoletta Dosio was arrested, tried, and convicted to a year in prison, in Turin. From her prison cell, Nicoletta Dosio has written, “I’m fine, I’m happy with the choice I made because it is the result of a just and beautiful cause, the NoTav struggle which is also the struggle for a different model of society and stems from the awareness that the present world is not the only possible world. I feel collective solidarity and personally experience what a fighting family is. The support and affection you showed me when I was arrested, and the demonstrations whose echos reach me from afar, confirm that I made the right choice, which I will carry to the end with joy. I tell the other inmates about you, I tell them that the solidarity given to me is for all the women and men locked behind these brutish walls.”

Italian novelist, poet and translator, Erri De Luca, has written an open letter to Nicoletta Dosio:

Rome, March 23, 2020

Dear Nicoletta,

In these days, I reread. Once again, I have Rosa Luxemburg’s letters on my lap, the letters she wrote from Berlin prison. In one, addressed to Mathilde Jacob on February 7, 1917, Rosa recounts the cry of the chickadee, tss-vi, tss-vi. She knows how to imitate it so perfectly that the chickadee approaches her bars.

Rosa writes, `Despite the snow, the cold and the loneliness, we believe, the chickadee and I, that spring is on the way.’

And so here we are, in the days that announce that winter has ended. You were secluded in prison, and by some mysterious solidarity, an entire people locked themselves in their homes. The streets are empty, the North of Italy is emigrating to the South, and families fill the balconies. The economists have vanished, and the medical doctors are in charge.

Standing in my field, I watch the trees in bud. In Italian, the word for “bud” and “gem” is the same, “gemma”. For us, the buds are precious stones, and Spring is a necklace of jewels open to all who know how to appreciate them.

Here, now, in the name of politeness, people are staying away and avoiding one another.

But for you, in your prison cells, there is not enough room to turn in. People with pneumonia lack air, you are all forced to breathe and gasp together. The overcrowded, criminally overstuffed prisons have become laboratories of suffocation.

But the valley for which you fought and for which you are in prison continues to produce and breathe its own political oxygen, which rises from within the community, which strengthens its fibers, and thus gives the right of citizen to those whom the authorities have treated as feudal subjects. Treated as a rebellious province, your valley continues to refuse the rape of its territory.

Your inflexible and indomitable calm is that of your community. It emerges manifest when a people awaken.

I am proud to be able to address you, dear Nicoletta, as a close friend, proud to be one with you.

I wait for you here, and I promise you that, when you leave that prison, you will find the same union and the same spring.

Fervently yours,
Erri De Luca

(Translated by Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Nicoletta Dosio)

How many children die as a result of a parent, and especially a mother, being incarcerated?

Last week former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg made claims as part of his 2020 presidential campaign to tackle racial bias in the criminal justice system and lower the prison population. In his plan, released on February 18th, Bloomberg promised to “end the era of mass incarceration, ensure fairness and equality in our criminal justice system, and shift its focus from punishment to rehabilitation.” At the same time, he received criticism for his previous support of stop-and-frisk policing that disproportionally targeted people of color during his tenure in New York City. 

If going through the courts is a necessary step to address the criminal justice system, what do these alleged promises mean in a time when the Trump administration has worked to appoint conservative judges? Bloomberg states that as President he would support legislation to make changes for federal officers, pledge money to reforms, and end federal cash bail. While he’s getting pushback for his positions on social issues, it’s worth noting that he spent more than $41 milliontowards campaigns in the 2018 midterm election that would later help elect 21 Democrats to the House. 

Bloomberg’s allocation of wealth raises the question: if wealth and positions of power created the unjust systems that exist today, is wealth also needed to dismantle them? Is it enough to have people with good morals taking initiatives on criminal justice reform, or do you need to have accomplices in positions of power of wealth? In the case of Bloomberg, his contradictory actions bear assessment

Bloomberg claims he will invest $1 billion in programs to support young men of color, but what about young women of color?

This past week, a California lawmaker proposed bill AB 732, also known as the “Reproductive Dignity for Incarcerated People Act” to improve treatment of incarcerated pregnant women. This followed a 2016 ACLU report exposing the abhorrent conditions for pregnant women in jails, and a class action lawsuit after there were three miscarriages and inmate Candace Steel was left alone for hours in her isolated jail cell without care during the labor and delivery of her child in 2017. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office disputed her account, but a federal judge believes otherwise. Steel was one of 28 other women since 2014 who sued for civil rights violations, medical malpractice and emotional distress. This is just one example of an incident that could have been avoided if proper attention was given to the needs of women. 

Surveillance video released this past week reveals Damaris Rodriguez, a mother of five, suffering from starvation and psychological behavior in a Washington state jail cell before dying from a treatable metabolic condition. 

What is wrong with this sentence: “Since this incident, our employees have received comprehensive training in crisis intervention”. It is all too common: proposed action after a lawsuit. Why? Because we are living in a carceral world where mental and physical health is policed before it is assessed and treated. Will this ever be corrected if poor training is used as a loophole for the state? 

Last week, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, local rights group Licadho asked prison officials to investigate the death of a five-month-old baby living with its incarcerated mother during her pre-trial detention for possessing $2.50 of methamphetamine. According to a statement issued, the baby had been taken to the hospital for a hip fracture in late January of 2020, where it was denied the ability to spend the night for observation. Upon returning to prison with its mother, it began experiencing medical complications. Only after the baby’s condition worsened was it taken back to the hospital, where it eventually died from pneumonia and severe malnutrition. 

A Prison Department official blamed the child’s death on the mother and denied the baby suffered from malnourishment. Since 2017, there has been mass incarceration of Cambodians as part of the country’s “war on drugs”. The local rights group is bringing this to light in the hope that all pregnant women and mothers in prison with their children serving pre-trial detention will be granted bail before International Women’s Day on March 8, 2020. 

Would this sort of promise be possible in the United States? How many children die as a result of a parent, and especially a mother, being incarcerated?

(Image Credit: Johns Hopkins Medicine)

Once again, prison is Canada’s “travesty”, England’s “scandal”. Who cares?

This week, within a 24-hour span, major reports revealed that Canada’s prison system “is nothing short of a national travesty” and the prisons of England and Wales are “a national scandal”. The reports are important, well researched, and grim, but they also repeat the findings of earlier reports, with one glaring exception. The situation is worsening, in fact the negative aspects are at an all-time high. If the various national populations have time and again received reports of a terrible situation worsening and if those populations and their national governments have done nothing, have done less than and worse than nothing, it is reasonable to ask, “Who cares?”

On Tuesday, January 21, 2020, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, released a report on the current status of Canadian prisons: “Four years ago, my Office reported that persons of Indigenous ancestry had reached 25% of the total inmate population.  At that time, my Office indicated that efforts to curb over-representation were not working.  Today, sadly, I am reporting that the proportion of Indigenous people behind bars has now surpassed 30% … On this trajectory, the pace is now set for Indigenous people to comprise 33% of the total federal inmate population in the next three years.  Over the longer term, and for the better part of three decades now, despite findings of Royal Commissions and National Inquiries, intervention of the courts, promises and commitments of previous and current political leaders, no government of any stripe has managed to reverse the trend of Indigenous over-representation in Canadian jails and prisons. The Indigenization of Canada’s prison population is nothing short of a national travesty.” Indigenous women are the core of this Indigenization of Canada’s prison system, accounting for 42% of women inmates. In some prairie regions, Indigenous women comprise almost 90% of the prison population. Where once there were boarding schools, now there are prisons and jails.

On Wednesday, January 22, 2020, Inquest released its report, Deaths in prison: A national scandal. At the outset, the report notes that “levels of distress are at record high levels” and that “since 2016 the number of deaths have remained at historically high levels, with little sign of significant change.” 2016 was “deadliest year on record”. In their press release, Inquest suggests that that “‘national scandal’ of deaths in prison caused by neglect and serious failures.” But what if it’s neither neglect nor failure? What if death, largely through self-harm, is the system successfully at work?

This question arises out of the cyclical redundancy of these discoveries. 2013: Canada’s Correctional Investigator reports that federal and provincial prisons are booming, with Aboriginal people, especially women, “over-represented” in prisons, in maximum security and solitary confinement. 2014: Canada’s Correctional Investigator reports concern over the incarceration of Aboriginal women and the routine use of psychotropic drugs to control Aboriginal women behind bars, producing a mass population of “walking zombies”. 2016: another report, more expression of concern: Of 683 women prisoners, 248 are Aboriginal. Over 36% of women prisoners are Aboriginal. There’s more, but you get the picture.

In England and Wales, the picture is the same. Here’s 2014: “In 2014, 84 people killed themselves `in custody’ in England and Wales That’s the highest figure in seven years and an increase of 12% over the year before. The rise in suicide is surpassed by the rise in self-harm, up more than 25%. Overall, it was a banner year for the prison state, with 243 deaths in custody.” 2016, as noted, prison deaths, and particularly suicides, soared, as did self-harm: “When considering females, despite the falls seen between 2009 and 2012, rates of individuals self-harming among females remain disproportionately high in comparison to the overall rates of individuals self-harming … Females accounted for nearly a quarter of self-harm incidents in this reporting period, but only make up less than 5% of the prison population.” Again, there’s more, but the picture is already clear.

Both the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada and Inquest note the need to learn from past experiences while both express disappointment at lessons unlearned, unheeded, but what if there are no lessons to learn? What if these deaths are but a station on a global assembly line at which employees dutifully stand and wait for the next body to ignore? The prisons of Canada and of England and Wales are a tiny part of the global labor of necropower: “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.” Once again, prison is Canada’s “travesty”, England’s “scandal”. Who cares?

(Infographic Credit 1: Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada) (Infographic Credit 2: The London Economic)

Being a trans woman in a men’s prison means solitary confinement

At least 61,000 people on any given day are in solitary confinement in the United States. Every day, they spend 22-23 hours in a cell the size of an elevator. Most prisoners in solitary confinement spend months in solitary, with some spending years. This torturous practice leaves long-lasting damage and increases the likelihood of re-offending. The practice also disproportionately affects Latinx and African American populations.  

There are few studies about this, as prisoners are constantly left out of research; they are a population that remains invisible to the eyes of the public. There are serious problems with lack of data transparency and the fact that many prisons are closed off to observers. Many researchers are denied access to data and prisons, which allows for the extent of the use of solitary confinement and its impact on prisoners to remain understudied. 

The few studies that have been conducted show that solitary confinement doesn’t make prisoners more dangerous to other prisoners or guards, but it is more likely to make them a danger to themselves. A study conducted by the American Public Health Association reports that suicide is a major concern. The population studied includes 4,699 incarcerations between January 1, 2010, through January 31, 2013. The study found evidence of self-harm associated with solitary confinement even when put in confinement only once. 

Trans women in men’s prisons are continuously abused and face humiliation. Being sent to an all-male-detention center as a female often means automatic solitary confinement. They are dumped, alone, into tiny cells because they can’t be sent to women’s prisons. Prison systems are unsuitable for women and for trans women and men. 

Sonya Calico, a Latinx trans woman, was put in solitary confinement “for her protection.” She spent 9 months, 23 hours a day, in solitary. She began questioning her life, doubting herself, doubting everything, doubting her identity, doubting her sanity, doubting whether she would survive. Why was Sonya Calico in solitary? For the crime of being a trans woman.

A trans person should be able to enter the prison that most accurately represents their gender identity. While trans identity is increasingly recognized as a human right, in prisons it is still a managing tool. When prisoners are intentionally degraded and stripped of their humanity, the prison is only a site of punishment without any pretense of rehabilitation. 

By punishing trans women for being trans women, prisons further enforce discrimination and persecution. By keeping prison seclusion practices hidden, activists and scholars find it more than difficult to design evidence-based policies. Advocacy groups who want to address the enormity of this abuse find little to no evidence and data. The issue demands attention. Since it goes understudied, the public doesn’t know what’s going on in prisons, and especially in segregation units. Using a petition, reaching out to local politicians or even just using social medias to bring attention to the abuse is a step we can take, as an initial response. Data matters. Transparency matters. Trans women matter. 

(Image Credit: Buzzfeed)