States of Abandonment: South African prisons are toxic and lethal

On Thursday, the South African Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, JICS, issued its 2017-2018 annual report on the state, and statelessness, of prisons in South Africa. The findings are both dismal and altogether anticipated. The prisons are in disarray. Due to restricted funding, JICS inspectors only visited 81 facilities. South Africa has 243 “correctional service centers.” Overcrowding is way up, suicide is way up, remand prisoners still make up way too much of the population. Infrastructure is a disgrace. Assault and torture are everywhere. Rehabilitation is virtually nonexistent. According to JICS inspecting judge Johann Vincent van der Westhuizen, “Overcrowding is at the core of everything else that exists (within prisons) … The situation of mentally ill inmates has become urgent.” In one year, the number of prison suicides rose from 52 to 82. In the past year, suicide was the highest cause of unnatural deaths in prison. What is going on?

On one hand, mental health institutions are overcrowded, and so patients are being transferred to prisons. The State has decided to correct of the mistakes it made in Life Esidimeni by dumping those living with mental illness into already overcrowded and under resourced spaces which have the benefit of invisibility. Out of sight, out of mind, out of luck, and, soon, out of breath. This is the State of Abandonment: “Zones of abandonment … accelerate the death of the unwanted. In this bureaucratically and relationally sanctioned register of social death, the human, the mental and the chemical are complicit: their entanglement expresses a common sense that authorized the lives of some while disallowing the lives of others.”

164,129 people are being held in South African prisons. 44,158 are awaiting trial. 27% of those persons in these hellholes are officially still innocent. Further, according to the JICS report, 1200 prisoners diagnosed with mental illness were kept with the general population. Many of those 1200 are awaiting transfer to “an accredited institution.” The public policy right now is to move people living with mental illnesses who are in overcrowded state hospitals to overcrowded prisons … and then “discover” and wonder that suicide is on the rise.

Prisons are not mental health institutions. The staff is not trained, the very architecture is inappropriate. The staff is also not trained to diagnose for mental health issues. Solitary confinement, or segregation, is traumatic. Extended solitary confinement is traumatizing. Intense overcrowding produces trauma. There are individuals who enter the prison with mental illnesses, and there are those who suffer mental illness because of the conditions in prison. 1200 is a low estimate.

Who sees prison as an “interim” solution for people living with mental illness? What is the name of that policy? Call it necropolitical abandonment, a policy of who might barely live and who definitely will die, slowly and in agony. “The report found that most facilities were in a `state of decay’.”

 

(Image Credit: Judicial Inspectorate for Prison Services / Times South Africa)

What happened to Emily Hartley? The State murdered her.

On April 23, 2016, Emily Hartley, 21 years old, living with severe mental illness, was found dead in the exercise yard at HMP New Hall, near Wakefield. Emily Hartley was found hanging. According to reports, she entered the exercise yard at 3 pm. She was “found” two and a half hours later. Emily Hartley told the staff she wanted to end her life, and the staff left her unmonitored for two and a half hours. In 2015, seven women killed themselves in prisons in England and Wales. In 2016, 12 women prisoners committed suicide. Does anyone care? Yes. Family, friends, supporters care. Does the State care? Absolutely not. If it did, Emily Hartley would be alive and perhaps even thriving today.

Emily Hartley had a history of self-harm, suicide and drug addiction. In May 2015, Emily Hartley was living in a multiple occupancy building. She set fire to herself, her bed and curtains. She was charged with arson … for setting herself on fire. Rather than send her to a hospital, for the help and care she clearly needed, she was sent to a bail hostel, where she resumed taking drugs. This was considered a breach of bail conditions, and so Emily Hartley was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison. She was sent to New Hall in November 2015. By the end of April, she was dead.

Emily Hartley was supposedly monitored under suicide and self-harm management protocols. That should have meant observation at regular intervals. Whether or not those occurred remains to be seen. What is known is that Emily Hartley continued to self-harm throughout her stay at New Hall. Emily Hartley repeatedly told the staff that she wanted to die. She complained that that staff bullied her and did not listen. The staff responded with repeated disciplinary procedures. On April 23, the day she died, Emily told her mother, by phone, that she was feeling manic and that no one was checking on her for hours on end.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, which advocates around deaths in custody, noted, “Emily was the youngest of 12 women to take her own life in prison in 2016. Just like the many women who died before her she should never have been in prison in the first place. This inquest must scrutinise her death and how such a vulnerable young woman was able to die whilst in the care of the state.”

In 2016, three women prisoners in HMP New Hall died by “self-inflicted” causes. INQUEST asks, “How many women need to die on the inside before Governments take action?” How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died? Government is taking action. It is building a tower of women prisoners’ cadavers. If history is any guide, Emily Hartley’s story, like that of Caroline Ann Hunt the year before, will soon be forgotten by most of us. This is who we are. We are the citizens and builders of the State of Abandonment. We are the people who see a woman on fire, begging for help, and we respond, “She should go to prison for arson.”

Emily Hartley

 

(Image Credit: INQUEST) (Photo Credit: Mirror / Sunday People)

Tomorrow Scotland finally demolishes Cornton Vale, its only women’s prison


This morning, Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, wrote, “Tomorrow sees a major milestone in the transformation of our justice system. We will begin the demolition of Cornton Vale women’s prison, a move that marks the next stage in our plans to ensure Scotland’s penal policy doesn’t just punish people who’ve committed crimes – important though that is – but helps deliver safer communities in the long term.” Cornton Vale is Scotland’s only women’s prison, and it has been a toxic hot mess for decades. Its destruction is welcome and long overdue.

Cornton Vale has been called the “vale of death”, due to its regularly high rate of suicide. Between 1995 and 1998, eight prisoners hanged themselves. Yvonne Gilmour hanged herself in 1996. So did Angela Bollan. Outcry and inquiry ensued. In 2001, in the span of a single week, Frances Carvell and Michelle McElvar hanged themselves. Outcry and inquiry ensued. In 2012, Sarah Mitchell was “found dead” in her cell. Outcry and inquiry ensued.

Outcry and inquiry, outcry and inquiry, the same drumbeat for more than twenty years. During that time, commissions found that the prison was overcrowded. Report after report decried the rising rate of women’s incarceration. Everyone seemed to agree that too many women were being thrown into prison. Meanwhile, Scotland’s women prison population rose by 120% since 2000. As of last year, Scotland “boasted” the second highest rate of female imprisonment in northern Europe. Spain’s number one.

Last year, a commission found that women at Cornton Vale were forced to use their cell sinks as toilets at night, because they had no access to proper toilets. It was just the latest scandal to mark the dismal history of Cornton Vale. Various commissions have described Cornton Vale as “not fit for purpose”; “wholly unacceptable in the 21st century”; “in a state of crisis”; “Victorian”; “a significant breach of human dignity”; “an unacceptably poor establishment”; “disgracefully poor”; and, as always, notorious.

After all the reports and deaths and harm, Scotland finally decided to shut Cornton Vale down. The first plan was to replace Cornton Vale with a larger prison, but cooler, evidence based heads prevailed, and that plan was dropped for another, an 80-bed prison, five regional 20-bed facilities, community sentencing and service, and much greater funding for mental health, drug abuse, counseling and more.

Cornton Vale is more than a “vale of death”, although that would have been enough. It was the vale of women’s slow and painful death and deaths. For the past two decades, Scotland  criminalized women’s lives and bodies and then, by unequal funding within the prison system, ensured that no one would leave unharmed. Tomorrow is a milestone. Cornton Vale will be demolished. Which women’s prison is next?

Who cares that the State abandoned Caroline Ann Hunt?

Caroline Ann Hunt

On September 29, 2015, Caroline Ann Hunt, 53 years old, a mother, was found dead in her cell at HMP Foston Hall, Derbyshire. Caroline Anne Hunt was found hanging in her cell. In 2015, four women killed themselves at Foston Hall. In 2015, seven women killed themselves in prisons in England and Wales. In 2016, two women killed themselves in Foston Hall. For the last few years, more and more women prisoners have killed themselves, or better, have been placed in situations where suicide seems like the only available option. Last year, 12 women prisoners are reported to have committed suicide. Does anyone care? Yes. Family, friends, supporters care. Does the State care? Absolutely not. If it did, Caroline Ann Hunt would be alive and even thriving today.

Caroline Ann Hunt had never been arrested. In prison, Caroline Ann Hunt repeatedly talked of suicide, and tried to suffocate herself the night before her death. Fellow prisoners reported their concern. The staff largely ignored both the concerns and protocol, placed her in a single cell, and pretended to monitor her. An inquest that ended this week notes, with great concern, the staff failings. Others note the State failings. Of course, the government says it will do something, but it won’t.

Carline Ann Hunt’s daughter said, “On 29th September 2015 my mother, Caroline Hunt, passed away aged 53. She was found hanging by a bedsheet in a cell in HMP Foston Hall.  Since then my life has been a whirlwind of difficult decisions and emotions. I have learned some very sad truths about life inside prison, and just how difficult prison is for the most vulnerable people in society.

“My mother was a very kind person, who cared deeply for her friends and family members. I believe she was sadly blighted with various mental health issues throughout her lifetime, which led directly to the circumstances surrounding her committing an offence, the first she ever committed. In prison, she felt hopeless and frightened about her future.

“Tragically for my mother, there were many missed opportunities to protect her from the obvious risk she posed to herself, including concerns raised by other prisoners about her risk to herself, and to provide the support she clearly needed. Had the opportunities been taken my mother would probably be here with us all today.

“My mother was the fourth person to die while in custody in HMP Foston Hall in 2015. I hoped that her death would be the last, and no other family would have to go through what I have. I was very saddened to hear that in 2016 a further two women took their lives there: six women in two years who ended their lives. These deaths leave families with endless pain and countless what ifs.”

How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died? The State does not care if the tower of cadavers is ten or ten thousand, and, if history is any guide, Caroline Ann Hunt’s story, life and death will soon be forgotten by most of us. This is who we are. We are the citizens and builders of the State of Abandonment. This is how we will be remembered. We all abandoned Caroline Ann Hunt, and we continue to do so, day in and day.

 

(Photo Credit: Independent / Inquest)

What happened to Jenny Swift? The routine torture of transgender women prisoners

Jenny Swift

On Sunday, January 22, as part of International Trans Prison Day of Solidarity and Action, 100 or so people gathered outside HMP Pentonville to give witness to transgender prisoners who committed suicide resulting from having been denied medical healthcare related to transition and from transphobic violence. In England in the past two years, three transgender women have been “found dead” in their cells: Joanne Latham and Vicky Thompson, in 2015, and Jenny Swift, on December 30, 2016. Despite their desperate pleas, all three were in all-male prisons. Joanne Latham, Vicky Thompson, and Jenny Swift didn’t succumb to despair. They were murdered in cold blood by the State.

When Vikki, or Vicky, Thompson died, she was twenty-one years old. Vikki Thompson, born male, identified all her adult life as a woman. Arrested for robbery, she was sent to a men’s prison. She said if she were sent to a men’s prison, she would kill herself, and she did. The State `investigated” … again. Vikki Thompson was released from all of that, however.

After the back-to-back suicides of Vikki Thompson and Joanne Latham, the English government put new policies and practices into effect … but too late for Jenny Swift. Those policies went into effect January 1, 2017.

Jenny Swift was sent to HMP Doncaster on November 17. Opened in 1994 and run by Serco. Doncaster hasn’t had a checkered career because it’s been bad from the start to the present. The chief inspector of prisons described the place as squalid, worrisome, and run with “institutional meanness.” At various times, Doncaster has had the highest prison suicide rate in the country. These are only some of the reasons people refer to Doncaster as Doncrataz.

HMP Doncaster is bad for everyone. It was fatal for Jenny Swift.

A friend of hers remarked, “She kept asking for the hormones and they said she would get them but she never did. I phoned up and explained that she needed them too. Jenny said that not having them was making her legs shake, making her feel sad and ill – she said it was like coming off drugs. It made her miserable.” She added, “She had been trying her best to keep her feminine side but she mentioned in prison that she could feel the testosterone in her body and she felt sick. It was making her cringe inside. If she had her hormones and the correct tablets she would still be here. I know that for certain … I want there to be a massive investigation because this happened twice before and it shouldn’t be happening.”

Jenny Swift’s death has at least three stories. There’s the story of a woman placed in a men’s prison and the story of a transgender woman placed in a men’s prison. These alone and together are enough to make one weep. Then there’s the third story. That story involves the staff and the State who knew that had Jenny Swift been arrested two months later, they officially would have had to take some kind of care of her, as a transgender woman and as a woman. But it wasn’t January 1 yet, and so they placed her in the deepest rung of hell where she would suffer and suffer and suffer. That story should make us howl.

Jenny Swift was killed, not by indifference but by brutality. She deserved better. We all do. Every single death is a death too many. Jenny Swift wrote, “I am Jenny Swift, I am proud to stand my corner anywhere I need to.” Jenny Swift should not have died. We should not have killed her.

 

(Photo Credit 1: The Guardian / SWNS.com) (Photo Credit 2: Liverpool Echo)

Where were you when all those women prisoners killed themselves?

Women prisoners protest at HMP Styal

Women prisoners protest at HMP Styal

Today’s news out of England and Wales is predictably grim: “2016 becomes worst year ever recorded for suicides in prisons.” According to the Howard League, “The Howard League for Penal Reform has been notified of 102 people dying by suicide behind bars since the beginning of 2016 – one every three days. With five weeks remaining until the end of the year, it is already the highest death toll in a calendar year since current recording practices began in 1978. The previous high was in 2004, when 96 deaths by suicide were recorded.” And so now another end-of-year Round of Concern occurs. Absolutely none of this is new, and absolutely nothing positive will happen until the concern is manifested by more than the usual suspects.

From incarcerated refugee women in India to women prisoners in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Den- mark, England and Wales, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, and Sweden to women in prisons in the United States and Canada, the news is and has been the same, and for quite a while. Reporting on suicide rates in Canada in 1999, scholars noted, “The fact remains, however, that the suicide rate among female prisoners is abnormally high.” In 2010, scholars reported, “In England and Wales over a quarter of a century, suicide rates in prisoners were reported to be approximately five times higher in men than age-standardised general population rates.” And here it is, the end of 2016, “with around 3,900, mainly vulnerable, women locked up in English jails and 19 deaths already recorded this year (the highest for 12 years)” … and that was three weeks ago.

Today, the Howard League and the Centre for Mental Health released Preventing Prison Suicide, “the latest in a series of reports published by the two charities as part of a joint programme aimed at saving lives in prison.” Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, wrote, “Whilst the government has promised (yet again) to recruit additional staff, we cannot wait months for them to appear, especially as such promises have proved empty in the past. The only way to save lives, make prisons safe for inmates and staff and help people to live law abiding lives on release is to reduce the number of prisoners. Once the number of prisoners is down, the challenge is to make prisons work properly in the public interest but that is such a distant prospect at the moment. Today’s challenge is simply to keep people alive.”

Scotland said NO! to the casual wreckage of women’s lives and provided alternatives, which include tearing down many women’s prisons, sending women who need help to places where they will receive assistance and where their dignity, as women, will be respected. Women don’t have to be sacrificed on the altar of carceral efficiency in which the challenge is simply to keep people alive. How have we arrived at a place where the challenge is simply to keep people alive? By turning our backs on the imprisoned women. Suicides in prisons and jails have risen more or less steadily over the past decade, at least, and that rise has been noted and documented, occasionally deplored, and then generally forgotten. Now is the time to stop forgetting, to remember in advance what you will say when someone, years from or tomorrow or tonight, looks at you and asks, “Where were you when all those women prisoners killed themselves? What did you? What have we done?”

 

 

(Photo Credit: New Statesman / Don McPhee/ Guardian)

In the California Institution for Women, women are STILL dropping like flies!

What happened to Shaylene Graves? She was “found” hanging in her cell at California Institution for Women, or CIW. Given the situation at CIW, what happened to Shaylene Graves is nothing out of the ordinary. Last July, California Department of Corrections officials “discovered” a crisis. In the previous eighteen months, four women prisoners at the California Institution for Women, or CIW, in Chino killed themselves … or were killed by willful neglect: 31-year-old Alicia Thompson, 23-year-old Margarita Murguia, 73-year-old Gui Fei Zhang, and 34-year-old Stephanie Feliz. After Feliz’s death, fellow CIW resident April Harris wrote, “We have women dropping like flies, and not one person has been questioned as to why … I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever.” The suicide rate at CIW is only exceeded by the rates of attempted suicide and self harm. What happened to Shaylene Graves? Just another death in the hellhole California Institution for Women.

According to Victoria Law, “Graves’ death is the latest to rock CIW, which is currently at 135 percent capacity: 1,886 women in a prison designed for 1,398.” Shaylene Graves’ mother, Sheri Graves, wrote an open letter to the public concerning her daughter. The letter ends: “I got a call, `your daughter has died in custody.’ They said she was found hanging. My son said, `Shaylene would not hang herself. The officer said, `I know.’ The prison system failed my daughter. The prison system failed her son, Artistlee. The prison system failed our family, her friends and everyone she would have blessed with her vision for her organization. Most of all, the prison system had failed to protect her life. She lost her right to freedom in order to pay her debt to society. But, she wasn’t supposed to lose her right to life and protection while incarcerated.”

Shaylene Graves was a month from being released from CIW. According to all reports, she was a vivacious, engaged, sociable, charming, funny young woman. She was preparing to leave CIW, and to start an organization to help other women in their transition out of prison. She cared about her son, her family, her community. She cared about her sister prisoners, at CIW and elsewhere. Those who knew her are shocked by her death and deeply doubtful of the initial report of suicide.

Many are shocked, but the death of Shaylene Graves did not rock the Institution, no more than the prison system failed. The prison system did far worse than fail. It refused, and in so doing killed Shaylene Graves. Whatever “facts” or “details” emerge concerning the specifics of Shaylene Graves’ last hours on earth, the facts are that if it hadn’t been her, it would have been some other woman at CIW. The numbers bear that out. There is no surprise when an institution fails to address a suicide rate eight times that of the national rate for people in women’s prisons, when “suicide prevention” in the institution is consistently rated as “problematic”, when the answer to an overcrowded suicide watch unit is to shunt the “overflow” into solitary confinement.

The California Institution for Women is overcrowded, but so are the Central California Women’s Facility and the women’s section of Folsom State Prison. The overcrowding is worse at Central California, but the women there are not dropping like flies. Shaylene Graves requested to be moved from Central California to CIW, so as to be closer to her family. And now … she’s closer to her god, and her family grieves and rages and demands answers and, even more, demands justice. So should we all. We have had enough reports asking why are so many women attempting suicide at the California Institution for Women. We have had too many “discoveries” to claim any sort of innocence. Women are dropping like flies in the California Institution for Women because pushing women to drop like flies is more convenient than treating women as full human beings, more convenient than treating prisoners as full human beings, and a whole lot more convenient than treating women prisoners at all.

Women prisoners and supporters, such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, long ago identified the crisis. They have continually, loudly denounced the conditions and called for a thorough overhaul, beginning with releasing most of the prisoners. Three years ago, when women in the California Institution for Women participated in California’s statewide hunger strike, they called attention to the State assault on their bodies, minds and souls. They identified a crisis, and the State looked away, and instructed all good citizens to do the same. That was three years ago. It is September 2016, and the assembly line of women prisoner deaths is not slowing down. It’s time to smash the machinery once and for all. Do it in the memory of Shaylene Graves.

 

(Image Credit: San Francisco Bay View / California Coalition for Women Prisoners)

What happened to Mariam Abdullah and Rebecca Maher? Just another death in custody

Mariam Abdullah, on Facebook and in custody

Mariam Abdullah, on Facebook and in custody

Barely eighteen years old, Mariam Abdullah died, July 19th, while in solitary confinement at the Perryville Prison in Arizona. Rebecca Maher, 36 years old, died, July 19th, while in police custody in the Maitland police station, in New South Wales, in Australia. Though the two never met, the circumstances and date of their deaths joins them in a tragic tale of State negligence and refusal. Both women deserved better, and in both instances, we all share the shame of their deaths and the manner of their deaths, for both of them needed help, and the State refused. Both of them were meant to be protected by State law and policy, and yet, on July 19th, both Mariam Abdullah and Rebecca Maher died … or were killed.

In June 2014, Mariam Abdullah, 16 years old, was arrested. After a year in the Estrella Jail, where juveniles charged with adult crimes are `kept’, she agreed to a plea deal that would result in three years imprisonment. From the moment she entered Estrella, Abdullah was in and out of trouble, which meant in and out of solitary confinement. According to her attorneys and to advocates who met with her, her mental health deteriorated perceptibly. Then she turned eighteen, and was moved to Perryville, and again to isolation. Six weeks later, she wrapped a bed sheet around her neck and strangled herself to death.

On numerous occasions, Mariam Abdullah asked, both in writing and in conversation, to meet with mental health staff. She knew she was [a] having problems and [b] deteriorating. She said so. Other than her lawyers and supporters, no one listened. Prison Law Office attorney Corene Kendrick wrote to Arizona’s Attorney General with concerns about Mariam Abdullah’s situation, noting that the State’s abuse of Abdullah was in violation of earlier court orders, the law, and human decency. Kendrick never received never received a response. Kendrick noted, “She [Mariam Abdullah] just seemed very sad and very isolated [and] was clearly traumatized when I talked to her. She’s a child, and she was being held in isolation conditions worse than what the adults were being held in — not that it’s okay for anyone to be held in isolation, but all of the best practices say to stop using isolation on children.”

Peggy Plews, of Arizona Prison Watch, added, “She was no angel — she’s the first to admit that. [But] she was a sweet kid, wanted to be a firefighter and save other people someday. Instead, we just threw her away. We all broke that kid long before she killed herself.”

Rebecca Maher, Aboriginal, mother of four, was walking home drunk when the police picked her up, ostensibly for her own good, and threw her into a cell, a little after midnight. At 6 am, she was “found dead.” Her death and the last hours of her life are shrouded in confusion and controversy. In New South Wales, if an Aboriginal person is arrested, the police are supposed to use the Custody Notification Service, which immediately contacts the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS). This system is a model. No Aboriginal person has died in police custody since 2000 … until Rebecca Maher. But Rebecca Maher, though in police custody, was never arrested. She was thrown into the cell because she was drunk. The police were “protecting” her from herself, and that is the problem. Many, such as Gary Oliver of the ALS, believe that if the police had contacted them, “there may have been a different outcome. Fundamentally this is a process that has failed because a police officer has not followed a procedure.”

Family friend Kathy Malera-Bandjalan asks, “How do you take someone into custody who’s legally done nothing wrong, then detain them in a cell then they’re dead in four hours. Rebecca’s death is not going to be in vain.” According to Kathy Malera-Bandjalan, the family was never notified of Rebecca Maher’s detention and was notified of her death many hours later.

What happened to Mariam Abdullah and Rebecca Maher? Absolutely nothing, and that’s what killed them. Arizona has specific policies, forced upon it by court decisions that should have ensured Mariam Abdullah’s survival and well being while in custody. Arizona refused to follow its own policies. New South Wales has specific policies that should have ensured Rebecca Maher’s survival and well being while in custody. New South Wales refused to follow its own policies. It wasn’t one staff member here or one there. It was the State that decreed, and decrees that what happens in custody stays in custody, and whatever vulnerable woman happens to fall into custody can expect to suffer and die in custody. That’s the rule of law when the custodians are told they have no custodial responsibilities to care for their residents. So, rest in peace Mariam Abdullah; rest in peace Rebecca Maher. You deserved better. We all do. Instead, we all broke you and just threw you away.

Rebecca Maher

Rebecca Maher

Suicides in prisons in England and Wales hit 25-year high, and who cares?

From a demonstration outside Styal prison, August 2008, to remember all the women who had died there. Styal is still open, and women are still dying therein.

Today, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice released Safety in Custody Statistics England and Wales / Deaths in prison custody to March 2016. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the numbers are bad, the worst in 25 years. One hundred people committed suicide in prisons across England and Wales, in the twelve months between March 2015 and March 2016. Last year, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, and the House of Commons Justice Committee, prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high. Last year, the Ombudsman found a 64% increase in self-inflicted deaths in custody over the previous year. Additionally, “there were self-inflicted deaths at 53 different prisons, 56% more than the previous year. This included prisons where there had not been self-inflicted deaths for many years, sometimes ever.” In February 2016, the Ombudsman published a “Learning Lessons Bulletin” on prisoner suicide within the first month of custody: “It is a sadness to me that this bulletin repeats learning that I have frequently published elsewhere, about staff not spotting or using essential information about risk of suicide. This suggests that lessons still need to be learned.” The sadness goes deeper and broader than repetition and not learning. The sadness is that the bodies pile up and nobody cares.

Today’s report notes that prison suicides have soared from 79 last year to 100 this year, a 27% increase, and that prison suicide make up a little over one-third of prison deaths. Further, “the rate of self-inflicted deaths had reached its peak in the time series in the 12 months to March 2003 of 1.5 per 1,000 prisoners. After a period of fluctuations from 2004 to 2008, the self-inflicted death rate had stabilised until 2013. Subsequently the rate began to rise again to the highest point, since the prior peak, in the most recent 12 months ending March 2016 of 1.2 per 1,000 prisoners.”

While today’s report does not distinguish between men and women prisoners who have `successfully’ committed suicide, its profile of self-harm in the same period is telling: “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.”

None of this is surprising, and that’s the point. Critics say the system is in meltdown; it’s not. The system is working perfectly. Every year, a report comes out and some ask why the numbers continue to spike. Every year, the staff is blamed or the community or the individual prisoners. Every year, “safety in custody” is measured in suicide and self harm, and no one asks about well being and absolutely no one asks if those who die and hurt themselves in the pursuit of their own deaths belong behind bars in the first place. Every year, the public budgets for mental health are cut more deeply, and the butchers mutter in surprise at the “decrepit state” of the prisons and those who live and die therein.

Here there are no lessons to learn. These deaths are a station on a global assembly line at which employees dutifully stand and wait for the next body to ignore. The prisons of England and Wales are one tiny part of the global labor of necropower: “I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, … 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.”

It is a sadness frequently published elsewhere.

 

(Photo Credit: Indymedia UK)

In prisons, jails and detention centers, the bodies pile up: Who cares?

Harmondsworth, 2006

According to a report released today, 2015 recorded “the highest number of executions … in more than 25 years (since 1989).” Along with the `highest number of executions”, many jails, prisons and immigrant detention centers are experiencing the highest number and the highest rates of suicide. Once more into the global work of necropower: “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.” Welcome to the necropolis.

In the United Kingdom, the number of suicide attempts in “immigration removal” centers is at an all-time high. In 2015, there were 393 attempted suicides recorded. Harmondsworth topped the list at 105. Yarl’s Wood came in second at 64. In 2014, there were 353 attempted suicides. Harmondsworth led again with 68, and, again, Yarl’s Wood came in second with 61. In 2015, 2,957 detainees were on suicide watch during 2015. Of that number, 11 are children.

Meanwhile, in 2014, prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high. The Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales found a 64% increase in self-inflicted deaths in custody over the previous year. There is no surprise in either the seven-year high in prisons in England and Wales, nor in the all-time high in immigrant detention centers.

In the United States, during the Obama administration, there have been 56 deaths in ICE custody. These include six suicides and at least one death after an attempted suicide. Eloy Detention Center, in Eloy, Arizona, holds pride of place in this race to the bottom. As of July 2015, 9 percent of detention deaths nationwide since 2003 occurred at Eloy, where 14 of the 152 total deaths occurred. In 2013, women prisoners in Eloy went on hunger strike to protest the conditions. As Thesla Zenaida, an Eloy hunger striker, explained: “Look, a girl hanged herself. A girl was hanged here. [After] she was hanged, they didn’t want to take her body down. And for the same reason—because they treat us poorly. A guard treated her poorly, and that guard is still working here.” And now, three years later, people still ask, “Why so many suicides?

Meanwhile, in 2015, the Arizona prison system recorded close to 500 attempts at self-harm and suicide, another record broken.

In Illinois, in the Kane County jail, the suicide rate is three times the national average, and no one on staff seems to care. In August 2013, Terry Ann Hart hung herself in the Kane County jail. Now, almost three years later, her daughter is taking the county and the sheriff to court. In a little over a year, Kane County had three suicides and one attempt, while nearby larger jails had no suicides from 2011 to 2015. Terry Ann Hart’s daughter wants to know how it’s possible for so many people to kill themselves and for no one to be held accountable and for nothing whatsoever to change inside the jail.

The family of Wakiesha Wilson, who died in the Los Angeles County Jail last month, has similar questions. How did their loved one die, and why did the State take so long to inform them? From Harmondsworth and Yarl’s Wood to Eloy Detention and Kane County and Los Angeles, and beyond, women are dropping like flies, and their families ask, “Why?” and “Who cares?

In France, due to two recent high profile prison suicides, people are asking why the rate of suicide in French prisons is so high. Coincidentally, a report released this week notes, “Suicide rates in French prisons are higher than in the general population – seven times as high … According to the French government, there were 113 suicides in French prisons in 2015 … Female prisoners with psychosocial disabilities face particularly harsh conditions in French prisons. Women in general, who are a minority in prison, are more restricted in their movements than men and have less access to treatment for mental health conditions than their male counterparts. Women detained in a prison with separate quarters for female and male prisoners described … how, unlike the men in the same facility, they had to be escorted in all their movements. Besides making them feel isolated, this gives women the sense that they are treated more harshly only because they are women. Female prisoners also face discrimination in their access to mental healthcare: while 26 Regional Medico Psychological Services (SMPR) in French prisons provide mental healthcare during the day and beds for the night, only one of them has beds for women.”

From executions to prison suicides, these numbers are the census of the death-world, where now what is blurred is the line between the living dead and the dead dead. Record-breaking numbers of suicides occur, and nobody knows? How much higher must the piles of women’s corpses rise before the `discoveries’ end and the work of justice begins? Look, a girl hanged herself. A girl was hanged here. ¡Ni una mas! Not one more!

 

(Photo Credit: Institute of Race Relations)