What happened to Jenna Mitchell? Just another transgender woman prisoner suicide in Georgia

What happened to Jenna Mitchell? Jenna Mitchell was a prisoner in Georgia’s Valdosta State Prison. On December 2, 2017, Jenna Mitchell’s mother, Sheba Maree, called the prison to inform them that Jenna had threatened suicide. Jenna Mitchell’s mother urged the prison to place her daughter on suicide watch. She was told her daughter was already on suicide watch. Jenna Mitchell was never placed on suicide watch. Two days later, however, she was thrown into solitary confinement. According to a lawsuit filed by Jenna Mitchell’s parents, Jenna Mitchell told the officer she intended to kill herself. According to the lawsuit, the officer laughed, basically said make my day, and left Jenna Mitchell alone in her cell. When the officer returned, Jenna Mitchell had hanged herself. Two days later, she died. Now, two years later, the family has sued. 

Jenna Mitchell lived, and died, with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and “gender dysphoria”. She had a history of suicide attempts. This history was known to the prison, and, put charitably, the prison did nothing. Better put, the prison refused to do anything and so placed Jenna Mitchell in grave, and ultimately fatal, danger.

Jenna Mitchell was born Caleb Mitchell. She was a transgender woman. Why was she in Valdosta State Prison, a prison for adult males? Four years ago, Ashley Diamond, a transgender woman, was also sent to Valdosta State Prison. She sued Georgia for numerous violations, as well as numerous forms of violence. According to Diamond, a Valdosta State Prison warden called her a “`he-she-thing’ and encouraged staff to ridicule her for acting like a woman.” Diamond was told, “This is a male facility and your gender is male. You will be required to follow the rules a.” Ashley Diamond tried to commit suicide and to castrate herself. Finally, she was transferred to Baldwin State Prison, a close-security prison where she had already suffered numerous assaults. At the time, it was reported widely that Ashley Diamond’s lawsuit brought national attention to the abuse of transgender prisoners, and especially transgender women prisoners, in Georgia. Georgia changed its policy on gender-affirming medical care for transgender prisonersallowing hormones for transgender prisoners. Those were reports in 2015. In 2017, Jenna Mitchell hanged herself in Valdosta State Prison, the prison that Ashley Diamond self-mutilated and attempted suicide in, in order to get out, one way or the other.

Meanwhile, Georgia prisons are experiencing a spike in suicide rates. From 2104 to 2016, 20 state prisoners committed suicide. From 2017 to this year, that number rose to 46. The prison suicide in rate in Georgia is at 35 per 100,000 prisoners, which is double the national prison suicide rate. The suicide rate for the general population is 13 per 100,000. Valdosta State Prison leads the state, and most of the nation, in prison suicides

What happened to Jenna Mitchell? She wasn’t failed by the state of Georgia. She was executed … for being transgender, for being woman, for living with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, for living, for being. Jenna Mitchell asked for help and she was ridiculed and then abandoned.  When will we stop “improving” fatal and toxic policies and, instead, opt for available alternatives to cages, torture, and death? Why are so willing to sacrifice Jenna Mitchell and her sisters?

(Photo Credit: Project Q Atlanta)

How many women must die due to incarceration before we do something about the massacre?

In one week in early November two civil society organizations, one in England one in North Carolina, forced their respective state agencies to `discover’ yet again that the entire so-called criminal justice system is built on deaths “by suicide”. In North Carolina, Disability Rights North Carolina issued its report, Suicide in North Carolina Jails: High Suicide and Overdose Rates Require Urgent Jail Reform Action. In England, Inquest released its report, Deaths of people following release from prison. While the numbers are grim and the personal accounts are heartbreaking, who is surprised by the data and whose hearts are broken? If we were surprised, if we still had hearts to break, we would have done something serious long before this month’s reports.

Remember March 2015 when it was “discovered” that the year before prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high, according to the Howard League for Penal Reformthe Prison and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, and the House of Commons Justice Committee?

Remember April 2015 when it was reported that, in the United Kingdom, the number of suicide attempts in “immigration removal” centers was at an all-time high?

Remember August 2015 when the U.S. Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics released Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons, 2000–2013 – Statistical Tables and reported suicide was the leading cause of death in U.S. jailsthe Spokane County Jail, in Washington State, requested that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate a recent rash of prisoner suicides; and, reluctantly and under pressure from the Federal government, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department agreed to reforms in the L.A. County Jail that would finally begin to address “chronically poor treatment for mentally ill inmates and … years of abusive behavior by jailers?

Remember April 2016 when United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice released Safety in Custody Statistics England and Wales / Deaths in prison custody to March 2016, and the numbers were bad, the worst in 25 years?

Remember August 2016 when, according to a Howard League report on England and Wales, “2016 becomes worst year ever recorded for suicides in prisons”?

Who remembers the names and lives of those women who ostensibly died “at their own hands” … over and over and over again; the reports of their demise and then later the “discoveries” that implicated State malfeasance; the reports by civil society organizations, because the State doesn’t even try to keep adequate statistics, much less anything like adequate care? Who remembers?

In North Carolina, the situation is typical. The rate of suicide in jail is rising precipitously. Those who die by suicide are generally 40 years old or younger. Suicide happens quickly: 20% occur within 24 hours of entering; 65% within seven days; 80% within 12 days. Surviving two weeks in jail is a small miracle. 85% of those deemed suicides died by hanging. 95% died before ever facing a trial. They were formally innocent, but they were executed, nevertheless. And what of all the others, the ones who were in the cells next to those who died by hanging?

According to Inquest’s report, “In the most recent recorded year, ten people died each week following release from prison. Every two days, someone took their own life. In the same year one woman died every week, and half of these deaths were self-inflicted.” According to Inquest’s report, the suicide rate for women in the general population is a little less than 5 per 100,000. For women on “post-release supervision”, the rate last year was 459 per 100,000. This discrepancy is even more noteworthy when we consider that “in the general population men are more likely to die by suicide than women. However, when we look to people in the criminal justice system – whether in prison or under probation supervision – women are at a higher risk of a self-inflicted death than men.” For that reason Inquest “reframes deaths in custody as a form of violence against women.”

Where is the supervision; what comprises supervision in North Carolina, the United Kingdom, and beyond, when levels of suicide either go unreported, meaning there’s no attention paid, or, worse, go untreated, because those deaths just don’t matter? If anything, the systemic and accelerating years long rise in suicide among people, particularly women, in prison and under post-confinement supervision, suggests suicide has become a State solution to the so-called recidivism crisis, a crisis manufactured by the State.

We are once more still in the everyday political economy of necropower, where “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.” It’s time, it’s way past time, to remember and, in remembering, to move through and beyond the blur of reiterated discovery to action. Stop sending people to jail, close the jails and the prisons, and, in so doing, begin to end the massacre. Don’t forget.

(Image Credit 1: Disability Rights North Carolina) (Image Credit 2: Inquest)

In Maryland’s women’s prison last year, Emily Butler didn’t die. She was executed.

Maryland has one women’s prison, the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, MCIW. On November 12, 2017, 28-year-old Emily Butler was “found dead in her cell from an apparent suicide.” Emily Butler wasn’t “in her cell”; she was in solitary confinement, which Maryland claims does not exist in its prisons. On Friday, Disability Rights Maryland and a community fellow from the Open Society Institute of Baltimore released their findings concerning Emily Butler’s death. The report’s findings are both grim and all too familiar. Emily Butler was not “found dead”. She was executed, by the State of Maryland.

Starting in 2008, Emily Butler had been receiving community-based mental health services for depressive, bipolar, and post-traumatic stress disorders. MCIW knew of her conditions. Remember that the staff knew all about Emily Butler’s psychiatric history. On Friday, November 10, 2017, Emily Butler and a friend argued. Butler threw coffee at her friend. Her friend was not injured, but Emily Butler was thrown into solitary confinement. There she stayed until her death. She was only allowed outside of her cell to bathe. According to the Disability Rights Maryland report, “Ms. Butler was not a danger to herself or others in MCIW because she acted impulsively and threw coffee on her friend during a dispute. Her friend was not injured and did not want to see Ms. Butler placed in segregation. Her segregation sentence was about punishment, not safety. Ms. Butler only became a danger to herself after she was placed in segregation.”

Emily Butler took the isolation hard. First, solitary confinement is torture. Second, Emily Butler had reason to expect that she was going to be paroled in April 2018, and a stay in segregation would delay that. She was distraught and said so. She knew she needed help and asked for it. None came.

The report finds that a mere six weeks prior to Emily Butler’s death, another woman, “Elaine”, had attempted suicide under similar circumstances. While Elaine was in the inpatient mental health treatment unit, IMHTU, she threw urine at a staff member. Elaine lives with “with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder -traumatic stress disorder.” The staff knew that. The staff also knew that Elaine has a long record of self-injury and aggression and can’t stand stress. Despite all that, Elaine was thrown into solitary: “After Elaine was transferred …  to disciplinary segregation, she was observed in her cell standing on the sink and tying a sheet to the vent in the ceiling and around her neck. An officer intervened and stopped Elaine’s actions … She wanted to harm herself because she was scared about pending criminal assault charges for throwing the urine and that she had other stresses related to her family … She was upset that staff on the segregation unit did not take her seriously when she said that she was suicidal and wanted to speak with mental health staff … She said she attempted to hang herself after getting no response to her request for help. Elaine spent a few days on the IMHTU after this incident, and was then returned to the disciplinary segregation unit despite her evidenced need for mental health services …. Less than six weeks after Elaine was discovered with a sheet tied to the vent and around her neck, Emily Butler was discovered, also in the segregation unit, hanging from a sheet tied to a vent in her cell.

Three days after Emily Butler “was found dead,” The Baltimore Sun editorial board wrote, “It’s tempting to dismiss Emily Butler’s death as an unfortunate accident in an otherwise well-run corrections system where such mistakes are rare. But the reality is this is the fourth reported case of an inmate committing suicide this year, and it appears to be part of a pattern linking such deaths to the kinds of physical confinement inmates experience behind prison walls. There’s a difference between firm disciplinary measures that help ensure the safety of inmates and staff and cruel or unusual punishments that in effect amount to human rights abuses. Maryland needs to constantly rethink where that line should be drawn — and then make sure it stays on the right side of it. Emily Butler and others like her shouldn’t have to die by their own hands in order to teach the state that lesson.”

The State of Maryland executed Emily Butler for the crime of needing and asking for help. How many more such women must suffer such torture? Do more than say Emily Butler’s name. In her name, shut down all forms of solitary confinement, in prison and beyond. 

(Photo Credit: Baltimore Sun)

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)