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)

Janika Nichole Edmond died in Michigan’s women’s prison: Who cares?

Janika Nichole Edmond

In November 2015, a twenty-five-year-old Black woman, Janika Nichole Edmond died, or better was executed, in the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, Michigan’s only women’s prison. Two years ago, Huron Valley was investigated for alleged human rights abuses against mentally ill female inmates, and today Janika Nichole Edmond is dead.

Janika Edmond’s story is short and terribly familiar: Janika Edmond lived with mental illness. Once in Michigan’s `criminal justice’ system, her condition deteriorated. She had a history of assaulting prison guards, which resulted in her being sent to solitary, which resulted in her becoming more aggressive. The rate of `incident reports’ skyrocketed. No one did anything. In 2014, Janika Edmond made a rope out of a towel and tried to hang herself. Earlier in 2015, Janika Edmond was found with a razor. She said, repeatedly, that she was “tired of being here” and was hearing voices. Unfortunately, no one on staff heard or listened to Janika Edmond’s voice. The day she died, Janika Edmonds asked for a suicide prevention vest. The guards laughed. Hours later, she lay dead on the floor. “The death report provided by the MDOC [Michigan Department of Corrections] for Edmond shows her presumed cause of death was suicide.”

That was no suicide. That was murder at the hands of the State. The State had agency, power, volition, and policy. The State wanted Janika Edmond dead, and Janika Edmond is dead.

Two prison officers have been suspended or fired, depending on the report. While they bear their own responsibility, this crime emerged from years of abuse and torture. When Janika Edmonds died, the State was still “investigating” the July 16 death of Kayla Renea Miller, in Huron Valley. From the Anchorage Correctional Complex in Alaska to the California Institution for Women to SCI-Muncy in Pennsylvania to the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, women were dropping like flies and they continue to do so.

None of this is new. In 2012, Carol Jacobsen, founder and Director of the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project, noted, “Abu Ghraib has nothing on Huron Valley.” She was describing the irony that Huron Valley was meant to solve the crisis of abuse of women prisoners in the Robert Scott Correctional Facility. As a result of widespread torture and abuse, Scott was closed in 2009, and all the women were moved to Huron Valley, which, according to Carol Jacobsen, is worse than Scott.

That was 2012. In the intervening four years, the conditions at Huron Valley have only worsened, as they have nationally. According to the United States Department of Justice, in state prisons, “suicide was the most common unnatural cause of death among female prisoners from 2001 to 2012.” What happened to Janika Nichole Edmond? Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, just another Black woman crying out for help, dying in agony, “tired of being here.” In her death, she joins “the most common.” Who cares? Who cares? Who cares? #SayHerName

 

(Photo Credit: MLive.com)

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

 

Stephanie Feliz

Last week, California Department of Corrections officials “discovered” a crisis. In the past eighteen months, four women prisoners at the California Institution for Women, or CIW, in Chino killed themselves … or were killed by willful neglect. On February 17, 2015, 73-year-old Gui Fei Zhang killed herself a day after being released from suicide watch. Weeks later, on March 6, 2015, 34-year-old Stephanie Feliz hanged herself. Feliz had attempted suicide before and had sought emergency mental health the day she died, according to sister inmates and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. A year earlier, on February 24, 2014, 31-year-old Alicia Thompson killed herself, and a few months later, on July 30, 23-year-old Margarita Murguia hanged herself. April Harris, a sister prisoner in CIW, explained Margarita Murguia’s death, “She was there for her own protection, not because she did something. Apparently her mom was dying of cancer and they refused to let her see her mom. She tried to kill herself with every denied request. She finally did it.”

She finally did it. A woman hanged herself that night? No, a woman was hanged. When does the count of women prisoner suicide reach crisis? What is California’s policy?

After Stephanie Feliz’s death, April Harris, a CIW prisoner, 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.”

California has touted its California Institution for Women as a model, because once, over a year ago, it received a passing grade for its mental health care provision. But that was, or may have been, then, and this is now. Now, CIW is overcrowded. Designed for 1398 prisoners, CIW houses 1833 women. According to the California Department of Corrections, CIW is at 131.1% capacity, down from a peak, in May, of 131.7% capacity. Its suicide rate is more than eight times the national rate for women prisoners and more than five times the rate for the entire California prison system.

Mental illness “haunts” women’s prisons, nationally as well as locally. According to some estimates, 60 to 70 percent of women prisoners, against 30 percent of men prisoners, have recently experienced mental illness. Prisons report that around 30 percent of women prisoners have been diagnosed with severe mental illness, and 30 to 60 percent are living with drug addictions. One third of women prisoners “experience recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal impulses, and to have made prior suicide attempts.” How do states respond to women’s high and higher levels of complex mental illness and suicidal impulses and attempts: “Women are less likely than men to receive psychiatric treatment in correctional settings, despite their high incidence of mental illnesses.”

Women prisoners and supporters, such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, know these numbers in their bones, and they have not been silent. They have continually and loudly denounced the conditions and called for a thorough overhaul, beginning with releasing most of the prisoners. When the women of the California Institution for Women participated in last July’s statewide hunger strike, they called attention, with their bodies, to the State assault on their bodies, minds and souls. They identified a crisis of health care and a crisis of caring in Chino, and the State looked the other way. How many women have died in State custody and how many more will die before the `crisis’ is `resolved’?

(Photo Credit: California Department of Corrections / AP)

Life & Times of Ms K

 

Ms K is dead. Her death was exemplary. A woman enters prison for the first time, a troublesome woman, and within weeks is found hanging in her cell. Here’s her story, as recounted in Learning from PPO Investigations: self-inflicted deaths of prisoners – 2013/14, the most recent report from the Prison and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales:

Ms K had a history of mental ill health. After a long period of stability she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after a number of attempts to kill herself.

She was discharged to the care of the community team but was arrested almost immediately, when she threatened to kill her former partner.

She was remanded to prison after a doctor decided she would not benefit from further hospital treatment. It was her first time in prison.

A nurse immediately began ACCT procedures and recommended constant supervision. However, prison staff set four observations an hour.

She tried to hang herself twice in the first evening, and was moved to a safer cell and constantly supervised. Nearly two weeks after arriving in prison she was referred to a psychiatrist, who did not believe she should be in prison and immediately began to organise a transfer back to hospital. Tragically, Ms K died before this could take place.

Frequent ACCT case reviews were held and most were multi-disciplinary. However, there were several occasions when prison managers chose not to follow, and sometimes not to ask, the advice of clinical staff. Clinicians said that their opinion was not listened to, which was particularly troubling for a prisoner with such severe mental health problems.

Ms K was difficult to manage and her moods were unpredictable, extreme and liable to change quickly. She made a number of serious and determined attempts to hang herself.

An enhanced case review process could have helped ensure more consistency in the staff involved in her care, and made sure all input was given sufficient weight.

For the Ombudsman researchers, Ms K’s case is “one example” of the “failure” to “consider enhanced case review process” when a prisoner’s history suggests “wide ranging and deep seated problems.” Ms K’s death was, and is, exemplary.

Last year, prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high. The majority of prisoners who engaged in suicide were White men. For men and women of all group, hanging was the preferred method of dying. Ms K’s death was, and is, exemplary.

There is no tragedy here, and, despite the Ombudsman’s best intentions, there is nothing to learn. Ms K’s death is a miniscule part of a global assembly line at which employees dutifully stand and wait for the next body to ignore. The prisons of England and Wales, with their mounting piles of prisoners’ corpses, are a tiny part of the global work of necropower: “I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead … Under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred.”

Ms K is dead. Her death is an example. Nothing more.

 

(Image Credit: Open Democracy / National Offender Management Service)

Why the number of prisoners committing suicide rose so sharply last year

 

Last year, prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, and the House of Commons Justice Committee. For all three, this dubious accomplishment parallels cuts in prison staff, harsher prison regimes, and various `efficiencies’ imposed across the so-called justice system. Add to that cuts in public health and housing services. Austerity kills.

The Ombudsman’s most recent report, Learning from PPO Investigations: self-inflicted deaths of prisoners – 2013/14, found a 64% increase in self-inflicted deaths in custody over the previous year. While that number captured a bit of attention, here’s a paragraph that many overlooked: “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.” Under austerity measures, the Empire of Prison Suicides has expanded rapidly and hungrily.

The Empire has expanded both geographically and demographically. Who are the ones who perished `at their own hands’? “In 2013/14, the prisoners who died were significantly less likely to have been convicted or charged with violent and sexual offences. There was also a significant increase in deaths among those serving short sentences of less than six months.”

Most of the prisoners who committed suicide were in their first month of custody. More had spent less than two hours out of their cell in the days before their deaths. Not `hardened’ nor `violent’ nor `in for long’. In other words, more or less ordinary people.

Frances Cook, Executive Director of the Howard League, noted, “No one should be so desperate whilst they are in the care of the state that they take their own life. The numbers hide the true extent of misery inside prisons and for families. It is particularly tragic that teenagers and other young people have died by their own hand in our prisons and we should all be ashamed that this happened.”

The tragedy is in the deaths, not the ages, and we should indeed all be ashamed. The State is not ashamed. As a Justice Committee report last week noted, “The prison system in England and Wales has one of the highest incarceration levels in Europe, standing at 149 per 100,000 people.” The report noted that when Justice Secretary Grayling was presented with the rising tide of suicide, his response was to blame society. On the question of suicides, the Justice Committee report concluded, “The Ministry told us they had looked hard for evidence of factors which could be causing an increase in suicide rates, self-harm and levels of assault in prisons. Worryingly, they had not managed to arrive at any hypothesis as to why this has taken place. In our view it is not possible to avoid the conclusion that the confluence of estate modernisation and re-configuration, efficiency savings, staffing shortages, and changes in operational policy, including to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, have made a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety.”

We should all be ashamed, and we should all be worried, worried about States that have looked and refuse to see, refuse to see unavoidable conclusions and, even more, refuse to see the humanity in each of us. Global leaders of incarceration, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, have gained their ascendancy by stuffing more and more people into prisons and jails, and then expressing shock and dismay when the conditions of confinement push prisoners to self-harm and suicide. A war on crime turns whole populations into `a problem’ and entire neighborhoods into lands belonging to no one. It’s a kind of genocide by erasure.

In the United Kingdom last year, almost all those prisoners who killed themselves did so by hanging. They turned the belittling spectacle of their erasure into one last spectacle of sacrifice. While the State spokespeople express dismay, and the State accountants chalk it up as another efficiency, the various gods of justice and humanity look on and weep.

 

(Image Credit: rs21.org.uk)

In Italy, prison is a death sentence … and no one knows?

Deaths in Italian prisons from 2002 to 2012

The death sentence comes in many shapes and sizes. In too many countries, capital punishment is a State function. In Europe, France was the first country to abolish capital punishment. In 1994, Italy became only the second `abolitionist’ nation-State in Europe. But that doesn’t mean Italy doesn’t execute its prisoners.

Italian prisons are notoriously overcrowded, and the life inside is famously harsh. A 2008 Council of Europe report found the prisons “severely overcrowded”: “For prisoners, an overcrowded prison often entails cramped and unhygienic accommodation, a constant lack of privacy, reduced opportunities in terms of employment, education and other out-of-cell activities, overburdened health-care services, and increased tension – and hence more violence – between prisoners and between prisoners and staff. In addition, due to lack of adequate living space, a number of prisoners were transferred to prisons far away from their families.”

Who are the prisoners? Undocumented immigrants, drug users, remand prisoners figure prominently. Italy has one of the worst records on alternative sentencing. In Italy, you do the time, even when you’re awaiting judgment as to whether or not you’ve committed the crime.

The prisons are not just overcrowded. They are severely, even criminally, overcrowded. In January of this year, in the case of Torreggiani and Others v. Italy, the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously “that there had been: A violation of Article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court’s judgment is a “pilot judgment” concerning the issue of overcrowding in Italian prisons. This structural problem has now been acknowledged at national level. The Court called on the authorities to put in place, within one year, a remedy or combination of remedies providing redress in respect of violations of the Convention resulting from overcrowding in prison.”

The prisons are not just severely and criminally overcrowded. They are fatally, toxically overcrowded. From January 2002 up to May 2012, 915 prisoners died in Italian prisons. Of that group, a whopping 518 committed suicide. That’s 56% “killed themselves.” That’s astronomical, by any standards, whether compared to the rate of the Italian general population or to other national prison populations. [The 56% suicide rate does not include death by drug overdose (26) or death “under unclear circumstances” (177). If half of those two groups, put together, actually committed suicide, then the suicide rate becomes 61%.]

Imagine a place in which, basically, 6 out of every 10 persons commits suicide. That place is the prison system of Italy. In individual prisons, the situation is actually more lethal. A map of the prison deaths reveals a great deal: “Many stories can be found by viewing the map. Most of them did not find coverage in the mainstream media. For instance, almost nobody was fully aware about the almost forty deaths of those detained in mental hospitals; or about prisoners who took a drug overdose behind bars. Some stories clash with our perceived stereotypes: nobody normally imagines that those who die in jail may be women, such as Manuela Contu and Franca Fiorini, 42-year and 37-year respectively, died of overdose in Civitavecchia in 2003. Or like Francesca Caponnetto, deceased in Messina in 2004, aged 40. Other prisoners died very young, such as a 17-year old boy, who committed suicide in Firenze, in 2009. No one knows about 50 young prisoners who died aged under 20.”

No one knows. Historically, in Italy, as elsewhere, when it comes to women in prison, the story has always been no one knows, from the first days of the independent so-called liberal nation-State to today. At the outset, women prisoners were relegated to obscure and never-discussed prisons run by nuns. No one knew. And today, when it comes to women prisoners, and especially the recently criminalized immigrant women prisoners, nobody normally imagines.

In Italy today, there is no `life inside’. Prison is a death sentence, administered through a policy of mass and collective suicide. And no one knows?

(Image Credit: The Guardian)