Violence against women has many faces

November 25th is marked as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This date was decided upon in the United Nations to remember the assassination of the Mirabal sisters by the Trujillo regime, in the Dominican Republic, November 25, 1960.

This day is to raise awareness of the fact that women around the world are subject to rape and domestic violence and other forms of violence. The secretary general of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon declared: “Millions of women and girls around the world are assaulted, beaten, raped, mutilated or even murdered in what constitutes appalling violations of their human rights. […] We must fundamentally challenge the culture of discrimination that allows violence to continue. On this International Day, I call on all governments to make good on their pledges to end all forms of violence against women and girls in all parts of the world, and I urge all people to support this important goal.”

Should the European Union support this important goal and challenge the culture of discrimination within its behavior as an institution, as crimes against women are committed in member states? The death of Savita Halappanavar for denied therapeutic abortion in Ireland is only one of numerous cases of women being killed or injured because some States still have laws denying reproductive care to women. Those laws have remained the same sometimes since the 19th century. For instance in Ireland, doctors or nurses who help women who seek an abortion are punishable under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 that prescribes a minimum sentence of two years hard labor and can result in a life sentence.

The nomination of Tonio Borg (overtly against women and LGBT’s rights) as the new commissioner for Health will accentuate the impossibility for the European commission to stop state-legitimized violence against women in Member States with anti abortion, restrictive reproduction laws, such as Ireland, Poland,  and Malta. These laws are generalized in many countries from Africa to the Americas, including the United States.

Restrictions for women are economic as well. Where contraceptives are expensive or simply difficult to obtain, abortion services are generally illegal or restricted. Meanwhile, women are in the main still economically dependent.

Having a weak health commission in the Europe Union is no surprise. It results from lobbying from member states that don’t want to see the European convention on human rights and parliamentary resolutions applied to health care and in particular to women’s reproductive health. If women’s reproductive health were seen as a human right, those members who are inconsistent with EU conventions would finally be held accountable.

Violence against women has many faces. Often the violence stems from state denial of services or state practices of humiliated access to important services. In Baltimore, Maryland, for example, as in much of the United States, incarcerated pregnant women travel shackled to medical appointments.  These women are seen in regular hospitals walking among other patients with their guards and shackles.  Their treatment and humiliation is shaped by federal, state or local policies, which even force them to deliver their babies in chains, putting their lives at risk exactly as Savita Halappanavar lost hers.

 

 

(Photo Credit 1: AP / Shawn Pogatchnik / Salon) (Photo Credit 2: Reuters / Cathal Mcnaughton / Salon)

The austerity of childbirth … in shackles

Austerity preys on women and children. So does State extravagance.

In Greece, women in labor were turned away from public hospitals in Athens, Thessalonika, Rhodes and Rethymnon. Why? They didn’t have jobs, they didn’t have insurance, and they didn’t have cash on hand. Because they couldn’t pay for their hospital visits, up front, they were turned away. It’s the new “health system”, the “unified medical care system”, also known as the “integrated unified hospital treatment”, under the new austerity. In this brave new world, women must pay in advance and then receive the childbirth allowance. The childbirth allowance is 600 Euros. The cost of childbirth is listed at 950 Euros, for `normal’, and 1500 Euros, for caesarean section. If a woman doesn’t have the full freight, she must just go. Even if she does have the money, in the end she bears the difference, anywhere from 350 to 900 Euros. Women bear the difference … literally.

Women’s groups, in particular the Women’s Initiative Against Debt and Austerity Measures and the Independent Women’s Movement, broke the news and mobilized public opinion. Greeks were outraged. The Ministry of Health and Social Solidarity was shocked and announced that, from here on, no woman would be turned away. However, she still must pay the difference.

This is the new face of Greece, the face of austerity. In the United States, this would be business as usual. As one Greek noted, “They turned us into America, where you are finished if you don’t have any good insurance!”. Another agreed, “I am touched, we are becoming America. Giving birth for free in public hospitals? Impossible. Wipe out childbirth allowance NOW as well.”

Welcome to the United States of America.

In the United States, if a woman prisoner is in labor, many states will spare no expense. They will buy the best shackles available. In 36 states, women prisoners in childbirth are handcuffed to beds and delivery tables, are shackled, are refused family in the birthing room, and are denied access to their newborns.

Florida is one of those states. A bill is currently in the legislature that would “create uniform and humane rules for the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women”. Gruesome as that phrase is, in Florida, and in the United States, it’s progress. Illinois passed a similar bill earlier this month.

For undocumented immigrant women prisoners, predictably, the situation is worse.

The line from shackling women prisoners in childbirth across the United States to refusing to treat women in childbirth in Greece is a direct line. In both instances, rational human beings decided that this course of action made sense. It makes sense to shackle women in childbirth? It makes sense to turn away a woman in childbirth? No, it does not.

Austerity and prison are parts of the new global unified medical care system, which is part of the global unified political economy. And in that `unification’, women bear the difference … literally.

(Photo Credit: Alkis Konstantinidis / The Daily Beast)

Because they are still human

James Kessler is a justice architect. That means he works in criminal justice architecture. He is a senior principal at Hellmuth, Obata + Kassebaum, Inc, better known as HOK, one of the largest architectural firms in the world. Here’s how they describe justice architecture: “As an integral part of society and a component of contemporary life in our cities and states, Justice Architecture is a powerful symbol that serves to define the image of justice in every community.”

In a profile this week, Kessler talked about women prisoners in the United States: “Incarcerated women, for example, are more likely to change, or want to change, Kessler said, noting “an incredibly high percentage – more than 50 percent – have been abused as children.” Statistically they also have more health issues than men, and 75 percent are mothers with the added burden of being away from their children, exacerbated by having been abandoned by their own parents in similar situations….In the past, and sometimes at present, Kessler said parity issues arise vis-à-vis men’s prisons, with fewer opportunities and programs available to women who comprise a much smaller percentage of the prison population.…One of the goals during incarceration, Kessler explained, is to ameliorate the anger that defines inmates. According to Kessler, because research has determined women have a much greater need for privacy than men, requiring them to live in open dormitories would very possibly build on that anger rather than helping to relieve it.”

Women prisoners’ anger, women’s anger, creates a different space and inhabits a different architecture than the anger of men.

The profile concludes with Kessler’s reflection: “As architects, we have social responsibilities and certain sensitivities, perceptions and skills to deal with unusual situations for the people that work in them, the people that visit them and for the people that are in them, because they are still human.”

Because they are still human. What determines the humanity of a prisoner? The architecture? The design elements? Such as shackles around the ankles and waists of women in labor and delivery?

In Rhode Island, pregnant prisoners are handcuffed and shackled. Earlier this month, the Rhode Island chapters of the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union find this “troubling” and “unnecessary”. Rhode Island Department of Corrections officials see shackling as striking “a balance between the need for security and the interests of a pregnant inmate.” How is being shackled in the interests of a pregnant woman? She is still human, isn’t she?

In California, the ACLU is challenging the same “balanced” shackling of pregnant women: “In California, we currently shackle pregnant women. In jails and prisons, women are forced to walk with shackles around their swollen ankles, chains around their middles, and handcuffs behind their backs. They walk through downtown city blocks chained to one to another, trying their best not to lose balance”. The ACLU thinks this is cruel and unusual punishment, not a balance struck in the interests of pregnant women. But then, perhaps the interests of pregnant women and those of pregnant prisoners are not the same. Does “security” define reconstitute pregnant women prisoners as other than human? Is that the “balance”? What is the name of the different space created by shackled pregnant women walking, stumbling, falling?

In a couple weeks, the Governor of California will have the opportunity to strike a new balance, limiting the use of restraints on pregnant women who are prisoners.

In Texas this month, the ACLU and the Texas Jail Project have charged the Dallas County jail and others in the state with shackling prisoners during labor and delivery.

This week, the U.S. government submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council. This is the first time the US has ever reported on its own human rights situation. Prison is included in the report. It appears in Chapter III, “A Commitment to Freedom, Equality, Dignity.” Prison is in the third section, Dignity. There are safeguards for dignity in law enforcement and criminal justice, dignity and incarceration, dignity and criminal sanctions, dignity and juvenile offenders. Dignity abounds. There is no mention of dignity and women. There is no mention of the shackling of pregnant women prisoners.

It is August in America. Pregnant women prisoners across the country are being shackled. Even though they do not appear in the report on human rights, they are still human, they are still women … aren’t they?

 

(Image Credit: RadicalDoula.com)

What is left: solitary confinement

“After the bars and the gates
and the degradation,
What is left?”

Maria Benita Santamaria is a 35 year old transgender woman. In June 2009, she was arrested in northern Virginia and charged with possession of methamphetamine.  In August she pleaded guilty. She was sent to Central Virginia Regional Jail, a men’s prison. The prison placed her in solitary confinement, for “her own protection”. At the end of December, a U.S. District Judge ordered her removed to a federal prison with treatment facilities and counseling for transgender prisoners.  When the holiday seasons intruded, the judge had Santamaria placed in a medical wing until after the end of the festive season. After six months in solitary, what is left?

“After the lock ins and the lock outs
and the lock ups,
What is left?”

For the last two years, Santamaria has undergone hormone treatments in preparation for sex change surgery. That stopped in August. According to the prison staff, while in solitary, Santamaria was treated as a prisoner on punitive lockdown. She left her cell one hour a day, she showered three times a week.

“I mean, after the chains that get entangled
in the grey of one’s matter,
After the bars that get stuck
in the hears of men and women,

When the jail guards talked to or about Santamaria, they called her `it’. She considered suicide. She pleaded to be returned to the general population.

“After the tears and disappointments,
After the lonely isolation,
After the cut wrist and the heavy noose,
What is left?”

Maria Benita Santamaria said take me out of solitary confinement and put me in the general population, where I will most likely be raped. Maybe I’ll survive. It would be better than this.

“Like, after you know that god
can’t be trusted,
After you know that the shrink
is a pusher,
that the word is a whip
and the badge is a bullet,
What is left?”

Across the United States, prison guards call transgender prisoners `it’, and worse. Across the country and around the world, prisoners are placed in solitary confinement for long periods … “for their own protection”. After long terms in isolation, what is left?

“After you know that the dead
are still walking,
After you realize that silence
is talking,
that outside and inside
are just an illusion,
What is left?”

Virginia also operates four `facilities’ for women: Deerfield Work Center for Women; the Central Virginia Correctional Unit #13; the Virginia Correctional Center for Women; and Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. In June 2008, the four prisons held about 2220 women, of which Fluvanna held 1200.

“I mean, like, where is the sun?
Where are her arms and
where are her kisses?
There are lip-prints on my pillow—
i am searching.
What is left?”

Fluvanna boasts a Pen Pals program, and prisoners can work for the Virginia Correctional Enterprises as optical Braille transcribers or as tailors. But there’s more to Fluvanna, much more.

“I mean, like, nothing is standstill
and nothing is abstract.
The wings of a butterfly
can’t take flight.
The foot on my neck is part
af a body.
The song that i sing is part
of an echo.
What is left?”

Reports have been coming out of Fluvanna that women who `appear to be lesbian’ (short hair, baggy clothes) have been segregated and put in a `butch wing’. A no-touching policy has been instituted. Women walk single file everywhere. Access to religious services has been curtailed. And this: “a woman writes that a mentally ill inmate was kept in solitary confinement for months. `When it’s time for her to take her shower, she is lead, shackled and naked, down the hall, with a dog leash attached to her shackles, by a male guard.’”

“I mean, like, love is specific.
Is my mind a machine gun?
Is my heart a hacksaw?
Can i make freedom real? Yeah!
What is left?”

In March 2009, Dr. Atul Gawande argued, “Public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture.”

“I am at the top and bottom
of a lower-archy.
I am an earth lover
from way back.
I am in love with
losers and laughter.
I am in love with
freedom and children.”

In 1974, Assata Shakur, a New Jersey prisoner, was one month pregnant. She was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, and shackled to a bed for 10 days. Then she was moved to Middlesex County Jail for Men, and kept in solitary confinement for four months. She was extradited to New York, to Rikers Island, where `the treatment’ continued.

On September 10, Assata Shakur went into labor, and, on September 11, gave birth to Kakuya Amala Olugbala Shakur. When Shakur returned to Rikers Island, she was shackled, beaten, put into solitary confinement for a month. Finally, she was released from `punitive segregation: “So I was no longer locked. Just in jail. And separated from my child.”

And she wrote the poem, “Leftovers – What Is Left”, for her daughter. Parts of that poem run through this reflection.

“Love is my sword
and truth is my compass.
What is left?”

What is left? Solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is the vital organ of the body politic of prison. When you read that the death penalty might be dropped from the anti-gay bill in Uganda or that capital punishment may finally come to an end in the United States, remember this: solitary confinement is torture, and it defines prison.

 

(Photo Credit: Richard Ross/SolitaryWatch.com)

How do you like your torture, fast or slow?

Saleyha Ahsan has been visiting Y, an Algerian who fled Algeria for the United Kingdom, seeking asylum. His story is being enacted in a video on the Guardian website. He can’t see it, because he’s “a threat to national security”, and so he can’t access a computer, much less the internet or a mobile phone. His crime? “Y was tortured in Algeria – the evidence is clear from the scars on the front and back of his head. His crime was to speak out against human rights abuses in the early 1990s. When it was clear that he had to leave he came to the UK, and with his powerful testimony he was given full rights to remain. Not a false passport or fake name in sight. Leaving saved his life. Not long after, he was issued with a death sentence in absentia in Algeria.” Wait. That can’t be right. His crime is that he `agreed’ to be tortured? Yes, that made him a threat. However one parses the niceties, Ahsan has watched “an isolated edgy young man turned old through the “slow torture” of these last eight years in the UK. Detained for a total of 57 months in prison – first for the ricin case, for which he was fully acquitted, then detained again based on…? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s called secret evidence and neither Y or his lawyers have any idea what it is.”

This practice of slow torture is particular to women and takes many forms.

In the UK, according to the most recent Prison Reform Trust Fact Files, “The number of women in prison has increased by 60% over the past decade, compared to 28% for men. On 12 June 2009 the women’s prison population stood at 4,269. In 1997 the mid-year female prison population was 2,672. In 2007, 11,847 women were received into prison.” Twelve years of step-by-step, rung-by-rung escalating incarceration of women. Twelve years of silence. Slow torture.

Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian has been thinking and writing about the slow torture of Palestinian women. Palestinian women have been placed in a condition of betweeness: “we as women are in a state of betweeness, we are kind of border patrolling everything, we are border patrolling the border between the outside and the inside, the private and the public – our bodies, our lives, our future are all in the state of betweeness….Look at the example of the checkpoints …; I was dropping my partner off at his clinic… they stopped us and they put the men on the right side and the women on the left side, and they told the men to raise their hands and body searched them, and we were on the other side, and this kind of not knowing, this uncertainty that we were all living at that moment, this geography of fear that they created in a very small space, our space as women, all of a sudden it became militarized and they kind of stole our space from us. We became exilic in our own space and the men became dehumanized and demonized in front of our very eyes….This militarization … ends up putting us, as women, as boundary markers, so we are the punching bag for the men outside and the punching bag for the men inside, and we want to move and change the situation, but we are in a state of ‘betweeness’.” The checkpoints are the fast and the quick of torture. The slow torture is the state of exile in one’s own home. How many decades of silence before a new language and a new home are fully established?

Slow torture is a product of a particular application of the rule of law to women and men deemed to be foreigners, and so [a] menace to society and [b] meant to be grateful for whatever juridical crumbs they can get.

In California, for example, activists have targeted undocumented residents and their U.S.-born children. They want to cut off public services to undocumented residents, to challenge the citizenship of any U.S. born citizens of undocumented residents, and set harsh new standards for birth certificates. Who’s targeted here? Women. Making pregnant women worry about what will happen, to them and their children, if they go to hospital in labor is that same as shackling women prisoners while in labor and childbirth. It’s criminal, and it happens all the time. It’s slow torture.

Veronica Lopez  is from Guatemala. She lives in California. She lived with a violent and abusive partner. She reported him. He was tried and deported to Guatemala. Lopez then spent nine months in immigration detention, terrified that she would be deported back to the reach of her abusive husband. Only at the eleventh hour, and then some, did the State come through and grant her a U-Visa, which is designed precisely for women in Lopez’s situation. Others have not been so lucky, and have been deported. The state of betweeness for women stretches across the world. The practice of slow torture haunts us.

(Photo Credit: Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice)

The priceless gift of infinite standards

Amy Goodman is upset at double standards, specifically two standards of detention.

Scott Roeder is in jail for having killed Dr. George Tiller. While in jail, Roeder has just about unlimited access to the press, to visits, to the internet, to phone calls. The conditions of his incarceration in and of themselves are not the problem. The problem is all the others held incommunicado. Fahad Hasmi, for example, or Andrew Stepanian: “Hashmi is a U.S. citizen who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and went to Brooklyn College. He went to graduate school in Britain and was arrested there in 2006 for allegedly allowing an acquaintance to stay with him for two weeks. That acquaintance, Junaid Babar, allegedly kept at Hashmi’s apartment a bag containing ponchos and socks, which Babar later delivered to an al-Qaida operative. Babar was arrested and agreed to cooperate with the authorities in exchange for leniency….Fahad Hashmi was extradited to New York, where he has been held in pre-trial detention for more than two years. His brother Faisal described the conditions: “He is kept in solitary confinement for two straight years, 23- to 24-hours lockdown. … Within his own cell, he’s restricted in the movements he’s allowed to do. He’s not allowed to talk out loud within his own cell….He has Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) … against him.” Hashmi cannot contact the media, and even his lawyers have to be extremely cautious when discussing his case, for fear of imprisonment themselves”

Animal rights and environment activists are treated to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s newest toy, “communications management units”, or CMUs. According to Stepanian, the CMU is “”a prison within the actual prison. … The unit doesn’t have normal telephone communication to your family … normal visits are denied … you have to make an appointment to make one phone call a week, and that needs to be done with the oversight of … a live monitor.” 70% Muslim prisoners, CMUs are commonly referred to as Little Guantanamo. Amy Goodman thinks this situation is wrong: “Nonviolent activists like Stepanian, and Muslims like Hashmi, secretly and dubiously charged, are held in draconian conditions, while Roeder trumpets from jail the extreme anti-abortion movement’s decades-long campaign of intimidation, vandalism, arson and murder.”

Surely, having two standards is better than having one. Surely that suggests wealth, just as having two cars or two houses. The U.S. has two standards not because it is racist or any other supposedly bad thing. It’s wealthy and can afford them. Everyone else is just jealous, that’s all.

Want to hear about three standards? There’s a standard for prisoners, a standard for women of color, and a standard for mothers: “Last November, Venita’s baby was getting ready to enter the world, but Venita couldn’t move. While she was going into contractions, her ankles were shackled, her hands cuffed, and her waist tied. For extra assurance, her hands were further restrained with a black box. Just following procedure, the officer said as he escorted her to the birthing room. The pain and joy of child birth may be the most intense experience a woman will ever have. For incarcerated pregnant women in New York, however, they’re prisoners first and mothers second”. Not quite. Prisoners first, women of color second, mothers third. America, a marketplace of standards.

Across the United States, juvenile justice programs, cultural programs, educational programs, caring programs, are being cut. Special transitional houses for girls, for example. Most of the girls are African American, Latina, and Native American. The programs work, the reforms work. And so they shall be cut. How many standards does that make. America, a shopping mall, a mega-mall, of standards.

Want more standards? How about prisoner and disabled? Howard Hyde, for example. “Terrified shrieks and the harsh crackle of electrical current filled a courtroom on Friday as surveillance video of the tasering of a paranoid schizophrenic was shown at an inquiry into his death. The video shows Howard Hyde regaining his feet, clad only in the shorts in which he was arrested. Momentarily at bay, facing three officers in the booking room of Halifax police headquarters, he throws himself over a waist-high counter and vanishes into a hallway. The audio recording continues and captures what sounds like another application of the taser. The Dartmouth man stopped breathing in that hallway and had to be revived. He died 30 hours later after a struggle with guards at a local jail.” Disabled prisoners generally have a hard time. If the disability is mental health … well, that’s a whole other standard. At least it’s Canada, and not the U.S. That’s a relief.

Maybe it’s not wealthy countries that can afford the extravagances of multiple, infinite and proliferating standards of detention. Maybe it’s countries with greater and growing wealth gaps, greater and growing chasms and higher and harder barricades between the wealthy and the poor. And each new standard? A gift, and especially a gift to women and girls of color across the land. You really can’t put a price on that now, can you?

(Photo Credit: Librado Romero / The New York Times)

Children of Incarcerated Mothers, or Albie Sachs haunts U.S. prisons!

Albie Sachs is a South African judge who haunts the U.S. prison system. Why? Because he is a decent human being, that’s why. He decided to listen to a woman colleague. He decided that primary caregivers of children should not be sent to jail. Here’s a version of the story:

“Albie Sachs…was fleetingly in the UK last week, primarily to tell the story behind the judgment he made in South Africa not to send a woman to prison because it would infringe the human rights of her three children.…

“Judges are the storytellers of the 21st century,” says 74-year-old Sachs….

At first sight, he had intended to throw out an appeal on behalf of Mrs M, who was facing four years in jail for up to 40 counts of credit card fraud that she had committed while under a suspended sentence for similar offences. “I remember drafting an extremely dismissive response. I said: ‘This doesn’t raise a constitutional question. She simply wants to avoid going to jail. She doesn’t make out a case, and her prospects of success are zero.’ “It was a female colleague…who insisted that the case be heard. She argued that the human rights of the accused woman’s children were not being looked at separately.

“She said: ‘There is something you are missing. What about the children? Mrs M has three teenage children. She lives in an area that we politely call fragile, an area of gangs, drug-peddling and a fair amount of violence. The indications are that she is a good mother, and the magistrate gave no attention to the children’s interests.’

“The minute my colleague spoke to me about the importance of the three teenage children of Mrs M, I started to see them not as three small citizens who had the right to grow up into big citizens but as three threatened, worrying, precarious, conflicted young boys who had a claim on the court, a claim on our society as individuals, as children, and a claim not to be treated solely as extensions of the rights of the mother, but in their own terms.”

As a result, Sachs created a legal precedent in 2007: a woman who otherwise would have gone to jail did not have to, because of her children’s rights. “We could have said the children’s rights must be considered but sent Mrs M to jail anyway, perhaps for a lesser term. But that would not have changed anything.”…

Although three judges dissented from the majority verdict, the precedent was set in South Africa that – at least in borderline cases – primary caregivers of children should not be sent to jail. And if the court decided to jail a primary caregiver, it had to take some responsibility for what happens to the children. “The court can’t simply say that she should have thought of that before she committed the offence, or that she can’t hide behind her children.”…

At the time he was drafting the judgment, Sachs did not know of any country that took the rights of offenders’ children into account, but he subsequently discovered that similar ideas were being framed in Scotland in a report by the then children’s commissioner, Kathleen Marshall. The report, Not Seen, Not Heard, Not Guilty, argues that the rights of offenders’ children to family life under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are systematically ignored by the court system. The report found that almost two-thirds of prisoners in the Cornton Vale women’s prison in Stirling had children under 18, but there was no provision to take their rights into account during sentencing.

“This was astonishing,” Sachs told the audience. “In a totally different legal system, in a totally different society, a conclusion was being reached that is almost identical. It showed that the time has come for new ways of thinking.””

Albie Sachs haunts the United States, home of “the incarceration generation”: “The chances of seeing a parent go to prison have never been greater, especially for poor black Americans, and new research is documenting the long-term harm to the children they leave behind. Recent studies indicate that having an incarcerated parent doubles the chance that a child will be at least temporarily homeless and measurably increases the likelihood of physically aggressive behavior, social isolation, depression and problems in school — all portending dimmer prospects in adulthood. “Parental imprisonment has emerged as a novel, and distinctly American, childhood risk that is concentrated among black children and children of low-education parents,” said Christopher Wildeman, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who is studying what some now call the “incarceration generation.” Incarceration rates in the United States have multiplied over the last three decades, in part because of stiffer sentencing rules. At any given moment, more than 1.5 million children have a parent, usually their father, in prison, according to federal data. But many more are affected over the course of childhood, especially if they are black, new studies show. Among those born in 1990, one in four black children, compared with one in 25 white children, had a father in prison by age 14. Risk is concentrated among black children whose parents are high-school dropouts; half of those children had a father in prison, compared with one in 14 white children with dropout parents, according to a report by Dr. Wildeman recently published in the journal Demography. For both blacks and whites, the chances of parental incarceration were far higher than they were for children born just 12 years earlier, in 1978.”

None of this is new, news or surprising. Cage the fathers, superexploit the mothers, forget the children. It’s simple. Put a nation of mothers behind bars, where too often there are no fathers or other guardians around and there is no public support, and you imprison the children. Where’s the surprise? Shackle pregnant women prisoners in labor and delivery, in the name of security. Are you surprised? This has all been said before. It’s common knowledge.

In South Africa, Albie Sachs acted. In Scotland, so did Kathleen Marshall. In the U.S., it’s time, it’s way past time, for similar action.

(Image Credit: http://childrenofprisoners.eu)

Harm’s Way – HMP Styal

An epidemic of self-harm is said to be sweeping the women’s prisons of the United Kingdom: “The number of women deliberately harming themselves in prison has almost doubled in five years…. Officials recorded 12,560 cases of women prisoners injuring themselves – mainly by cutting and burning – last year, equivalent to almost three incidents per inmate. In 2003, 6,437 instances of self-harm were recorded in English prisons, about 1.5 per inmate. Although women make up just five per cent of the prison population in England and Wales, they account for more than half of all self-harming incidents. Many of the women in prison have been convicted of minor crimes, but suffer high levels of mental illness and drug abuse…. A total of 4,291 women are currently in prison, a slight fall on last year, but still nearly double the number held just a decade ago. Research suggests that more women are sent to prison for shoplifting than any other crime. Forty per cent of sentenced women serve just three months or less. More than half of women in prison report they have suffered violence at home, and one in three has suffered sexual abuse. Two-thirds have a neurotic disorder, such as depression, anxiety and phobias.”

Harm does not sweep prisons. Harm overcrowds and chokes prisons. Harm organizes and rules prisons. Prisons are harmful, especially for women.

On Monday, June 22, twenty female prisoners were raped in a prison riot in the central prison of Goma, in the DRC. We are told the men were trying to escape; the men are militia members, in prison for murder, rape, and other major offenses; the prison is meant to hold at most 150 and currently houses 600 prisoners. We are told that rape of women and of men in prison is common. We are told a great deal. Of the women, we are told nothing.

On Tuesday, June 23, the U.S. National Prison Rape Elimination Commission finally released its report. The Executive Summary opens with the harm: “Rape is violent, destructive, and a crime—no less so when the victim is incarcerated. Until recently, however, the public viewed sexual abuse as an inevitable feature of confinement.” The Introduction opens with the haunting: “Sexual abuse is among the most destructive of crimes, brutal and devastating in the moment and carrying the potential to haunt victims forever.” The Commission emphasizes that rape in prison is not inevitable, but it might as well be in a national “culture that jokes about prison rape.”

Rape. Torture. Violence. Guantanamo. The Obama administration considers “issuing an executive order that would authorize the president to incarcerate some terrorism suspects indefinitely.” Not convicted felons. Suspects. Bagram. Twenty-seven former prisoners detailed this week the abuse and torture they suffered and endured in Bagram: “physical abuse, the use of stress positions, excessive heat or cold, unbearably loud noise, being forced to remove clothes in front of female soldiers”. Not one of the former prisoners was ever charged or tried. Suspects. Israel has its own private Guantanamo, Facility 1391, where who knows what goes on. But more generally Israeli security forces have been accused “of deliberately shackling Palestinian prisoners in a painful and dangerous manner, amounting to a form of torture.” Suspects abounding.

Rape. Torture. Violence. These are the Big Stories of the Horror. But hold on. In Arizona, for over a decade, male prisoners have been paraded in public in women’s pink underwear. In the U.S., women prisoners in childbirth are shackled. Casandra Brawley, a former prisoner at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, is taking Washington State to court for having shackled her during childbirth: “Brawley said she was shackled by a metal chain around her stomach during transportation to the hospital, then fastened by a leg iron to a hospital bed throughout several hours of labor. The suit alleges her restraints were removed during an emergency 
cesarean section only after a physician insisted, but then were 
replaced after the procedure.” Calling a woman in labor a security risk is a joke, right? Like prison rape, or making a man undress in front of a woman, or making a man dress like a woman.

In the United Kingdom, forty per cent of sentenced women serve three months or less, and yet somehow manage to `harm themselves’ at a rate of three incidents per inmate. Women prisoners’ self harm is neither epidemic nor outbreak. It’s life. It’s part of the harm of being a woman in a neoliberal political economy. The Corston Report: a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the U.K. criminal justice system, said as much in March, 2007.

Behind the Corston Commission Report sits HMP Styal, “one of the largest women’s prisons” in the U.K. Between August 2002 and August 2003, six women died at Styal. Anna Claire Baker, a 29-year-old mother of two, a remand prisoner, was found hanged in her cell in November 2002. Sarah Campbell, 18, took pills, informed the staff she had taken pills, and was promptly left alone in a cell, to stew for a bit. She didn’t stew. She died. So did Julie Walsh, in August 2003. Walsh, a 39-year-old mother-of-two, also died after taking pills. The tragic deaths of these six women at Styal was the impetus of the Corston Commission. According to Nicholas Rheinberg, the Cheshire Coroner who conducted the inquests into the deaths at Styal, “I saw a group of damaged individuals, committing for the most part petty crime for whom imprisonment represented a disproportionate response. That was what particularly struck me with Julie Walsh who had spent the majority of her adult life serving at regular intervals short periods of imprisonment for crimes which represented a social nuisance rather than anything that demanded the most extreme form of punishment. I was greatly saddened by the pathetic individuals who came before me as witnesses who no doubt mirrored the pathetic individuals who had died.” That was then.

This is now. February 27, 2009: “The chief inspector of prisons has warned of more deaths at Styal women’s prison if services for vulnerable inmates do not improve…. John Gunn, brother of Lisa Marley, who died at Styal in January last year, asked: “How many more women have to die before something is done?” What’s that you said about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, and thereafter as farce?

Harm is more than injury, it’s “Evil (physical or otherwise) as done to or suffered by some person or thing.” In a world in which women in labor are shackled and sick women are left alone to die, women prisoners’ self harm is simply a structural adjustment, another efficiency. The evil that men do lives after them. So does the harm.

(Photo Credit: https://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/)

Women prisoners haunt the modern era

President Obama decided not to release all of the torture pictures, but that’s already old news. What was the big deal, anyway? We already knew that torture happened; in fact, we signed on to that program a long time ago. It’s the story of our modern era, a story haunted by women prisoners.

The Women Behind Bars website shows a picture of a smiling, healthy young woman: “Gina Muniz, in 1998, before she was incarcerated in the LA County Jail and the California state prison system for her first arrest, related to the theft of $200 related to a rapid onset of drug addiction-in the aftermath of her father’s death. The theft was bizarrely classified as a carjacking, although no one was harmed, and no car was stolen. Muniz received life in prison; her lawyer told her she was agreeing to seven years when she pled guilty.” Her mother, Grace Ortega, took the photo. It must have been a happy occasion. Six months after Muniz was arrested, she was dead: “Gina Muniz, September 2000, handcuffed to her deathbed and under 24-hour-guard in Modesto Community Hospital. Next to her is her daughter Amanda. Gina suffered horribly for six months from diagnosed but untreated cervical cancer. When it was diagnosed in L.A. County Jail, early and aggressive treatment would more than likely have saved Gina’s life. Grace Ortega, her mother, was finally able to win compassionate release for her daughter two days before her death, so that she could die at home”. Her mother, Grace Ortega, took the photo. Compassionate release.

Today is June 3, 2009. Yesterday, “Texas carried out its 200th execution under the eight-and-a-half year governorship of Richard Perry on Tuesday. Terry Lee Hankins, 34, was executed by lethal injection shortly after 6pm Texas time. He had been sentenced to death in 2002 for the murder of two of his wife’s children in 2001. Terry Hankins was the 16th person to be executed in Texas this year, out of a national total of 30. This was the 1,166th execution to be carried out in the USA since judicial killing resumed there in 1977, with Texas accounting for 439 of them. Another five men are currently scheduled to be put to death in Texas by mid-September….Texas is home to about seven per cent of the population of the USA and is where fewer than 10 per cent of the country’s murders occur. The state accounts for 37 per cent of the USA’s executions since 1977, and 41 per cent since 2001.”

In America, bad men wear pink underwear. In Texas, bad men are executed. Bad women, too, like Frances Newton. In 2005, “40-year-old Frances Newton became the third woman to be executed by the state of Texas since 1982 (and the first African American woman in the modern era) despite the strong possibility that she was innocent.” What exactly is this modern era? Francis Newton was “only the third woman executed by the state of Texas since 1982, and the first black woman executed since the Civil War. Unique in that historical sense, in other ways the Frances Newton case is painfully unexceptional.” Since the Civil War, since 1865? Francis Newton was the third woman executed in Texas since 1982, and the first Black woman since the mid 1800s. Francis Newton is the modern era, and the modern era goes way back.

On May 20, 2009, the New York State Legislature passed Bill S01290A, which “Provides for the care and custody of pregnant female inmates before, during and after delivery; prohibits the use of restraints of any kind from being used during the transport of such female prisoner to a hospital for the purpose of giving birth, unless such prisoner is a substantial flight risk whereupon handcuffs may be used; prohibits the use of any restraints during labor; requires the presence of corrections personnel during such prisoner’s transport to and from the hospital and during her stay at such hospital.” It’s called an anti-shackling measure: “the new law will make New York one of just  four states in the country that restrict the use of restraints on incarcerated women during pregnancy or childbirth. California and Illinois were the first to put any legal limits on the practice — in both cases, after a series of lawsuits forced the states to overhaul their disastrously inadequate prison healthcare systems. Before the restriction, in Illinois, it was standard practice to chain female inmates to their hospital beds before, during and after the births of their babies. As one advocate told the New York Times, “What was common was one wrist and one ankle.” (A policy that, frighteningly enough, looks positively benevolent compared to Kansas’s, North Carolina’s and Washington’s, which allow women to be locked in belly chains and leg irons while they’re in labor, according to a 2006 investigation by Amnesty International.)” Four states restrict shackles for women prisoners during childbirth. Four. That leaves 46 states to go.

Women prisoners haunt the modern era: some die of lethal neglect, others die by lethal injection, others in shackles bear children. We signed on to this program a long time ago.

(Photo Credit: California Coalition for Women Prisoners)