Ending solitary confinement, the problem that doesn’t “exist” in New Jersey

Nafeesah Goldsmith

Nafeesah Goldsmith is a community organizer with the nonprofit organization Jersey City Together. She graduated Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree and is working towards a Master’s in Criminal Justice at Monmouth University. She has been working to curtail the practice of solitary confinement in New Jersey, as she has had first hand experience of its abuse. For nearly 13 years, Nafeesah Goldsmith was incarcerated for at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility and was forced to spend nearly 60 days in solitary confinement—in the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, a male inmate facility since Edna Mahan did not have its own isolation ward (now, it does).

There Goldsmith spent two months of isolation, “with the exception of 45 minutes of recreation time, most days, in the prison yard. She said she sometimes went without showering, depending on the mood of the guards. To pass the time she spoke with isolated prisoners through the vents and the toilet, sometimes playing a makeshift version of hangman.” 

For inmates in segregation, the most traumatizing aspect is the dehumanizing treatment they face while in solitary confinement. Goldsmith is still reminded of the anguished cries from the other solitary cells: “You hear nothing but screams and it’s loud and there’s banging. You have people having mental episodes and people having medical emergencies. You have people with seizures and you have people attempting suicide.” That is only some of the horror that people suffer in solitary, or as New Jersey calls it, administrative segregation.

Seizing on the nomenclature of the term for solitary confinement, in 2016 former Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill to restrict the practice to 15 or 20 consecutive days over a two-month period. The bill would have also sought to exempt mentally ill or pregnant inmates and require daily medical evaluations for those in isolation. His excuse? The piece of legislation, “seeks to resolve a problem that does not exist in New Jersey.”

But the problem very much does exist in the Garden State. Of the roughly 80,000 inmates in the United States currently in isolation, New Jersey holds 1,500. New Jersey ranks fourth in the country in the amount of time it places people in isolation. As far back as 2011 the United Nations claimed such punishment amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Today, however, there is a turn of opinion in the Garden State, and another bill is back on the table. A-314/S-3261 would have similar exemptions as the bill Christie vetoed, and expand it to include people over 21 and young and 65 and older, and people with developmental disabilities and serious mental conditions. Survivors are telling their stories and forcing others who would not have interacted with the criminal justice system to examine the uses and abuses of solitary confinement. It is forcing the citizens of New Jersey to recognize that we are not treating other people with respect and dignity the moment that they are labeled “prisoner.” 

Nafeesah Goldsmith’s bravery and willingness to come forward with her story, along with those of others, is helping to make significant and positive changes in New Jersey as regards our treatment of incarcerated human beings. She is willing to tell her story at schools, at coalition events, and to anyone who will listen. It’s time we started to listen. 

(Photo Credit: Asbury Park Press / Doug Ford)

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)

In jails and schools across the United States, children suffer solitary confinement

The isolation cell in the juvenile pod at Onondaga County Justice Center

Across the United States, children in elementary schools are being placed in what are called seclusion rooms, a euphemism for solitary confinement. Across the United States, children in juvenile detention are also regularly placed in solitary confinement. Recently a parent in Phoenix, Arizona, expressed dismay at a “seclusion room” in her son’s elementary school. At the same time, in upstate New York, the Onondaga County Legislature voted unanimously to ban youth solitary confinement across the county criminal justice system. While the decision of the Onondaga County board is welcome news, it came as the result of years of organizing from civic and community organizations. Why are we so comfortable with dumping children into boxes, and who are we, who do we become, if we continue to let the practice continue and become every day more normal?

The Phoenix story is both straightforward and bent. Stephanie Vasquez picked a bilingual language immersion school with a good academic reputation for her son. One day, while taking her son to his classroom, she noticed a child, sitting in a windowless room, or closet, that was partially painted black, and had only a desk and chair. Stephanie Vasquez had worked for years as a middle school teacher and then worked as a volunteer teacher in a local women’s prison, and so she recognized the scene: “I was a little taken aback at first. Psychologically, I can only imagine what it does to a young child. It’s solitary confinement, just on a child level … The school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing to me. Having been a teacher for eight years, and then going to Perryville — the correlations between the two are eerie.”

Stephanie Vasquez asked the school about the space, and she was referred to their website, where she learned that those punished for “disruptive behavior” are sent to the room for a maximum of 15 minutes, to which Vasquez responds, “I don’t think it should happen at all … How long should they really even be in a confined black space? Probably never.”

It’s eerie … and altogether commonplace.

The Onondaga County Justice Center opened in 1995, and from its inception to today, the County has described the jail as a “state-of-the-art” facility. Community activists have differed with that description. They pointed to the agonizing death of Chuneice Patterson, in 2009.

Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York filed a suit against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office practice of placing 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement at the Justice Center.  They charged that between October 2015 and August 2016, the Onondaga County Justice Center dumped 80 teens, mostly youth of color, into solitary confinement. In January, the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice gave formal support to that lawsuit. In February 2017, a Federal judge ordered a halt to the practice. In June, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York arrived at a settlement with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, and in September, the Legislature voted unanimously to ban the practice.

Why does it take so much time and energy to stop torturing children? Stephanie Vasquez saw a child in a closet and knew it was solitary confinement. Others saw “the box” at Onondaga and knew it was a cage. Stephanie Vasquez knew children were being treated as prisoners; and others knew child prisoners were being treated as animals; and the sequence of alchemical transmutation continues straight to hell. In both Arizona and New York, the specific institutions claim to be state-of-the-art, and they are. They were designed by the best in the field. What does that say about our art? Where is the art in dumping children into closets, boxes, and cages? How long should a child be in a confined black space? Never.

Those in isolation are allowed one hour a day in this `recreation’ space.

 

(Photo Credits: Syracuse.com)

“There’s something really, really going on in that place for a 14-year-old to want to kill herself”

In the United States, children are routinely thrown into solitary confinement, often for the most trivial reasons and often for long periods of time. As of a study conducted last year, 28 states and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of punitive solitary confinement in juvenile correctional facilities. This list of 29 includes jurisdictions that allow up to four hours per day. Additionally, of these 29 states, 25 allow for solitary confinement for non-punitive reasons, such as so-called safety concerns. Of the 25, 12 allow for indefinite solitary confinement of juveniles … for their own good. These are the `good’ states. At the other end, seven states have no limits on solitary confinement of juveniles: Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Texas, and Wyoming. The remaining 15 states offer a smorgasbord of juvenile solitary confinement offerings, ranging from six hours to 90 days. Four states allow for children to be thrown into the hole for more than 5 days. North Carolina and West Virginia allow for up to 10 days isolation. Until last year, California allowed for 90 days of isolation. As of January 1, 2017, new laws went into effect concerning California’s use of solitary confinement for children. With that change, Wisconsin became the winner of the race to hell, with its allowance of up to 60 days in isolation for children. This week, four children, and their attorneys, families, friends and supporters, said NO MORE, and filed a lawsuit. This is the story of Meranda Davis’ daughter, known as KD, currently held at Copper Lake School for Girls, one of two juvenile detention facilities in Wisconsin. It’s not a school, and it’s not for girls. It’s hell, and it has been so for a long time.

The lawsuit opens: “The State of Wisconsin operates the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls, which incarcerate approximately 150-200 youth who are as young as 14 years old, in remote northern Wisconsin. The State routinely subjects these youth to unlawful solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spraying. Prior to state and federal raids on the facility at the end of 2015, staff also regularly physically abused youth in the facility. Currently, Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections officials lock up approximately 15 to 20% percent or more of the facilities’ young residents in solitary confinement cells for 22 or 23 hours per day. Many of these children are forced to spend their only free hour of time per day outside of a solitary confinement cell in handcuffs and chained to a table. Officers also repeatedly and excessively use Bear Mace and other pepper sprays against the youth, causing them excruciating pain and impairing their breathing.”

While the situation is cruel and usual torture, the real point is that two years ago, the federal government put Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools on notice, and not only did nothing happen, the situation actually worsened. As Laurence Dupuis, attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin, noted, “Usually when the ACLU shows up, people start changing their habits and things get a bit better. We saw none of that here.”

Meranda Davis takes the story from there: “If you choose to steal cars, you deserve to wind up in a juvenile jail. I know that. But nobody deserves to be treated the way they treat people in there … She call me crying after getting out of solitary. They send kids for two weeks just for talking back in class. One time, they were punishing a girl in solitary, so they just fired a whole can of pepper spray into the unit. Everyone was coughing and crying. My daughter was coughing up blood … She said that they kept on throwing her in confinement and she basically lost her mind. She had a seizure. She just lost her mind and didn’t know what to do because she didn’t have any support. She just was like thrown in a room and nothing.” According to Meranda Davis, her daughter tried to kill herself, “There’s something really, really going on in that place for a 14-year-old, she was 14 at the time, to want to kill herself.”

There’s something really really wrong with a State and in a nation that drives children to suicide. Copper Lake School for Girls and Lincoln Hills School for Boys should be shut down, but that is only the beginning. We can’t continue to throw children into cages, we can’t continue to throw away their lives and the lives of their families and communities, and we can’t continue to condone and support torture. End solitary confinement of children now. End solitary confinement now. Without delay and without exception. As Meranda Davis said of her daughter, “She has big hopes and she is the reason I am standing here right now. I want her changed. I don’t want to see her come out a wicked person times 10.”

 

(Photo Credit 1: Kyle Rogers/Northwoods River News) (Image Credit: New York Times/Amanda Lanzone)

Children are disappearing into the night and fog of solitary confinement in jails and schools

A seclusion room in Horn Elementary School in Iowa City

Across the United States, we continue to torture children by throwing them into segregated, solitary confinement, and this happens as often in schools as it does in jails in prisons. Children are disappearing. That children are disappearing is not new. That we continue to disappear children is also not new, but it is shameful, and it’s a shame that reaches every day deeper and deeper into our collective spirit and individual souls.

Last week, the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice gave formal support to a lawsuit filed last year against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office for its ongoing and regular practice of placing 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement at the county jail. Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York charged that, between October 2015 and August 2016, the Onondaga County Justice Center dumped 80 teens, mostly youth of color, into solitary confinement. The Department of Justice endorsement of the case noted, “The Civil Rights Division has previously exercised the United States’ authority under CRIPA and Section 14141 to address issues related to the use of solitary confinement on juveniles in jails, including in the Jefferson County Jail in Alabama, the Hinds County Jail in Mississippi, the New York City Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island, and the Baltimore City Detention Center in Maryland. The Division also has addressed the use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities, including in the Scioto and Marion Juvenile Correctional Facilities in Ohio and the Leflore County Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi.”

According to Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director, “The Department of Justice’s involvement shows that what is happening to children at the Justice Center is not simply a tragedy for Syracuse, but it is a national disgrace. Children must be protected from the tortures of solitary confinement.”

The disgrace is not limited to prisons and jails. Last month, a complaint was filed against the Iowa City school district, charging that the district’s use of seclusion rooms violates Federal law, primarily because parents don’t know that the seclusions rooms exist and are being used and because the use of seclusion rooms is broader and more `ordinary’ than the law allows. During the 2013-14 school year, most of the students dumped into solitary confinement were students with diagnosed disabilities and individualized education plans. Half of the students with education plans who were sent to seclusion rooms were Black. Other than students with education plans, ALL of the students dumped into seclusion rooms in the 2013 – 2014 were Black. Black students comprise about 19% of the school population.

The good news, such as it is, is that these dismal mathematics are being challenged, and that occasionally something like decency wins. Torturing children is wrong. Children do matter. So do the adults who surround them. At the same time, consider how much energy, labor, work, investment is required to protect children, our children, your children, their children, from torture, every single day. Every single day, across the United States, children are disappearing, forgotten children who haunt the days and ways of our world.

 

(Photo Credit: The Gazette)

Elizabeth Seitz, Mersiha Tuzlic, Riva Depasse, Jill Hendricks, Kiari Day say NO! to being tortured

“The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.” Charles Dickens

Allegheny County Jail, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, routinely throws pregnant women into solitary confinement, for days on end, for minor offenses and less. Five women – Elizabeth Seitz, Mersiha Tuzlic, Riva Depasse, Jill Hendricks, Kiari Day – have refused to accept the injustice and  indignity. Yesterday, December 19, their attorneys went to Federal Court to sue the Allegheny County Jail. This is Mersiha Tuzlic’s story, and it’s happening in jails across the country.

On May 27, 2016, Mersiha Tuzlic, was thrown into solitary. On June 18, she wrote a handwritten request to the warden, Orlando Harper, dated 6 -18 -16, which reads:

“Dear Warden,

I’ve been put under Inv. Status on 5-27-16 for allegedly smoking crack! I’m 3 months pregnant and hand no problem giving a urine specimen. It was clean. I don’t understand why I’m still locked up and the other inmate that refused the urine test is free??? I’ve been extremely compliant and haven’t complained – even though I’ve only received 1 hour of rec and 1 shower this Entire time. I feel really grimy and unsanitary. I’m pregnant, restless, neurotic and emotional. The captain who put me in inv status isn’t responding to my inquiries. I don’t know what else to do. I just want to sit in the gym for a while. I’m claustrophobic, and it’s getting to me. If there’s anything you can do at all — anything — please consider helping me! I’m high-risk pregnancy as is, and this is driving me nuts. Thank you for listening.

Ma and baby 🙂 “

The Warden responded to the plea for help: “IF THIS IS A PROBLEM, DON’T COME TO JAIL”

Welcome to the Commonwealth of Petty Dictators, where throwing pregnant women into solitary confinement for no reason at all isn’t enough of an assault on their dignity. When they ask for help, find ways to further diminsh them. Show these women how really powerful you are. The god of small things battles the devil of small men, and in Allegheny County, for too long, the devil has been winning.

In 1842, Charles Dickens visited Pennsylvania, saw the new system of solitary confinement, and called it out: “Very few … are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree.”

Tell the warden of Allegheny County Jail that torturing women is no joke. Write to the Allegheny County Jail here or call them at 412-350-2000. Stop the torture of women in jails.

(Photo Credit: ACLU of Pennsylvania)

Nebraska built a special hell for children: solitary confinement

Last week, the ACLU of Nebraska issued a report on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile centers in Nebraska: “On any given day in Nebraska, juvenile justice facilities routinely subject kids in their care to solitary confinement … For children, who are still developing and more vulnerable to irreparable harm, the risks of solitary are magnified – protracted isolation and solitary confinement can be permanently damaging, especially for those with mental illness. It is time to scrutinize the use of solitary confinement on children. Nebraska should strictly limit and uniformly regulate isolation practices.” This report builds on year after year of reports on the epidemic of juvenile solitary confinement across the country.

As the county sinks, so sinks Nebraska. Actually, Nebraska is leading the race to the bottom, since the state boasts the third highest per capita number of youth in juvenile facilities. Furthermore, 55% of the juvenile “residents” are youth of color, while only 20% of Nebraska’s youth are youth of color.

Children across the state are sent into solitary for days, weeks, and sometimes months. Often the “reason” for extended solitary confinement is a minor infraction. Often it’s the child’s “attitude.” Who puts a child into isolation for 90 days for having too many books? In Nebraska, quite a few would … and do.

Nebraska has nine juvenile detention centers. Two are run by the Department of Health and Human Services; two are run by the Department of Corrections; and five are county facilities. While all have problems, the real crisis is in the Department of Corrections centers and the county facilities. Two of the county facilities don’t even keep records of how long children are kept in solitary; another has no policy governing the use of solitary confinement. It’s not sufficiently important.

What is consistent is inconsistency. From one center to another, a child can be isolated from 90 days to no more than 5. In the two Department of Corrections facilities, where children have been adjudicated as adults, the rule is “The total number of days that an inmate may be placed on restriction, for each convicted offense, shall not exceed 90 calendar days.”

The report highlights the story of Lisa, who was 14 when she was thrown into solitary: “The room had mesh over the window so you couldn’t look outside. It was an empty room with a cement floor, just plain white walls. There was no mat, nothing in there with you, the room was totally stripped bare. When they closed the steel door, I’d hold onto the door jamb, trying to make it impossible for them to shut me in. Ironically (because I was in solitary for self harm), I survived my time alone by just falling back on hurting myself. I’d bite my own cheeks and tongue, banging my head on the wall. Being locked down alone just reinforced the unhealthy beliefs I already had so I heard `You’re a freak, you don’t belong in the world and you don’t belong around other people.’ What are the facilities trying to accomplish? If it is to manage somebody’s behavior so they don’t harm themselves or someone else, it doesn’t work–it just creates more isolation, anger and separation and hopelessness. We need to be cognizant of how many traumatic and difficult, violating experiences these youths have already had. Solitary just re-traumatizes them. Much of what was done to me was out of ignorance, not evil, but I want people to recognize that we can change things for the better.’”

There is no “ignorance”. The widespread torture of children in juvenile centers across Nebraska is public policy. No one is surprised that a state that leads the country in incarceration of children, and in particular of children of color, leads the country in torture of children once they’re `in the system.’ The answer? Close the prisons; take their money and put it in health care, education, recreation, culture, and everything that sustains life, creativity and wellbeing. Another world is necessary.

 

(Infograph Credit: ACLU of Nebraska)

I went from solitary confinement straight to my Mom’s

Brian Nelson spent 28 years in prison. The last twelve he spent in solitary confinement at the notorious Tamms supermax, in Illinois. He was never told the reason he was moved from a minimum security prison in another state to a supermax in Illinois. Then, one day, the door to his isolation cell opened, “I went from solitary confinement straight to my Mom’s.” There are tens of thousands of Brian Nelson’s released straight from years in solitary confinement to the street, and the overwhelming majority go straight to their mothers, grandmothers, and other women caregivers.

According to an NPRMarshall Project collaborative report, across the United States every year, prisons send thousands of people directly from solitary confinement to the streets. If, as if often the case, the solitary-to-street citizen has served her or his full sentence, “maxed out”, then there is no supervision and no assistance whatsoever. S/he must simply deal or die, and death is the State’s preferred option. NPR and the Marshall Project surveyed all 50 states and the Federal Government, and found 26 states don’t count how many prisoners they’ve released directly from solitary. Neither does the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Of the 24 that do, in 2014, at least 10,000 were released directly from solitary to the street.

Solitary confinement has become the default for prisoners of color, as well as for those living with mental illnesses. One study of the use of solitary confinement, isolation and “supermax” in Arizona noted: “All of these statistics are of course made more outrageous by the glaring fact that the white male prisoner population in supermax facilities is dramatically lower, only 25 percent, than in the general prison population, where it is 39 percent. For white female prisoners it is even more disparate, with the drop from 52 percent in the general prison population to 29 percent in Lumley SMA. Meanwhile, whites make up 73 percent of the Arizona state population. Put simply, persons of color are consistently placed in conditions of isolation at much higher rates than their white prisoner counterparts. Thus the negative impacts of supermax while incarcerated and upon re-entry are disproportionately levied against populations of color in Arizona.” As Arizona cages, so cages the nation.

While women make up a minority of those in supermax, those leaving solitary for home end up being taken care of by mothers, grandmothers, and wives. And that’s the point of the entire project, in which extended solitary confinement is the beating heart. The overwhelming majority of prisoners come from a small number of metropolitan neighborhoods of working people of color. The survivors of extended solitary confinement are the distillation of that political economic geography: Black, Brown, working poor.

But they can go home again. In fact, they have to, because there are no social services to help them: no medical care, no education, no counseling, nothing but charity. So they go home, where they don’t have to beg to get help. They go to their mothers, women like Sara Garcia and Brian Nelson’s mother, women who look at them and cry and ask, “Oh my God, what have they done to him?”. They go to their grandmothers. And their mothers and grandmothers take care of them. They engage in labor intensive, grueling work, for years and decades, and no one pays them a dime. This is urban redevelopment in the United States. Remove targeted people and populations from productive or creative pursuits, and then extract value out of their struggles to survive, to care for one another, to love, all the while writing treatises on the collapse of the urban community and how a new influx of capital and white folks will fix all that.

 

(Photo Credit: redpowermedia.wordpress.com)

 

Black women prisoners still haunt International Women’s Day

Around the world, women of color, Black women, Aboriginal women languish in solitary confinement. Many die there. Their numbers grow incrementally by the day. BobbyLee Worm, an Aboriginal woman prisoner in Canada, refused to become another abject statistic of prison morbidity and mortality.

In 2006, BobbyLee Worm, 19 years old, entered Edmonton Institution for Women. Shortly after, she was moved to Fraser Valley Institution. The Fraser Valley Institution described itself as “a multi-level facility for women … Programs focus on the particular needs of women offenders, including Aboriginal inmates and those with psychological problems or learning disabilities.”

One of these particular programs was called Management Protocol. Established in 2005, Management Protocol was “a special program for handling women prisoners who have been involved in a major violent incident or threat of incident while in the system.” By 2011 seven women prisoners had been on Management Protocol. All seven were Aboriginal women.

Management Protocol was indefinite and unregulated solitary confinement. Twenty- three hours a day for as long as the prison deemed `adequate’ and `necessary.’ How did one leave Management Protocol? One earned one’s way out. To this day, how one earned an exit visa remains a mystery.

BobbyLee Worm entered prison June 7, 2006. She was a first time offender, sentenced to six years, four months. She spent more than three and a half years in solitary confinement: 23 hours a day in a cell 10 by 8 feet, with no meaningful human contact. For months on end. She was 19 years old.

With the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, or BCCLA, BobbyLee Worm sued the State for violation of her constitutional rights. Two days after the lawsuit was filed, BobbyLee Worm was removed from Management Protocol. Soon after, the Correctional Service of Canada, or CSC, announced it would shut down the Management Protocol program. In May 2013, BobbyLee Worm and the Canadian prison state settled the suit out of court. According to all reports, BobbyLee Worm was pleased with settlement.

This is a story of State investments and of women’s resistance and refusal. Who was BobbyLee Worm? According to her former attorney, “She was a teenage runaway living on the street, she was addicted to drugs, she was a survivor of serious childhood abuse and trauma and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and from depression. She had never had the opportunity to have any sort of trauma or abuse counselling, which she desperately needed. And the response of corrections was to subject BobbyLee to one of the harshest and most psychologically damaging punitive measures that they have available to them. And I think BobbyLee’s story is, sadly, not atypical. This happens to hundreds of prisoners across the country every day.”

This happens to hundreds of prisoners across the country every day, and in particular to Aboriginal women and girls.

What was the Management Protocol? For the CSC, it was a major commitment: “When the protocol was designed in 2003, experts advised the CSC that it was illegal. CSC leadership implemented it anyway. In 2008, the Office of the Correctional Investigator recommended that the program be rescinded, and CSC’s own review agreed that the protocol was dysfunctional. But it was only when the BCCLA filed suit that the CSC cancelled it … The law that allowed the management protocol remains on the books.”

The CSC wanted Management Protocol … badly. It wanted cages for young Aboriginal women, especially those desperately in need. Aboriginal women, Black women, women of color who live with that kind of desperate need are told they owe a debt to society, and prison is not enough. They must go into the hole, they must be tortured.

After the settlement was announced, BobbyLee Worm explained, “There were times when I lost all hope. Solitary confinement does one thing. It breaks a person’s will to live. Being locked up like that you feel like you’re losing your mind. The only contact with another human is through a food slot. Days turn into nights and into days and you don’t know if you’ll ever get out.” Debra Worm, BobbyLee’s mother, commented, “As a mother, that’s the worst feeling in the world to know your child is being broken apart but not being able to do anything to save her.”

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada recently filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the laws governing solitary confinement. Sunday, March 8, 2015, is International Women’s Day. In 2011, Black women prisoners haunted International Women’s Day. In 2015, they still do. And next year?

 

(Image Credit: Erin Marie Konsmo, Media Arts Justice and Projects Coordinator, Native Youth Sexual Health Network)

DC Will Vote Wednesday on a Bill to Keep Teens Out of Adult Jails

In America’s capital, juveniles in the criminal justice system are treated badly. Federal prosecutors in Washington, DC have “unfettered discretion” to send youth to adult court and correctional facilities, and they often do.

Take Alisha, for example, who was tried and charged as an adult in DC Superior Court when she was only 16 years old. She was sent to DC’s Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF). There are no special units for female youth at CTF, so Alisha was sent to solitary confinement. For weeks at a time, she was on lockdown for 23 hours a day, was unable to attend school, and could not participate in any programming available at the jail. Her attorney fought to move her to a more appropriate place that could also address her mental health concerns, but she remained here for a year and a half. Understandably, Alisha was depressed as lonely. In solitary confinement, she attempted suicide.

Alisha is not alone. “Youth who are incarcerated in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their peers in juvenile facilities,” according to Carmen Daugherty, Policy Director at Campaign for Youth Justice. They are also much likelier to be physically and sexually assaulted. “The adult system is no place for kids,” Daugherty declared.

A May 2014 report by DC Lawyers for Youth and Campaign for Youth Justice stated that “incarcerating youth in the adult system is developmentally inappropriate, unsafe, and does not decrease recidivism.” In fact, the report found that trying youth in the adult system actually increases recidivism.

DC is a particularly bad place for juveniles, as the report shows. A criminal justice consulting firm assessed the Juvenile Unit at CTF in 2013. They found that: “1) the facility space is too limited to provide adequate programming or sufficient physical activity, 2) most youth are not able to have in-person visitation with their family members, 3) some staff working the unit are inadequately trained to address the needs of youth, and 4) the amount of structured programming offered to youth is inadequate.” Yet, children continue to be sentenced here.

Who are the youth most affected by DC’s current practices? Disproportionately, they come from the most under-resourced neighborhoods in the district: low-income communities of color. A staggering 97% of the youth incarcerated at CTF between 2007 and 2012 were African American and 3% were Latino. Almost all of them come from the eastern half of the district or identified as homeless.

Twenty-three states have taken steps to decrease reliance on the adult justice systems in youth cases. Yet, the nation’s capital continues to prosecute youth as adults. Public policy in Washington, DC needs to change.

This Wednesday, November 12, the DC Council’s Judiciary Committee is voting on The Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 2014 (Bill 20-825). YOARA would keep teenagers awaiting trial out of adult jails, keep more juvenile cases in family court, and end the practice of “once an adult, always an adult,” which allows teens’ prior offenses to be used against them. Contact DC Councilmembers and urge them to pass YOARA here!

 

(Photo Credit: African Globe)