“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)

How many women are forced to give birth in solitary confinement?

We the people must be persuaded that no child should be born in a solitary confinement cell. We the people must be persuaded that no woman should have to give birth while in solitary confinement. Who are we? We are the United States of America. In this man’s land, pregnant women prisoners have less than no reproductive justice or rights. Instead of care, they receive neglect and abuse that crosses over into torture.

Last week, Nicole Guerrero filed a lawsuit against the Wichita County Jail, in Texas, and others for having forced her to give birth in solitary. The baby died. It’s a terrible story, and it’s an increasingly common one. While much of the focus has been, and will be, on the details of the case, consider as well the larger, national framework. Nicole Guerrero is not an exception. She is the face of the everyday violence against women, and in particular against pregnant women, in the prisons and jails of the United States.

Last year, in response to the Pelican Bay hunger strike in California, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez, found nearly 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, although the numbers are difficult to determine. He urged the United States to suspend prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement and to consider the rights and needs of the vulnerable: “I urge the US Government to adopt concrete measures to eliminate the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement under all circumstances, including an absolute ban of solitary confinement of any duration for juveniles, persons with psychosocial disabilities or other disabilities or health conditions, pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers as well as those serving a life sentence and prisoners on death row.”

Pregnant women, women with infants, breastfeeding mothers: these are the most recent targets of mass incarceration, those charged with “fetal endangerment.” As charges against pregnant women both rise and intensify, more and more pregnant women are going into the prison system, and the vast majority end up in local and county jails, or in State prisons, like the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama. Inevitably, more women will undergo childbirth in solitary, and more children will be born in solitary.

When Delegate Mary Washington, of Baltimore, first heard of a pregnant woman prisoner, en route to the hospital, being shackled, she said, “Wait. What? What do you mean … shackled?” The woman telling herthe story explained she meant exactly what she said. Pregnant women prisoners, women prisoners in childbirth, are routinely shackled. It’s part of the new normal.

Nicole Guerrero is a signature of the next phase of that new normal. She is neither anomaly nor exception, and despite her pain, anguish and suffering, she is not the stuff of high drama. The national history of infamy is not made up of tragedy, but rather an endless series of ordinary episodes that combine to form normalcy. Our normalcy. We are the people who demand to be persuaded that there’s something wrong with a system that forces women to go through childbirth while in solitary confinement. We are the people who demand to be persuaded that the destruction of women is a bad thing. Remember that.

 

(Photo Credit: guardianlv.com)

The United States built a special hell for women: prison

According to a recent infographic, from 1978 to 2012, the United States went from whitish pink to deep purple. These shades represent the number of prisoners under state or federal jurisdiction with a sentence of more than 1 year per 100,000 U.S. residents. At one end, whitish pink, the rate is 0 – 260 per 100,000. That was then. At the other end, the deep purple represents 770 – 900 per 100,000. That is now.

According to an ACLU report, Worse Than Second Class: Solitary Confinement of Women in the United States, released yesterday, “More than 200,000 women are locked in jails and prisons in the United States. These prisoners are routinely subjected to solitary confinement, spending at least 22 hours a day without human interaction for days, weeks, or months at a time. And yet, the solitary confinement of women is often overlooked.”

The report suggests that women suffer “unique harms and dangers”. These include the needs of pregnant women, of women living with past trauma, of women living with disabilities and illnesses, of mothers, of anyone living as a woman. The report highlights the experiences of Meghan, who was pregnant when placed in extended solitary; Melanie H., a rape survivor who at 15 years old was placed in extended solitary; a 73-year-old living with cancer placed in solitary for five weeks for complaining about the quality of medical care, and of Maria Benita Santamaria, a transgender woman prisoner.

The report recommends severe reduction of use of solitary confinement, and provision of alternative and decent services to women in need, which pretty much defines most women in prison. But it doesn’t address the contradiction of women’s imprisonment. Women are primarily in prison for status offenses, if they’re juveniles, and for the adult version of status offenses, minor and nonviolent and more often than not a function of poverty, mental illness or both. Women suffer more for committing nonviolent offenses than do men, and it’s all done in the name in of protecting women. Women are in prison for next to nothing and then end up disproportionately disappeared into, and deeply damaged by, solitary confinement.

Remember that when you read that the federal government is launching a clemency initiative. Closing down the prison house does not end the age of mass incarceration. Neither does releasing the prisoners, although both would be an improvement.

Mass incarceration did not target individuals; it targeted communities and, even more, neighborhoods. And now whole neighborhoods will receive women who have spent time, long time, deep in the hole. Who will pay for that? Who will pay for the suffering and the years lost? Who will pay for the consequences? Will the State expunge `criminal’ records, so that women might be able to apply for jobs with some modicum of hope, or for school loans, or for housing, or for public assistance?

Prison doesn’t work. Prison especially doesn’t work for women. But for 40 years, it’s worked `for America’. Who will pay to remove and replace the wounds and scars on the soul of the country? Who will pay that debt?

 

(Infographic Credit: Forbes)

Judge Leonie Brinkema and the overwhelming fact of isolation

 

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema confirmed a decision she had made last November. In Prieto v Clarke, Judge Brinkema ruled that, despite the horrific nature of Alfredo Prieto’s crimes, which had landed him on Virginia’s death row, he still had rights, including his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. At issue was Virginia’s practice of automatically and permanently putting all death row prisoners into 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement.

In her November ruling, Judge Brinkema wrote, “Plaintiff’s conditions of confinement on death row are undeniably extreme, He must remain alone in his cell for nearly 23 hours per day. The lights never go out in his cell, although they are scaled back during the overnight hours. Plaintiff is allowed just five hours of outdoor recreation per week, and that time is spent in another cell at best slightly larger than his living quarters. He otherwise has no ability to catch a glimpse of the sky because the window in his cell is a window in name only. Nor can he pass the time in the company of other inmates; plaintiff is deprived of most forms of human contact. His only real break from the monotony owes to a television and compact disc player in his cell and limited interactions with prison officials. Such dehumanizing conditions are eerily reminiscent of those at the maximum-security prison in Wilkinson. … The Court likewise finds it significant that plaintiff has already spent five years in this placement, and there is no end in sight. Plaintiff has not even begun federal post-conviction proceedings, which are likely to play out over the course of several years and further delay the carrying out of his sentence. For all practical purposes, his placement `is for an indefinite period of time’.”

Wilkinson was a 2005 Supreme Court case in which the Court decided, among other issues, that being sent to supermax had to be based on certain considerations. As Judge Brinkema put it in November, “Courts have considered whether the conditions in question are particularly extreme or restrictive, whether the duration of confinement is excessive or indefinite, whether an inmate’s parole status is negatively affected, and whether an inmate’s confinement in such conditions bears a rational relationship to legitimate penological interests.” According to Judge Brinkema, Virginia had failed on all three counts: particular extremity and restrictiveness of conditions; indefinite duration of confinement; lack of legitimate penological interests.

To no one’s surprise the Commonwealth of Virginia objected, and this Friday, Judge Brinkema responded. She rejected Virginia’s request that her decision be delayed. Judge Brinkema reiterated her view of what counts here: “the overwhelming fact of isolation — plaintiff is left alone in a small cell for nearly every hour of every day.”

The overwhelming fact of isolation is an injustice. Indefinite and prolonged isolation is an injustice. Justice, as part of being human, matters. That’s what U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema confirmed on Friday, and therein some hope lies.

 

(Image Credit: ACLU)