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)

Stop sending children to prison!

 

In 2003, children started disappearing in Luzerne County, in northeastern Pennsylvania. By 2009, over 5000 had vanished, or more precisely had been disappeared. They were sold into juvenile prison system in what some call a kids-for-cash scam. In 2011, Judges Mark Ciaverella and Michael Conahan pled guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud.

Over a period of five or six years, two private juvenile prisons, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, paid the judges to send over 5000 children to jail. Many were first time offenders. Some, like Edward Kenzakoski, committed suicide. Others, like Jamie Quinn, walked away. But all suffered harm. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court voided almost all the juvenile convictions from 2003 on.

Recently, the two private detention companies settled a kids-for-cash civil suit, agreeing to pay $2.5 million in compensation. It’s estimated that the companies had paid the two judges $2.6 million, and so there’s a kind of tragic elegance to the number, except that there is nothing elegant in this story.

In 2011, the kids-for-cash story seemed like a horror, a nightmare. Now we know it’s the tip of a global iceberg. Across the United States, and beyond, nation-States have decided that the best place for children is prison. Often, that prison is one for adults.

For example, the City of New York Board of Corrections just released a report, entitled “Three Adolescents with Mental Illness in Punitive Segregation at Rikers Island.” The report follows three boys, Jimmy, Matthew and Carlos: “This report describes the life and jail experience of three mentally ill adolescents who were each sentenced to more than 200 days in punitive segregation at Rikers Island. Mentally ill adolescents in punitive segregation merit special attention because they are the most vulnerable prisoners in custody. New York State is one of only two states in the country where all 16‐ and 17‐ year‐olds are under the jurisdiction of the adult criminal justice system regardless of the offense. In New York City jails, all 16‐, 17‐, and 18‐year‐olds are deemed “adolescents” and are housed separately from adults. Adolescents make up approximately 5% of the average daily population of prisoners at Rikers Island. A recent one‐day snapshot of the jail population showed that almost 27% of the 586 adolescents at Rikers Island were in punitive segregation, and roughly 71% of those in punitive segregation were diagnosed as mentally ill.”

What was their crime? They were children living with mental illnesses. What was their treatment? 200 days in `the box’.

In Texas this week, reports emerged of staff violence against inmates in the Phoenix Program, which was designed to reduce the violence in juvenile facilities. The reports suggest that the violence is both widespread and extreme. How does the State respond? A few staff members are fired, a few `disciplined’, and then back to business as usual.

The private juvenile prison industry and the public juvenile prison industry expand, arm in arm in arm in arm. The State absolves itself of oversight, and children are maimed and broken, in so many ways. Across the country, the rate of girls being incarcerated rises precipitously, and little or nothing is done to attend to the particularities of girls behind bars.

This situation is spreading, and not only across the United States. In certain neighborhoods and communities, particularly communities of color, in the United Kingdom, a night, or more, in detention is a default response to pretty much any whiff of `a problem.’ According to a recent report: “Fifteen per cent of the total number of overnight detentions in 2010 and 2011 were of girls. This is a surprisingly high percentage as girls generally represent less than 5 per cent of criminal sentences.”

Stop sending children to prison. Stop sending children to `overnight detention.’ Stop sending children into solitary confinement. Stop the torture of children.

 

(Image Credit: Prison Culture)

At HMP Bronzefield, we were dismayed

Welcome to HMP Bronzefield, a “Private Finance Initiative”, or PFI, prison for women in southeast England. If you are a `women with complex needs’, a women who is both `vulnerable and violent’, you can expect to spend your time, years and years of it, in isolation, in a squalid cell.

That is the finding of an unannounced visit by Nick Harwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons. In April he visited Bronzefield, and here’s part of his report: “HMP Bronzefield is a closed women’s local prison run by Sodexo Justice Services that at the time of this inspection held 446 women on remand or serving sentences ranging from a few weeks to life … At our last inspection in 2010 we reported:

“The prison held a small number of ‘restricted status’ women, some of whom had severe personality disorders. Their needs could simply not be met by the prison. One woman, who had exhibited unpredictable and violent behaviour, had effectively been held in the segregation unit for three years with very little human contact or activity to occupy her. The conditions in which she was held seemed likely to lead to further psychological deterioration and were completely unacceptable. There was little evidence that senior staff in the Prison Service had oversight of women segregated for long periods to ensure their conditions were humane. Bronzefield is not an appropriate place for women with these needs and there was a lack of a national strategy to manage women with such complex demands.

“We were dismayed that the woman who had already been in the segregation unit for three years in 2010 was still there in 2013. Her cell was unkempt and squalid and she seldom left it. Although more activities had been organised for her and better multi-disciplinary support was available, she still had too little to occupy her. Her prolonged location on the segregation unit amounted to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment – and we use these words advisedly. The treatment and conditions of other women held for long periods in segregation was little better. Much of this was outside the prison’s direct control and required a national strategy for meeting the needs of these very complex women – as exists in the male estate. However, Bronzefield itself needed to do more to ameliorate the worst effects of this national failure.”

When Bronzefield opened in 2004, it was the first PFI prison for women in the United Kingdom. In their nine years of operation, they have not managed, or refused, to take into account `women with complex needs.’

Juliet Lyon, of the Prison Reform Trust, wondered, “Why in this day and age are women with such complex needs transported like cattle and dumped in prison, where one of the most damaged women is left to rot in some form of solitary confinement for five years?”

Frances Cook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, was a bit more direct: “This shocking case of treatment, which appears to amount to torture, in an English prison should shame ministers who tolerate the over-use of custody for women and consequent poor treatment.”

It should should … but it didn’t. They loudly proclaim their opposition to violence in Syria but for `women with complex needs’ in their own backyards? Not so much.

Jan Sambrook, the Chair of the Independent Monitoring Board at Bronzefield, wrote, today, “We are … very concerned about the humane and fair treatment of a small number of such women. The discussion so far has been about one woman. This is not an isolated case … I, previous chairs, and members of the IMB have raised our concerns repeatedly about the women held long-term in the segregation unit. This is in direct contravention of National Offender Management Service (Noms) guidance, falls well below what is fair, decent and humane, and discriminates against female prisoners, as the special accommodation available to men is not provided for women … I’d like to emphasise that the concern is not just about the one woman being talked about today, but the wider issue of the holding of the small number of women who are potentially very violent, difficult and volatile but also vulnerable. Presently there are no dedicated facilities for the holding of these women such as those available in the male prison estate, meaning that they get held in what we consider unsuitable conditions, including being isolated for far too long. This is unfair and discriminatory.”

What do we know about women’s prisons? They have a higher ratio of people living with mental health illnesses and a higher ratio of people who have been sexually and otherwise abused. What else do we know about women’s prisons? If you’re a woman prisoner in the United Kingdom and you’ve got any problems, unlike in the male prison system, there’s nowhere to go but in a hole … for a long time.

Call it torture. Call it systematic as well. And please refrain from expressions of shock. This is not an isolated case; this is not about one woman or one prison; and none of this is new.

 

 

(Photo Credit: Martin Argles / The Guardian)

Prison is torture!

Amid all the discussions of prison, people on the outside only rarely hear the voices of  the prisoners themselves. In a series of interviews with prisoners, Le Monde and the France Culture program  “24 hours in prison” attempted to give a somewhat autonomous audio space to those voices.

The arrival in prison is always a traumatic event. Hugo (56 years old now) describes his first arrival in prison, when he was only 16. He returned years later and spent 29 years altogether in jail. At 16, he was terrorized and felt deeply the foreign gaze that scrutinized his naked body with a simultaneous purpose of watching and penetrating. During the strip search, he was indeed penetrated. He felt that his body was being thrown to the lions.

The search is a form of punishment, says Helene who spent 11 months in pretrial custody. Hafed explains that he always accepted getting undressed but always refused what he calls “les à côtés”, the things on the side that are all kinds of penetrating searches. He paid for his resistance with many stays in solitary confinement. Djemel adds that there is nothing more humiliating than the search.

Helene remembers solitary confinement as a place where the image of the self disappears: “You are alone truly alone; nobody else is there.”

Solitary confinement is another humiliation within the punitive system that erases personality as it destroys prisoners’ bodies. Helene recalls that she started to lose her hair immediately after her incarceration. Her hair would stay in her hands; she cut her hair short with little school scissors.

Hugo says that he has 5 upper teeth and 6 lower teeth left. He adds, “Most of the people who land in prison are already poor and arrive with dental problems and living in confinement just aggravates the problems.” He admits that he even pulled some with a fork.

The body is malnourished in prison, thanks to the mediocre quality of the meals served by Sodexo. In 2009, the Sarkozy administration contracted with Sodexo to serve 27 French prisons. Prisoners often have to buy at excessively high cost additional food to ameliorate their poor ordinary diet.

“In 2003 before I had my problems. I weighed 75 kg. Now I am 50 and weigh 54 kg. Prison makes you ugly! Because you are in a constant state of humiliation,” explains Hugo.

Sport is often a way for prisoners to remedy the effect of the penal environment. Hafed explains: “You lift weights… In that way, you wipe clean the windows and let the backroom turn to trash.”  The body becomes even more mutilated. “Sport is not a matter of harmony,” explains Djemel, “You are in constant brutal relationship with sports.”

In France, as elsewhere, there are a large number of suicide attempts in prison: “Your body is in prison. You cut yourself to attract attention,” says Hugo. Desperation from the humiliating process entails mutilation but cutting is also a way to assert one’s personality and existence when facing the impossibly heavy and brutal weight of the penal system.

These prisoners’ testimonies are there to remind everyone that prisons today are designed to break their bodies and minds. As one prisoner said, “Prison is torture!”

 

 

(Photo Credit: Le Monde)

The political economies of mental illness, solitary confinement, and women’s labor

Sonya Hall, Amir Hall’s aunt.

Across the United States, people living with mental illness are sent to prisons, rather than hospitals, clinics or other health programs. In the last three decades, prisons and jails have become the single largest institutional residence for those living with mental illnesses. While this is more or less public knowledge, the prison and jail systems have steadfastly refused to address the new tsunami. Funding for mental health providers has not increased. If anything, it’s been sliced and diced. Guards and other staff have not received additional training to address the `new populations.’

And so …

And so, what happens is exactly what you expect would happen. Prisoners `manifest symptoms’ and are placed in solitary confinement, often for prolonged periods of time. Acting out is seen as acting up, and that means the hole. And for prisoners living with mental illnesses, that can, and often does, mean death.

In this theater of atrocity, women take a number of specific hits. Here’s one.

Meet Sonya Hall, Shaleah Hall, and Donna Currao.

Donna Currao is the wife of Tommy Currao. Tommy Currao is one of the `lucky ones’. Currao attempted suicide at least ten times in ten months in solitary confinement. He tried to overdose, to hang himself, to slash himself, using the metal inside of his hearing aid. For the last attempt, with the hearing aid innards, Currao was charged $500 for `destruction of state property.’ In New York, where Currao is imprisoned, irony is not dead.

Donna Currao pushed and pulled and pushed some more. She saw what was happening to her husband in solitary. She knew how to read the words and, even more, the silences, and she forced the State to do something as her husband lost both weight and words.

A few months ago, Donna Currao’s insistent organizing finally forced the State to send her husband to a psychologist, who diagnosed the prisoner as in serious need of help. He was moved from the hole to health treatment and now, a mere months later, is “1,000 times better.”

Donna Currao now wonders, “Why do we have to fight so hard to get them evaluated?”

Sonya Hall and Shaleah Hall also ask why. Sonya Hall is Amir Hall’s aunt. Shaleah Hall is Amir Hall’s sister. Both are now part of the United States’ version of Mothers of the Disappeared.

Amir Hall’s story is tragically short. He lived with severe mental illness. He would have outbursts. One outburst resulted in prison, for parole violation. He had outbursts in prison. That led, finally, to ten months in solitary. He never returned. As Shaleah Hall noted, watching a video of his `transfer’, “There was somebody who looked defeated, like the life was beat out of him. I don’t know who that person was. The person in that video was not my brother.”

Why? Why, when doctors and pretty much everyone else had diagnosed and recognized Amir Hall as someone living with severe mental illness was the young Black man `diagnosed’ by prison staff as not serious? Why? Why must Shaleah Hall and Sonya Hall now work so hard, so intensely, so long to get something that will not be justice and will not be healing but will be something? Why? Why must Donna Carao fight so hard to get something so obvious?

The populations targeted for incarceration are also targeted for intensive and extensive labor, none of which counts as labor. That population, the laboring non-laboring ones, is made up overwhelmingly of women. Who benefits from women’s non-laboring labor in the prison industrial factory system that shoves those living with mental illnesses into death holes?

 

(Photo Credit: Shannon DeCelle / ProPublica)

A specter haunts California

 


At some point California dreamin’ and going back to California turned into Golden Gulag California. One day, the gulag too shall pass. After the gulag, what will emerge, and who shall write that history? Today marks the second day of the California prisoners’ hunger strike. Some 30,000 prisoners have laid down their tools, in this instance their bodies, in what is reported to be the largest hunger strike in state history. Prisoners across the state have put their lives on the line.

The core demands are straightforward and eminently reasonable: end group punishments; abolish the whole gang identification and `debriefing’ apparatus; end long term isolation; provide adequate and nutritious food; expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for those placed in indefinite solitary confinement in what California calls “secure housing units”. A secure housing unit is a warehouse of pain, suffering and slow death.

Indefinite solitary confinement is torture. Being buried alive is torture. But this hunger strike is about more than that. It’s about the future as well as the present. It’s about who will write the history, and what master narrative will rule that roost. It’s about being human

Solitary cells of America are filled with people living with disabilities. Prisoners, like Prisoner #6 in Pennsylvania SCI-Muncy, are depressed, live with mental disabilities, act out, try to commit suicide, and they are thrown into the hole and abandoned there. And then die horrible deaths.

But that’s not good enough for California. California has Secure Housing Units in which “security” means indefinite and long term isolation, and debriefing means coerced reporting on gangs, even if one is not in a gang.

Meanwhile, in the ordinary and everyday world of California prisons, until fairly recently, women prisoners were tricked or coerced into sterilization. 66% of the guards inside women prisons are male; most of the rapes inside women’s prisons are at the hands of male prison staff.

When the Valley State Prison for Women, VSPW, was closed, to turn it into a men’s “facility”, and the women were shipped to the already crowded Central California Women’s Facility, CCWF, what happened? Overcrowding, antagonism, tension, violence … and segregation and isolation. Take the case of Prisoner T: “T. has been incarcerated for 30 years, with a parole date in late 2014, and was among the women transferred from VSPW after 25 years of violation-free programming.” Twenty-five years without a violation. Because of CCWF circumstances beyond T’s control, T is segregated and will probably stay in segregation for the entire year, until she’s paroled. According to T., “It’s disheartening to be in Ad Seg as I am locked up in a cell 24 hours a day. I only receive six hours of exercise a week, which consists of a small fenced in cement yard that has no place to sit except on the cement floor. I just go out for the fresh air.” Fresh air. To get fresh air, T. is stripped naked and spends her hour in that cement yard completely naked and completely alone. When she returns, she is strip-searched. When she goes to shower, she is handcuffed behind the back. She is allowed to shower three times a week. T. is not in segregation for disciplinary reasons, and yet she is treated as if she were.

Meanwhile, in the “free world”, in California developmental centers, the in-house police do less than nothing to protect residents and patient, or to investigate incidents of abuse. According to a report today, “dozens of women were sexually assaulted inside state centers, but police investigators didn’t order `rape kits’ to collect evidence. Police waited so long to investigate one sexual assault that the staff janitor accused of rape fled the country. The police force’s inaction also allowed abusive caregivers to continue molesting patients – even after the department had evidence that could have stopped future assaults.”

The California prison hunger strike is about being-human. Across the state of California, people in prison are regularly abused, humiliated, tortured, and worse. Women are regularly attacked as women. Indefinite solitary confinement, “debriefing”, group punishments, toxic food regimens, denial of basic services and programs, forced sterilization, routine sexual violence, these are all public policies. They are not incidental nor accidental. The struggle taking place right now in California is for the soul of humanity, for that remote possibility that after the Golden Gulag, something human will emerge. A specter haunts California.

 

(Photo Credit: The Examiner)