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)

Education cannot be stolen, handcuffed, or imprisoned

Tanya McDowell addresses reporters

Forty some years ago Paulo Freire argued against what he called the banking model of teaching and learning. That was then. Today, the bank  is gone, and a prison stands in its place.

Ask Tanya McDowell or Mireya Gaytan.

Tanya McDowell is a Black woman, a single mother, living with her 6-year-old son. She lives, officially, in Bridgeport. `Officially’ because in fact McDowell is homeless. Or she was last April when she was arrested, in Norwalk, for stealing education. Stealing education is a first-degree larceny offense.

McDowell registered her son in Norwalk, using the address of her babysitter. When this was `discovered’, McDowell was charged with theft. Two weeks ago, she pled out, and was sentenced to five years in jail and five years probation. That’s almost a year for each year of her son’s life.

The public story is `complicated’ by McDowell’s arrests and convictions for selling drugs. Thus, the trial in Norwalk, despite her attorney’s protest, was for both the sale of narcotics and the first-degree larceny, because, somehow, these have to be taken together. That way, it can be demonstrated that Tanya McDowell is not a woman trying to get a decent education for her child. No. She’s a bad mother. She must be. She sells drugs. And she’s not only a bad mother and a drug dealer. She’s Black, homeless, unemployed, underemployed.

The story hearkens to that of Kelley Williams-Bolar, the Black woman in Ohio who was found guilty of stealing education. The story is complicated by the ongoing narratives of the national and regional campaigns to criminalize Black women, and women of color, more generally.

And to criminalize their daughters as well.

Yajira Quezada is eleven years old. She lives, and goes to school, in Colorado. Earlier this week, she got into some trouble with the administration in her schooling, mouthing off or not showing proper respect or deference. So … they called in a counselor. That didn’t work. So … they called in “the school resource officer.” He handcuffed the eleven-year-old girl, took her into his squad car, and delivered her to the juvenile holding facility. As explained by the local sheriff, this is standard operating procedure for `transport’ of juveniles.

This public story is `complicated’ as well.  Children across the United States are subjected to such treatment regularly. School `resource officers’ routinely handcuff children; routinely take them off to juvenile `facilities.’ Children across the country are routinely dumped into `seclusion rooms’. Solitary confinement.  In Georgia, in Wisconsin, children have met their deaths in school-based solitary confinement.

Yajira’s mother, Mireya Gaytan, is outraged. She doesn’t want her daughter to be allowed to misbehave or show disrespect … to anyone. But she also doesn’t want her daughter to be treated as a criminal. In short, she wants her daughter to receive an education.

Tanya McDowell, Mireya Gaytan, two women in America who want their children to receive an education. Not a prison sentence. Not a death sentence. Not a criminal record. Not a trace memory on the wrists. Not a sense of overwhelming vulnerability. Not an indictment based on the color of skin, not a conviction based on where you live … or don’t.

An education.

Education is not merchandise. Those who seek education are not `clients’ or `customers’. They are human beings who know that education is always shared, always social. They are women and girls, and especially women and girls of color, who know that education cannot be stolen, handcuffed, or imprisoned.  Education is a human right, a civil right, a women’s right. Period.


(Photo Credit: Kathleen O’Rourke / Stamford Advocate)

When the State cares enough to kill and maim the very best

Members of Mr. Ward’s family

In Ireland, today, the court heard about a 15-year-old boy who was “institutionalized” in the Ballydowd Special Care Unit. Special Care. A Special Care Unit is a place in which the State can imprison children who are “troubled.” For their own welfare and safety. Ireland has three such units: Ballydowd, Coovagh House, and Gleann Alainn.

The court today heard that the boy has been diagnosed as living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He has trouble with `regular’ classrooms. He spent much of his time at Ballydowd “detained for long periods of time by himself.” How the State care for `troubled’ children? Isolation. And now, according to the boy’s parents, attorneys and psychologists, he is “unfit for mainstream education”.

Two years ago, on August 31, 2009, the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, issued a report stating unequivocally that Ballydowd must be closed. That report was a follow-up to a November 2008 report in which Ballydowd was deemed “no longer fit for purposes.” From practices to material conditions, the place was a disaster, and a danger to children.

The government pledged to close Ballydowd, and move the children to a nearby facility. In 2010, Ballydowd had twelve beds. In the most recent HIQA inspection, on October 27, 2010, Ballydowd housed seven children, four boys, three girls, all between 13 and 16 years old. And now, the Republic of Ireland claims it cannot find decent and adequate places for seven children who may or may not require “special care”.

In Australia, the State’s special care often proves fatal, especially for Black residents.

Consider the story of Mr. Ward, an Aboriginal elder. In January 2008, Mr. Ward, 46 years old, was taken on a 220 mile ride across the blistering Central Desert to face a drunk driving charge. Mr. Ward was a respected Aboriginal. He  had represented the Ngaanyatjarra lands across Australia as well as at international fora. The two people who drove Mr. Ward worked for a subsidiary of G4S. They did not see an Aboriginal elder nor a statesman. They saw “a man in his 40’s, 50’s, Aboriginal with a dark skin. He was dirty.”

They threw Mr. Ward into the back of a Mazda van, into the security “pod” with metal seating and no air conditioning. All male remand prisoners are considered dangerous, or “high risk”. The fact that Mr. Ward was known to be cooperative and congenial was irrelevant. For his own safety and welfare, he had to go in the back. The trip took almost four hours. The temperatures that day were 40 degrees Celsius, 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Mr. Ward died of heatstroke. He died with third degrees, presumably from where he touched the metal floor of the van. Mr. Ward cooked to death, slowly and in excruciating pain.

There was no possibility for Mr. Ward to survive that trip. There was no working panic button. There was no means of communication between the security section and the drivers in the cabin. He had one small bottle of water. He was destined to the death he suffered. It is Australia’s form of special care. It must be, because Australia pays a hefty price, literally, for the G4S services.

Again, every aspect of this story had been publicly described in earlier studies. In a 2001 government study, identical Mazda `pods’ were described as  “not fit for humans to be transported in.” They were seen as “a death waiting to happen.”

In the intervening decade, there have been other major reports, two in 2005, in 2006. To no avail. In 2008, Mr. Ward was dumped into the oven of the back of that Mazda. In 2009, G4S was awarded the contract for prisoner transport.

When asked about the implications of Mr. Ward’s story, Keith Hamburger, the principal author of the 2005 report, responded, “That’s a matter of great concern because this is not rocket science, we’re dealing here with duty of care.”

Duty of care.

Duty of care is a legal concept that ensures that people should not cause one another unreasonable harm or loss. But what is “unreasonable”?  Ballydowd is still open and consuming  children. G4S continues to ferry prisoners across the desert. Why? Because they have been deemed not “unreasonable”. Where is justice in that measure of reasonable and unreasonable suffering?


(Photo Credit: PerthNow.com.au)

Where do the children live? Prison

I’ve been here for two weeks, and this is my third time in. I’m in the sixth grade. I was in placement but I ran away. They accused me of assault against my mom, but she scratched herself and said I did it. My dad lives in Atlanta and works in a barbershop. -E.Y., age 11 Juvenile Detention Center, Houston, Texas.

For the past forty years, the planet has been engaged in a global prison lockdown and a worldwide prison – building binge, which have resulted in the confinement of more women than ever before. This build up of lockdowns began in the United States in 1973, and has since blossomed, or mushroomed, into a global frenzy of incarceration of working class women of color and indigenous women.

The hyper-incarceration of women affects children, especially in those communities in which single women predominate as heads of households. The assault on children is more direct, however. At the same time that women, especially working class women of color and indigenous women, are being caged, their children are also being locked up as never before.

What is a child? A child is one’s offspring, a child is a minor. A child is a child, and tell me, where do the children live?

Given the prison boom, there are more offspring behind bars than ever before. Typically, the task and labor of maintaining social and sustaining contact is left to mothers, secondarily to female partners.  This is the lesson of Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, in California. When children are sent to prison, mothers are launched into a global reclamation and reconstruction project that, for many, never ends.

For example, Diana Montes-Walker’s son is an adult man in his 20s, living with bipolar disorder, complicated, predictably, by alcohol and drug dependencies. Equally predictably, her son `encountered’ the state criminal justice system, in this instance the California system. Ever since her son has been in prison, he has suffered one form or another of solitary confinement. Either he was in solitary in prison, or he was in solitary in so-called medical facilities that are actually prisons for inmates with `special needs’. In the latter, he is in solitary, but, according to his mother, with a little more freedom. He made it into the `better’ solitary confinement because his mother pushed, shoved, organized, shouted, wrote, met incessantly with everyone. And now, Diana Montes-Walker drives back and forth to scheduled meetings with doctors and social workers who don’t appear. And her son stays in solitary, and she has no idea how he’s doing.

Why is this happening to Diana Montes-Walker’s son, and so many others like him, young men and women living with mental disabilities and illnesses of one form or another? Why is he in prison? He is in prison because public mental health budgets have been shredded and then vaporized. Prisons are the new public mental health institutions. Meanwhile, Diana Montes-Walker, inhabits a State-sponsored hell, built because it’s more efficient to have her run around and take care of her son, more efficient and less costly.

Where do our children live? In prison.

In Turkey, close to 500 children live in prison with their mothers, who have been convicted. Why are they in prison? “Financial difficulties”.  For the children, three to six, there might be a kindergarten. For those under three years old, they spend the entire time in the cell with their mothers. These children are not in prison because of their mothers’ “financial difficulties”. They are in prison because of the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the State and because of the social structures that support that State.

Because of `financial difficulties’, Mississippi’s one juvenile detention center is run by a private corporation, the GEO Group. According to parents of the children being held there, the place is a horror, another State-sponsored hell. Fights break out, and the staff ignores calls for help and protection. Worse, the staff is accused of brutalizing children. Parents gaze upon their wounded and maimed children and feel a pain they describe as torturous. The lawyers describe the prison as barbaric and unconstitutional. The children describe the place as a war zone.

War zone is too nice a phrase for a place in which civilians are butchered for profit.  Child prisoners, children’s bodies and lives, bloat the coffers of private industry. They are an extractive resource whose market value continues to grow. Where do the children live? They live, and often die, in prison.

(Photo Credit: Richard Ross, Juvenile In Justice)

We want our revolution NOW

In many parts of the world, prisons have become the principal sites for people living with mental illnesses. In the United States, jails and prisons increasingly house the mentally ill. It is estimated that, in the United States, for every person living with severe mental illness in hospital, there are three currently in prison or jail. In Arizona and Nevada, the number is ten mentally ill people in prison and jail for every one in hospital. For women, the numbers are worse yet. For women living with mental illness in the United States, prison is the new pink. The final coup de grace is when the inmates living with mental illness are described as putting a strain on the prison system. It’s their fault … of course. The same story occurs elsewhere. In Canada, for example, mentally ill prisoners are said to flood the system. Apparently, this is what democracy looks like.

But what happens when people living with mental illness end up in prison? What exactly is their treatment `protocol’? Too often, it’s long term solitary confinement. Colorado may be the solitary confinement capital of the world. In Colorado, it’s customary to lock up mentally ill patients … for their own good. Of those in solitary confinement, it’s estimated that four out of every ten is living with developmental disability or with mental illness. Despite that arithmetic, reformers have yet again failed to persuade the Colorado legislature that perhaps, just maybe, another prison is possible. The madness continues.

Mary Braswell knows something about this form of State, and corporate, madness. Braswell is grandmother to Frank D. Horton. She is also his `conservator’, or legal guardian. Frank Horton is an African American adult living with mental illness, who has had a number of run-ins with the law. At one point, he missed his parole appointment, and so was taken to prison, specifically to the Metro Nashville Detention Facility, run by Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. That’s when things went from bad to worse to near fatal.

According to Horton’s attorneys, his intake papers suggested a history of psychological and mental illness, with a likelihood of schizophrenia. The system `recognized’ the symptoms. And so what happened? Horton was put in general population, where, within a month, he started fighting, or attacked, his cell mate, and was placed in solitary. His cell mate said Horton was hearing voices.

Once in solitary, not surprisingly, Horton’s condition deteriorated … rapidly. He began refusing to leave solitary. Soon, he was allowed to stay in solitary, permanently. This meant nine months without a bath or shower, nine months with no one cleaning his cell. Nine months.

Nine months of guards walking past, knocking the door, asking if he was still alive, and then moving on. Nine months.

Finally, in January 2008, a guard, Patrick Perry, realized what was happening, stepped in and informed the Metro Public Health Department: “Patrick Perry, an officer at the detention facility from August 2006 to January 2008, began to notice that something was wrong late in 2007. In January 2008, Perry attempted to communicate with Horton, but Horton was speaking “gibberish.” Perry testified that Horton’s cell was filthy, that there were several food trays on the floor and bacteria growing in the toilet, that Horton’s beard and hair were “matted” and “out of control,” and that it appeared Horton had not washed himself or had his cell cleaned for months.”

For nine months, Frank Horton was left to live, or die, in filth that grew worse and worse, until, for some, he became indistinguishable from his surroundings.

Frank Horton was removed to a special facility in April 2008. Patrick Perry was fired immediately, on that day in January. Horton’s grandmother, Mary Braswell, has struggled for three years to get some kind of accountability, some element of responsibility, for the abuse into which her grandson was dumped. Two weeks ago, at last, she was given permission to proceed. CCA, no doubt, will appeal that decision.

On one hand, Frank Horton’s story is a common one, and sadly so is that of Mary Braswell, the story of prisoners living with mental illnesses and of the women, grandmothers, mothers, who try to care for them. At the same time, the story of prison driving people into deeper mental illness is also all too common. Young women and men, largely of color and largely low- to no-income, enter into prison, and when they come out, their minds are never the same.

And they call it democracy, this universe of systematic deprivation and devastation of minds and bodies. Rather call it Charenton, the Bedlam where the patients sing: “We’ve got Human Rights, we’ve got the right to starve; we’ve got jobs waiting for work; we’ve got Brotherhood, we’re all covered with lice; we’ve got Equality, we’re equal to die like dogs ….

“Marat, we’re poor, and the poor stay poor.
We want our rights and we don’t care how.
We want our revolution NOW”.

(Image Credit: Goldberg & Osborne)