What happened to Raynbow Gignilliat? The routine torture of solitary confinement

Raynbow Gignilliat

“They didn’t treat her for two months and she was left in a manic state. Basically, in all aspects, I would call it torture,” said attorney Jack Jacks, discussing the final months of Raynbow Gignilliat’s short life. Raynbow Gignilliat, 39-year-old mother of three, was arrested in October 2013. She was sent to the Sandoval County Jail, in Bernalillo, New Mexico, where she spent two months in solitary confinement. Then she was sent to an emergency room. Then, against doctors’ orders, she was returned to solitary. In January 2014, Raynbow Gignilliat was sent to the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute. In the Spring 2014, Raynbow Gignilliat was released from the hospital and all charges against her were dropped. By June 2014, Raynbow Gignilliat was dead. The reports say she “committed suicide”, but her family and supporters know that Raynbow Gignilliat was killed by State torture.

From the moment Raynbow Gignilliat encountered the so-called criminal justice system to today, almost three years after her death, from beginning to end, this is a story of State violence, viciousness and brutality. Raynbow Gignilliat had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For most of her life, she had managed her mental health without medication. Then, things fell apart, largely due to a messy divorce and custody battle. In late October 2013, Raynbow Gignilliat was arrested on a domestic battery charge, following a dispute with her mother, with whom she was living. Her mother called the police, hoping they would take her daughter to the hospital. Instead, they arrested her and sent her off.

After about two weeks in custody, Raynbow Gignilliat was moved into solitary confinement, also known as segregation. Remarkably, there are no records to explain this move. Once in solitary, Raynbow Gignilliat’s health deteriorated swiftly. Staff watched as she covered herself in feces, punched herself, dunked her head in her toilet water, hallucinated, screamed. Staff watched Raynbow Gignilliat’s increasing and intensifying dementia for six weeks. Finally, they sent her to an emergency room, where doctors said she should be sent to a psychiatric hospital or she would die. Instead, she was returned to solitary confinement, where she sat for another month, begging for help in the only way she could, through self-harm.

Finally, in January, Raynbow Gignilliat was moved to a hospital where she received treatment. While there, all charges against her were dropped. When Raynbow Gignilliat was released from the hospital, she was free … to kill herself. Her family says the damage had already been done. She was not the same woman.

Last week, Sandoval County agreed to a settlement of $1.8 million, to be distributed to trust funds for each of Raynbow Gignilliat’s children. The jail’s medical provider, Correct Care Solutions, has also settled, for an undisclosed amount. Sandoval County is quick to note that its insurance company covers this sort of thing, and so Sandoval County is only on the hook for $15,000.

Meanwhile, the case of Raynbow Gignilliat led to the discovery of the abuse and torture of Sharon Vanwagner, who was also booked in the Sandoval County Jail in October 2013, who lives with psychosis and delusions, who spent three months in solitary confinement, who deteriorated rapidly and dramatically, and whose charges were ultimately dropped.

What happened to Raynbow Gignilliat and Sharon Vangwaner, what is happening to so many women living with mental illness in county jails across the country? “Basically, in all aspects, I would call it torture.”

 

(Photo Credit: KOAT TV)

Rohith Vemula: The rot of caste privilege and the price of a Dalit scholar’s life

Rohith Vemula

Rohith Vemula was the leader of a Dalit student organization, Ambedkar Student Association at the University of Hyderabad. He was a bright student on a scholarship in a prestigious PhD program, interested in science studies. His coursework complete, he had just received approval for his research proposal. His dream was to become a science writer like Carl Sagan.

Because of a complaint by the rival, right-wing student association ABVP’s leader N. Susheel Kumar, that he had been assaulted by Rohith and his friends, Rohith had become the target of three different investigations by local neighborhood police and the university. Starting in September 2015, the Union Minister for Human Resources Office had written three letters to the university pressuring them to take action against Rohith and four other ASA members. One faculty member asked, why these investigations about a minor student-student altercation were so drawn out: why was it not settled swiftly? After all, the doctor who examined the claim to assault by the ABVP student said he had one small bruise on his body and did not show any signs of assault.

The altercation was politicized from the start. The ABVP is allied to the RSS, an extremist Hindu nationalist organization popular with upper-caste Hindu communities, whose political arm is the BJP (the political party currently in power in India). India’s largest student union, the ABVP has in recent years been known for disrupting campus dialogue on Kashmir (Pune), secularism, and, at Rohith’s campus, the ASA’s screening of a film on Hindu-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar in north India. The scuffle involved both ABVP and ASA students when the latter had demanded an apology for the disruption. Only five ASA students were singled out and suspended in August 2015 by the university.

Subject to three institutional investigations, suspended from the university for seven months while these were ongoing, Rohith’s situation kept worsening. His scholarship was withheld for these seven months, a terrible financial hardship for him and his poor family, which earlier subsided largely on his mother’s daily wage labor of sewing and tailoring. Following three letters from the Ministry of Human Resource Development urging action against these five students, on 16 December 2015, these student-activists were expelled from their dorm, and barred from entering administrative buildings and shared spaces on campus, such as the library. This institutionalized discriminatory treatment in the very educational institution that is supposed to enshrine equal and democratic rights, was part of his long experience of discrimination, “in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” As he wrote in his suicide note, “Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made of star dust.”

Denied dignity and human rights, Rohith and the four other expelled students launched a 14-day sleep-in strike to protest their treatment. On the fourth day of this strike, Rohith died, gently asserting, in what Manash Bhattacharjee notes is the clarity of a suicide note, “Do not shed tears for me. I am happy dead than alive.”

Following the suicide and related media protests across India, the suspension of the other four Dalit students was reversed. Only proving Rohith’s suggestion, that his birth as a Dalit drove the harassment he faced; though not just that, but also the fact that he spoke up as a Dalit subject, as an activist, and he exercised his constitutional rights of free speech, because he thought he lived in a democracy. But he spoke up in a political climate that has become increasingly inhospitable to dissident voices, be they Muslim, Dalit, secularist, or feminist. His treatment violated the equality promised in our constitution, and his young life was lost needlessly, as Ananya Vajpeyi writes, “to our eternal shame.”

Rohith’s mother has rejected the state’s offered payment of INR 8,00,000 (US$ 11,838) as compensation for Rohith’s death. Given the withholding of the stipends that would have paid for food and living expenses, and driving him to suicide, this seems like a cruel joke. She demands that the politicians and officials involved be held accountable and responsible for driving him to this.

Rohit Venkatramakrishnan has written that Rohith’s death indicts us all. When death or the risk of death seems happier than life to a young student in Hyderabad, or Syria, or a young Buddhist monk in Tibet, we are looking at a deeply traumatic, and multi-layered historical experience of persistent cruelty, violence, dispossession, and dehumanization. Rohith’s death is an indictment not only of the society, but also of the state and its Delhi ministries, that failed to protect the dignity and human rights of some of India’s most vulnerable citizens. In 2016, this points to a crisis in caste relations, minority experience, and inequality in India that needs to be addressed now, by all of us.

 

(Photo Credit: The Indian Express)

In the California Institution for Women, women are still dropping like flies

Stephanie Feliz

We received a letter this week from someone at the California Institution for Women (CIW), which reads, in part: “I am … at CIW and I was told tonight that there were two more women who attempted suicide at CIW this past week. Three weeks ago, a woman … broke into tears because she walked into her room and her roommate was hanging from her sheets, but she was able to intervene. That is 3 more attempts in the past 3 weeks alone, and I wonder how many more attempts have occurred. The number 4 is an official tally, but attempts happen much more frequently. It is November…things don’t seem to be slowing down.”

Four months ago, California Department of Corrections officials “discovered” a crisis. In the previous eighteen months, four women prisoners at the California Institution for Women, or CIW, in Chino killed themselves … or were killed by willful neglect: 73-year-old Gui Fei Zhang, 34-year-old Stephanie Feliz, 31-year-old Alicia Thompson, and 23-year-old Margarita Murguia.

April Harris, a sister prisoner in CIW, explained Margarita Murguia’s death, “She was there for her own protection, not because she did something. Apparently her mom was dying of cancer and they refused to let her see her mom. She tried to kill herself with every denied request. She finally did it.” She finally did it. A woman hanged herself that night? No, a woman was hanged.

After Stephanie Feliz’s death, April Harris, a CIW prisoner, wrote, “We have women dropping like flies, and not one person has been questioned as to why … I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever.” Why are so many women committing suicide in California’s women’s prisons, and in particular in the California Institution for Women? How the State count women prisoner suicide? What is California’s policy? When, if ever, does the State listen to women prisoners’ accounts of death in prison?

According to the California Department of Corrections most recent tally, from September 2014 to September 2015, at CIW, twenty women have attempted suicide and two have succeeded. Since the “great discovery” of the crisis in late July, four women have attempted suicide. Indeed, things don’t seem to be slowing down, and, apart from the usual suspects, nobody cares.

There are so many explanations for these suicides, and you know them all: mental illness, overcrowding, lack of resources, and poor staff training. The academy is as guilty as the prison house. How many times must we read a research article that begins “To date, there have been few studies of suicidal behaviour among female prisoners” before we finally understand? How often can one claim to be surprised by “Evidence shows that women prisoners are more likely to self-harm and commit suicide than male prisoners, while this is the opposite in the community” or “Alarmingly high rates of mental health problems are reported, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and a tendency to self-harm and suicide”?

Women are dropping like flies in the California Institution for Women because dropping like flies is more convenient than treating women as full human beings, more convenient than treating prisoners as full human beings, and a whole more convenient than treating women prisoners at all.

Women prisoners and supporters, such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, know how to count, and they have been doing so out loud. They have continually and loudly denounced the conditions and called for a thorough overhaul, beginning with releasing most of the prisoners. When women in the California Institution for Women participated in last July’s statewide hunger strike, they called attention to the State assault on their bodies, minds and souls. They identified a crisis, and the State looked away, and instructed all good citizens to do the same. It is November and the assembly line of women prisoner deaths is not slowing down. It’s time to smash the machinery once and for all.

 

(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera / California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / AP)

For women in England and Wales, `safety in custody’ means harm, death, hopelessness

On Thursday, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice issued its Safety in custody quarterly update to September 2014. The report is grim. In 2014, 84 people killed themselves `in custody’ in England and Wales That’s the highest figure in seven years and an increase of 12% over the year before. The rise in suicide is surpassed by the rise in self-harm, up more than 25%. Overall, it was a banner year for the prison state, with 243 deaths in custody: “The 243 deaths in prison custody was an increase of 28 on 2013 and is the highest number of deaths recorded in a calendar year. This increase has been the result of both natural cause and self-inflicted death.”

Wrong.

The increase has been the result of rapidly rising prison populations, decreased access to mental health and other services, overworked prison staffs, and the general toxic soup that goes under the genteel name of `austerity.’

For ten years, the prison population has increased. The rise in prison suicides has more or less kept pace with that rise, but the rise is self-harm far exceeds the rise in population. And that’s where gender kicks in. Of the 84 people who committed suicide, three were women, up a bit from the one in 2013, but still low. Self-harm, on the other, is another story. According to the Ministry’s report, “Females are more likely to self-harm than males.”

Women make up 5% of the prison population and 27% of the incidents of self-harm in prison, over the past year. Where men had 222 incidents of self-harm per 1000 male prisoners, women had 277 per 1000 female prisoners. Even more telling, of those men who engaged in self-harm, each did so 2.8 times. Of those women prisoners who engaged in self-harm, each individual did so 6.2 times within a twelve-month period.

This what passes for safety in custody. As Frances Cook, of the Howard League, noted, concerning the rate of suicide in prison, “The numbers hide the true extent of misery inside prisons and for families.”

While the gender maths didn’t make headlines, they should have. As Soroptimist UK Programme Action Committee along with the Prison Reform Trust have noted, too many women are being sent to prison [a] for too little cause,[b] for too long, when [c] they could easily receive alternative sentences in their home communities. Furthermore, women prisoners know what the deal is when they leave prison: fewer than one in 10 women released from a prison sentence of under 12 months managed to secure a ‘positive employment outcome’ within a year of release, three times worse than the equivalent figure for men. Once in, there’s no way out.

There has to be a way out, and it begins with closing a so-called justice system that reflexively sends increasing numbers of women into overcrowded and often distant prisons for little or no reasons. If women are committing self-harm six times in a year, the problem is not `criminal justice.’ The problem is the criminal denial of access to health care. There is no justice where, for women, “safety in custody” means hopelessness, self-harm, and suicide.

 

(Image Credit: The Mental Elf)

Suicide Watch in Women’s Prison: Who Cares?

 

On Thursday, September 18, Megan Fritz hung herself. On Monday, September 22, Mary Knight did the same. Both women were incarcerated at Pennsylvania’s York County Prison when they committed suicide. Yet, as clearly indicated in nearly all of the media coverage of the incidents, neither woman was on suicide watch. Why weren’t Megan and Mary on suicide watch when they ended their lives?

One reason could be that what prisons and jails call “suicide watch” is an operating procedure disguised as a ‘prevention program’ implemented to protect facilities from liability. As the National Institute of Corrections notes, inmate suicides are financially, legally, and socially “devastating” for facilities and staff, often prompting lawsuits and negative publicity. Suicide watch is meant to care for prisons, not prisoners. Women behind bars are not ignorant– they are well aware of the negative consequences associated with suicide watch.

First, suicide watch leads to stigmatization for inmates, especially women. When women exhibit suicidal behavior or intention, they are often understood as ‘attention-seeking’ or ‘manipulative.’[1] Thus, suicidal women especially risk being labeled, distrusted, and disregarded. One correctional worker admitted that, “too often we conclude that the inmate is simply attempting to manipulat[e] their environment and, therefore, such behavior should be ignored and not reinforced through intervention.” One instructor of the Suicide Prevention training for correctional employees in Washington, D.C. taught his students that most suicide attempts are simply ways to “seek attention or misbehave.”

Pervasive attitudes like these lead to the poor treatment of inmates and impede care for those who need it.

In Northern Ireland, for example, female inmates at the Mourne House Unit and Maghaberry Prison reported[2] that it was normal for prison staff to bully suicidal women and those who self harmed. Correctional officers were known to taunt and laugh at women on suicide watch, blowing smoke in their faces and calling them names. When one woman felt she was in crisis, she called to ask for help, but the guard replied: “stop ringing the bell and shut the fuck up.” Another woman tried to hang herself twice in one day, yet inmates overheard a senior officer telling a subordinate officer, “don’t be looking in at her. Don’t even look at her. Fuck her.” Suicidal women are shamed, ignored, and persecuted when they express their feelings and needs.

Furthermore, when inmates admit to suicidal ideation or exhibit suicidal behavior like self-harm, they are often subject to harsher punishments as part of standard suicide prevention precautions. Those on suicide watch usually lose basic amenities like showers, bedding, phone calls, and family visits. They can be denied jobs and early release. Often, they are stripped of their clothing and are either left naked or are forced to wear “degrading and humiliating” paper safety smocks. National correctional standards require that they be housed in “suicide-resistant” cells; oftentimes, this means they are sent to solitary confinement or lockdown where they are isolated and deprived of sensory stimulation. In one county jail, suicidal inmates are confined in what they call “squirrel cages”: a 3x3x7 foot box fashioned out of chain-link fencing. Commonly, they are trapped there for more than 24 hours. Other correctional facilities utilize closed-circuit televisions to film suicidal inmates around the clock. Currently, the US Department of Justice is funding the evaluation of a device that “keep[s] track of inmates’ movements and vital signs using Doppler radar.” Being on suicide watch means losing what little freedom and autonomy inmates have. All of these ‘precautions,’ coupled with inappropriate responses from correctional staff, deter those in need from accessing mental health services, instead working as technologies of surveillance and control to further punish them.

Why didn’t Megan and Mary admit to feeling suicidal in York County Prison? Would you?

[1] Jaworski, Katrina. 2010. “The Gender-ing of Suicide.” Australian Feminist Studies 25(63):47-61.

[2] Scranton, Phil and Moore, Linda. 2005. “Degradation, Harm, and Survival in a Women’s Prison.” Social Policy & Society 5(1):67–78.

(Photo Credit: York County, PA, Government)

How women in jails die: Another world is possible!

Michelle Mata lives in San Antonio, Texas, and she lives with mental illness. Until recently, that meant living with the near certainty that at some time she would need help, and, instead of help, the police, with no training in mental illness treatment or crisis intervention, would be called: “Mental illness is the only disease that when you’re in a crisis, the cops are called. You’re having a heart attack, you don’t call the police … I’m a mother. I’m a sister. I’m a friend. I’m a volunteer. I’m all these people. I contribute to my community, and I have a mental illness. My diagnosis is major depression, with psychotic features, dissociative identity disorder, and panic disorder … I want to be treated the way you want your mother to be treated if she was ever diagnosed with a mental illness. If I’m in a crisis, you know, I’m in a crisis, and I don’t, I don’t understand what’s going on around me.”

It’s a common story, an American story, happening every day across the country, and with dire results. Women in crisis “resist arrest”, are handcuffed, shackled, and sent to jail. And then what?

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report yesterday on mortality in local jails and state prisons from 2000 to 2012: “The number of deaths in local jails increased, from 889 in 2011 to 958 in 2012, which marked the first increase since 2009. The increase in deaths in local jails was primarily due to an increase in illness-related deaths (up 24%) … Suicide continued to be the leading cause of death in local jails”.

Among women prisoners, from 2000 to 2012, suicide was the most common “unnatural cause of death”. In 2000 and 2001, 91 women died in jail. In 2012, 122 women died in local jails. Starting in 2003, the number of women dying in local jails has never dipped below 111. That’s a minimum 22% mortality increase … and rising.

From 2000 to 2012,1457 women died in local jails. Of that number, 312 committed suicide and another 172 died of drug or alcohol intoxication.

On any average day in 2012, 100,000 women were in local jails. That’s up from 68,000 in 2000, and from 2000 to 2005, the numbers stayed well below 100,000. Today, 100,000 is the norm. The “good news” is that the suicide rate among women in jail has gone down from 30 out of 100,000 to 25 out of 100,000. But more women in jail are dying of suicide, and if you throw in drug and alcohol intoxication, it’s a crisis.

Most women in local jails are awaiting trial or are being processed. Twenty some years of zero-tolerance `urban redevelopment’ have combined with the gutting of mental health services to create today’s perfect storm of suicide and self-harm by women being held in local jails.

San Antonio decided to go another way. About a year ago, the San Antonio Police Department instituted a Crisis Intervention Training program for its police officers, and Michelle Mata is one of the trainers. Since the program went into full effect, officers have not used force even once on someone in crisis. People in crisis are going to treatment centers rather than jail. People living with mental illness and people living with people with mental illness report they are leading better lives. Another world is possible. Ask Michelle Mata.

In France, mandatory minimum sentences kill

A cell in Longueness prison

The Council of Europe‘s recently published Annual Penal Statistics officially reveal that European prisons are overcrowded. The report looks at 47 countries of the pan European organization, including the EU countries. The report coordinator, Marcelo Aebi, explained that every country, except Russia, sent data that seemed valid. The numbers may be valid, but the interpretations bear scrutiny. For example, in the calculation of the prisoner-to-space ratio, each country seemed to assess the need for space differently.

Space is never a neutral issue. In penal space, bodies are manipulated, processed and intentionally humiliated. They are confined with no horizon in sight, both figuratively and literally. With bodies piling up in the global prison, the prospect of “rehabilitative” policies and practices becomes ever more distant. Media promotion of insecurity linked with neoliberal austerity measures that trivialize public services have played a major role in passing tough-on-crime legislation, particularly mandatory minimum sentences. This happened in many European Countries, including France under the administration of Nicolas Sarkozy, 2007 to 2012.

The results are clearly visible in France’s prisons today. French prisons are still overcrowded, as are those in half of the European countries. Under the Sarkozy government, judges were encouraged, rewarded, for sending people to jail or prison. Mandatory minimum sentences for recidivist and the obsessive tough-on-crime attitudes pressured judges to sentence for more years. Between 2007 and 2012, 4000 years of incarceration were added every year. According to the president of the conference of prosecutors, while the current executive branch exerts less direct pressure, as long as the mandatory minimum sentences remain in place, little will change.

More importantly the rate of suicides in prison has increased tremendously, with 15.5 for 10,000 prisoners in France and a European high of 29 per 10,000 in Luxembourg. While the conditions before were difficult, today the length of pretrial detention contributes to the escalating suicide rate. This means that much of the overcrowding has nothing to do with “rates of crime”, since many of those being held are awaiting trial. France has a high rate of pretrial detentions compared to other European countries, although still much lower than the United States. The issue of pretrial detention is a key to understanding the rising suicide rate, since most suicide attempts occur at the beginning of detention. When it comes to suicide, the distinction between pretrial and convicted is moot.  All that matters is being behind bars.

The Observatoire International des Prisons (OIP) published the story of Martial, who chose to be sent to solitary confinement rather than `share’ a cell with another prisoner. He requested a single cell, which is impossible in Longueness Prison. Longueness was built for a maximum of 196 prisoners. It currently warehouses 380 prisoners. There are no `singles’.

This situation must change!

Christiane Taubira, the current French minister of justice, has pledged to make prison the last resort. As Marcelo Aebi has acknowledged, this is a good but too small step, especially since it doesn’t affect the rest of the European countries and their overpopulated prisons.  Instead, Aebi has called for a new approach that reduces the length of sentences and relies much more on alternatives. Aebi argues that the cost of keeping someone in jail (85Euros/day in pretrial detention in France) is high compared to supporting decent housing: “It would cost society less to invest in prevention, from early childhood and adolescence, which would keep us from having almost 2 million Europeans (1, 828 000) in prison.” The global lockdown costs lives, money, well-being, the future. We need to interrogate the relationship between economic crisis, austerity and rates of incarceration.

In all of this, let’s not forget the women, who are overlooked in these statistics, perhaps because 95% of the prisoners are men. None of the articles and reports used for this blog statistically addressed or qualitatively discussed the fate of women prisoners. Where are the women in the French, and the European, lockdown?

 

(Photo Credit: Michel Le Moine / Divergence)

Widows demand justice

Tomorrow, June 23, is International Widows Day. Around the world, widows are denied justice. They are dropped from social networks, they are forgotten, they are denied access to property, they are circled in by various `cultural’ and legal restrictions. Around the world. This is not about `the developing world’. It’s global.

Rio + 20 ends today. Many who care about the environment, in whatever way, are frustrated by the lack of meaningful action. Women and women’s advocates, in particular, object to the absolute failure of the conference to understand as fundamental the link between family planning and environmental justice. Family planning covers the entire arc of family history, from before cradle to the grave … or at least it should. Did you hear any major discussion in Rio about widows’ rights? Me neither. What about at the G20 meeting in Mexico City this past week? No? Neither did I. How will widows figure into the family planning summit conference in London, in July? Wait and see.

Widows around the world are of all ages, and they share more than grief. They share reduced access to means of survival and well being. Some are workplace widows, such as Shelly Anderson, Rhonda Burkeen, Sheila Clark, Nancy Curtis, Michelle Jones, Courtney Kemp, Tracy Kleppinger, Sherri Revette, Natalie Roshto, whose respective partners were killed in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, Have they received proper compensation? No. Do the widows of mining disasters receive proper compensation for their loss? Seldom.

Nanda Bhandare’s husband was a cotton farmer. Debts rose, Indian small farmers faced multinational agro-corporations and a hostile global market, bankruptcy and starvation loomed larger and larger. One day, Bhandare’s husband protested with his life. He drank enough pesticide to kill himself. He died, but his debts live on. Years later, his widow has taken the children out of school to work the fields to pay those debts. Each day, they move closer to death by starvation. Where is Nanda Bhandare in the global conference circuitry? Nowhere.

Around the world, widows are initially acknowledged and supported, especially after a catastrophe such as the recent airline crash in Nigeria. What happens next? Too often they are abandoned. Individuals, communities, agencies move on, feeling they have done their due diligence. They haven’t. We haven’t..

Around the world widows are organizing. In the Cross River State, in Nigeria, widows and their supporters are talking about what is needed: enhanced livelihood options through access to real education and equitable finance; increased cooperation among widows and widows-focused organisations through the formation of widows cooperatives and networks; increased public awareness on widowhood issues through information, education and communication; and, finally, enabling a policy environment for widows through an advocacy campaign.

In Nigeria, as almost everywhere, the condition of widows is lamentable, but it is not inevitable.

In Sierra Leone, for example, more than 20% of households are headed by women. Over a third of the women who are heads of households are widows. Women, like Gladys Brima, the founder of Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace, are advocating, organizing, pushing. Women like Sia Bona are staking their lives on organizing. When Bona’s husband died, her in laws swooped in and pushed her and her mother off the farm, a farm that had been Bona’s father’s farm. The law says one thing, customary and traditional law says another. Women, and especially rural women, don’t live in `the State’. They live where they live, locally. Federal or national laws without built in requirements for local transformation are, at best, empty symbols. More often than not, they are tools of oppression, exclusion, and betrayal. Bona, Brima and other women in Sierra Leone are organizing at all levels to change that situation … now.

A version of that exclusion takes place almost everywhere. Widows must have more than a seat at the conference table. They must be prioritized, not just recognized. Thus far, they are not. Instead, widows haunt the discussion of global and of local justice. And they are organizing.

 

(Photo Credit: PTI)

Ashley Smith: a death somewhere between tragedy and travesty

Ashley Smith

Ashley Smith was 19 years when she was allowed, or encouraged, to die, alone in a fully monitored prison cell. On October 19, 2007, Smith was a prisoner of the Grand Valley Institution for Women, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. Seven guards watched her die, and did nothing. Or rather, seven guards followed orders, and did nothing. Then, when they were sure she was dead, they rushed in.

Some called her death inhumane. Others said, or hoped, that Ms. Smith’s death would haunt Canada. In fact, her death is the common death of the prisoner, and so it was human all too human.

In May 2011, almost four years after Ashley Smith’s death, which was not a suicide but a call for help, the State coroner’s court finally, finally began its inquest.

This week, two months later, the Ontario Health Professions Appeal and Review Board finally rendered something like an opinion.

First, the Board cleared two doctors of wrongdoing in the “care” they provided.

Second, it asked the key, critical and painfully obvious question: “From our perspective, it is difficult to understand how the resources of Correctional Services Canada and the numerous health professionals who were involved with (Smith), particularly in the last year of her life, could not have, somehow, appropriately treated her admittedly severe behavioural problems.”

In other words, “How was an obviously troubled 19-year-old inmate left so long without proper treatment?

Third, it rendered a genre decision: The Smith case “lies somewhere in the spectrum between a travesty and a tragedy.” What’s that you said about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, and thereafter as farce?

Wherein lies the travesty? In the redundancy. “Ashley Smith” is produced every day in prisons across Canada, across the United States, across the United Kingdom. Every day, prisoners, and women prisoners in particular, are “somehow” denied access to life saving health services. How many times must Ashley Smith “commit suicide” while actually asking for help?

Meanwhile, the coroner’s inquest was postponed yet again, and won’t begin again until September. Some describe the inquest as delay-plagued. They’ve never been to prison. This inquest isn’t delay-plagued. It’s just doing time as it always does.

 

(Photo Credit: topnews.in)

Who will write a requiem for Josefa Rauluni?

Once upon a time a man named Josefa Rauluni left the island nation of Fiji for Australia, where he applied for asylum, or “protection”. He was turned down. He was taken to Villawood Detention Centre, a private facility run by Serco. He continually appealed the decision. He continually appealed to the State for asylum, for protection. He maintained he feared for his life if he returned to Fiji. The State responded with a deportation notice. The State told Josefa Rauluni that he would be deported on September 20, 2010.

The night of September 19, Josefa Raulini sent two faxes to the Ministerial Intervention Unit at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. They read, ”If you want to send me to Fiji, then send my dead body”. The State did nothing.

And so, on the morning of September 20, 2010, Josefa Raulini informed the guards, “I’m not going, if anyone goes near me, I will jump“. The guards did nothing. They did not try to reason with him. They did not try to calm him down. Finally, they tried to use force. As they moved in, Josefa Raulini jumped from a first floor balcony railing. He dove, head first, hit the ground, and died.

And the State did nothing to stop him.

It turns out the State could only do nothing because the Villawood staff has no suicide prevention training. Imagine a prison for asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected and who are awaiting imminent deportation.

Now imagine no one with suicide prevention training. The State `forgot’.

Today is the second day of an inquest into Josefa Rauluni’s death. It is the first of three such inquests into Villawood `suicides’. Josefa Rauluni did not commit suicide. He was pushed. Not by a physical hand but rather by a State whose efficiencies include the absence of mental health care providers in a place designed to drive its residents suicidal and mad.

“”If you want to send me to Fiji, then send my dead body”.

Who will write a requiem for Josefa Raulini and for all the imprisoned asylum seekers  who have perished in State custody? Who will write a requiem for the terrible years?

Fifty years ago, in 1961, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova concluded writing “Requiem”, an account of “the terrible years of the Yezhov terror”, 1935 – 1940, during which she spent seventeen months, every day, waiting in a line outside the Leningrad prison, waiting for someone who would never return.

The poem begins:

“No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger’s wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time, that place.”

Who will stand for the time and place, who will give witness to the life and death, of Josefa Raulini? Will we have to wait thirty years, and more, for the foreign sky that offers haven rather than death? Until then, Josefa Raulini haunts the contemporary prison-State.

 

(Photo Credit: http://www.matavuvale.com)