Utah, Georgia and Arkansas stop shackling women (prisoners) in childbirth!

In 2014, Maryland and Massachusettsstopped shackling women prisoners in childbirth. Last year, at this time, North Carolina ended shackling women prisoners in childbirth. Sometimes, a state legislature decides; sometimes a prisons director. or a governor decides. Advocates for banning the shackling of pregnant women insist that legislation is preferable to executive orders. This year, Utah, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina legislatures considered banning shackling pregnant women prisoners and, in some instances, the use of solitary for pregnant and post-partum women prisoners. Utah, Georgia. and Arkansas passed legislation ending shackling. Tennessee failed to pass. Missouri, which already bans the use of shackles on women in childbirth, extended limitations on the practice to jails in Missouri … with “extraordinary circumstances” exceptions. 

In Utah, both houses of the legislature unanimously passed a bill banning the use of shackles in childbirth. Jake Anderegg, a Senate sponsor of the legislation, called the bill “one of the most no-brainer bills I’ve ever run.” In Georgia, both houses passed, although the Senate vote was 52 – 1. The one opponent was “a former law enforcement officer”. In both Utah and Georgia, legislators were moved to action by testimony of formerly incarcerated women who had suffered childbirth while in shackles, Michelle Aldana; in Utah; Pamela Winn, in Georgia.

In 2001, Michelle Aldana was in Utah State Prison for seven months. She was also pregnant. When Michelle Aldana gave birth, she was shackled to her hospital bed for somewhere between 30 and 40 hours. Throughout, her legs and one arm were chained to the bed. Throughout, her ankles bled. As Michelle Aldana remembers, “I felt like a farm animal … I just don’t think any woman, when they’re that vulnerable, should ever be treated that way. It’s just wrong.” Michelle Aldana’s child was born with meconium aspiration syndrome (MAS) and emerged from the womb unconscious: “They hurt my baby….and he didn’t do anything to anybody. I felt like it was my fault because I had a drug charge…but he didn’t do anything – ever – to anybody. He’s just a tiny little baby and they hurt him really bad…and I still feel really bad.” According to Michelle Aldana, because of her body type, she was told a vaginal birth would be dangerous. Utah refused a Caesarean section, and so she had to endure a vaginal birth, during which her pelvis was broken: “I felt like an animal in a cage. I felt like I wasn’t human … Nobody in this world deserves to be treated like an animal.”

In 2008, Pamela Winn. entered Robert A Deyton Detention Facility, a facility in Clayton County, Georgia, that was designed for men. At intake, she discovered she was six weeks pregnant. At that point, Pamela Winn was a healthy single mother of two children, a college graduate, a registered nurse, and a home owner. Whenever Pamela Winn was transported anywhere, she was shackled, wrists to belly chain. At one point, entering a van, she fell and, being shackled, couldn’t catch herself. According to Pamela Winn, “From that point is when I started bleeding.” She asked for medical attention. No one came for days. It took twelve weeks to actually get any medical attention. Then, one night, Pamela Winn started bleeding and cramping. Shackled to her bed, Pamela Winn suffered a miscarriage. Then, she was taken to the hospital, where she was informed that she had already miscarried. When she asked where her baby was, the guards told her they had thrown out the sheets, and with them the baby. Soon after, Pamela Winn was transferred to another facility, where she was immediately placed in solitary. Pamela Winn is now Executive Director of RestoreHer, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of incarcerated pregnant women and ending the mass incarceration directly impacted women of color: “I think that’s what’s really driven me to do this work and to fight for these laws to be passed. The fact that they tell you there’s nothing you can do. That just didn’t sit well with my soul to know that someone can treat a person like this.”

We keep reading this sentence: “Women are America’s fast-growing segment of prisoners.” So what? Last week a first of a kind study considering pregnancy outcomes in US prisons was published. That studynotes, “Being in prison or jail during pregnancy can be a difficult time for many women, fraught with uncertainty about the kind of health care they might receive, about whether they will be shackled in labor, and about what will happen to their infants when they are born. Some pregnant women in custody may experience isolation and degradation from staff and insufficient pre-natal care.” The study ends with a call to recognize “the need to address the numerous complexities of birth in custody, such as the medically unsafe practices of placing pregnant women in solitary confinement and shackling women in labor, ensuring proper pregnancy and postpartum care, and determining who will care for the infants born to mothers in custody.” Who doesn’t know that?

Michelle Aldana and Pamela Winn refused to be treated like animals, refused to give up or give in. They have gone on to become inspiring advocates for common moral decency. Who are we when we have to struggle to prohibit forcing women to give birth in shackles? It’s time to stop `discovering’ that women are the fastest growing prison population; that women in prison are pregnant and are giving birth; that prison is bad for pregnant women. Stop shackling pregnant women and stop sending pregnant women and post-partum women into solitary. Stop sending pregnant women to prison. Tear down the prison walls and build a better world. 

(Image Credit 1: Radical Doula) (Image Credit 2: Colorlines / Stokely Baksh)

Cyntoia Brown: “I learned my life was—and is—not over. I can create opportunities where I can actually help people.”

Cyntoia Brown at her graduation from Lipscomb University

Cyntoia Brown was young when she was forced into sex-trafficking and was a teen prostitute under her pimp. At sixteen she killed the man who made a conscious decision to buy her for the night for sex and, fearing punishment from the other man who had forced her into prostitution, stole his money and fled. Because some money is better than nothing. 

When she was sixteen, Brown was considered competent to be tried as an adult, convicted of murder and robbery, and sentenced to life in prison. While in prison, Tennessee amended its juvenile sentencing guidelines. Her case helped to alter how the state deals with sex trafficking victims, especially juvenile victims. In the eyes of Tennessee today, she would have been a victim of multiple crimes done upon her. Nevertheless, she was kept in prison. She would have had to spend 51 years in prison before she became eligible for parole. She would have spent her whole life in prison for the violent acts of men.

Thanks to activists and organizers, the outgoing Tennessee Governor Bill Halsam granted clemency to 30-year-old Brown, and she is set to be released to parole supervision in August. However noble Halsam’s clemency sentence is, the state has continued to ignore the terms of Brown’s exploitation, as a young sex trafficking victim boughtfor sex by the man that she killed: “Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16. Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life. Transformation should be accompanied by hope.”

In the 2011 documentary “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” Brown’s life as a survivor of abuse is detailed by Brown herself, where she was trafficked and raped repeatedly at a young age, from her pimp and other men. Evidence revealed in the documentary also suggests that Brown suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome which can cause her brain damage. None of the jury that convicted Brown ever saw any of that evidence. Her experiences as a young child had drastically changed her behavior as a teenager, putting her on the wrong side of the law. 

Brown has excelled in prison, transforming herself and helping other at-risk youth as a mentor, working on receiving a bachelor’s degree with the goal of creating a nonprofit so she can help other people. Cyntoia Brown would not have been in prison had our society cared about the exploitation of young Black girls, putting them in prison for the consequences of actions that were survival choices.

Cyntoia Brown may have been thrown into prison, the system may have wanted her to disappear into oblivion like other youths with similar stories, but Brown’s optimism and desire to help others like her is proof that the opposite has occurred. On top of her work with at-risk-youths in collaboration with Tennessee’s Juvenile Justice System, she graduated from Lipscomb University in 2015 with an associate’s degree, and now uses her experience for continued good, “I learned my life was—and is—not over. I can create opportunities where I can actually help people.”

(Photo Credit: Tennessean)

Lacey Weld, Mallory Loyola and the real witch trials of Tennessee


In the last week, Tennessee became the site of the latest witch trials. On Tuesday, July 15, 27-year-old Lacey Weld was sentenced to 151 months in prison and five years of “supervised release” for manufacturing and using methamphetamine in her ninth month of pregnancy. The sentence exceeds the `traditional’ sentencing limits, because Weld was pregnant. The supplement, the gift, to Weld’s sentence is called `enhancement.’

At more or less the same time, Mallory Loyola was arrested, also in Tennessee, for narcotic use while pregnant. Under a new state law, Loyola was charged with assault, for having tested positive for methamphetamine. The fact that methamphetamine is not included in the Tennessee law didn’t matter. Mallory Loyola is under arrest.

The laws and practices that imprison pregnant women for drug abuse or other substance abuse are anti-mother, anti-poor, anti-family, anti-doctor, anti-women-of-color, anti-poor-women, and more. These laws and practices have devastating consequences, and not only on the women and their children. Everyone knows this …

And yet the laws continue to proliferate and women continue to be threatened, intimidated, harassed, and persecuted. Why? There are many reasons, one of which is that prisons need bodies, the machine needs to be fed. The war against women sleeps with the war for prison. In Europe, in the Middle Ages, tens of thousands of women were caged and killed for their knowledge and science, and in particular for their knowledge of reproductive health methods, including methods of abortion. They were called witches, and they were tortured and killed. In the intervening millennia, much has changed, but not the basic elements of the witch trial. Find pregnant women and women who care for pregnant women, demonize and criminalize them by any means necessary, invoke the community and the nation and protection, and then torture the women until they die in a grand public spectacle.

Lacey Weld and Mallory Loyola, by their own testimony, need help, but that doesn’t matter. Prison beds are hungry, and there are many ways of throwing women behind bars.

 

(Image Credit: Smithsonianmag.com/ Bettmann/CORBIS)

Dehumanization beyond cruelty: women’s mass incarceration

When it comes to women, the shame of neoliberal policies knows no limit. In California women in prison have been sterilized as a way to save welfare money. Tennessee passed a bill making pregnant women who had drug addiction problems eligible for prison time, and thus less valuable than the fetus they carry.

Sterilization has been a weapon of conquest used against American Indian women. It has been a weapon of control over the Black body during and after slavery. Now it has become a weapon for controlling the future of indebted Latina and African and Native American women in California and in Tennessee.

In California, from 2006 to 2010, over 150 incarcerated women were sterilized without consent. Doctors say that they have not forced them and the women say that the pressure was constant and they could not escape it. Although the procedure had a cost about $147, 460, doctors said that the money was well spent and the cost was not significant compared to the money saved on welfare if these women had more children. The majority of women were Latinas and African Americans. The state has the legal authority to sterilize without consent based on a Supreme Court decision allowing “forcible sterilization” in jail (1927). In 1927, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

In recent decades, welfare evolved from being a support system against the adversities of life in an industrial society to a debt that poor people of color incur. For poor women of color, their bodies are both collateral and ransom.

Once, the racialized woman’s reproductive body was a source of profit and accumulation of wealth. As Thomas Jefferson argued: “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable that the best man on the farm…what she produces is in addition to the capital while his labors disappear in mere consumption.”

Today, that reproductive body has to be locked up.

For one year, Tennessee experimented with a more inclusive approach, The Safe Harbor Act. Its idea was simple: drug dependent mothers need support more than prison. The act was a step toward better care for pregnant women, arguing that they would seek help if medical confidentiality was respected. That approach was given a mere year, nowhere near enough time to reach its goal.

Last week, the Tennessee legislature overwhelmingly passed a new bill that empowers police to investigate drug-taking pregnant women. The bill was justified by the high level of Tennessee babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which is treatable and does not leave any long-term damage on the child. Sending the child’s mother to jail, however, will undoubtedly have a long-term effect on the mother and the child.

The bill had bipartisan support. From both sides of the aisle, legislators showed no understanding of the process of drug addiction, its biological reality as a chronic relapsing disorder that often emerges from today’s political and social disorder. Loss of jobs and cuts on public services has produced a parallel drug economy. Women of color are more likely to be affected by the reduction of public services. Furthermore, according to Tennessee’s commissioner of health, in 60% of the cases the mothers in question had a prescription for the drugs in their bodies.

With this bill the fetus carries more rights than the living mother to be. The value of the fetus is only there to negate the humanity of the woman, who, as a Virginia state senator stated recently, is less than a full being. But that’s only as a fetus. Once born, that child joins the army of the poor in Tennessee or in California. Poverty for children of color has intensified and expanded. According to a recent Annie E Casey Foundation report, minority children trail behind white children on every social account measured. If children’s safety motivates this bill, then since African American, Latinos and American Indians are way more likely to live in areas where industrial pollution is harmful for their health, why not punish the “polluters” instead of poor women? Clearly, when the child is born, protection of life takes a different meaning according to class, race and ethnicity.

In both states, the war on drugs has targeted women of color. The recent announcement of clemency for inmates that have spent at least ten years in jail for nonviolent drug offenses, is hardly an act of clemency, especially for women, in particular for women of color and poor women whose bodies are again going to be channeled to jail.

In Europe, the debt economy has used austerity measures in Greece to send people to jail for debt. In the United States, the debt economy has used racial discrimination inherited from slavery and genocidal policies to achieve the same level of success through impoverishment.

Martin Luther king once said, “Central to democracy is the fundamental belief that one belongs and one’s voice matters…” These women have no say. They are flesh and bones with reproductive capability devoid of rights. After strict State surveillance, they are to be culled from the herd, neither citizens nor humans.

These policies go beyond cruelty. They institutionalize and normalize mass dehumanization.

 

(Image Credit: Slate / Kostsov / Thinkstock)

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)