I’m a human. I know the fear

The governor of Texas recently declared a state of legislative emergency. The emergency is sanctuary. Cities in Texas are declaring themselves `sanctuary cities’ or are acting as such, and that somehow threatens Texas.

The Texas House of Representatives leapt to action and dutifully passed a bill, HB 12, that would effectively outlaw sanctuary zones. The moment the bill passed, House Representative Ana Hernandez Luna requested to speak to the body, as a matter of personal privilege.

Representative Luna explained that she, her sister, and her parents had come to Texas from Mexico. The family overstayed their visa and lived in the shadows until the 1986 amnesty was signed, by Ronald Reagan. In the intervening twenty-five years, Ana Hernandez Luna attended and successfully completed grade school, college, law school, and was elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 27.

Representative Luna began her remarks by articulating the new version of W.E.B. DuBois’ color-line: “I’m not an alien. I’m not a problem that must be handled. I’m a human.”

She then described the new, and not so new, world order: the politics of fear: “I remember the constant fear my family lived with each day.”

And then Ana Hernandez Luna found it difficult, impossible, to simply speak the words. Tears began to flow, as she struggled to speak: “The fear my parents experienced each day as their two little girls went to school – not knowing the there would an immigration raid that day – and they wouldn’t be able to pick up their daughters from school – and not knowing who would take care of them if that were to occur . . . . The daily task of going to the grocery store to buy groceries might seem a simple task to you, but to us it was a death sentence, that one of my parents may be deported. . . . I know the fear.”

The Texas Senate managed to gut the bill, but the fear persists. Twenty-five years after receiving amnesty, after twenty-five years of steady work and accomplishment, Ana Hernandez Luna still lives, immediately and viscerally, with the knowledge of the fear and with the fear itself.

The politics, and the politicians, of fear dream of a world without sanctuary. Some say that when it comes to prison reform, to addressing mass incarceration, money trumps civil rights. When it comes to children, whose access to `civil rights’ is already tenuous, fear trumps sanctuary. It’s a war zone.

Seven years ago, Else Temesgen and her daughter Betty, who was seven at the time, fled to the United Kingdom. Else was fleeing, first, an abusive husband and, second, a situation of certain separation. Else is Eritrean-born, and her daughter is Ethiopian-born, and so, if the two had returned to Ethiopia, the mother would have been deported. They arrived in England and immediately applied for asylum.

The two were detained in a variety of centers before, finally, receiving asylum. Else describes Yarl’s Wood as “very horrible.” Asylum only came because of the intervention of a prominent local politician. Otherwise, they would still be in the shadowlands of immigrant detention … or worse. They know the fear.

The politics of fear sows only tears. Twenty-five years after coming out of the shadows, Ana Hernandez Luna lives with the knowledge of fear, a shared knowledge, a knowledge whose borders are expanding, and weeps. Twenty-five years from now, how will Betty tell the story of her sojourn in Yarl’s Wood?

What exactly is the nation-State that would be threatened by sanctuary? Sanctuary is not an emergency. If anything, sanctuary is holy. Sanctuary is a time and space in which the human can be recognized and sustained. “I’m a human.”

Sanctuary haunts the State of fear.

 

(Video Credit: YouTube / Texas Impact)

Prisoners die in agony, begging and screaming for care

Amy Lynn Cowling went for a drive on Christmas Eve, 2010. 33 years old, a grandmother of a one-day old child, bipolar, methadone dependent, and with only one kidney, Amy Lynn Cowling went for a drive in East Texas, where she was picked up for speeding, then arrested for some outstanding warrants on minor theft charges and traffic violations. Five days later, in the Gregg County Jail, after a day of wailing and seizures, of excruciating pain and suffering, of agony, Amy Lynn Cowling died. Amy Lynn Cowling died after five days of her family begging and pleading with the prison staff to make sure they gave her the life sustaining medicines she needed. The pills were just down the hall, in Amy Lynn Cowling’s purse, in the jail storage room. Nobody went, nobody came. Amy Lynn Cowling died.

Gregg County Jail is `troubled’. Since 2005, nine prisoners have died there, one of suicide, eight from `health conditions.’ Prisoners are dying, and prisoners are coming out hurt and injured. Across the country and across the world. Some suggest that Amy Lynn Cowling’s death `exposes health care problems in local jails.’ History suggests otherwise.

Ashley Ellis was twenty-one years old when she went for a drive one night, in 2007, in Rutland, Vermont. She hit a motorcycle and partially paralyzed its driver. Two years later, she was convicted of misdemeanor negligence. Ellis was sent to the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, Vermont.

In the two years between the accident and the sentencing, Ellis had gone from120 pounds to 86. She was depressed. She was under treatment for anorexia. This treatment required her to take regular potassium pills. She told the staff at the prison. Ellis’s doctor faxed the prison all the necessary information concerning her illness and treatment. At that time, the prison health services were outsourced to a private corporation, Prison Health Services, or PHS.

Ashley Ellis told the Prison Health Service staff that she needed the potassium pills, to live. They said they were out, they give her food, they did not provide the pills. After two days in prison, Ashley Ellis died. That was August 2009. In January 2010 Vermont suspended its contract with Prison Health Service, because the contract had `expired’. Prison Health Service advised its employees not to speak to anyone. The investigation went nowhere.

The medical examiner found that Ashley Ellis had died in part because of denial of access to medication. As we noted last year, a similar case occurred in New York, at about the same time. Chuneice Patterson, a prisoner in the Onondaga County Justice Center, in Syracuse, New York, screamed, writhed for nine hours in pain before dying of an ectopic pregnancy. She pressed the emergency button. Nobody came.

The New York State Commission of Correction concluded: “Chuneice Patterson was a twenty-one year old black woman who died on 11/12/09 at 8:30 a.m. from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy while in the custody of the Onondaga County Sherriff at the Onondaga County Justice Center….Had Ms. Patterson received adequate and competent medical care, her death would have been prevented.”

It’s too soon to say the exact cause of death for Amy Lynn Cowling. It’s too late to claim that another women dying in prison exposes anything. As attorney, prison expert and University of Texas faculty member Michele Deitch notes, “Until it affects a family like this, no one knows how bad things are.” As long as incarceration means isolation, as long as prison is a form of exile within the borders of one’s own state, as long as prisoners are invisible to `citizens’, they will continue to die in agony, begging and screaming for care.

 

(Photo Illustration: Todd Wiseman / Callie Richmond / The Texas Tribune)

 

Because they are still human

James Kessler is a justice architect. That means he works in criminal justice architecture. He is a senior principal at Hellmuth, Obata + Kassebaum, Inc, better known as HOK, one of the largest architectural firms in the world. Here’s how they describe justice architecture: “As an integral part of society and a component of contemporary life in our cities and states, Justice Architecture is a powerful symbol that serves to define the image of justice in every community.”

In a profile this week, Kessler talked about women prisoners in the United States: “Incarcerated women, for example, are more likely to change, or want to change, Kessler said, noting “an incredibly high percentage – more than 50 percent – have been abused as children.” Statistically they also have more health issues than men, and 75 percent are mothers with the added burden of being away from their children, exacerbated by having been abandoned by their own parents in similar situations….In the past, and sometimes at present, Kessler said parity issues arise vis-à-vis men’s prisons, with fewer opportunities and programs available to women who comprise a much smaller percentage of the prison population.…One of the goals during incarceration, Kessler explained, is to ameliorate the anger that defines inmates. According to Kessler, because research has determined women have a much greater need for privacy than men, requiring them to live in open dormitories would very possibly build on that anger rather than helping to relieve it.”

Women prisoners’ anger, women’s anger, creates a different space and inhabits a different architecture than the anger of men.

The profile concludes with Kessler’s reflection: “As architects, we have social responsibilities and certain sensitivities, perceptions and skills to deal with unusual situations for the people that work in them, the people that visit them and for the people that are in them, because they are still human.”

Because they are still human. What determines the humanity of a prisoner? The architecture? The design elements? Such as shackles around the ankles and waists of women in labor and delivery?

In Rhode Island, pregnant prisoners are handcuffed and shackled. Earlier this month, the Rhode Island chapters of the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union find this “troubling” and “unnecessary”. Rhode Island Department of Corrections officials see shackling as striking “a balance between the need for security and the interests of a pregnant inmate.” How is being shackled in the interests of a pregnant woman? She is still human, isn’t she?

In California, the ACLU is challenging the same “balanced” shackling of pregnant women: “In California, we currently shackle pregnant women. In jails and prisons, women are forced to walk with shackles around their swollen ankles, chains around their middles, and handcuffs behind their backs. They walk through downtown city blocks chained to one to another, trying their best not to lose balance”. The ACLU thinks this is cruel and unusual punishment, not a balance struck in the interests of pregnant women. But then, perhaps the interests of pregnant women and those of pregnant prisoners are not the same. Does “security” define reconstitute pregnant women prisoners as other than human? Is that the “balance”? What is the name of the different space created by shackled pregnant women walking, stumbling, falling?

In a couple weeks, the Governor of California will have the opportunity to strike a new balance, limiting the use of restraints on pregnant women who are prisoners.

In Texas this month, the ACLU and the Texas Jail Project have charged the Dallas County jail and others in the state with shackling prisoners during labor and delivery.

This week, the U.S. government submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council. This is the first time the US has ever reported on its own human rights situation. Prison is included in the report. It appears in Chapter III, “A Commitment to Freedom, Equality, Dignity.” Prison is in the third section, Dignity. There are safeguards for dignity in law enforcement and criminal justice, dignity and incarceration, dignity and criminal sanctions, dignity and juvenile offenders. Dignity abounds. There is no mention of dignity and women. There is no mention of the shackling of pregnant women prisoners.

It is August in America. Pregnant women prisoners across the country are being shackled. Even though they do not appear in the report on human rights, they are still human, they are still women … aren’t they?

 

(Image Credit: RadicalDoula.com)

The rule of lawless

The United States immigrant detention system has been called a gulag. The California state prison system has been called a golden gulag. Millions of women, children, men inhabit severely overcrowded, ferociously under-resourced, rigorously unmonitored and opaque `centers’. This gulag has been likened to sites of bare life where national sovereignty is articulated by the power and capacity to kill and to reduce life to physical survival, and less. These descriptions are accurate, but they miss something. It turns out that the U.S. immigration detention system is just the most recent articulation of the rule of lawless.

The rule of lawless haunts the rule of law. In fact, when the rule of law looks in the mirror, it’s the lawless it sees, and then quickly names as dangerous other. This became clear this past week, when the Obama administration announced its intention to overhaul the immigrant detention system.

National Public Radio reported, “The Obama administration is planning to overhaul the nation’s immigrant detention system.” According to The New York Times, “The Obama administration intends to announce an ambitious plan on Thursday to overhaul the much-criticized way the nation detains immigration violators, trying to transform it from a patchwork of jail and prison cells to what its new chief called a `truly civil detention system.’” The Austin American-Statesman called it a larger and then, the next day, a broader “overhaul of the nation’s immigration detention system”.

Everyone cried overhaul. Overhaul, to change significantly, abruptly, swiftly, with force or violence.

The first site of this supposed overhaul is the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, in Taylor, Texas, a notorious private prison, run by the Corrections Corporation of America, and just down the road from Austin.

Hutto came to public attention over the past few years for its abysmal treatment of children and women. The ACLU, the Women’s Refugee Commission and others weighed in and waged mighty campaigns. Now, children will no longer be sent to Hutto. In fact, `families’ will no longer be sent to Hutto. They’re going to the Berks Family Shelter Care Facility, in Leesport, Pennsylvania.

But Hutto will stay open, as an all-women’s immigration detention center. Michelle Chen, of RaceWire, wrote a terrific piece, “New Direction for Detention?”, that explains in great detail what Hutto means for women, what immigrant detention has meant for women. It’s been terrible, and there’s no reason to think it will improve.

At the same time, and here’s where the rule of lawless kicks in, many think the only way to overhaul the system would be to actually overhaul the system. NPR reporter Michelle Brand interviewed NPR reporter Daniel Zwerdling on the overhaul. Zwerdling reminded Brand that immigrant detainees are “civil detainees”. They are charged with having broken civil, or administrative, laws, “like overstaying a visa”, but are housed with “regular criminals”, and so are treated accordingly: beaten, overcrowded. Many die for lack of medical care. Treated like prisoners in the U.S. system. Ask California, under order to release 43,000 prisoners. The difference is that the immigrants are, again, civil. As Zwerdling explained, “government officials have told me that 90 percent of the immigrants they detain never have a lawyer. So they can’t really even challenge their own detention.”

Why don’t they have lawyers? Because constitutionally, they don’t exist.

“Zwerdling: ` lawyers say the best way to make sure the jails treat immigrants humanely is to pass a law that requires it. Period.’

Brand: ` So, wait, there’s no law that says treat detainees humanely?’

Zwerdling: ` No, absolutely not. The detention standards are legally just guidelines, you know, so nobody can actually force the government and the jails to obey them.

And now some members of Congress have introduced bills that would turn those standards into law. And I asked the Homeland Security spokesman today, will you support that? And he said, no. And I said, why? And he did not give me an answer.’”

That, in a nutshell, is the rule of law. If no law says your category must be treated humanely, you have no legal, juridical protection. Period. And you will not get an answer from members of State about that. More accurately, radical silence shall be your answer.

According to Michelle Brané, Director of the Detention and Asylum program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, when it comes to immigrants, “Our current laws are unforgiving and unrealistic.” Yes, but our current system of non-laws is lethal.

This legal system is one of negation. Everywhere, this negation, this system of absence-of-law, this reliance on written law as the only means of preventing abuse and atrocity, as the only means of `protection’, this is the rule of lawless. The rule of lawless haunts the rule of law, and it targets women. Don’t send women to Hutto. Shut it down.

(Image Credit: WomensRefugeeCommission.org)