When they begin to torture the trees: State violence against people living with disabilities

Two stories, one in England the other in the United States, speak to the torture to which people living with disabilities are subjected, all in the name of justice. In England, a Black, 17-year-old, non-verbal British boy, a child who had never left England, was identified by the police as Nigerian and sent to immigrant detention, to prepare for deportation. In the United States, Kelly Masten, 38-years-old, has the mental capacity of a six-year-old. Kelly Masten is also non-verbal. Her grandmother called the police to ask for help. The police came, took Masten away, not to the hospital but to jail, where she stayed for ten days. When she finally was sent to hospital, she was in a coma and covered in bruises.

The English story is that a Black, 17-year-old, non-verbal British boy was in hospital in Kent. He ran away, apparently made it to Manchester, where the family used to live, then turned around to return to London. Without money, papers, shoes, phone. He was picked up on the train, for fare violation. The police took him and, according to their report, `interviewed’ the non-verbal Black child who `informed’ them he was Nigerian. And so of course they flipped him over to immigration. Of course. The non-verbal child, who had never spoken in his life, spoke to the police and told them he is Nigerian, the non-verbal child who had never left England.

The United States story is that Kelly Masten, 38-years-old, with the mental capacity of a six-year-old, and non-verbal, bit her grandmother, who is her legal guardian. Her grandmother called 911. The police arrived, assured the grandmother that, after a medical examination, her granddaughter would be taken to John Peter Smith Hospital, in Fort Worth, Texas. She wasn’t. Instead, Kelly Masten was dumped in the `notorious’ Tarrant County Jail. The grandmother told the police that Kelly Masten suffers from a condition that causes violent seizures and that she had to take her medications regularly. The police said they would make sure. They didn’t. When Kelly Masten refused her medication, the staff said, “Fine.” Ten days later, when she finally went to the hospital, covered in bruises, she was in a coma. Kelly Masten is, today, in a coma.

The boy’s mother and sister are furious. The woman’s grandmother and sister are furious. The State claims,  on one hand, nothing wrong really occurred, and, on the other hand, it was an unfortunate but solitary failure. There was no failure. There is a practice of torture. Black, nonverbal child shows up, clearly in distress … send him to Nigeria. Nonverbal adult woman shows up in distress … send her into a coma.

Alice Walker saw this, in her poem aptly entitled, “Torture”

Torture

When they torture your mother
plant a tree
When they torture your father
plant a tree
When they torture your brother
and your sister
plant a tree
When they assassinate
your leaders
and lovers
plant a tree
When they torture you
too bad
to talk
plant a tree.
When they begin to torture
the trees
and cut down the forest
they have made
start another.”

Who will finally start another forest?

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Jenny Hozer / MoMA)

Manitoba could be moving towards ending solitary confinement … finally

On May 21, 2021, two people incarcerated in Manitoba sued the province over their practice of solitary confinement. On plaintiff, Virgil Charles Gamblin, had been in solitary confinement from December 2020, or six straight months. The other, a juvenile, 17 years old, had been in solitary nine times since July 2020. The two argued that solitary confinement is torture, and, as such, is cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, “a dungeon inside a prison”. As their attorney, James Sayce, noted, “They’ve shown real courage in coming forward and putting their name down on this claim, and they’ve shown real courage.” This past week, their case was certified as a class action, meaning it now covers thousands of people who were tortured by the state.

Manitoba’s solitary confinement cells are often smaller than parking spaces, with no windows, sleeping mats on the floors. They are often covered in filth, blood and excrement. Junior Moar spent time in Manitoba’s dungeons: “It’s just not a place for a human being to be in there like that, not like a caged animal. An animal shouldn’t even be treated like that.”

Covid made, or better was used as an alibi, to make a terrible situation worse. For example, from 2019 to 2020, prolonged solitary confinement of incarcerated youth increased tenfold. Prolonged solitary confinement is 15 days or longer. Children were thrown into dungeons ostensibly for their own protection. As one child explained, “The way they do it, they’re not helping us.” These numbers came from a report that was an update of an earlier report two years prior. None of this is new, and yet it continues.

In province after province, case after case, the State’s use of solitary confinement has been successfully challenged. Ontario was successfully sued, as were the federal prisons. Class action suits in British Columbia, Alberta, and Nova Scotia are moving forward. Again and again, when presented with the evidence, the courts decide that solitary confinement is [a] unconstitutional and a violation of human and civil rights because [b] it’s torture. Solitary confinement is torture. Why is that so difficult to comprehend? What is our investment in this particular form of torture? Why do we need victim after victim, in the thousands and tens of thousands, having the courage to testify to the trauma imposed on them in the name of justice before we break the cycle of torture?

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: “Solitary Confinement”, mural by David Alfaro Siquieros, completed 1961)

No end to the torture: Throw the children into solitary, lock the door, walk away

A seclusion room in a Cedar Rapids elementary school: padded walls, a window, a door that locks from outside

Another year ends with stories of children, young children, being thrown into `seclusion rooms’, solitary confinement chambers, in schools across the country. What exactly are children meant to learn, the ones thrown into solitary, the ones watching their classmates and friends go into solitary? What’s the lesson plan, the educational goal? Why are we so invested in seclusion and restraint of children, generally, and of children living with disabilities, particularly? What terrible crime have these children committed that entire systems invest so much in maintaining practices that clearly constitute torture?

In November, U.S. Department of Justice investigators conducted on-site inspections of schools in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They also demanded thousands of documents. This story begins in 2017, when a parent complained at the abuse her daughter suffered. Apparently, the girl wouldn’t stop crying, and so she was placed in a seclusion room. In the 2019-2020 school year, elementary school children were tossed into seclusion 237 times. In October, 2020, the Department of Justice notified the Cedar Rapids School District that they were opening an investigation.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education released a report on school climate and safety for 2015 – 2016. It found that Iowa rates had doubled. For example, in 2013, 23 school districts in eastern Iowa had 2514 reported instances of seclusion or restraint. In 2015, that number rose to 4,904. A 2018 Iowa State report described Davenport as in “systemic non-compliance” of Federal laws concerning the education of students living with disabilities. According to the report, the situation for students of color in Davenport was particularly dire, systemically so. Both of Iowa’s U.S. Senators called for a Federal investigation into the use of seclusion rooms. Davenport’s U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack called for a ban on seclusion rooms.

In 2017, a complaint was filed against the Iowa City school district, charging that the district’s use of seclusion rooms violated Federal law, primarily because parents don’t know that the seclusions rooms existed and were being used and because the use of seclusion rooms is broader and more `ordinary’ than the law allows. During the 2013-14 school year, most of the students dumped into solitary confinement were students with diagnosed disabilities and individualized education plans. Half of the students with education plans who were sent to seclusion rooms were Black. Other than students with education plans, ALL of the students dumped into seclusion rooms in the 2013 – 2014 were Black. Black students comprised about 19% of the school population.

Cedar Rapids is no outlier, not in Iowa, not in the United States. December 31, 2020, the Department of Justice settled with North Gibson School Corporation in Princeton, Indiana, where “students as young as five years old were secluded and restrained improperly and repeatedly, resulting in days, and sometimes weeks, of lost instructional time.”

On October 24, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education and the Saco School District, in Saco, Maine, reached agreement to resolve restraint and seclusion compliance. Saco’s not a big school district, but it boasts big seclusion numbers. From 2017 to 2020, Saco schools engaged in 392 incidents of seclusion. Of that number, 324 involved children in K-2. 83% of those thrown into solitary were children 5 to 7 years old. After extensive investigation and negotiation, they `reached agreement.’

On November 24, 2021, Fairfax County Public Schools, in northern Virginia, reached a settlement with parents of children living with disabilities and advocacy groups to ban all seclusion in all its schools by the beginning of school year 2022 – 2023. This ends a suit that was filed in 2019, after a local news station reported that the county routinely put children with disabilities in seclusion rooms and routinely failed to report the incidents.

A week later, on December 1, the U.S. Department of Justice reached a settlement with the Frederick County Public School District “to address the discriminatory use of seclusion and restraint against students with disabilities …. The investigation, opened in October 2020, revealed thousands of incidents of seclusion and restraint in just two and a half school years. Although students with disabilities make up only 10.8% of students enrolled in the district, every single student the district secluded was a student with disabilities.” When the settlement was reported, many expressed shock, demanded answers, called for responsibility. The county’s school superintendent resigned quickly, and was given $800,000 in compensation. In 2017, that county superintendent was named Superintendent of the Year by the state association of school superintendents.

Every report, every agreement and settlement, evokes shock. How can people be shocked when there are thousands of incidents, as many as ten a day, in small towns and big counties? That the government has returned to some sort of vigilance concerning the systematic abuse and torture of children is welcome, inasmuch as it’s better than inaction. But the real need here is a soul searching, no holds barred transformation. We torture children. We cannot be shocked by that. We send children into days, weeks, of solitary confinement because … they can’t stop crying. And we call that education.

A seclusion room in another Cedar Rapids elementary school

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit 1:  KCCI / Liz Martin/The Gazette)) (Photo Credit 2: KCRG / (Josh Scheinblum)

 

 

Missouri regulates the use of seclusion rooms and restraints … finally!

A “blue room” seclusion room in Missouri

American education remains haunted by inhumane treatment of children, especially those living with disabilities. Yesterday, Saturday, August 28, a new law went into effect in Missouri regulating and, in some instances, curtailing the use of seclusion rooms and physical restraints in all public, private and charter schools in the state. This is a welcome move, won by long hard struggle of children, parents, allies, advocates. Why is it so difficult to abandon practices that are clearly harmful and inhumane?

In May 2009, the Missouri state legislature passed a law giving school districts two years in which to devise written policies governing the use of seclusion rooms. Before that, there were no policies, only the practice of solitary confinement of school children without a single written guideline or rule. Nothing came of that. Nothing happened as a result of this non-compliance.

Eleven years later, in January 2020, 11-year-old Ryphath Knopp stood before a committee of the Missouri state legislature and described being put into solitary confinement in the Columbia, Missouri, school system. Knopp told the legislators he lives with autism, anxiety, and depression. He described beings placed in a small padded room “almost all day, every day” until his parents took him out of school and homeschooled him. Knopp called seclusion rooms “an adapted version of solitary confinement, which was a form of torture, may I remind you.”

Mothers of other children in the Columbia school district recounted similar experiences. Shawan Daniels described the room her fourth-grade child was locked into: “These rooms didn’t have vents in them, water, or anything.” Another mother said the isolation had caused her son emotional trauma, asthma attacks, and head injuries. Both used the same phrase to describe Columbia schools’ treatment of their children: being “thrown into a box.” At that point, Missouri had no rules and no oversight over the use of restraint or seclusion in its schools.

In March 2020, Missouri legislators passed House Bill (HB 1568) that would establish a ban on seclusion and restraint rooms “except in cases where there is imminent danger to the student or others”. Who decides the exception? No guidelines were provided, and besides, it didn’t really matter. Apart from completely discretionary guidelines, Missouri still had neither rules nor oversight concerning the use of restraint or seclusion in schools.

All that changed, for the better, yesterday. In its latest session, the Missouri legislature passed House Bill 432, which regulates and codifies the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. Missouri now has actual guidelines for the use, and not, of restraint and seclusion rooms. The guidelines include rules on documentation of any use of seclusion or restraint, annual uniform training of faculty and staff concerning the use of seclusion or restraint, and new protection for whistleblowers.

Ryphath Knopp attended school in Columbus, Missouri. Frankie Bono attended school in St. Charles, Missouri. According to his mother, “My son was locked in a closet. He didn’t have the skills and ability to appropriately communicate what was really happening at school. We were driving in the car recently and a song came on the radio, and he just started sobbing. That was a song that had been playing in the room, one of the times they had tackled him, held his face against the cold floor, grabbed him by the hair and dragged him into the seclusion room.” Frankie called it “the blue room”.

According to the most recent federal data, in school year 2017 – 2018, 50.9 million students were enrolled in public schools. 101,990 were subjected to physical or mechanical constraint or seclusion. 27,538 were subjected to seclusion. In that school year, 13% of the students enrolled were classified as living with disabilities. Of those subjected to physical restraint, 80% were living with disabilities. Of those subjected to mechanical constraint, 41% were living with disabilities. Of those subjected to seclusion, 77% were students living with disabilities.

This is a war against children, and exactly what crime have these children committed? Why do we routinely send children into solitary confinement? What are we teaching children, all the children in all the schools, when we torture their classmates and then call it “seclusion” and “restraint”? How many more children must suffer the “blue rooms” of torture? Perhaps Missouri will shed a light on that cold floor.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune / ProPublica)

American school seclusion rooms continue to form a landscape of atrocity

Just another seclusion room somewhere in the United States

On Wednesday, June 2, Senators Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, and Patty Murray, of Washington State, will introduce, or more precisely re-introduce, the Keeping All Students Safe Act, “To prohibit and prevent seclusion, mechanical restraint, chemical restraint, and dangerous restraints that restrict breathing, and to prevent and reduce the use of physical restraint in schools, and for other purposes.” In 2009, the Government Accounting Office released a major study documenting the severe harm rendered by seclusion rooms in schools, especially for students living with disabilities. In the same year, National Disability Rights Network released a major studySchool is not supposed to hurt: Investigative Report on Abusive Restraint and Seclusion in Schools. Since 2009, versions of the Keeping All Students Safe Act have been introduced, all to no avail.  And so here we are: “There are no federal laws governing how seclusion and restraints can be used in schools, and there are no sweeping federal laws with specific guidelines for police use of force on children in general.” Loaded with evidence and good intention … and completely stalled in place for twelve years and counting. What is the U.S. investment in torturing and damaging children, and in particular children living with disability? Why is the United States so committed to an endless war on children living with disabilities?

Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Education released data that showed that students living with disabilities constituted 12% of all students enrolled. 12 percent. That very small sector of students living with disabilities constituted 71% of all students restrained and 66% of all students “secluded.” This year, the most update study shows that students living with disabilities make up 13% of all students enrolled and constitute 80% of those physically restrained, 41% of those `mechanically’ restrained, and 77% of students subjected to seclusion: “Physical restraint is a personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs, or head freely. Mechanical restraint is the use of any device or equipment to restrict a student’s freedom of movement. Seclusion is the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving.” These are the numbers and key words of education for children in the United States. 

While restraint and seclusion directly assault children living with disabilities, it impairs all those children who are forced to stand as helpless, and themselves restrained, witnesses. Why is there no federal law, why is there no national will to end this torture of the innocents? Why is this left to the discretion of individual states, counties and cities? Three years ago, almost to the day, we asked, “What crime have these children committed? What is their terrible sin? Why do we continue to send these children into solitary confinement? Why do we continue to torture those who are most vulnerable? When will we stop this practice? What do you think we’re teaching children, all the children in all the schools, when we torture their classmates and then call it `seclusion’ and `restraint’?” Why has there been no answer? American school seclusion rooms continue to form a landscape of atrocity. Where is the outrage? Where is the action?

 

An eleven-year-old describes how it feels to be in class (left) and how it feels to be in seclusion (right)

 

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo, Image Credit: ProPublica)

Who, under torture, is not a child?

I find myself increasingly upset by the emphasis on children in the discussion of current human rights abuses. Though in many cases, it can be more damaging for children to be subject to them, the emphasis needs to be on the nature of the crimes, not the vulnerability of the subjects. Had Epstein lured 30- or 60-year-olds with promises of money and safety in order to rape and traffic them, he would still be committing crimes against humanity. Adults and the elderly are also victims of rape and trafficking. As Epstein’s incarceration records show, anyone can be lured if not by money, then by fear. All humans are vulnerable: the focus needs to remain on traumatizing and unacceptable acts, rather than on the special vulnerabilities of the victims. To continue as such is to run and play ‘catch up’ to the abuser’s discourse; it’s to piecemeal justice.

Adults being held at the border in places far exceeding maximum capacity, without being able to wash, being deprived of adequate nutrition or being recipients of threats and other violence, are atrocities that are happening as I write this. While it’s true that the impacts to children may be more severe, no human can withstand this kind of treatment. 

Though it is a horrific crime to separate children, the focus on them is increasingly being steered into a Christian and Republican framework. With pictures of girl children and innocent victims, the Handmaid’s Tale reality continues to write the rules. Fighting on the platform of the Innocent Victim will not yield a more equally participatory reality. Rather it is a response to crisis that will have the effect of further entrenching patriarchy, allowing its rules and domination to deepen. More than its predecessor, the current administration manipulates by using crisis as the place where populations run back to an illusory safety of ancient ideas about power and order: panic often hosts an appeal to authority and traditions. How can there be an overcoming of these brutal chapters if such defaults are not rejected?

The emphasis on children also demonizes people who are legitimately afraid for their own fates and/or lives by consistently suggesting that the most valid approach to fighting is to fight for others. Women especially are called selfish when we advocate for ourselves. 

There needs to be a sacred universal and thorough law that shields everyone at all times against the infliction of trauma and violently imposed vulnerability. It needs to be bigger, more sacred and more dimensional than human rights. Perhaps it should run deeper than law, be a coda or a primary ethic, at the foundation of human learning that is taught from the beginning of life, present in film, in search functions, apps, music. For no one is exempt from fragility. 

While it’s true that fighting for children can also be seen as fighting for the most urgent of cases, and maybe, seemingly, the most obvious ones to prosecute in the current State, the risk of losing a concept of universal requirements needs to be remembered at all times. And maybe, it also needs to be remembered, that the cruel power that writes and enforces policies of ‘security’ doesn’t now and mostly never has cared about children any more than adults except as bodies for mass experimentation and other forms of human capital. This is not new or exceptional: the State’s rhetoric has always been propaganda. 

So whose game is being played when the idea of ‘children’ is over represented as a quick and rough appeal to sentimentality? What is succeeding when children are scripted into narratives of innocence to mobilize emotions and appeal to the libidinous concept of predator and prey?

 

(Photo Credit: The New Yorker / Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters)

England’s seclusion rooms form a landscape of atrocity and shame

In 2017, New Zealand banned schoolhouse seclusion rooms. On Friday, a report came out indicating that across England primary and secondary schools are routinely using “seclusion rooms”. The report suggested that both the scale and frequency of use is much higher than expected: “Many schools use them as part of an escalating set of disciplinary measures. Our research found over two-thirds of the country’s largest academy trusts have schools that use some form of isolation, although with varying labels from `inclusion units’ and `consequence booths’ to `time-out spaces’ and `calm rooms’.” The isolation cells are used from the first year. Primary school students can stay in for a day at a time; secondary school students can stay in for five consecutive days. The torture of solitary confinement clothed in the language of inclusion, consequence, time-out and calm is the lesson children across England – and Canada and the United States and beyond – are learning in an age of expanding and intensifying zero tolerance. While A Critique of Pure Tolerance once inspired a generation of activists to action, today we need A Critique of Zero Tolerance. We need it, and, even more, our children and grandchildren need it … now.

In August, a report noted that exclusion, or out-of-school suspension, was rampant in secondary schools across England. 45 schools suspended at least 20% of their students, with some schools topping 40%. In September, a follow up report noted the rampant use of isolation booths, variously referred to as “consequences rooms” or “internal exclusion.” The line from “internal exclusion” to alienation to abnegation to death-in-life to lifelong trauma is direct.

August, September, October, another month, another discovery … of a phenomenon taking place all over the country. Founded in 2013, the TBAP Multi-Academy Trust “supports learners who are experiencing difficulty with or have been excluded from mainstream education.” The people at TBAP Multi-Academy Trust know that seclusion rooms don’t work and, equally important, are bad for all children and all learners. Last year, TBAP Multi-Academy Trust Chairman of the Board Paul Dix wrote, “A room with isolation booths is the bleakest sign of an institution giving up. It shouts ‘we don’t know what to do’ at children who often don’t know what they’ve done wrong. Look around inside any isolation room where children are separated for long periods of time from the rest of the school, and I would lay good money that more than 80% of the children in there have additional needs. Some will have a diagnosed special educational need or disability, others will be struggling with hidden that are all too obvious to those who work with them every day: trauma, anxiety, attachment, grief, or plain old-fashioned neglect. The sins of the adult world are soaked up by a minority of children. Then we stick them in a booth and call it education. The booths are a shame on all of us, not the children who are forced to sit in them.”

How many more times must we “discover” that throwing children into seclusion rooms, no matter what they’re called, is wrong? Why do we need to discuss whether the rooms “work” or are too “costly”? What about the cost to children’s lives? What about the cost, as well, to the very concept of education? What does a child learn when exclusion is called inclusion, terror is called calm, and a war on children is called education? We should all be ashamed. Are we?

(Photo Credit: Cambridgeshire Live)

Australia, England, the United States build a global place of torture for migrant children: Tear it down!

Recently the war on children intensified to formally include torture. Australia kidnapped a 17-year-old boy clearly at risk of suicide and dumped him and his mother in Nauru. England faces a law suit for its “catastrophic failure” when it dumped a 16-year-old Vietnamese survivor of labor trafficking into immigration detention, Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre, where he was sexually assaulted. There was no catastrophic failure. There was hostile environment hatred and torture. This week, the United States announced that it would separate immigrant asylum seeking parents and children at the border. According to reports today, the government plans on sending the children to military bases, mostly in Texas. As two psychologists noted today, “The practice of separating families at the border is morally reprehensible and — based on the science — goes against international and U.S. law, because the suffering it inflicts constitutes torture of children.” One shouldn’t need a psychologist to know that the detention of children is bad for them. One shouldn’t need a psychologist or a pediatrician. One need only be human.

Fatemah and her 17-year-old son, Hamid, have been on Nauru for more than five years. Fatemah needs critical heart surgery. She has been waiting 18 months for the surgery. She refused to leave her son behind. Finally, two months ago, both were transferred to Taiwan. While in Taiwan, Hamid was examined. He suffers severe mental illness “caused and exacerbated by his detention.” Against all doctors’ advice, on Tuesday, before sunrise, Fatemah and Hamid were returned to Nauru.

Fatemah described the situation: “I’m a single mother of a 17 year old son. For 17 years I have been both mother and father to him. I fled from violations and insecurity caused by the Iranian government, but I never imagined that me and my son’s spirt would be wounded so deeply at a place of torture made by the Australian government … Look at what the Australian government has done to us! My son says to me, `Let’s attempt suicide together’ … He believes the only way to freedom is in death. I have sympathy for all the mothers and their children who live in Nauru. We are preyed on and our lives are subjected to cruelty … I don’t know what to say about the way the Australian government has treated us. I have been officially accepted as a refugee but still live in a tent. If I was imprisoned as a criminal in a third world country, that government would provide me with basic facilities … I only have these questions for you. Are you treating Australian murderers, rapists and smugglers the way you treat us? Have you kept them in 50 degree heat in a tent where water is dripping from the roof? … How many more people will be sacrificed before the Australian government realises the way it treats us is a crime?”

In England, in 2017, 44 children were detained. Of the 44, 20 were 11 or younger. Of the 44 children, 11 were deported: “The other 33 were put through the ordeal of imprisonment without any `departure’ at the end of it.” That’s the current overall situation. Last week, the story of H, a Vietnamese youth, emerged. At the age of 16, H was trafficked to work on a cannabis farm, in England. He was abused, violated, deeply hurt. Finally he was arrested, charged, convicted, sent to a young offenders’ institution and then on to Morton Hall, where, in 2016, he was sexually assaulted by his cell mate. The staff at Morton Hall did nothing to assist or support H, nor did they investigate. Only when attorneys began calling, recently, did Morton Hall begin to begin an internal inquiry.

H explains his situation: “My time in immigration detention was awful. After this incident, I was really paranoid that other detainees would hurt me all of the time. I felt scared all the time and I found it very difficult to sleep or eat. Morton Hall staff do not protect the detainees. Although terrible things have happened to me in the past, the effect of immigration detention made this even worse.”

This week, the United States announced it would intensify and increase the separation of immigrant children and parents. The government claims that, since October 1,  700 or so children were separated from their parents. Recently, the numbers have risen, and the State promises a steep increase. Mirian, 29 years old, and her 18-month-old child fled violence in Honduras. She reached the border, hoping for asylum, and her 18-month-old baby was taken away: “I had no idea that I would be separated from my child for seeking help. I am so anxious to be reunited with him.”

This is our world: a place of torture where nation-States take children from their parents and dump both in separate hell holes, all in the name of national integrity. The policies are cruel and criminal. When will we stop the torture of the innocents? Who will pay for the damage done to their psyches and souls? How many more will be sacrificed?

 

(Photo Credit: New York Times / Hope Hall / ACLU)

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population”

A cell at Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre

Human Rights Watch released a report today, I Needed Help, Instead I Was Punished: Abuse and Neglect of Prisoners with Disabilities in Australia, that describes the horror of prison for those living with disabilities. Prisoners living with disabilities are tortured in every way possible, from extended and extensive use of solitary confinement to sexual violence to physical and psychological torture to … The list is endless. One prisoner spent 19 years in solitary confinement. Prison-carers provide care for prisoners with high support needs. In one prison, six of the eight prison-carers are convicted sex offenders. At the center of this garden of earthly evil are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. At the center of that center are Aboriginal and Torres Islander Strait women: “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population”. None of this is new.

HRW researchers reached women at Bandyup Women’s Prison, in West Swan, Western Australia, and Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre, in Wacol, Brisbane, Queensland. Both are infamous for chronic overcrowding and the occasional death in custody. Today’s report largely reiterates earlier findings. The hyper-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait women is “integrally linked to the social and economic disadvantages that result from years of structural discrimination.”

Many people with disabilities that we interviewed, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women with disabilities, had experienced family and sexual violence multiple times in their lives. Facing sexual, physical, and verbal violence in prison, particularly from staff, perpetuates this cycle of violence and creates distrust between staff and prisoners. One woman with a disability told Human Rights Watch: “The officers [use] intimidation tactics. Especially for us girls, that just reminds us of our domestic violence back home, it scares us. If you want to get through to us, they should be nice to us.” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have high rates of psychosocial disabilities, intellectual disability, and trauma: “About 73 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and 86 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison have a diagnosed mental health condition …. Among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Queensland prisons, 73 percent of male and 86 percent of female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners had a diagnosed psychosocial disability”.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait women have more contact with police, generally, and the contact starts at a younger age. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women with disabilities “experience higher rates of poverty, homelessness, domestic and sexual violence, and abuse than non-indigenous peers and peers without disabilities.”

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population, and 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous peers.”

None of this is new. These very issues came up in major reports published in  2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and last year. It’s a new year, and so we have another study that reports that Australia, like the United States, has invested a great deal in intensifying the vulnerability of the most vulnerable, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. The more vulnerable women become, the more they are told to shoulder responsibility, individually and as a group, for all the wrongs that have been inflicted upon them, body and soul. Women suffer repeated trauma, and it’s their fault. Prisons are cruel and ineffective, especially for women, and that’s just fine. Mass incarceration is destroying indigenous women and families, and that’s just fine. Everything is fine. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population.

 

(Photo Credit: ABC)

New Zealand declares seclusion rooms are unreasonable and oppressive

The seclusion room door

In December 2017, New Zealand’s Chief Ombudsman ruled that a school should pay $3000 and issue a formal apology to the family of an 11-year-old autistic child who was put in a “seclusion room” 13 times in nine days. The seclusion room was a dark cell, without windows or light. The treatment of the child came to his parents’ attention, and then to that of the public, when a behavior therapist came to the school, and found the child alone, unmonitored, and crying for help. That was in October 2016. Soon after, it was “discovered” that the use of seclusion rooms was fairly common in so-called special schools across New Zealand. In November 2016, the Education Minister proposed banning the use of seclusion rooms in schools. That became law in early 2017.  At the end of 2017, New Zealand’s Chief Ombudsman declared the school had acted “unreasonably and oppressively”. Later the Ombudsman explained, “I just think we’ve got to be careful and sensitive about those times when the going gets tough and when we need to, in schools, manage difficult, challenging behaviour like this. This report of ours is a reminder of the need for dignity and humanity at all times and it’s just something we should never ever forget and we should not take our eye off the ball.”

While the decision of the Ombudsman is a positive result, why does it take so much effort to recognize that seclusion rooms are an affront to dignity and humanity? As the Chief Ombudsman noted in his decision, the result only occurred because the child’s parents were furious when they discovered how their child was being abused and, critically, raised a ruckus. Why must parents raise a ruckus to have their children treated decently and humanely?

This isn’t only about minors. Ashley Peacock is an adult living with intellectual disability, autism and mental illness. Under New Zealand’s Mental Health Act, Ashley Peacock was a compulsory, institutionalized patient. In that capacity, Ashley Peacock had been placed in solitary confinement, “seclusion rooms,” for years on end. In 2016, his parents started a national and international campaign to get their son out of the hellhole of solitary confinement and into more appropriate community based services. In 2016, Ashley Peacock was 38 years old. He had spent ten years in “care” institutions. Most of that time, he spent in isolation. In 2017, Ashley Peacock was moved to a community location. In December 2017, New Zealand announced it would phase out seclusion rooms in psychiatric institutions within two years.

Advocates for autistic children worry that, despite the law, schools might still use seclusion rooms. Consider this: no one knows how many hours that eleven-year-old child spent in solitary confinement, crying and pleading for help, because there are no records kept. In other schools, teachers refused to talk to police about their use of seclusion rooms. Hopefully, New Zealand will invest in enforcement of the new laws, but more will be needed. We must ask ourselves about our investment in torture that passes for education, on one hand, and for care, on the other. Why should parents have to be furious in order to keep their children, at all ages, from being tortured? When did solitary confinement become an integral part of education? When did the vulnerable become the execrable, the cursed?

 

(Photo Credit: New Zealand Herald)