What happened to Tanna Jo Fillmore and Madison Jensen? The routine torture in Utah’s jails

Tanna Jo Fillmore

Last year, within one week, two women, Tanna Jo Fillmore and Madison Jensen, “were found dead” in their cells in the Duchesne County Jail, in Utah. Their deaths are still shrouded in mystery and official obfuscation. Their families are still grieving as they seek answers and, even more, an end to the violence against women in Utah jails. On November 15, 2016, 25-year-old Tanna Jo Fillmore was deposited in the Duchesne County Jail, for parole violation. On Thanksgiving Day, she was found hanging in her cell. The following weekend, in response to her parents’ plea for help, Madison Jensen was taken to the Duchesne County Jail. Within the next four days, she lost anywhere from 17 to 42 pounds, reports vary. What doesn’t vary is the excruciating pain of her final hours and days. Tanna Jo Fillmore and Madison Jensen join the circle of Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Christina Tahhahwah, Amy Lynn Cowling, Ashley Ellis, Kellsie Green, Joyce Curnell, Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, and so many other women who have died in excruciating pain in America’s jails. They also join the circle of Heather Ashton Miller and all the other women who have died, recently, in Utah’s jails and prisons. What happened to Tanna Jo Fillmore and Madison Jensen? The routine torture of prison state’s war on drugs.

According to Melany Zoumadakis, Tanna Jo Fillmore’s mother, when Tanna Jo Fillmore was taken to Duchesne County Jail, her parole officer assured the mother that her daughter would be placed on suicide watch. That never happened. Many things never happened. Melany Zoumadakis was never informed by the jail of her daughter’s death, and she’s still waiting for information: “I don’t know if she was alive when they found her. I don’t know if she was fully dead and if they tried to shock her heart and bring her back. No one will talk to me … I am the mom and until you lose a child, you don’t know the pain it causes.”

Tanna Jo Fillmore entered Duchesne County Jail on a probation violation. In fact, that was a death sentence.

If possible, Madison Jensen’s story is worse. Madison Jensen threatened to commit suicide. Madison Jensen’s mother was seriously ill, and so her father, Jared Jensen, desperate for help, called the police. The police took her in, dumped her in Duchesne County Jail, where she was denied access to her medications. For whatever reason, she could not hold down anything, not food, not water. She begged for help. Her cellmate begged for help. None came. She died, a slow and excruciating death. According to Matt Finch, an opiate withdrawal recovery specialist, “She was going through opioid withdrawal syndrome and antidepressant withdrawal. I can’t even imagine how much pain she was going through.” Jared Jensen can imagine: “My daughter went in there to save her own life and now she comes out deceased.”

We must all imagine the pain, if we are to end the policies and practices that have produced that pain, across the country, from one jail to the next. A woman loses 17 pounds, at the very least, in four days, begs and screams for help, vomits through the whole period, can’t move, and the staff response is … policy doesn’t allow her to take her necessary medication because the institution is a “narcotics free zone”? That more than narcotics free. That’s a zone free of humanity, and it’s where we all live. What happened to Tanna Jo Fillmore and Madison Jensen? The routine torture of women in jails in Utah and across the United States.

Madison Jensen

(Photo Credit 1: Salt Lake Tribune) (Photo Credit 2: Salt Lake Tribune)

The death penalty is violent, unjust and should be abolished

Last week, with almost no debate, the Utah State Senate adopted a bill, 18 – 10, that will allow the use of the firing squad, if drugs were to be unavailable 30 days before scheduled execution. Utah used the firing squad in 2010 to execute one person. Wyoming is examining a similar legislation. The 32 states that still have the death penalty are now looking at this method of the past to continue executing people currently on death row.

In the spirit of innovation, the lethal injection was introduced to remedy the question of suffering in the application of the death penalty, ignoring all kinds of emotional suffering. With the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, lethal injection was developed after the veterinarian techniques of euthanasia and was first experimented in Texas in 1984. This method carried the promise of modernity with the help of medical-technology imagery, making the death penalty appear different than in China, Iran or Saudi Arabia, some of the other major countries using the death penalty.

In the United States the delusional belief that there is a method of killing that could be “humane” with no suffering is reinforced by the populist imperialist discourse. Supporters of lethal injection pretended that it was humane because of the anesthetic that is injected first. This reflects a limited view on what suffering means. Nonetheless, a study published in The Lancet recognized that the procedure for killing inmates was less rigorous than those recommended by the Veterinary Medical Association. The concentration of anesthesia received by the condemned during the lethal injection was lower than required for surgery in 88% of the cases. In 43% the level was so low that the inmates must have had awareness of the asphyxiation, burning and the massive muscle cramping which are the three episodes that the products used for lethal injection entail. With the blockage of delivery of some of these drugs by European laboratories on humanitarian grounds, States began playing the sorcerer’s apprentice at the expense of respect for human dignity.

In 2014 the number and intensity of botched executions attracted more national and international attention. In Arizona, Joseph Wood was pronounced dead one hour and fifty-seven minutes after the beginning of the process. In Oklahoma, Michael Wilson screamed that his body was burning. As a result many states passed “secrecy laws” to allow themselves not to disclose the nature or sources of the drugs they were going to use.

And now a number of states are considering and passing laws to allow former methods that used to be considered barbaric, from the firing squad and the gas chamber to the electric chair. All these methods demonstrate that there is a distance between justice and the death penalty, as the executioner and the penal system are removed from the actual death of the prisoner.

Last spring, the American Academy of Sciences published a study showing that 4.1% of the people on death row are innocent. Consider the recent killing of Troy Davis whose prosecution consisted of incoherence and inconsistency. Nevertheless, the State asserted its dominating power, using the racially vindicating desire of vengeance of the family of the victim as Troy Davis was African American and the victim was white. As with Kelly Gissendaner whose execution is still pending, Davis’ sentence demonstrated that the state is not concerned with a true notion of justice or rehabilitation but rather is the diehard instrument of populist domination within an increasingly inegalitarian society.

Some states have freed themselves from the death penalty. The death penalty should simply be outlawed at the federal level, instead of leaving populist assemblies free to chose more heinous instruments of death. As Cesare Beccharia wrote in Of Crimes and Punishments in 1764, “If I prove that this sentence is neither useful nor necessary, I would have caused the triumph of humanity”.

 

(Image Credit: The Atlantic / ycaradec / Flickr)