Across the United States, children living with disabilities face the torture of school seclusion

In Loudon County, Virginia, 13-year-old Gigi Daniel-Zagorites lives with Phelan-McDermid syndrome, “a disorder that hampers her ability to speak.” In her middle school, one day in September, a fellow classmate took a picture of Gigi being “secluded”. Someone, teachers presumably, took a bookcase and a cabinet and built an enclosure in the corner of the classroom. Gigi was dumped in there, and two adults stood, or sat, guard. In the picture, Gigi is trying to get out or at least see over the barricades. Months later, her mother, Alexa Zagorites, is still asking questions and still getting no answers. Gigi Daniel-Zagorites and her mother are objects of the national pogrom against children living with disabilities. Like so many others, both Gigi and her mother refuse to be or become the victims that national policy intends for them.

Earlier this month, the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center released a report concerning the abusive seclusion and restraint of a 14-year-old child, called Zach, at the Sununu Youth Services Center. First, Zach was dumped into seclusion which led to two staff members throwing Zach to the ground and “restraining” him face down there. The staff fractured the child’s shoulder blade. Despite New Hampshire law, the restraint and, even more, the injury was not reported for two months. Months later, the Sununu Center continues to withhold information. New Hampshire has “restraint and seclusion” laws, but they all rely on the staff to self-report. The levels of violence form a network of threads of immediate, intimate violence and those of structural violence, all held together by the violence and suffering of family, friends, and community.

Similar stories have been recently reported in IndianaIowa, Florida, and Arizona, to name a few from only the last month or so. Across the country, children in school learn that living with a disability is a crime. It must be a crime, otherwise why would the adult staff members be punishing them so?

Last month, U.S. Department of Education released a report on school climate and safety for 2015 – 2016. It found that Iowa rates had just about 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 recent Iowa State report describes 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 is particularly dire, systemically so. Both of Iowa’s U.S. Senators are calling for a Federal investigation into the use of seclusion rooms. Davenport’s U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack has called for a ban on seclusion rooms.

The report on school climate and safety merely confirmed what we already know. In a nutshell, 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.”

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”?

 

(Infographic Credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Virginians decided yesterday, and we decided to move forward

In 2006, Mazie Hirono was elected to the U.S. Senate. She was the first and only Asian-American woman U.S. Senator and the first woman Senator from Hawaii. A year ago, today, the people of Washington’s 7th Congressional District elected Pramila Jayapal to the United States House of Representatives. Pramila Jayapal was the first Indian-American woman elected to Congress. On the same day, in Minnesota, Ilhan Omar won a Minnesota House seat, making her the first Somali-American legislator in the history of the United States. Yesterday, Virginia voters decided to smash a few more glass ceilings, and elected Danica Roem, Elizabeth Guzman, Hala Ayala, Kathy Tran, Dawn Adams, Jennifer Carroll Foy.

Here’s the list of firsts. Danica Roem is the first openly transgender person to win elective office in Virginia. Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala are the first Latinas elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates. Elizabeth Guzman is also the first social worker and the first AFSCME member elected to the House of Delegates. Kathy Tran is the first Asian American woman elected to the House of Delegates. Dawn Adams is the first open lesbian elected to the House of Delegates. Jennifer Carroll Foy is the first public defender elected to the House of Delegates. That’s a lot of firsts, and that’s a whole lot of women.

Who voted these first women into office? Extrapolating from those who elected Ralph Northam to be the next Governor of Virginia, women. 61% of all women voted Democratic. 91% of Black women voted Democratic. 58% of women with college degrees voted Democratic. 54% of married women voted Democratic, and 77% of women who are not married voted Democratic. The turnout yesterday was the highest in 20 years for a gubernatorial race. That’s a whole lot of women.

There were other firsts in the Commonwealth. Voters elected Chris Hurst, a first-time candidate and a leading gun control advocate. Voters also chose Justin Fairfax, the first African American elected to a Virginia statewide office since 1989.

Thanks to the great work of Governor Terry McAuliffe and New Virginia Majority, thousands of formerly incarcerated people – including LaVaughn Williams and Brianna Ross – voted for the first time.

Virginians decided yesterday, and we decided to move forward, not back. Virginians decided to remember and honor Heather Heyer, whose last, and lasting, public statement was, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” In the words of Sojourner Truth, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” And Mary Harris Jones roars in response, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living!” We’re outraged, we voted, and we’re going to keep on voting, organizing, mobilizing, and moving the agenda forward.

 

(Photo Credit: The New York Times / Chet Strange) (Infographic: The Washington Post)

In Virginia, Lipton Tea workers prove there is power in a union

Lipton Tea worker leaders celebrate their first union contract. From left are Corey Hicks, Paul Garrison, Anita Anderson, Philip Surace, Ricky L. Gregory Sr., Juanita Hart and Paul Perdue

On Monday, July 24, workers at the Lipton Tea factory in Suffolk, in the so-called right-to-work Commonwealth of Virginia, voted 109 – 6 to approve their first union contract. The contract covers 240 workers in the plant. It also covers all Lipton Tea factory workers in North America, since the Suffolk plant produces all the Lipton tea bags sold in North America.

The story of workers taking charge began last year. For the preceding ten years, workers had seen their benefits shredded, the pace of work accelerated, their positions rendered increasingly precarious. Sick leave, including unpaid sick leave. was reduced to the barest legal minimum. Insurance coverage became prohibitively expensive and, simultaneously, less expansive. Particular to Lipton was something called “drafting” in which workers were forced to work overtime, often 12-hour shifts for 13 days before getting a day off.

In 2013, Lipton Tea, owned by Unilever, announced it would invest $96 million to “upgrade” the factory. That meant new machinery. Production stopped temporarily. When production resumed, all the workers were forced to re-apply for their jobs. As mechanic Robert Davis explained, “I had been there 23 years, but I had to reapply for the same job, turn in a resume and everything.” Davis was turned down the first time he applied.

With speed ups, no sick leave, workplace injuries and illnesses, workers began leaving. When they left, they were not replaced. The factory workforce decreased, as the amount of work increased. This is known as “lean production.” Last spring, workers decided they had had enough, and called the United Food and Commercial Workers. According to UFCW Kayla Mock, “From the beginning, they took so much ownership and responsibility for building their union. They held full-on organizing conversations with their co-workers, identifying other leaders in the plant and bringing them on board, talking and assessing the other workers.” Mock added, “The workers were the ones who took ownership of it from the very beginning. They very clearly understood that their union was something that they needed to build, almost like a tangible thing, and they built it from the ground up—they just owned it.”

Lipton Tea workers called Hellman Mayonnaise workers in Chicago. Unilever owns Hellman Mayonnaise, and the Chicago plant is unionized. The workers in Suffolk learned that their brothers and sisters in Chicago had better working conditions, including better and more immediate pay for overtime and a far superior, and much cheaper, health care plan.

Anita Anderson, who has been with Lipton Tea for ten years, explains, “You had a choice to make. You call out sick and get one incident, or you come to work and pass germs around … If you got hurt on the job, it’s never unsafe conditions. It was never that you were fatigued from working so many hours. It was always, the employee did not do something right. So if you get hurt, then it’s an incident, it’s a strike in your personnel file … We decided we deserved more than what we were getting. Once we got a write-up comparing the benefits of the Hellman plant compared to our plant, a lot more folks came on board.” Anderson started talking with her colleagues, “I told them about how the Verizon workers had a union, and when they were threatened with their jobs going overseas, they went on strike, they fought, and they won and kept their jobs.”

August 26, 2016, the workers of Lipton Tea voted 108 – 79 in favor of joining the UCFW. Juanita Hart has worked 25 years at Lipton Tea: “I was crying like I had won the lottery. I was so glad and I was so happy because I’ve been told for all this time, all these years, that it would never happen. And when it happened, I had so much joy that all I could do (was) cry.” Anita Anderson added, “Everyone is excited. Even the ones that were naysayers about the union are asking about the next union meeting so they can speak up and talk about the issues in the plant.”

Yesterday, Lipton Tea workers voted for the first time in the 60 year history of the factory, and they approved a contract that would save them more than $4000 a year in health care costs. Yesterday, Lipton Tea workers – with Anita Anderson and Juanita Hart among the leaders –  voted for workers’ dignity, respect, and power. There is power in a union.

 

(Photo Credit: Suffolk News Herald)

#NotMyPresident: We need both a HateWatch and a PeaceLoveandUnderstandingWatch

Since the November elections, across the United States, from middle schools and high schools to colleges and universities, people of color, women, LGBTIQ persons, Muslims, Jews and others report outbursts of intimidation, threat, and abuse. To no one’s surprise, a campaign based on white supremacy, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sutured by lies, hatred and violence, has engendered intensified and expanded violence, but violence against people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTIQ persons, Jews, Muslims, people with disabilities, workers, others, is not the whole story. Individuals, organizations and communities across the country are engaging in acts of kindness and campaigns for inclusive justice. Here’s the story of what happened over the weekend in the leafy Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia. Call it a verse of the Parable of Memorial Day 2017.

On Saturday, May 27, self-described white supremacist, white nationalist, neo-fascist posters appeared on trees and utility poles in the Del Ray neighborhood. Some of them targeted C. Christine Fair, who had taken on a white supremacist at a local gym. The posters were taken down immediately. That’s the hate crime part. But there’s more; there’s the peace, love and understanding part. Residents pulled out crayons, markers and paper and produced posters of welcome, calling for mutual respect and dignity.

These homegrown posters sit now sit next to the more formal posters gleaming from shops in Del Ray and the adjoining predominantly Latinx Arlandria neighborhood. Those posters read, EVERYONE IS WELCOME HERE TODOS SON BIENVENIDOS AQUI. They’re part of the Hate Free Virginia Campaign, and in Del Ray that campaign was organized by the Tenants and Workers United, a chapter of New Virginia Majority; Grassroots Alexandria; and Indivisible Del Ray. Individuals, communities and organizations are on the move.

 

White supremacy and racism are baked into our history, as is violence. Peace, love and understanding may be more aspirational, and may take more work and labor, and may demand more light, but the work of welcome is happening, across the country, in this climate of terror and fear mongering. We need a HateWatch; we need groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center. But we also need a PeaceLoveandUnderstandingWatch, and we need it now. Remember, there is nothing funny about peace, love and understanding.

 

(Photo Credits 1,2: Buzzfeed / Eric Wagner) (Image Credit 3: Facebook / Tenants and Workers United)

In Virginia, Raja Johnson, Kimberly Carter and 206,000 more people just won back the right to vote!

Raja Johnson and Terry McAuliffe

Sometimes, as in Virginia this past week, democracy happens, and when it does, it’s largely thanks to the work of women of color organizing. Last Friday, Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting and civil rights to 206,000 people who had been disenfranchised permanently, thanks to Virginia’s lifelong voting ban on former prisoners. As the Governor explained, “I believe our commonwealth can not achieve its full potential until all men and women act on this fundamental right and participate in the decisions about their own children’s education, about their taxes and every aspect of their lives. Unfortunately, Virginia has had a long and sad history of effectively suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women at the ballot box … I believe it is time to cast off Virginia’s troubled history of injustice and embrace an honest clean process of restoring the right of these men and women. And so today, I will sign an order restoring the civil and voting rights of every single individual who has completed his or her sentence as of this day.” On that day, Raja Johnson stood with Governor McAuliffe as he spoke, and Kimberly Carter watched on television. These women, and thousands of others overwhelmingly women of color, will finally be able to vote, and so a chapter in Virginia’s decades long war on women of color may be drawing to a close.

In 1999, Raja Johnson, an 18-year-old Black woman, made a mistake. She was convicted of grand larceny. In 2014, Governor McAuliffe restored her right to vote. According to Johnson, “It sort of did something on the inside…and it gave me that motivation to go on. I’m about to graduate. I’ll have an associate degree in two months. In June I’ll be going for a bachelor’s degree. So, it’s sort of made me feel more like a citizen, just having my right to go back.” About ten years earlier, Kimberly Carter, a woman in her late teens, was arrested on a drug charge. Today, Kimberly Carter is 45 years old. Last Friday, Kimberly Carter watched Governor McAuliffe’s speech and then went and filled out a voter registration card: “You make a mistake, 20 years later you’re still paying for it.”

According to Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, “It is a historic day for democracy in Virginia and across our nation. The disenfranchisement of people who have served their sentences was an outdated, discriminatory vestige of our nation’s Jim Crow past.”

Virginia’s current code of lifelong disenfranchisement began, in 1902, as a racist attempt to keep newly enfranchised Black populations from voting. For over a century, the Commonwealth actively sustained and intensified that racism. According to Governor McAuliffe’s office, “It is estimated that 1 in 5 of the African American voting-age population is disenfranchised in Virginia because of this provision.” While the lifelong voting ban in Virginia has always been an assault on African Americans, and then on communities of color more generally, in recent years, it has also been the preferred weapon of State in a war against women of color. The so-called war on drugs targeted women of color, in particular through conspiracy laws, which have caught women for the crime of intimate relationships with someone involved in the drug trade. That’s the reason Virginia’s rate of incarceration of women has soared to 146 per 100,000. With the war on drugs, Jim Crow became Jim and Jane Crow.

It’s time Virginia returned the right to vote to those who paid their debt, a debt was largely the result of racist legerdemain. It’s past time to stop the war on communities of color, and in particular on women of color. It’s time for Virginia, and all the States, to pay back their debts to the unfinished project of democracy. Raja Johnson, Kimberly Carter and hundreds of thousands in Virginia and millions across the United States are saying that the time for democracy-to-come has passed. It’s spring, and it’s time for democracy here and now.

The crowd responds to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s restoration of voting and civil rights to 206,000 neighbors.

(Photo Credit 1: New York Times / Chet Strange) (Photo Credit 2: Richmond Times-Dispatch / Mark Gormus)

“My rape was awful. But the way the police handled it was even worse.”

 


On Sunday, February 27, Buzzfeed reported at length on the story of Lara McLeod. It’s a devastating, all too familiar story. In brief, Lara McLeod was raped by the fiancé of her sister, Hera McLeod. Hera had given birth two weeks earlier. Traumatized, Lara went home and, the next day, told her parents. They immediately went and retrieved Hera and Prince, the two-week-old. To do that safely, they called the police in. That’s where the awful became the unbearable.

The police called Lara in, interrogated her, compelled her to file a complaint and then arrested Lara for filing a false complaint and charged Hera with aiding in the deceit. From there, it just gets worse. You can read the Buzzfeed account for yourself. The rape and arrest occurred in 2011. Using the charges against Hera, her fiancé won unsupervised visits. Three months later, Prince was found unconscious on his father’s apartment floor. The fifteen-month-old died the next day. The fiancé’s trial on murder is coming up soon. Hera has moved on, as best she can. Lara is struggling.

This story occurs in the leafy well-to-do suburbs of Prince William County, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, but it could as easily occur in the leafy suburbs anywhere. Every step of the way, every single time the State was called in, from the police to the courthouse, the State did more than merely fail these two women. It assaulted them. A French report on this case notes that in France, of women who report being survivors of sexual violence, only 4 percent have reported the crime formally. In the United States, the situation is the same. In South Africa, according to the Medical Research Council, one in nine rapes are reported to the police.

Why are the numbers so low? There are many reasons. Here’s Lara McLeod’s answer, “The night I was raped, I said I wanted to be left alone. People say rape is serious and you should report it, but look what happened to me: I reported my rape, and they told me it never happened.”

Buzzfeed and others have described the police investigation as “botched.” It wasn’t. Virginia, and beyond it the State, got exactly what it wanted, what it pushes strenuously to get: a woman living with trauma, agony and pain who has learned to silently absorb injustice directed at her as a woman. To botch means to clumsily repair or to bungle. No one clumsily repaired or bungled the investigation. No one cared enough to botch the investigation. How do I know?

Every year, on Prince’s birthday, Hera McLeod sends a letter to the two Prince William County police officers whom she holds responsible for the death of her son: “This year, she included a photo of Prince with his two front teeth in, smiling and sitting on a red truck — with his birth and death dates printed above. `On July 1st, 2015, I would have turned four,’ the card said. `May you always remember how the decisions you make impact the lives of innocent people. I will never forget you. I pray you will never forget about me.’ This year, Kimberly Norton, one of the two officers who charged the McLeod sisters, put the card in a new envelope and mailed it back to Hera unopened. She rewrote her return address in block letters. Not Detective Norton, as Hera had written, but “SGT K. NORTON.” She had been promoted. So had Detective Cavender.”

The State got what it wanted. It’s time for us to get the State we want.

 

(Image Credit 1: Buzzfeed) (Image Credit 2: Slate.fr)

Turn “Jeff Davis” into Arthur Ashe. Do it now!

IMG_3775

If you live in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, California, or Washington, you might live near Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. That’s right. From sea to shining sea, from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border, Jefferson Davis is “honored” and, presumably, you are honored to drive in his memory.

In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy designed, planned and sponsored the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway system, which was to extend from Washington, DC, to San Diego. Their plan was to overlay the Confederacy onto the map of the United States, an ocean-to-ocean highway that would compete with the Lincoln Highway. While the coordinated highway system no longer exists, in each of the states mentioned above, parts of it survive, and under the name Jefferson Davis Highway.

In 2002, when Washington State Representative Hans Dunshee proposed changing the name of Washington’s Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, he ran into a whirlwind of opposition, because nothing says the Pacific Northwest like … the Confederacy and the war to preserve slavery. As Dunshee noted, “People are saying, ‘Oh, Jeff Davis was into roads for the Northwest.’ That’s their cover. But let’s be clear. This memorial was not put up by the AAA. It was put up to glorify the Confederacy.” The president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy weighed in, complaining that the change would “cause more hard feelings and certainly will not unify our country.”

When Dunshee first discovered the presence of the Confederacy in his home state, he said, “I was astonished that it was there. And then I was disgusted.” Disgust is a good response. Dunshee’s disgust only deepened, once he received calls telling him “to go back to Africa and take all of his kind with him.” Hans Dunshee’s “kind” would be German and Irish.

Nine years later, in 2011, in Arlington, Virginia, the Arlington County Board renamed a part called the Old Jefferson Davis Highway. It’s now the Long Bridge Drive. Why the name change? As then-County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman explained, “I have a problem with ‘Jefferson Davis’ [in the road’s name]. There are aspects of our history I’m not particularly interested in celebrating.”

While the “Old Jefferson Davis Highway” was part of the original Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, it wasn’t included in the Commonwealth’s 1922 designation of the Jefferson Davis Highway, and so Arlington County could change the name, once it convinced opponents that perhaps the real “importance of history” is not its repetition but rather its analysis and critique.

Meanwhile, the rest of Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in Virginia falls under the Commonwealth administration, and so any change there must go through Richmond.

The lesson of history has to be that people can change their histories and themselves for the better; that we don’t happen upon progress, we make progress happen. From Washington, DC, to Charleston to Washington State, make freedom ring. Move from astonishment to disgust to astonishment. Tear down the flag; rewrite the name. In Virginia, turn “Jeff Davis” into Arthur Ashe, a proud son of Virginia of whom we are all proud. Do it now. It’s the least we can do.

 

(`Jeff Davis’ Photo Credit: author’s photo) (Arthur Ashe Photo Credit: Charles Tasnadi / Associated Press)

What happened to Natasha McKenna? The routine torture of cell extraction

In early February, Natasha McKenna was killed by six officers in the Fairfax County Jail, in northern Virginia near Washington, DC. McKenna was 37 years old. She was the mother of a 7-year-old daughter. She was living with schizophrenia. She was a diminutive woman, 5 feet 3 inches, 130 pounds. And she was Black.

She was killed during a so-called cell extraction, when six deputies tackled her and took care of business: “She was handcuffed behind her back, shackled around the legs, a hobble strap connected to both restraints, and a spit mask placed over her face.” Natasha McKenna continued to `resist’. An officer shot Natasha McKenna at least four times with a Taser, at point blank range: “Ms. McKenna … stopped breathing shortly thereafter, and her heart ceased beating. Although her heart was restarted, she died a few days later without regaining consciousness.”

Natasha McKenna was arrested by Fairfax County police on a warrant from Alexandria, for an incident that begged for help rather than punishment. Both Alexandria and Fairfax County police knew of Natasha McKenna’s mental illness history. Because Natasha McKenna was officially Alexandria’s prisoner, Fairfax couldn’t petition to have her placed in mental health care. Fairfax says it called Alexandria police three times, trying to have them pick up McKenna, but no one came. Now, Alexandria is “doing [its] own investigation on [its] practices on picking up inmates in other jurisdictions.” Alexandria, Fairfax County, and the local media are investigating, and Natasha McKenna is dead.

Hers was a violent death, as indicated by two black eyes, a badly bruised arm, and a finger that had to be amputated. But more than a violent death, Natasha McKenna’s death is just another typical day in the empire of cell extractions. Last year, San Diego faced street demonstrations and court proceedings for the routine violence meted out to juveniles during cell extractions. Earlier this month, a judge re-opened the case of Charles Jason Toll, who was killed in a cell extraction last year in Riverbend Maximum Security, in Tennessee. Last week, a judge dropped all charges against prisoner Louis Flack in the Knox County Jail, in Tennessee, in large part because of the beating he’d received during a so-called cell extraction.

Natasha McKenna joins Aura Rosser, Kyera Singleton, Shae Ward, Shirley Beckley, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Rekia Boyd, and a slew of other Black women killed by the State’s peacekeepers. Black women whose lives and violent deaths are covered in public and even more national silence.

These are the layers of silence: “Officials in Fairfax … have stonewalled and balked in Ms. McKenna’s case… The six sheriff’s deputies at the jail have been neither identified nor removed from regular duty… Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid, who runs the county jail, has issued no new directives to her deputies regarding use of force, deployment of Tasers or procedures for cell extractions. She says a policy review is under way; there is no evidence of it… In Fairfax, where the state medical examiner has still not issued a cause of death for Ms. McKenna, the police investigation is frozen.”

It is time. It is way past time for the Justice Department to step in. It is time to break the silence surrounding the violence of cell extractions. How many more must die before we realize our part in the deaths? How many more must suffer excruciating pain before we realize our role in the commission of torture? How many more Black women must endure the assault on their bodies and persons by the State before we realize that we are that State?

What happened to Natasha McKenna? Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Just another day in the killing fields.

 

(Photo Credit: Legal Momentum)

Virginia `pays’ for decades of forced sterilization of women

 

On Thursday, February 26, the Virginia legislature agreed to pay $25,000 in compensation to those who had suffered forced sterilization during the Commonwealth’s decades long adventure in eugenics. From 1924 to 1979, over 8000 people were involuntarily sterilized under the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act. It’s believed that 65,000 people nationwide were forcibly sterilized, and so, at over 12% of the total, Virginia holds pride of place. But there’s more. Virginia was the model for many states across the United States and for the German Nazi eugenics program. The line from Richmond to the Third Reich is direct.

More than a fifth of those sterilized in Virginia were African American, and more than two-thirds were women. Virginia’s longstanding war on Black women took many shapes, and the argument was always security and the well being of something called society. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s sterilization program. In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” By enough, he meant too much.

Virginia’s sterilization program sat comfortably at the intersection of gender, race, class, disability, and confinement. The overwhelming majority of those sterilized were “patients” of state institutions. They weren’t patients; they were prisoners.

In 1985, Virginia finally agreed to inform survivors of their sterilization and to provide them with counseling services. In 2002, then Governor Mark Warner formally apologized for Virginia’s shameful part in eugenics. In 2014, Delegate Patrick Hope, from Arlington County, began pushing for compensation, and that’s what was established yesterday. Yesterday, Del. Hope explained, “I think it’s a recognition when we do something wrong we need to fix it as a government. Now we can close this final chapter and healing can begin.”

Does healing begin this way? The compensation is a step in the right direction. At the same time, the survivors number only eleven. More to the point, what of the system of law, medicine, education, and State that supported the forced sterilization of over 5000 women, all in the name of preserving the health and well being of something called society? That healing has not begun, not while so many of their sisters, nieces, grand nieces, and the list goes on, languish in prisons and jails across the Commonwealth, and across the nation, today. The kind of healing of which Delegate Hope speaks and for which he yearns cannot be purchased. It is not for sale. It must emerge from sustained recognition of responsibility combined with recognition of the subjects of this history. Women. Black women. Black women living with disabilities. Poor Black women living with disabilities. That healing has yet to begin.

 

(Photo Credit: The Institute for Southern Studies)

End the epidemic of mass incarceration of women!

 


Once again, the celebration of Thanksgiving, in the United States, coincides with the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women. One way to acknowledge that intersection could be to address the place of mass incarceration of women. The New York Times lead editorial today, “Mass Imprisonment and Public Health”, argues that incarceration has reached epidemic proportions, and, they insist, when they say “epidemic”, they mean that as literal, not figurative. Nebraska legislators this week heard that, in their state, prisons and jails have become the leading institutions for health care provision for those living with mental illness: “In Nebraska, the Douglas County Jail holds the most mentally ill people.” The legislators heard of the mental illness of people as they enter prison and jail, and they heard of the mental health crises engendered by rampant use of solitary confinement. In Boston, on Tuesday, when over a thousand people marched in solidarity with Ferguson residents and protesters, they marched to the South Bay House of Corrections, chanting, “Black lives matter!” and “We see you!”

We see you. Where are the women in this vision?

On Tuesday, inmates at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women reached a settlement with the Virginia women’s prison. In 2012, five prisoners, represented by the Legal Aid Justice Center, sued the prison, claiming that the medical care was so bad that it violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Last week, a Federal judge extended the suit to a class action suit, covering all 1200 prisoners. The judge also ruled that hiring a contractor doesn’t absolve state prison officials of their responsibility to provide adequate health care. He further ruled that the women had serious medical needs. When the State heard that, they caved, and the settlement ensued.

What’s going on here? A Vera Institute report issued last week gives one version, under the title GREATER HEALTH DISPARITIES FOR WOMEN: “The number of women imprisoned in the U.S. increased nearly 6.5-fold from 1980 to 2010. Today, women comprise about 7 percent of all prisoners and 13 percent of all local jail populations, and face a greater burden of disease than incarcerated men, which is partly explained by disturbingly high rates of sexual victimization, substance use, and trauma. An estimated 6 percent are preg­nant, with the majority having conceived within 3 months of release from a prior incarceration. A significant percentage of these women have not seen an obstetrician on a regular basis prior to incarceration and are in unhealthy states due to substance use and malnutrition prior to entering custody. While a structured environment, regular meals, and access to care can improve birth outcomes, according to a recent survey, state prisons often fail to use best prac­tices and established standards when caring for pregnant women.”

Additionally, “Today, about 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jails have a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder, compared to 3.2 and 4.9 percent respectively in the general population … Women experience higher rates of sexual victimization than men. A 2008 survey found three times as many females (13.7 percent) reported being sexually victimized by another prisoner than males (4.2 percent); and that twice as many women reported being sexually victimized by staff.”

All of this happens under the title of “correction.” What exactly is the State “correcting” when it violates women’s rights, bodies, lives, hopes and dreams, and does so without compunction? What is the public policy here that condemns women on the basis of their gender? Want to end violence against women? End the epidemic of mass incarceration of women. Do it now.

 

(Image Credit: Vera Institute of Justice)