Remember the women in labor, because no one else will

In August, I lost my great-aunt.

She was 95 years old and was in relatively good health at the time. She worked from the moment she turned 13, and then, after she retired, went on to perform unpaid reproductive labor, taking care of her nieces and nephews, their children, and their children’s children. She was also an avid smoker, and we had assumed (at least partially correctly) that the new diagnosis of lung cancer was because of that. However, as we spoke more clearly with the hospice nurse, we realized that it was not only the two packs of Pall Mall golds she inhaled into her lungs a day that did her in, but her nearly 40 year career as a seamstress in a sweatshop, with the small particles of fabric every single day on her industrial grade sewing machine. 

How many people have received such dramatic diagnoses, and had it blamed on preconceived personal failings? How many people have injuries that are from years of the same, monotonous work without the employer taking the blame? And what about the women who face being labeled as invisible in the labor movements to address these issues? Because women need to remain a rather loud voice in the labor movement. We have always been the face of precarious labor.

I worked in a supermarket. Our union consisted largely of women, since it represented the bakery department. Highly gendered, as the creation of delicate pastries and pies is quintessentially a woman’s job, if they aren’t baking it home. Seriously, look at your local grocery store and you’ll see how gendered something as simple as picking up loaves of bread can really be. But…I digress.

The union rep was a man. The union president is a man. The union leaders remain men. Men who most likely have been out of the industry for a good twenty to thirty years. The secretaries are the women. And the people they represent are women. 

Do they understand the injuries we face daily? Do they understand that, after constant years of heavy lifting and labor, we face burns that never quite heal, carpal tunnel from squeezing pastry bags that require surgery down the line? Are they fighting for the long term physical issues we will have?

I have severe carpal tunnel in my left hands. I have muscles that hurt like a sixty year old woman. At 27, it is probably caused by my standing every day in the same place, or lifting heavy boxes. 

Those pains and injuries are not thought of, especially after we’re gone. They are labeled as inconsequential. Well, would you look at that! You have bad arthritis. Must’ve been your job, eh? Our injuries persist because of our labor and, as women, we bear that brunt because we are moved into the precarious workforce, where injuries exist, but are rarely seen until it’s too late. 

I am constantly thinking of my Tanty, of her aches and pains. The arthritis that caused her to walk with a limp and be unable to lift her arm above her head. The chronic bronchitis and heart failures, and trips to the emergency room for more of a tune-up than anything. Because she couldn’t get better. Her labor and work in the sweatshop is what killed her. Imagine where that labor has been shipped off to if it’s no longer in the United States. And the women who are laboring under worse conditions for those pieces of commodities. The women who most definitely will not make it to 95.

We need to defend our insurance, we need to continue to organize for women’s right and organize for women workers. Because at this point, who else will?

In Sudan, “this revolution is women’s revolution!”

In Sudan, on December 19, 2018, people took to the streets to protest a precipitous rise in bread prices. Since then, protests have persisted and grown. As so often in food uprisings, the price of food was the visible spark that revealed an undergrowth of fire, and, as so often, women of Sudan set and sustained the sparkOn June 3, freedom loving, democracy building people, `civilians’, `protesters’ were butchered by the so-called Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, under the leadership of Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, also known as Hemeti, also known as the Frankenstein of Khartoum.The RSF are also known as the Janjaweed, the group that terrorized Darfur for years, with particularly brutal violence against women. Killing at least 128 people, brutalizing everyone, raping women en masse, was meant to intimidate the masses, especially the women, into silence and submission. It didn’tOn June 30, in response to a call for a “millions march”, hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets. Eleven people were killed. On Monday, a call was issued for mass civil disobedience on July 14. Your news media may or may not be covering these events, but, in Sudan, the revolution continues, and, in Sudan, this revolution is women’s revolution: “Throughout Sudan’s ongoing revolution, women have led the chants for freedom, justice and peace.” Women have led and women are leading.

While Sudanese women attach a multitude of meanings and aspirations to freedom, justice and peace, they are united and uniform in their insistence that the military step down and turn over power to civilian authority. To that end, the women are united in their determination that the movement in Sudan for freedom, justice and peace is a revolutionary movement. That means that those who committed atrocities, and particularly those who used rape and other forms of sexual violence and intimidation as a weapon of State, will be held accountable. While many women differ on what sorts of freedom they want, for women, for everyone, they are clear and united in the determination that this is the moment to broaden and deepen the space(s) for freedom, for women and for everyone. 

For 30 years, Sudanese women have organized and mobilized to end the dictatorship and to establish a just, egalitarian, democratic, free society and nation-State. For 30 years, women in Sudan have refused to sit down, shut up, disappear. When the current regime shut the internet, women opened windows and doors, as they have done for the past three decades. In Sudan, today, women are organizing, mobilizing, chanting, singing, refusing to be shut down or shut out, demanding freedom, chanting, “Long live the struggle of Sudanese women!” “This revolution is women’s revolution!”

(Photo Credit 1: Global Fund for Women) (Photo Credit 2: BBC / EPA)

India votes and `suffers’ women prisoners and their children. And we call it democracy.

Elections matter. Australia voted, catastrophically, and immediately after suicide attempts and other forms of self-harm spiked among refugee and asylum seeker prisoners on Manus Island and Nauru. Elections matter. India voted, catastrophically, and the news for women inmates in prisons and jails across India is grim. The last five years of the Modi regime have meant ongoing and increasing violation of women prisoners’ rights, autonomy and well-being, on one hand, and a policy of increased opacity, on the other. In both instance, Australia and India, the State blames the women and children for the violence and torture the State visits upon their bodies and souls … and they call it democracy.

India went to the polls from April 11 to May 23. While it had little or no impact, the same week the elections began, the National Crimes Record Bureau, NCRB, finally released its Prison Statistics India 2016 Report. That report came in after an unexplained years’ long delay. The Prison Statistics India 2015 Report was issued in a timely manner in September 2016. The 2015 Report opens: “I am privileged to release the 21stedition of `Prison Statistics India’ for the year 2015, an annual publication of National Crime Records Bureau since the year 1995.” In 1996, the National Crime Records Bureau was tasked with publishing an annual report on the conditions in India’s prisons and jails. For 21 years, it did so, dutifully and faithfully. And then … it stopped. This silence concerning the conditions of prisons, jails and, most importantly, prisoners was matched by an equivalent “failure” by the NCRB to publish its annual Crime In India report for 2017. This was the first “failure” of this annual report since 1953. Taken together, the lack of reporting begins to look more like refusal than failure: “All this has happened on the watch of a government that is known for being less than forthright about official data.”

This refusal to provide detailed data continues throughout the Prison Statistics India 2016 Report. Most glaringly, the new report says nothing about caste or religion. Whereas earlier reports described, in detail, the situation and conditions in prisons and jails for Dalits, members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, members of religious minorities, especially Muslim, this last `report’, the methodology of which is ostensibly the same as previous reports, says nothing. According to the most recent census, 16.6% of India is Dalit, while Dalits made up 21.4% of India’s prison and jail population. Likewise, Scheduled Tribes make up 8.6% of the Indian population and 12.8% of the prison and jail population. Many noted these discrepancies and strove to address them. The Modi regime has addressed them by erasing not only categories but whole sectors of the population. This is not failure to represent, this is refusal to represent, and it’s part and parcel of the caste and religion-based politics of the Modi regime and of his political party.

Where are the women in this picture? Everywhere and nowhere. Before the latest report came out, it was already known that prisons and jails in India are particularly damaging to women. First, they’re designed for men. Second, they have less access to facilities and resources within prisons and jails. Third, they have less access to resources outside of prisons and jails. For example, “a woman, nearly 70 years old, has been in jail for the past 18 months on kidnapping and rape charges … While five others, including two male co-accused, have been released on bail, she continues to be behind bars. Having lost her husband during her incarceration, she has no one to reach out to. What purpose is being served by keeping her inside?”

Further, over the preceding fifteen years, the rate of men’s incarceration has increased by 33%, while that of women has grown by 61%. Despite this growth of women’s incarceration, neither budgets nor infrastructure has increased. Thus, the women’s prisons are severely overcrowded and filthy; the food and hygiene are deplorable; and there is virtually no physical and mental health care. For Dalit and Adivasi women, the conditions are predictably worse. According to a recent study, “76% (279 prisoners) of prisoners sentenced to death in India belong to backward classes and religious minorities, with all 12 female prisoners belonging to backward classes and religious minorities.” None of this is in the most recent NCRB report.

The NCRB report does provide some data, and the most salient fact is that 67% of India’s prisoners are “undertrial”, meaning awaiting trial … meaning officially innocent. From 2014 to 2016, the number of undertrial, or remand, prisoners rose 3.6%, from 282,879 to 293,058 in 2016. Close to 71% of undertrial prisoners are deemed illiterate or low literate. While among convicted prisoners, prisoners 30 – 50 years old predominate, among undertrials the majority are 18 to 30 years old. 72% of women prisoners are awaiting trial. Much more than with male prisoners, women prisoners are overwhelming young, minimally educated, poor … and formally innocent. Additionally, there are 1,809 children in prisons and jails across India, and they all are cared for by their mothers, women prisoners. Of the 1809 children living behind bars, 78% of their mothers are awaiting trial, minimally educated, poor … and formally innocent. 

Elections matter. Information matters. Transparency matters. Democracy matters. The United States “discovered” this week that a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador died in custody, last September, and that the State lied and hid that girl-child’s death. We are dismayed but not shocked or surprised. Refugee and asylum prisoners in Australia engage in increased self-harm and suicide attempts following the Australian national elections. Some are finally, in some cases after five-year delays, sent to the mainland for `care’. India cages more and more Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim young women and children, all formally innocent, and covers it in the civil equivalent of the fog of war. And we call it democracy.

(Photo Credit: The Tribune India)

Where are the women? In jail. In prison. On probation. There is nothing to celebrate here.

Yesterday, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released two reports, Prisoners in 2017 and Jail Inmates in 2017. Headlines would suggest that the United States is beginning its exit from decades of mass incarceration: “Prison populations decline again, Justice Department report shows”; “Crime Is Down, Yet U.S. Incarceration Rates Are Still Among the Highest in the World”. The picture is not that simple. First, six states account for much of the decline: Alaska, Connecticut, California, New Jersey, New York, Vermont. Even there, the picture is muddy. In California, for example, much of the prison population decline has resulted from moving people from prisons to jails. Predictably, that move has resulted in rising death rates in jails across California. Meanwhile, according to the Vera Institute, 19 states saw increases of prison population: Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Where are the women in all of this mixed picturing? Everywhere, and for women, the picture continues to be clear and grim.

At the end of 2017, women comprised 7% of the total prison population. From 2016 to 2017, the number of women in prison fell by 0.4%, while the number of men in prison fell by 1.3%. From 2007 to 2017, the number of women in prison fell by 2.6%, while the number of men in prison fell by 7.1%. From 2009 to 2017, the number of men in prison has fallen every single year from the year before. For women, that is not at all the case. The numbers have fluctuated up and down from year to year, and for the last three years have remained more or less constant. States with the highest prison rates for women are, in descending order: Oklahoma, Kentucky, South Dakota, Idaho. The prison rates for Black women is almost double that for White women; 18- and 19-year old Black women are 4.4 times more likely than White women of the same age to be in prison. Finally, 25% of women in state prisons had been convicted of a drug offense. 14% of men in state prisons were in for drug offenses. 

The picture in jails is worse.  From 2005 to 2017, the incarceration rate of women in jails grew by 10%; for men it dropped by 12%. The male population in jails went from 649,300 in 2010 to 628,2000 in 2017. The female population in jails went from 91,900 in 2010 to 113,4000 in 2017: “From 2005 to 2017, the female jail population grew by 20%, while the male population experienced a small decline (3%). As a result, the percentage of the jail population that was female increased from 12.6% to 15.2%.” 

As the Prison Policy Initiative, PPI, noted last year, women are disproportionately dumped into local jails. 60% of women “under local control” are remand prisoners. They have not been convicted of anything and are awaiting trial. State and federal agencies contract with local jails, and so around 13,000 state and federal women prisoners are housed in jails. Finally, again according to the Prison Policy Initiative, taking into account the impact of disproportionate use of jails for women leaves the picture largely undone, because 74% of women “under control of any U.S. correctional system” are actually on probation, which is another way of saying are ever more precariously positioned to return to jail or prison.

There is nothing to celebrate in this week’s reports from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Until the same attention and resources are directed towards decarcerating women, until reports of “prison populations” actually report on women prisoners, the struggle continues. Last year, it was reported that of 714,000 women and girls held in penal institutions across the world, close to 212,000 were women and girls held in institutions in the United States. Close to 30% of all imprisoned women and girls anywhere in the world are located in the United States. The United States has the highest rate of female imprisonment of any country in the world. There is nothing to celebrate here. 

(Infographic Credit: Prison Policy Initiative)

The latest bandwagon of anti-abortion bills in the US: Heartbeat or heartless?

The “heartbeat bill,” a euphemism for a fetus endowed with life, conjures in people’s minds the villains of mother and, in some cases, the State, murdering the person in the womb. Since Roe v Wade, the anti-abortion movement in the U.S has launched strategies to establish the personhood of the fetus. Numerous initiatives over the past 30 years in many states have tried to establish that full life as a person starts at the moment of conception.  The heartbeat bill in Mississippi signed by Gov. Phil Bryant on March 21st2019 was just the next step after the failure of initiative 26 Life Begins at the Moment of Fertilization Amendment (2011).  The move from Initiative 26 to the heartbeat bill is easy transition. The heartbeat bill effectively dramatizes the war between mother and womb-inhabitant to a new level—to the very tip of the iceberg: the banning of abortion. Period. Roe v Wade that has somehow survived for 40 years, often barely a whisper in many states lately, seems to be in the middle of its death rattle in others. In the first quarter of 2019, the heartbeat bill was introduced successively in Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas, Utah, Mississippi, and Missouri. 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, “governors in four states (Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Utah) signed a total of eight measures that ban abortion in one way or another. Similar measures passed the legislature in Arkansas and Georgia and were adopted by one chamber of the legislature in six other states…. So far this year, these restrictions have been enacted in Kentucky and Mississippi; passed the legislature in Georgia; and passed one chamber of the legislature in Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. The new law in Kentucky would have gone into effect immediately, but a federal district court issued an order blocking enforcement. The Mississippi legislation is scheduled to take effect in July. Only two other states, Iowa and North Dakota, have ever enacted six-week abortion bans, both of which have been struck down by the courts.” 

In addition to the heartbeat bill, Kentucky has already passed laws restricting private insurance coverage of abortions, mandating a 24-hour waiting period and parental consent for minors. Like Mississippi, Kentucky has only one abortion clinic. One can see clearly how women are severely restricted from obtaining abortions.

What is cruel about the heartbeat bill? According to this bill, women can terminate their pregnancy before 6 weeks. How can this be possible when women generally find out they are pregnant only after 6 weeks? “Some physicians won’t even perform abortions before around six weeks of pregnancy; an embryo at that stage is so small that it might not be visible on an ultrasound, which is used to ensure that a pregnancy is not ectopic, or growing outside the uterus.”

If the heartbeat bill is not a weapon against women’s bodies, their fundamental right to their bodies, the choice to give birth or not, I don’t know what is! As Brigitte Marti says, “One of the great mistakes is to look at the demise of women’s rights as an isolated event. Soaring inequality and legislative measures to control women’s health and rights work together to disempower women and civil society.”

What’s more, many of the states where the heartbeat bill has passed or is in the legislative process have a shortage of obstetricians and have high maternal death rates.

This heartless law targets minority and poor women. How can the United States boast about being the spokesperson for women’s rights when it is shackling women and keeping them imprisoned in age-old ideas about sexuality, contraception, reproduction, and health? It feels as if the major legislative triumphs of women’s equal participation in society and to themselves are being severely undercut by restrictive anti-abortion laws like the latest heartbeat bill.

We see these restrictions on women’s rights happening worldwide. Even in a country like India where abortion has been legal since 1971, the number of unsafe abortions are at a record 25 million, abortion is legal only until 20 weeks, exceptions do exist, but the stipulation is that the woman be married. “An amendment was proposed in the MTP Act by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in October 2014. The bill proposed certain very valid propositions, such as extension of the legal abortion limit to 24 weeks,” but it was dead in the water.

It is truly disheartening when women themselves are the strongest voices proclaiming the need to make abortion illegal. But we need to keep voicing the injustice in the bills and highlight the harm it does to the poor, people of color, and women in general and make the connection between reproductive rights and our equality as human beings. We don’t want to say “before the law,” because we need the law to recognize that we are indeed humans with full rights before we can legitimately stand before the law.

(Photo Credit: Rewire)

In India, women forest dwellers saved the trees, lost the woods, saved the woods, lost the forest

In 2006, India passed The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, known as the Recognition of Forest Rights Act. While not perfect, the Act was a step in the right direction. It was “a weapon for democracy in the forest”, because, for the first time, the State recognized and secured community and individual rights over common property resources; rights in and over disputed land rights concerning land use; right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage the forest; right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge related to biodiversity and cultural diversity; rights of displaced communities; and, finally, rights over developmental activities. That act came after decades of struggle by forest dependent communities. Women were at the core of those struggles. This week, with one court decisionmillions of forest dependent communities, often called the most vulnerable of thevulnerable, were informed that they were to be evicted by July 24. It is estimated that as many as 2,300,000 families will ultimately be affected by this decision. Who are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable? Women and children.

From the moment its inception, the Act was challenged by mining, agricultural and so-called development interests. More recently, some conservationists argued that the forests were dwindling and that the forest dependent populations had to be moved to save the forests. In the case decided this week, the key was the provision of the act by which forest dependent families had to formally lay claim to land. This proved difficult given low levels of formal literacy and often impossible bureaucratic processes. For women, the issue of land titles was complicated by even lower levels of literacy and local traditions that precluded women having title to land. The State colluded with those local traditions. For example, many, if not most, forest households are women-led, because male partners have left, for work or just because, or have died. The State never addressed the particularities of women-headed forest households.

While the conditions for women forest dwellers have been particularly harsh, with increased industrial and State violence against forest-dependent women, women have consistently engaged in individual and collective direct action and mobilization for tribal rights and for tribal women’s rights. From Odisha to Chhattisgarhto Rajasthanand beyond, women self-organized to defend their commons. They carry the legacy of the women’s Chipko movement, from the 1970s in Uttarakhand. On March 25, 1974, Gaura Devi, the leader of the Chipko movement, led local women to confront logging companies about to chop down the trees. Calling the forest her mother’s home, Devi wrapped her body around the trees. The women persisted, and the loggers left. That was the early 1970s. In 2013, a reporter returned to the site and saw that the women had saved the trees … but lost the woods. Now only elders, women, and children live there, since the men have gone, either to find work or just because. Six years later … 

Forty five years, almost to the day, after Gaura Devi and the women of Reni village stood up for the dignity of Niluribhur forest, those women, their daughters and granddaughters have been informed they have five months to vacate. While the world press is paying some attention to this crisis, thus far almost none have noted, or wondered, “Where are the women?” 

Feminist activist scholar Swarna Rajagopalan has asked and answered: “What does it really mean to be an internally displaced person—or a refugee, for those who cross borders in flight? … As a woman, you did not get to go to school for long and you studied another language. How are you to navigate this state’s administrative offices and claim the paperwork, the food and medical assistance and other entitlements that are your due? You fled to survive, but now you have to fight to survive each day … As a woman, maybe stepping out of the house for the first to find employment, you can do domestic or care work. Sometimes you beg; sometimes you trade sexual favours to feed your family. Living on the margins, crowded by strangers, you are visible and vulnerable in so many ways—on the way to a communal toilet; to fetch water; to earn a living; and in your interactions with officials and house-owners. But disadvantaged as you are as a woman, you are not weak. You and your sisters asked questions, protested and stood your ground until the ground itself shifted. Now, after one… two… three displacements, the fight is going out of you …. Some women will miscarry en route; some will give birth in camps. Those children may grow up as ‘IDPs’ or ‘refugees,’ living in camps or IDP settlements all their lives. Small gardens will be planted, rangolis drawn, makeshift temples and churches set up. But they will always remember home. They were once from somewhere else—a lost forest home where they belonged and which truly belonged to them.”

Where are the forest dependent women in the Indian Supreme Court’s decision, in national and regional policies, in press accounts? Everywhere and nowhere. The Forest Dwellers Act recognized the rights of over 200 million individuals living in more than 170,000 villages. This week’s decision is a step in the removal of all 200 million. At every step of that plan and at every instance of resistance, ask, and demand to be answered, “Where are the women?” Everywhere and nowhere is not good enough.

(Infograph Credit: Business Standard) (Photo Credit: Guardian / Anupam Nath / AP)

In Saudi Arabia, reports of torture of women’s rights activists

Loujain Al-Hathloul

Women’s and human rights activists, who have been arrested and arbitrarily detained for their activism, are being abused in Saudi Arabia prisons. Amnesty International obtained new reports of torture and escalating abuse of human rights activists who had been detained since May 2018. Their testimony matched earlier Amnesty reports concerning ten activist women prisoners who were tortured in November 2018. The new reports document that the incarcerated have been subjected to torture, including sexual abuse, during their first three months of detention, when they were detained informally in an unknown location. “One woman activist was wrongly told by an interrogator that her family members had died, and was made to believe this for an entire month. According to another account, two activists were forced to kiss each other while interrogators watched. One activist reported that interrogators had forced water into her mouth as she was shouting while being torture. Others reported being tortured with electric shocks.” 

Earlier reports state that while informally detained, activists were tortured with electric shocks and flogged repeatedly, which caused some to be unable to walk or even stand properly. More recent reports expand the number of activists who have experienced such torture while in prison. 

The activists – including Loujain al-Hathloul; Eman al-Nahjan; Aziza al-Yousef; Shadan al-Anezi; and Nouf Abdulaziz – were moved from the Dhahban Prison in Jeddag to Al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh. Other activists, including Samar Badawi and Amal al-Harbi, are still in Dhahban Prison. Nassima al-Sada was moved to al-Mabahith Prison in Damman. All activists have been detained for months without being formally charged or referred to trial. The crackdown on human rights activists saw a wave of arrests and raids of political and activist organizations, including the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, human rights lawyers and academics. 

Saudi Arabia has dismissed Amnesty’s claims, calling them baseless while also defending their use of their own independent investigation into the allegations. Saudi backed investigators visited the women in prison and interviewed the detainees. Given Saudi Arabia’s involvement  in the killing of journalist and regime-critic Jamal Khashoggi and the high-profile case of 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammad, the latest cases of human rights abuses from the Saudi regime could damage their ability “to attract foreign investment” and so any State-sponsored investigations are highly suspect.

The women and activists detained are being used as political pawns for good international PR in Saudi Arabia. Insiders have hoped that the women will be released in time to coincide with a signification international event, like the 2020 G20 Summit set to be held in Riyadh. They hope the Saudi regime will attempt to wrap up any more “embarrassing things” on the international stage before the meeting is set to take place. Activists like Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo, and groups of other academics, are working to nominate al-Hatloul for the Nobel Peace Prize, with the hope that the importance of the nomination highlights “a young person who wants nothing more than to see half of her country have the same legal rights as the other half.” 

(Photo Credit: CBC)

Why does Wales insist on incarcerating so many women?

Wales, England and Scotland lead Western Europe in rates of incarceration

Today, the Wales Governance Centreat Cardiff University released a report, Sentencing and Immediate Custody in Wales: A Factfile. It’s the first report to disaggregate Wales incarceration figures from those of England. Wales has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, with England a close second. Wales comes in at 148 per 100,000; England at 141 per 100,000; Scotland at 135 per 100,000 and bursting at the seams. Northern Ireland lags with a mere 78 per 100,000. (The United States clocks in at 698 per 100,000). The numbers in Wales reflect a State criminal justice system that is deeply racist and misogynist. The report concludes, “While the discovery that Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe is a cause of major concern, equally disturbing is that such an alarming trend has emerged in Wales without detection.” The alarming trend is “that non-White Welsh prisoners are overrepresented in prison and that the likelihood of receiving a short-term sentence is greater for those sentenced in Wales than in England.” Who receives the short-term sentences? Women.

Women: “Women are more likely to be given shorter custodial sentences than men. More than three quarters (78.6%) of all females sentenced to immediate custody in Wales between 2010 and 2017 were handed sentences of less than 12 months. This compared to 67% of male offenders sentenced in Wales during this period. The frequent use of short-term sentences often brings considerable `chaos and disruption’ to the lives of women and their families. Recent research has also shown that women sentenced to short-term custodial sentences are more likely to re-offend than those sentenced to a court order … One in four women (24.8%) sentenced to immediate custody in Wales were sentenced to a period of one month or less in prison between 2010 and 2017. This compared to a rate of 15.2% for men in Wales.”

At one level, none of this is new. England and Wales, taken together, have had the highest prison population rate in Western Europe since 1999Year after year after year, the incidence of women’s suicide and women’s self-harm while in custody has broken previous records. What is new is that Wales is worse, and that the cornerstone of being Incarcerator Number One is race and gender. The report does not provide intersectional data, for example the treatment of Black women in Wales, but one can only imagine that if it’s bad of Black people and it’s bad for women…

Why does Wales insist on incarcerating so many women? Protection. The State is [a] protecting women from themselves and [b] protecting women as vulnerable beings. Women are being arrested more often for minor offenses, and then are being imprisoned for short periods of time, all this despite volumes of research that document that short-term “custodial sentences” do not work. Put differently, they succeed in further and more deeply enmeshing women into prison networks. What is the mechanism that combines pipeline and revolving door? Ask the women of Wales. For women, living in Wales, “one of the poorest parts of the UK”, has become both a survival to prison pipeline and a never-ending and ever faster spinning revolving door. Tell the Welch government, tell the “justice agencies in Wales as well as civil society organisations and academic researchers” that living as a woman is not a crime.

(Infographic: BBC)

Born, not in a manger, but in a prison cell or to a woman whose legs were shackled

The year ends with a childbirth in New York in which the mother, Jane Doe, was shackled, even though New York law prohibits that, and the report of a childbirth in Western Australia where the mother was thrown into a cell and left, alone, to give birth, alone. In one instance, those who came arrived with chains; in the other, no one came at all. For the past few years, we’ve followed and shared the stories of those born, not in a manger, but rather in solitary confinement or in a prison cell and those born to women whose legs were shackled. Today’s a good day to remember those, and so, without further ado …

Let’s talk of those women who were thrown into cells, alone, to give birth.

Texas’ Minimum Security Death Row for Women:  In 2013, in Texas, Autumn Miller was force to give birth to Gracie Miller in a holding cell toilet. Guards then rushed in, shackled and handcuffed the mother, and took mother and daughter to the hospital. Gracie died four days later, in her shackled mother’s handcuffed arms.

How many women are forced to give birth in solitary confinement?: In 2014, Nicole Guerrerofiled a lawsuit against the Wichita County Jail, in Texas, and others for having forced her to give birth in solitary. The baby died. It’s a terrible story, and it’s an increasingly common one.

In England, women in prison give birth without midwife. Who cares?: In November 2018, a report detailed the conditions of childbirth in England’s prisons. The study centered on Layla who was forced to give birth without any care, 

In Western Australia, Bandyup Women’s Prison is still (akin to) torture: In December 2018, the Inspector of Custodial Services for Western Australia released a report that focused on the experiences of Amy, an Indigenous woman who was forced to give birth, alone, in a prison cell.

In each instance, the women – Autumn Miller; Nicole Guerrero; Layla; Amy – said they were in labor, and in each instance, the staff disbelieved and did nothing … or worse.

Let’s talk about shackling women in childbirth:

Women prisoners haunt the modern era: Our journey begins in 2009, when New York State passed the anti-shackling Bill S01290A, which “prohibits the use of any restraints during labor”. Remember that, and remember that it was 2009.

Did Mother’s Day end early this year?: In 2010, Pennsylvania passed its own anti-shackling law. In 2014, pregnant women prisoners were still being shackled, routinely, including during childbirth.

In New York, Jane Doe was shackled in childbirth, despite New York’s anti-shackling laws: And finally, just this month, “Jane Doe” sued the NYPD because, earlier in the year, they had insisted on shackling her, in childbirth, despite the prohibition on such shackling since 2009.

So, where is that shining star, the one that will lead us to healthy childbirths for all, irrespective of status and location? States are passing anti-shackling laws:

Shackling the birthing, dead and dying: All in a day’s work: In 2014, Nevada outlawed shackling women in childbirth, thanks largely to Valorie Nabors, who had been incarcerated in the at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center and refused to accept the shackling she had undergone as inevitable or acceptable.

In January 2014, Maryland passed the Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women Act. In February 2014, Massachusetts stopped shackling women in childbirth. In March 2018, North Carolina stoped shackling women in childbirth.

The news has been difficult … and partial. Jails are largely opaque and seldom report the conditions of childbirth. Immigration detention centers are worse. When laws are passed, as in New York and Pennsylvania, constant monitoring and intervention is needed. But for now, let us thank the wise women and their supporters who campaign tirelessly for the dignity of women … everywhere. The struggle continues.

In Maryland’s women’s prison last year, Emily Butler didn’t die. She was executed.

Maryland has one women’s prison, the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, MCIW. On November 12, 2017, 28-year-old Emily Butler was “found dead in her cell from an apparent suicide.” Emily Butler wasn’t “in her cell”; she was in solitary confinement, which Maryland claims does not exist in its prisons. On Friday, Disability Rights Maryland and a community fellow from the Open Society Institute of Baltimore released their findings concerning Emily Butler’s death. The report’s findings are both grim and all too familiar. Emily Butler was not “found dead”. She was executed, by the State of Maryland.

Starting in 2008, Emily Butler had been receiving community-based mental health services for depressive, bipolar, and post-traumatic stress disorders. MCIW knew of her conditions. Remember that the staff knew all about Emily Butler’s psychiatric history. On Friday, November 10, 2017, Emily Butler and a friend argued. Butler threw coffee at her friend. Her friend was not injured, but Emily Butler was thrown into solitary confinement. There she stayed until her death. She was only allowed outside of her cell to bathe. According to the Disability Rights Maryland report, “Ms. Butler was not a danger to herself or others in MCIW because she acted impulsively and threw coffee on her friend during a dispute. Her friend was not injured and did not want to see Ms. Butler placed in segregation. Her segregation sentence was about punishment, not safety. Ms. Butler only became a danger to herself after she was placed in segregation.”

Emily Butler took the isolation hard. First, solitary confinement is torture. Second, Emily Butler had reason to expect that she was going to be paroled in April 2018, and a stay in segregation would delay that. She was distraught and said so. She knew she needed help and asked for it. None came.

The report finds that a mere six weeks prior to Emily Butler’s death, another woman, “Elaine”, had attempted suicide under similar circumstances. While Elaine was in the inpatient mental health treatment unit, IMHTU, she threw urine at a staff member. Elaine lives with “with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder -traumatic stress disorder.” The staff knew that. The staff also knew that Elaine has a long record of self-injury and aggression and can’t stand stress. Despite all that, Elaine was thrown into solitary: “After Elaine was transferred …  to disciplinary segregation, she was observed in her cell standing on the sink and tying a sheet to the vent in the ceiling and around her neck. An officer intervened and stopped Elaine’s actions … She wanted to harm herself because she was scared about pending criminal assault charges for throwing the urine and that she had other stresses related to her family … She was upset that staff on the segregation unit did not take her seriously when she said that she was suicidal and wanted to speak with mental health staff … She said she attempted to hang herself after getting no response to her request for help. Elaine spent a few days on the IMHTU after this incident, and was then returned to the disciplinary segregation unit despite her evidenced need for mental health services …. Less than six weeks after Elaine was discovered with a sheet tied to the vent and around her neck, Emily Butler was discovered, also in the segregation unit, hanging from a sheet tied to a vent in her cell.

Three days after Emily Butler “was found dead,” The Baltimore Sun editorial board wrote, “It’s tempting to dismiss Emily Butler’s death as an unfortunate accident in an otherwise well-run corrections system where such mistakes are rare. But the reality is this is the fourth reported case of an inmate committing suicide this year, and it appears to be part of a pattern linking such deaths to the kinds of physical confinement inmates experience behind prison walls. There’s a difference between firm disciplinary measures that help ensure the safety of inmates and staff and cruel or unusual punishments that in effect amount to human rights abuses. Maryland needs to constantly rethink where that line should be drawn — and then make sure it stays on the right side of it. Emily Butler and others like her shouldn’t have to die by their own hands in order to teach the state that lesson.”

The State of Maryland executed Emily Butler for the crime of needing and asking for help. How many more such women must suffer such torture? Do more than say Emily Butler’s name. In her name, shut down all forms of solitary confinement, in prison and beyond. 

(Photo Credit: Baltimore Sun)