Over the past three years, Scotland’s prisons saw record deaths. Where are the women?

In November, a study appeared, “Still nothing to see here? One year update on prison deaths and FAI outcomes in Scotland”. As the title suggests, a year earlier, the same research team produced, “Nothing to see here? Statistical briefing on 15 years of FAIs into deaths in custody”. FAIs are Fatal Accident Inquiries, which, since 2016, are required for all deaths in custody. In 2015, the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Act 2016 was passed and signed into law in 2016. Its intent was to regularize and speed up the holding of inquiries on the job as well as in custody. At the same time, the hope was such a regularized system might also shed some insight into the pattern of deaths, both at work and in custody. In 2019, it was noted, “The passing of the Act has made absolutely no difference.” The recent reports suggest that assessment was either premature or too kind. Since 2016, the situation has worsened, considerably. In that deteriorating climate, where are the women?

Still nothing to see here?” begins” “There were more deaths in prison over the past three years than in any other three-year period in Scottish prison records: 121 people died in prison between January 2020 and September 2022 compared to 98 deaths between 2017-19, and 76 deaths between 2014-16. Covid was not the main cause of the increase in the current period. Suicide and drug-related deaths are the driving forces in rising levels of death. Together, they were the leading cause of death in prison in 2022. Comparison with earlier periods shows that the chance of dying in prison in 2022 is double that for someone who was in prison in 2008. Rough comparisons with England and Wales show Scotland’s prisons had higher rates of deaths due to Covid, suicide and drugs.” As to FAIs, the situation has remained abysmal. The inquiries tend to take over two years to complete and almost never provide insight into means of prevention.

While Covid impacted the prisons, the main cause of death, again, was suicide and drugs. “Suicide is the leading cause of death of women in prison.”

The report notes that too often “very unwell people, who did not clearly present a threat to public safety” are detained. Often, they die: “These cases raise further issues of care and dignity in custody.” Here is one such case: “Police were called by members of the public reporting a woman wandering, confused and cold in pyjamas and a coat on a cold autumn evening. They had given her a cup of tea when police arrived, who on checking her record and noting outstanding warrants (for theft), arrested her. She was moved through three different police offices over several hours that night, and at each of these a flag on her record of medical issues requiring her to be seen by a health care professional whenever in custody was missed. The next morning she was taken to court where she spent seven hours waiting in a holding cell. By the time of her court appearance late in the day she could not stand or walk unaided and was placed in a wheelchair where she sat ‘slumped’ as the Sheriff denied her bail. After her bail hearing she was returned to the court holding cell, her health deteriorating for another two hours. At this point paramedics were called and arrived, and she was taken to hospital, where her health continued to deteriorate and she died six days later, never leaving hospital. No corrective findings made.”

The people who found this woman gave her tea. The police put her behind bars. No corrective findings made. According to the earlier report, between 2005 and 2019, “not a single FAI in the case of a woman dying in prison made a finding identifying any precautions, defects or recommendations.” What else is there to say?

In December 2016, the prisons established a suicide prevention strategy called “Talk to Me”: “following the introduction of the Talk to Me strategy there have been 42% more suicides than before it came into effect”. What else is there to say? Again, in Scotland, suicide is the leading cause of death of women in prison. Has been, continues to be.

In 2021, research, funded by the Scottish government, found that 78% of incarcerated women in Scotland suffered from significant head injury, most of which was caused by sustained domestic abuse. How did the government respond to this? Silence. More incarceration, more suicide. What then is the value of a woman’s life? Of women’s lives? Their deaths in custody, where inquiry is mandated, result in nothing, less than nothing, in terms of learning, insight, concern, care, and, if anything, an assault on their dignity and that of their loved ones. How many more reports, studies, commissions are needed? Stop sending women to prison. Don’t close one only to open another. Close them all and rediscover justice.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Louise Bourgeois, Cell XIV (Portrait) / National Galleries of Scotland)

India’s prison system is at 155% capacity, 80% await trial, the process is the punishment

India’s prison system, consisting of 1,378 prisons, is designed to hold a maximum of 403,739 people. On July 16, Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana noted that the prisons held 610, 000 people. By July 17, that number was just under 620,000. Today, July 19, that number is 626,259, and rising. As of last count, India’s `correctional’ system is currently at 155% capacity. According to Chief Justice Ramana, 80% of incarcerated people are awaiting trial and presumed to be innocent. As Chief Justice Ramana noted, “In the criminal justice system, the process is a punishment. From indiscriminate arrest to difficulty in obtaining bail, the process leading to prolonged incarceration of undertrial prisoners needs urgent attention. Prisons are black boxes. Prisoners are often unseen, unheard citizens.” While the cloak of coerced silence and visibility cuts across several sectors, in each, the epicenter is women, and that is intentional.

Where are the women? Everywhere and nowhere. When it comes to overcrowded carceral spaces for women, six states lead: Uttarakhand, 156.5%; Uttar Pradesh, 140.6%; Chhattisgarh, 136.5%; Maharashtra, 105.8%; Jammu and Kashmir, 104.1%; and Jharkhand, 102.6%. Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Jharkhand have no dedicated women’s jails; women are housed in enclosures in men’s prisons, designed for men. The process is the punishment. While this `unprecedented overcrowding” is shocking, it’s no surprise.

In 2015, 612 women in Tihar Jail, New Delhi’s Central Jail, refused to accept `the process’. They informed the State that they had been in prison awaiting trial for more than half of the maximum sentence for their various crimes. Responding to a letter by Supreme Court Justice Kurian Joseph, the Delhi High Court decided to take over. Justice Joseph had written directly to the Delhi High Court Chief Justice G. Rohini, the High Court’s first woman Chief Justice, “earnestly” requesting her “to take up the matter appropriately so that the cry for justice is answered in accordance with law with the promptitude with which a mother responds to the cry of her child”. In a plea to Justice Joseph, the 612 women in Tihar Jail described the cruel separation from their children six years and older; the severe overcrowding of the women’s jail; the insufferable delay in disposal of their cases; the unjust bail bonds conditions; the “lack of sympathy” from the jailhouse courts and doctors; and the inadequacy of legal aid made available to women prisoners. The women asked to be released immediately on personal bond. Testifying before the High Court, the Delhi government agreed: “Out of 622 inmates, 463 are undertrial prisoners, and there are only 159 convicts.” The Delhi government advocate noted that Jail No. 6, the women’s jail, was designed to hold a maximum of 400 women, and at that point, seven years ago, held 622. Effectively, one State agency told another State agency it was time to let my non-people go.

In 2019, after a bit of a delay, the National Crimes Record Bureau, NCRB, finally released its Prison Statistics India 2016 Report, which reported that, in 2016,  67% of India’s prisoners were “undertrial”. 72% of women prisoners were awaiting trial. Much more than with male prisoners, women prisoners were overwhelming young, minimally educated, poor … and formally innocent. Additionally, there were 1,809 children in prisons and jails across India, and they were all cared for by their incarcerated mothers. Of the 1809 children living behind bars, 78% of their mothers were awaiting trial, minimally educated, poor … and formally innocent.

And then came Covid.

In 2020, India’s Supreme Court, on its own, recommended various measures to control the spread of Covid in prisons and jails. In 2021, the same Supreme Court ordered state authorities to reduce arrests and decongest jails and prisons. States convened “high-powered committees” which came up with presumably high-powered plans. Today, those prisons and jails suffer unprecedented overcrowding. The last two years saw a 30% rise in incarceration numbers. From 2019 to this year, Haryana’s prison population went from 105.78% capacity to 224.16%. Uttar Pradesh went from 167.9% to 198.8%. Bihar went from a `respectable’ 94.2% to 164.3%.

Maharashtra has 60 central and district jails. Of them, one, Byculla Women’s Jail, is the only one dedicated for women and children. In 2020, Byculla Women’s Jail was at 101.5% of capacity, in the midst of the ferocious first wave that hit India, and Mumbai in particular, where Byculla is located.  On March 31, 2020, Byculla, capacity 200, held 352 women. That’s 176% occupancy rate.  In September 2021, when Covid raged through Byculla, the jail held close to 300 womenAccording to activist Sudha Bharadwaj, her Byculla unit housed 75 women. It had a maximum capacity of 35. Women slept side by side by side on the floor, each on a mat the “size of a coffin. Overcrowding becomes a source of fights and tensions. There’s a queue for everything – food, toilets.” 24% of the women in Sudha Bharadwaj’s unit were infected with Covid: “The judiciary should consider decongesting our jails more seriously. Even during the pandemic most people did not get interim bail to return to their families.” In April 2021, Byculla accounted for 33% of the Covid cases in Mumbai’s five jails.

The judiciary should consider decongesting our jails more seriously. The judiciary did consider decongesting the jails more seriously, and today the women’s carceral spaces are more overcrowded than ever. For women in India, the process – rule of law, due process, presumption of innocence, innocence itself, justice itself – is the punishment.


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Art Work: Arun Ferreria / Free Them All)

Women haunt the War on Drugs

Yesterday, June 17, 2011, Dan Pfeiffer, White House Director of Communications, was asked, directly and repeatedly, “Is there a war on women?”

Of course, he did not answer, but his non-answer is all the answer one needs.

Especially when one considers that yesterday, June 17, 2011, marked the fortieth anniversary of the War on Drugs. But that was yesterday.

Today is June 18, 2011, and so begins the forty-first year of the campaign against women, called the War on Drugs. As part of the forty years of the war on drugs, women have become the fastest growing prison population, nationally, globally, and probably in your neighborhood. The forty-year long and ongoing `spike’ was no accident and was altogether predictable, and was predicted. There have been calls this week to end the global War on Drugs and the national War on Drugs, but few of those calls have noted that the War on Drugs has been an explicit frontline in the war on women.

The mass incarceration that is the War on Drugs, and its outsourcing and privatization, are one part of the larger War on Women. Women of color suffer higher rates of incarceration, for often minor offenses. All women suffer lack of women’s health services in prison. Women in some states are still being shackled in childbirth. Women are dying of thoroughly treatable illnesses. More than half of female inmates report having been sexually or physically abused prior to imprisonment. The vast majority of women prisoners are living with mental illnesses, and there’s no one to care for them. Women suffer isolation from family and community more often than men. The post prison conditionalities practically assure women will return to prison.

The War on Drugs has targeted women, and women have driven the campaigns against the War on Drugs and the larger War on Women.

But, as the soldiers sing at the very end of Bertolt Brecht’s play, Mother Courage and Her Children: A Chronicle of the Thirty Years’ War, thirty years of war in never enough:

“The war moves on but will not quit.
And though it last three generations,
We shall get nothing out of it.
Starvation, filth and cold enslave us.
The army robs us of our pay.
But God may come down and save us:
His holy war won’t end today.”

Today, June 18, 2011, by Brecht’s generational calculation, the fifth generation of the War on Drugs front in the War on Women moves forward and moves deeper inward. Is there a War on Women? Yes, yes there is.


(Photo Credit: Getty Images) (Art Credit: Melanie Cervantes)