The prison State attacks women living with disabilities

Ellen Richardson

How does the United States respond to women who living with depression or women living with cancer? Exclusion. Solitary confinement. Women pay a high price for `security’. For women who have ever asked for help, the cost exacted from their bodies is astronomical and lethal. When so-called security trumps absolutely everything, absolutely anything can be done in the name of `protection.’ Ask Carol Lester. Ask Ellen Richardson.

Carol Lester is 73 years old, a grandmother, and a guest of the State, at the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility. Lester suffers from thyroid cancer, bipolar depression, and now, thanks to the State, possibly PTSD. Here’s part of her story.

Carol Lester complained about stomach pains. Prison staff gave her Zantac. Shortly after, she tested positive for methamphetamine. Lester has no history of drug abuse of any kind, and Zantac is well known to result in false positives. No matter. Right after the `positive’ result, Carol Lester was sent to solitary, where she protested on many counts. To no avail. Carol Lester spent 34 days in the hole. The drug use charges have been rescinded. Carol Lester continues to suffer … and to protest. She is suing Corrections Corporation of America, CCA, who run the prison, and Corizon Inc, who run the prison `healthcare’ system, such as it is.

Ellen Richardson was on her way, from her home in Toronto, to New York. There she was to board a cruise ship headed for the Caribbean. Homeland Security had other ideas. Richardson was turned back at the border. Why? “Ellen Richardson says she was told by U.S. customs officials at Pearson International Airport on Monday that because she had been hospitalized for clinical depression in June 2012, she could not enter the U.S.”

Richardson has been very public about her earlier, and lifelong, struggle with depression. She has written about it, has given talks about it. It’s no secret. Quite the opposite. Ellen Richardson is a woman who asked for help, received help, and now that she is doing both better and well … must pay the price. Richardson has joined with other mental health activists to find out how Homeland Security had access to her medical records.

Carol Lester and Ellen Richardson are not anomalies nor are they exceptions. From the perspective of the State built on security – surveillance – imprisonment, putting a grandmother with cancer in solitary confinement is anything but crazy. From that perspective, it’s good business, good policy, a win-win for democracy. Turning away a paraplegic women because she asked for help is part of the rule of law, in this case the United States Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 212, which instructs border agents to protect the United States from anyone who has a physical or mental disorder that threatens “property, safety or welfare.”

Nothing here is accidental or incidental. Carol Lester and Ellen Richardson are both women living with disabilities. In this country, they are marked, one for the slow death of solitary confinement, the other for the virtual death of exclusion. What you can’t see can’t hurt you, right? The only surprise, for the State, is that the women aren’t taking it. They are organizing and mobilizing, and that, of course, is no surprise at all. The struggle continues.


(Photo Credit: Toronto Star / Bernard Weil)

The Hardest Hit, can they suffer?


Over the weekend, thousands across the United Kingdom joined, under the banner of the Hardest Hit Campaign, to protest cuts that target people living with disabilities. These include changes in the disability living allowance system, cuts in local services, time limits for out-of-work support, and reductions in the support for parents with a disabled children.

The changes in disability living allowance involve a shift from the Disability Living Allowance to the Personal Independence Payment program. Under the new assessment regime, almost everyone on Disability Living Allowance loses something, and often they lose everything. How? They submit to a “fit-to-work test”, a test that has proven horribly flawed in its elements and outcomes, but no matter. People living with disabilities must learn, or be taught, to pay for themselves. They must learn, or be taught, the lesson, “something for something.” They must learn, or be taught, “independence”. Personal independence.

And who will teach them? The testers. And who exactly are the examiners? The United Kingdom contracted that job out to Atos Healthcare: “Atos Healthcare provides independent medical advice to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). We conduct disability assessments for people claiming a range of disability … Each year Atos Healthcare process over 1.2 million referrals for medical advice completing over 800,000 face-to-face medical assessments within our nationwide network of over 140 medical examination centres.”

That’s an annual contract of around £100million-a-year. According to many, the assessments are, first, often way off. The stories are legion of people living with severe and immobilizing disabilities being deemed perfectly fit for “independence”, meaning denial of services and funding. Second, the face-to-face meetings are intimately degrading. The tone of the entire process is felt to be prosecutorial. “Clients” are made to feel they must prove themselves both “deserving” and “beyond reproach.” Who among us could pass the “beyond reproach” test?

The meetings themselves are also often demeaning. Women living with terminal illnesses, women who had worked all their lives are told they must come in and justify the end-of-life assistance they’re receiving. They must learn the lesson of independence. Some Atos Assessment Centres, such as the one in Croydon, are inaccessible, and so those in wheelchairs must either scale 46 steps or take a 14-mile round trip to the next Atos center. If it weren’t so bad, it would be laughable.

Women are particularly targeted. “Cuts for the disabled” targets women, “cuts for care providers for the disabled” attacks women even more specifically and more ferociously. And for the women living with disabilities who are themselves care providers … it’s a nightmare.

For some, like Jennyfer Spencer, the nightmare is quite simply a death sentence. Spencer was wheelchair bound and placed in a fifth-floor apartment. For years, she protested and tried to get moved to a ground floor apartment. Finally, she died and was “discovered”, later. Also discovered was a letter she had left for a local newspaper: “No human or animal should ever go through life as I did.”

Of animals, Jeremy Bentham noted, “The question is not, `Can they reason?’ nor, `Can they talk?’ but, `Can they suffer?’” Can they suffer? For Jacques Derrida, Bentham’s question of suffering is actually a question of inability: “”Can they suffer?” amounts to asking “can they not be able?”” If suffering, anguish, vulnerability are all part of a political economy of not-being-able, what is the State policy of rendering suffering, anguish, and vulnerability? When the State actually gets into the business of producing suffering, when the State actually gets into the business of outsourcing the production of suffering to a major corporation, one that, by the way, has already failed the competency test but “promises to do better in the future”, what is that? What is it called when the State chooses to turn disability into inability, all in the name of independence?


(Photo Credit: BBC)