In Canada, Joelle Beaulieu refuses the death sentence of incarceration

Around the World of Covid, the news these days is pretty grim, and the news from prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, juvenile detention centers is worse. In those places of confinement, generally, rates of infection are rising precipitously and, despite much hand wringing and loud sighing, the State and nation-states have done little to nothing to less than nothing. Given the past decades increased investment in mass and hyper incarceration, this comes as no surprise. But there is good, or at least hopeful, news, and that is in prisoners’ individual and collective actions and resistance. April saw prison uprisings, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and other actions in Sierra LeoneArgentinaColombia, the United States and beyond. Everywhere, prisoners echo the banner resisting prisoners hung from the rooftop of the Devoto prison in Buenos Aires: “Nos negamos a morir en la cárcel.” We refuse to die in prison. In Virginia, Cynthia Scott, 50 years old, African American, currently incarcerated at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, agreed: “I was not sentenced to death, and I don’t want to die here.  But I am afraid I will when the coronavirus comes.” In Canada, on April 21, Joelle Beaulieu, a member of the Ojibwe Nation, incarcerated in a Canadian federal prison in Joliette, Quebec, said NO! to the death sentence of conditions in the federal prisons and sued the Correctional Service Canada for its response, or lack of response, to the Covid pandemic. I was not sentenced to death. We refuse to die in prison.

At the end of April, Joelle Beaulieu sued on behalf of all federal inmates who had been imprisoned in federal prisons in Quebec since March 13. What happens to one happens to all. What happened to Joelle Beaulieu is she was incarcerated at Joliette Women’s Institution. She worked as a cleaner. Joelle Beaulieu worked in highly trafficked, congested areas. When she heard about the pandemic, she asked for gloves, mask and protective gear. The authorities only gave her gloves. When Joelle Beaulieu began developing symptoms, she was given Tylenol. For a week, her symptoms intensified. Finally, after a week, Joelle Beaulieu was tested. Then Joelle Beaulieu was sent to her cell, into what amounted to solitary confinement, for 15 days. She requested either a Native elder or a mental health professional. No one was provided. She says guards did not wear masks or gloves until after she tested positive. Prisoners were told to wash their hands, but were not given disinfectant.

Joelle Beaulieu believes she is “patient zero” of the Joliette Women’s Institution. Within two weeks, the number of Covid positive cases rose from 10 to 50, and by the time Joelle Beaulieu filed her case, more than half the residents had tested positive. On April 21, Quebec reported 114 positive cases. Of that 114, 51 were Joliette Women’s Institution prisoners. Of the women in Quebec who tested positive for Coronavirus, almost all were `residents’ of Joliette Women’s Institution. Joliette Women’s Institution is no outlier, and Joelle Beaulieu’s situation is in no way exceptional. According to Emilie Coyle, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, “Every time we speak with women who are inside the prisons, whether it’s in Joliette or other federal institutions  – they let us know they feel as though they’re not getting the right information. They’re kept in the dark. And that’s particularly concerning for them because they’re trying very hard to participate in keeping themselves safe and healthy.”

In Buenos Aires, when prisoners resisted, they released a statement which said, in part, “We are a mirror of the very society that forgets us and drowns in its own misery, silencing its own true reality:

Those who give up will never win.
We refuse to die in prison.
For a world without slavery and without exclusion.”

From the rooftops of a jail in Buenos Aires to the women’s prison of Virginia to the women’s prisons of Quebec, people are resisting the dehumanization of slavery and exclusion, engaging in the Great Refusal which is the Great Affirmation. They will not be kept in the dark nor will they be silenced. In Canada, Joelle Beaulieu, member of the Ojibwe Nation, said NO to the inhumanity, insisted she was not sentenced to die in prison, and lit a match to light the way to a world without slavery and without exclusion. Others will follow. The struggle continues.

(Photo credit: Sol915)

South Carolina will stop shackling women (prisoners) in childbirth!

In March, we asked if South Carolina would pass legislation outlawing the shackling of women (prisoners) in childbirth. Two months and a few days later, we now have the answer. Yes! More than yes, a resounding and expansive yes. While the Governor has yet to sign the legislation, he has said, on more than one occasion, that he would sign it. Last year, the South Carolina House of Representatives passed the bill, presented by Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican representing Daniel Island, by a vote of 104 – 3, but the bill wasn’t sent over to the Senate in time. This year, the House voted 117 – 0, and Senate voted 42 – 0 to pass the bill. This happened in the midst of the South Carolina focusing on coronavirus related issues. Apparently, no one was more surprised that Nancy Mace, who noted, “This is a really big one. It took a lot of people coming together on both sides of the aisle to make it happen, and I’m just really humbled to see that even during a crisis, in South Carolina, we’re getting things done in a nonpartisan way to make our state better.” 

This is a really big one. Not only did the legislature unanimously endorse the bill, they expanded it. The original bill essentially brought South Carolina into compliance with the federal First Step Act, passed in 2018, which bans the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners). Looking at the situation and seizing the moment, legislators, from both parties, decided to add the following: “requiring availability of menstrual hygiene products, access to adequate nutrition, an end to solitary confinement for pregnant prisoners and weekly contact visits between incarcerated people with low- or minimum-security classifications and their children.”

South Carolina’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity noted, “The legislature took the right step in banning shackling of incarcerated women during pregnancy, labor and postpartum recuperation, ending an inhumane practice that 42 other states have already opposed. Restoring dignity and treating people with compassion is a common-sense reform to our criminal justice system. We thank the legislature for passing this bill and we urge Governor McMaster to stop this cruel policy.”

In South Carolina, as elsewhere, women, prisoners, supporters invoked dignity. In South Carolina, this week, legislators demonstrated that dignity must include the recognition and abolition of cruelty and then proceed to the respect for all human beings, generally, and, here, for women in their specificity and particularity. Not shackling is a good start, but it remains a negation of a negation. Taking care of pregnant women, no matter where they are, is simply the right thing to do. Meanwhile, this week, members of the Michigan Senate began debating a bill, in committee, that would ban the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners). The struggle continues.

(Image Credit 1: Radical Doula)  (Image Credit 2: New York Times / Andrea Dezsö)

Seclusion rooms, prisons, jails: The empire strikes back

In schools across the United States, seclusion rooms exist as a “last resort” practice for educators to restrain and lock “misbehaving” children in isolated rooms. This practice criminalizes behavior at an early age and normalizes the use of solitary confinement. Data on the use of seclusion rooms is often underreported or nonexistent, making them hard to regulate. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for example, there were over 930 reported instances of seclusion reported in Hanover County in 2019. The school district failed to include protocols for these seclusion rooms as well as a crisis management plan on how to meet the needs of children in their yearly handbook. A lack of accountability accompanies these failures. How often does absence of data excuse action? 

With seclusion rooms currently under the spotlight, there have been efforts across the United States to control their use through legislation. On March 4th, Missouri legislature made strides in a House Bill (HB 1568) that would establish a ban on seclusion and restraint rooms “except in cases where there is imminent danger to the student or others”. Who decides the exception?

Recently, it was reported that high schools in Leeds, England place students in isolation rooms for doing as little as forgetting books or wearing earrings. How does punishment for actions as minor as this in the education system set a precedent for how individuals are treated by the state as adults? 

While legislation to address the use of seclusion rooms is a step in the right direction in terms of initiating conversations and setting precedent, it does not ensure they won’t continue to be used and abused. This exception is seen in cases facing the courts in the United States right now that impact women, such as the recent prosecution of Harvey Weinstein. His sentencing may have shed light on the issues of sexual harassment and misconduct, but it isn’t a cure-all for the deep rooted problem of why it exists and persists. Loopholes and justifications of abuse will continue, especially against women and people of color. How can we make sense of that and move forward knowing that most women behind bars have been victims of physical and sexual violence or other trauma? 

How much persistence does it take to dismantle structures and systems? 

The Atlanta City Detention Center, a Georgia jail for minor violations such as walking in the roadways or shoplifting, was shut down in May 2019 following years of organizing efforts by Women on the Rise. Led by women impacted by the criminal justice system, Women on the Rise spent years organizing to prevent and repeal legislation that funneled many into the jail. Built in 1996, the jail was intended to hide undesirable residents including the homeless during the Olympics, a testament to how individuals in the city were/are grouped and deemed disposable. 

Across the country, 75% of people housed in jails aren’t convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial. If women are the fastest growing populations behind bars, and women of color make up approximately two-thirds of that population, what impact does that have?

The prison system doesn’t function like a recycling center, but a garbage dump. Actions and behaviors of individuals are not assessed for mitigation but deemed unworthy of salvaging. Even short jail time puts individuals, particularly women of color, at risk of losing the security of their jobs and their homes both in the present and the future. It’s a branding that lingers through the presence of the checkbox on job applications and federal documents that accompanies the question: “Do you have a criminal record?”

Why is it okay to uproot someone from their community without justifiable means, assuming their life is expendable? So many individuals with low income jobs worked their way to be where they are. They can’t afford to spend time in jail, and they can’t afford to miss work. 

Now in a sudden global health crisis with the novel coronavirus outbreak, it is predicted that the lack of paid sick leave in the United States will make the epidemic even worse. What happens to single moms with multiple jobs and lower incomes that can’t work remotely or afford to take off work? These systemic issues are manifesting into health concerns, but it isn’t anything new. Roughly 25 percent of workers in the United States do not have paid sick leave. On top of that, no federal legislation has ever been passed for paid family leave. What impact does that have on women? Job security in the hands of the employer leaves workers with little or no choice.

It’s almost as if these issues are being brought to light not out of concern for those impacted by them, but out of concern for the well-being of the rest of the population. They are a threat. It’s as if the argument is being raised that in a wealthy democracy, there should be a mandate for paid leave…but not because it’s the right thing to do, but for the public safety of everyone else. It’s a protection of the empire. 

(Photo Credit: Workers World / Women on the Rise) (Image Credit: Communities Over Cages: Close the Jail Atlanta)

Covid Operations: What happened to a half century of mass incarceration? Covid-19

In the past week, news agencies and advocacy organizations have discussed the role of prisons and jails in spreading the novel coronavirus. Some are longstanding advocates for just solutions to the incarceration crisis; others, especially news agencies, are just now `discovering’ that prisons, jails and immigration detention centers form an archipelago of infectious morbidity and mortality. Headlines from the past three days include: To Arrest the Spread of Coronavirus, Arrest Fewer People.  Visits halted in federal prisons, immigration centers over virusHow Coronavirus Could Affect U.S. Jails and PrisonsPrisons And Jails Worry About Becoming Coronavirus ‘Incubators’Our Courts and Jails Are Putting Lives at RiskTo contain coronavirus, release people in prison. In Virginia, the Legal Aid Justice Center noted, “Adults and youth held in Virginia’s prisons, jails, and detention centers are particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease and deserve to be protected with adequate sanitation and medical care or, if possible, be released.” England and Wales developed “emergency plans to avoid disruption” in their prisons. Also in England, immigrant advocates called on the government to release hundreds of immigration detention center detainees, noting, “There is a very real risk of an uncontrolled outbreak of Covid-19 in immigration detention”. In France, prisoners, supporters, staff, and advocates are concerned and see no way out of coronavirus running rampant through the prison system.

While this attention is welcome, the question that lingers, and haunts, the current carceral controversy is, “Why now?” Public health researchers have long documented prisons’ role in the spread of infectious disease. From a public health perspective, prisons so dangerous because they’re overcrowded and their systems of care provision, such as they are, have intentionally gone from bad to worse. A half century of mass incarceration married to a global programme of austerity has left us with prisons waiting to pump out HIV and AIDS, TB, Ebola, SARS, opioid addiction, and now Covid-19. 

Earlier this year, a special issue of The Lancet began as follows, “About 11 million people are currently being held in custody across the globe and more than 30 million individuals pass through prisons each year, often for short but disruptive periods of time .… The health profile of the detained population is complex, often with co-occurring physical and mental health disorders, and a backdrop of social disadvantage. Detention can also expose people to new and increased health risks, yet the profiles of the population behind bars and their health needs have often been neglected.”

Last year, The Lancet editorial board noted, “The sheer scale of imprisonment in the USA and its unequal burden on people from minority and poor backgrounds raises concerns about its impact on the health and wellbeing of the national population …. Being in prison worsens several health outcomes and might even drive the spread of disease.” Elsewhere, medical researchers noted, “There is a growing epidemic of inadequate health care in U.S. prisons. Shrinking prison budgets, a prison population that is the highest in the world, and for-profit health care contracts all contribute to this epidemic.”

Inadequate health care in prisons across the globe is the growing pandemic that preceded the current pandemic. Where are the women in this pandemic scenario? Women are the fastest growing prison population. What does that “growth” look like? “As adults, women who are incarcerated have enduring reproductive health issues such as unintended pregnancies, adverse birth outcomes, cervical dysplasia and malignancy, and sexually transmitted infections. Women who are pregnant or parenting a newborn during their incarceration are at high risk for poor outcomes, and just like individuals in the community they need prenatal care, supports with labor, postpartum bonding, and breast-feeding support. Women who have returned to the community or are under community supervision face similar health issues as women who are incarcerated and may lack access to care.”

Repeatedly, public health researchers have described the situation in prisons and jails as a crisis. For women – and especially women of color and poor women – that crisis stretches across their lifespan in two ways. First, the health consequences of even short stays in detention endure a lifetime. Second, detention itself lasts a lifetime: “Over 1.2 million women in the United States were on probation, parole, or incarcerated in jail or prison facilities at the end of 2015, the most recent year for which data are available.”

The decades of mass incarceration, in which women have consistently been the fastest growing prison population, are built on systemic neglect. While the current pandemic is in no sense an opportunity, it is a moment in which we can turn that neglect on itself and pay attention, not only to this particular instant but to the decades that prepared the ground, toxically, for it. Immigrant detentionjailprison are always bad for health. The only route to a healthy world is decarceration.

(Image Credit: Prison Policy Initiative)

Will Florida and South Carolina stop shackling women (prisoners) in childbirth?

State legislatures in both Florida and South Carolina are considering bills that would outlaw shackling of women prisoners in childbirth. On one hand, it’s about time. On the other hand, which is the same hand, prison is so deeply imbedded into the fabric of the United States that questioning, much less transforming, any aspect of carceral practice requires a radical change in vision. As Angela Davis noted, in 2003, “The prison is considered so natural and so normal that it is extremely hard to imagine life without them.” So natural and so normal have prisons become in the national social landscape and consciousness that it is necessary to debate, at length, whether or not women in childbirth should be shackled. And so we wait attentively for the good news from both Florida and South Carolina.

Although federal law prohibits shackling pregnant prisoners, that law does not cover state and local prisons and jails, not to mention immigrant detention centers. Currently, 23 states allow for shackling women in childbirth. In a recent study of perinatal nurses who had cared for pregnant and postpartum women prisoners, nurses explained that the reason given for shackling women in childbirth was “adherence to rule or protocol.” When the nurses advocated for the shackles to be removed, the number one reason, by far, for denial was “rule or protocol.” In other words, the prison system has rules and protocols that say it’s ok to shackle women in childbirth, and so women prisoners in childbirth must be shackled. Period. 

A different recent study of pregnancy outcomes in U.S. prisons from 2016 to 2017 concludes, “Being in prison or jail during pregnancy can be a difficult time for many women, fraught with uncertainty about the kind of health care they might receive, about whether they will be shackled in labor, and about what will happen to their infants when they are born. Some pregnant women in custody may experience isolation and degradation from staff and insufficient pre-natal care … Data from our study can be used to develop national standards of care for incarcerated pregnant women, advocate for policies and legislation that ensure adequate and safe pregnancy care and childbirth, develop alternatives to incarceration for pregnant women, pro-mote reproductive justice, and encourage broader attention to the reproductive health needs of marginalized women and their families.” As of now, there are no national standards of care for incarcerated women, and there is no requirement to collect data from prisons and jails, much less immigrant detention centers. In a world of intensive and extensive surveillance, prisons and jails constitute a black hole archipelago of opacity. For women, that means a world of pain and suffering.

Florida’s legislature is considering the Tammy Jackson Healthy Pregnancies for Incarcerated Women Act. Last year, Tammy Jackson gave birth, alone, in a cell in the North Broward Jail, in Pompano Beach. The law would ban shackling pregnant women prisoners; invasive body cavity searches; and the use of solitary confinement. It would also require medical examinations at least once every 24 hours. 

South Carolina’s legislature is considering a bill that would ban the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women who are in labor. Additionally, the new law would restrict restraint of pregnant women prisoners to handcuffs only: “A person officially charged with safekeeping of inmates, whether the inmates are awaiting trial or have been sentenced and confined in a state correctional facility, local detention facility, or prison camp or work camp shall not restrain by leg, waist, or ankle restraints an inmate with a clinical diagnosis of pregnancy. Wrist restraints may be used during any internal escort or external transport. The wrist restraints shall only be applied in the front and in a way that the pregnant inmate may be able to protect herself and the fetus in the event of a fall. This provision also applies to inmates not in labor or suspected labor who are escorted out for Ultrasound Addiction Therapy for Pregnant Women or other routine services.” When State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, heard that women in South Carolina are shackled in childbirth, he said, “I think this is a shock that we continue to still shackle pregnant women”.

This is us. We cannot be shocked or surprised at the shackling of women in childbirth. In both Florida and South Carolina, dignity is invoked, specifically dignity for incarcerated women. Think of how far we have fallen that not shackling women in childbirth is considered dignity. I hope that both Florida and South Carolina do pass their respective bills into law, and I hope that we will work for a better understanding of dignity. 

(Image Credit 1: Radical Doula) (Image Credit 2: New York Times / Andrea Dezsö)

How many women must die due to incarceration before we do something about the massacre?

In one week in early November two civil society organizations, one in England one in North Carolina, forced their respective state agencies to `discover’ yet again that the entire so-called criminal justice system is built on deaths “by suicide”. In North Carolina, Disability Rights North Carolina issued its report, Suicide in North Carolina Jails: High Suicide and Overdose Rates Require Urgent Jail Reform Action. In England, Inquest released its report, Deaths of people following release from prison. While the numbers are grim and the personal accounts are heartbreaking, who is surprised by the data and whose hearts are broken? If we were surprised, if we still had hearts to break, we would have done something serious long before this month’s reports.

Remember March 2015 when it was “discovered” that the year before prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high, according to the Howard League for Penal Reformthe Prison and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, and the House of Commons Justice Committee?

Remember April 2015 when it was reported that, in the United Kingdom, the number of suicide attempts in “immigration removal” centers was at an all-time high?

Remember August 2015 when the U.S. Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics released Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons, 2000–2013 – Statistical Tables and reported suicide was the leading cause of death in U.S. jailsthe Spokane County Jail, in Washington State, requested that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate a recent rash of prisoner suicides; and, reluctantly and under pressure from the Federal government, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department agreed to reforms in the L.A. County Jail that would finally begin to address “chronically poor treatment for mentally ill inmates and … years of abusive behavior by jailers?

Remember April 2016 when United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice released Safety in Custody Statistics England and Wales / Deaths in prison custody to March 2016, and the numbers were bad, the worst in 25 years?

Remember August 2016 when, according to a Howard League report on England and Wales, “2016 becomes worst year ever recorded for suicides in prisons”?

Who remembers the names and lives of those women who ostensibly died “at their own hands” … over and over and over again; the reports of their demise and then later the “discoveries” that implicated State malfeasance; the reports by civil society organizations, because the State doesn’t even try to keep adequate statistics, much less anything like adequate care? Who remembers?

In North Carolina, the situation is typical. The rate of suicide in jail is rising precipitously. Those who die by suicide are generally 40 years old or younger. Suicide happens quickly: 20% occur within 24 hours of entering; 65% within seven days; 80% within 12 days. Surviving two weeks in jail is a small miracle. 85% of those deemed suicides died by hanging. 95% died before ever facing a trial. They were formally innocent, but they were executed, nevertheless. And what of all the others, the ones who were in the cells next to those who died by hanging?

According to Inquest’s report, “In the most recent recorded year, ten people died each week following release from prison. Every two days, someone took their own life. In the same year one woman died every week, and half of these deaths were self-inflicted.” According to Inquest’s report, the suicide rate for women in the general population is a little less than 5 per 100,000. For women on “post-release supervision”, the rate last year was 459 per 100,000. This discrepancy is even more noteworthy when we consider that “in the general population men are more likely to die by suicide than women. However, when we look to people in the criminal justice system – whether in prison or under probation supervision – women are at a higher risk of a self-inflicted death than men.” For that reason Inquest “reframes deaths in custody as a form of violence against women.”

Where is the supervision; what comprises supervision in North Carolina, the United Kingdom, and beyond, when levels of suicide either go unreported, meaning there’s no attention paid, or, worse, go untreated, because those deaths just don’t matter? If anything, the systemic and accelerating years long rise in suicide among people, particularly women, in prison and under post-confinement supervision, suggests suicide has become a State solution to the so-called recidivism crisis, a crisis manufactured by the State.

We are once more still in the everyday political economy of necropower, where “weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead … Under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred.” It’s time, it’s way past time, to remember and, in remembering, to move through and beyond the blur of reiterated discovery to action. Stop sending people to jail, close the jails and the prisons, and, in so doing, begin to end the massacre. Don’t forget.

(Image Credit 1: Disability Rights North Carolina) (Image Credit 2: Inquest)

In New York, Jane Doe was shackled in childbirth, despite New York’s anti-shackling laws

In March 2018, North Carolina officially ended the shackling of women (prisoners) in childbirth. At that time, Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, a medical anthropologist and OB-GYN said, “Passing laws and changing policy is only one step – there needs to be training and accountability and oversight to make sure that it doesn’t actually happen.” In 2009, New York outlawed the use of physical restraints on pregnant women during labor and delivery. In 2015, New York outlawed the use of physical restraints on pregnant women during in-custody transportation and the eight-week postpartum recovery period. For nine years, “physical restraints” on pregnant women during labor and delivery has been banned. Tell that to Jane Doe, who was forced in February of this year to undergo labor and delivery while her ankles were shackled and her wrists were handcuffed to the bed. Who did this? The New York Police Department. Why? Because they could. Because she was already a Jane Doe, as far as they were concerned.

The attending doctors asked the police to remove the restraints. The police said no. The doctors said New York state law bans the use of restraints. The police replied that the NYPD’s Patrol Guide required restraints and, importantly, the Patrol Guide supersedes state law. According to Dr. Sufrin, 26 states ban the shackling of women in labor. The Federal Government does not ban the shackling of women in labor and delivery, although the so-called First Step Act, currently awaiting discussion in the U.S. Congress, would address the issue. It seems unlikely, though, that the Congress will act on this.

The problem with the so-called banning laws is that they are rife with so-called “extraordinary circumstances” loopholes, which leave a great deal to the discretion of prison staff and police: “While [a number of] states and the District of Columbia have laws governing shackling of pregnant individuals, none have an outright ban on the practice.” 

The history of shackling pregnant women (prisoners) in the United States is the ongoing history of slavery. While we remove statues and rename schools and other institutions, we should pay closer attention to and abolish the shackling of prisoners, all prisoners, beginning at the very least with pregnant women (prisoners). In 2014, the Correctional Association of New York interviewed 27 women who had given birth in New York prisons after the 2009 law was passed. 23 of them had been shackled during childbirth. How many more times must we hear or read similar accounts before we take real action? It’s time to bring slavery to an end. End the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners) and all people. Do it now!

State of abandonment: In England, women in prison give birth without midwife. Who cares?

On Tuesday, November 13, The Guardian reported “women are giving birth in prison cells without access to proper medical care.” The report was based on extensive research conducted by Dr. Laura Abbott, specialist midwife and senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire. On Friday, The Guardian followed up with an anonymous report by a woman who had suffered childbirth in prison. Other news venues have since picked up on the report, as has at least one Member of Parliament. While the reports draw attention to the violence committed directly and regularly on women and children in prison, they miss a salient feature of Dr. Abbott’s research, the failure, or refusal, of the State to acknowledge that there are pregnant women prisoners and women who give birth while in prison. That second issue is integral to the State of Abandonment, a State that “accelerates the death of the unwanted” through a policy of unmapping: “Zones of abandonment … determine the life course of an increasing number of poor people who are not part of mapped populations.”

After interviewing “28 female prisoners in England who were pregnant, or had recently given birth whilst imprisoned, ten members of staff, and ten months of non-participant observation”, Laura Abbott found “institutional thoughtlessness”; “institutional ignominy”; women’s coping strategies; and the ways in which women navigate the system to negotiate entitlements and seek information about their rights”. Pregnant women prisoners are both forgotten and shamed. This is how the State practices intersectionality.

At the center of Abbott’s research is a woman called Layla. When she entered prison, Layla was 24 weeks pregnant with what would be her second child. Typical of most of the women interviewed, “Layla was incarcerated for the first time for her very first offence. Similar to most participants, she was distressed as she entered prison, was unaware of her rights and entitlements and did not know what would happen with regards to her midwifery care: `I didn’t know whether I was going to see a midwife, I didn’t know anything. I was absolutely distraught’. Layla was unaware of the process of applying for a place on an MBU (Mother Baby Unit): `None of the officers spoke to me about it (MBU), I just had to go off and do it all myself’”..

When Layla lost her `mucous plug’, she was sent to the health care nurse: “Health care were like, ‘Oh, you’re fine, you’ve got at least another seven to ten days before anything will happen …  I was trying to explain … to health care, they were just like, ‘No, don’t worry about it,’ and I was like, ‘No, really, I know my own body … They were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll sort that out when and if you go into labour”.  

At 11 pm that same night, Layla started having contractions. By midnight, the contractions were coming on strong. A nurse came to her cell. Layla said she was in labor; the nurses doubted her and, finally, “`I’m telling you I am in labour,’ ‘No, you’re not. Here’s some paracetamol and a cup of tea”.At 12:30 the nurses left. At 12:40 Layla’s waters broke. Then the nurses decided to send Layla to hospital. Layla had to explain to the nurses that it was too late: “I says, ‘I haven’t got time to get to hospital. I did say to you I was in labour …`I was laid there on my bed, in my cell with a male nurse and a female nurse, not midwifery trained at all, trying to put gas and air in my mouth and I’m like, ‘I don’t want anything, I need to feel awake and I need to concentrate,’ and then out popped (baby)at twenty past one. Still no ambulance, still no paramedics and she came out foot first”.

Layla’s story is typical of the systemic abuse pregnant women prisoners receive in the prisons of England and Wales. But there’s more. In the first paragraph of her report, Dr. Abbott notes, “A review of women’s prisons in 2006 found that most women prisoners were mothers, some were pregnant, and many came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Accurate numbers of pregnant women held in UK prisons are not recorded, though it is estimated that 6% to 7% of the female prison population are at varying stages of pregnancy and around 100 babies are born to incarcerated women each year.” As The Guardian notes, “Neither the Ministry of Justice nor the NHS collects the data.”

While in prison, Layla, and many other pregnant women, were treated abysmally. At the same time, officially, they were never there. England and Wales are famous for nationwide systems of hyper-surveillance and personal data collection. As a so-called “total institution”, prisoners are under intensive surveillance, down to the filaments of their DNA. And yet the State “forgot” to note either pregnant women prisoners or women prisoners in childbirth. Where there is no data, there are no bodies.  What do you call the institutional erasure, through omission and refusal, of an entire and growing population of women? Call it femicide.

 

(Photo Credit: BBC)

HM Prison Eastwood Park leading the nation in women prisoners’ self-harm barely receives attention?


In July, the Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales released their annual report, and it was predictably grim, especially for women prisoners. Much of the news media in England, especially the local media, focused on the numbers concerning HMP Leeds, where each day sees around two women prisoners engaging in self-harm. In 2017, there were 712 `incidents’ of self-harm in Leeds, a 30% increase over the previous year, which saw 548 self-harm events. At Leeds women’s prison, 65 out of every 100 women is engaging in self-harm. Leeds is a bad place … but not the worst. Way down in any article on “the prison where self-harm incidents happen almost twice daily” would be a version of this nugget: “HMP Leeds was not the worst for self-harming however; Eastwood Park women’s prison in South Gloucestershire has the worst self-harm problem in the prison system. There were only 394 women on average at the prison in 2017/18 but there were 1,770 cases recorded in 2017.” Eastwood Park leads the nation in women prisoners’ self-harm, and somehow that’s not particularly important? Why?

In recent years, Eastwood Park has hosted a number of women prisoner deaths that have garnered some attention. In 2013, Natasha Evans collapsed in her cell. At the inquest, two years later, expert testimony suggested that Natasha Evans died because of lack, or systematic refusal, of appropriate care. Since 2013, six more women prisoners have suffered non-self-inflicted deaths at Eastwood Park. Most recently, in June 2016, Michalla Sweeting choked to death on her own vomit. Michalla Sweeting arrived in Eastwood Park after three days in police custody. She was put on a methadone detox program. She started vomiting, staff noted that and did nothing, she died. This May, two years later, the inquest jury found that Michalla Sweeting died of gross negligence committed by prison and healthcare staff.

That’s the same prison and healthcare staff that supposedly is addressing the “complex needs” of Eastwood Park prison population. In 2016, seven women died inside Eastwood Park. Three of those were “self-inflicted deaths.” In 2017, no one died in Eastwood Park … but the self-harm continues.

There are no women’s prisons in Wales, and so Welch women are sent to primarily to Eastwood Park and to HMP Styal, another hellhole. Eastwood Park holds a little over 400 prisoners, of whom 40% are from Wales, which means their families and home communities are far away. Eastwood Park is supposed to have a mother-and-baby unit. In November 2016, it was reported as temporarily closed. Today, two years later, it’s still closed. Eastwood Park is hard on everyone, and particularly on Welch women and on mothers.

The rate of self-harm in Eastwood Park is 449 incidents per 100 prisoners. In 2017, there were 1,770 incidents. While that’s down from the record high of 2016, it’s the second highest number of incidents of self-harm since 2010. “On average, there were four incidents of self-harm a day at HMP Eastwood Park in 2017.”

On January 2017, the Chief Inspector of Prisons reported on Eastwood Park: “The population remained vulnerable; many women were a long way from home, which was a problem for the large number who had dependent children. Nearly half of the women had a disability, and over three quarters reported mental health or emotional well-being issues. Eighty-four per cent of women said they had various problems on arrival at the prison, and over half said this included issues with drugs, while over a third reported having alcohol problems. Levels of self-harm had increased and were overall relatively high.”

Against this backdrop, the Inspector concluded, “We still considered Eastwood Park to be a well-led, generally safe and decent prison, but it was showing signs of being under strain. Staffing levels had not kept pace with the rise in population, nor with its increasing complexity.”

Nineteen months later, the rate of self-harm is four per day, and 449 incidents per 100 women. That’s safety and decency in a State committed to locking women up. It’s not the prison that’s under strain; it’s women, and the strain is public policy. In July, the Inspector noted, “The number of women prisoners is growing for the first time since 2012, putting a strain on the system and emphasising the need for a strategy for women’s prisons …  The high rate of self-harm among women prisoners is indicative of the very complex needs of many women.”

The Inspector noted that the two women’s prisons inspected “were not doing enough to address the very complex needs of women prisoners.” Not doing enough. Very complex needs. This is the language of neoliberal State alibi that suggests, implicitly, that the reason women prisoners have rising, and astronomical, rates and incidences of self-harm is the set of “very complex needs.” This is nonsense. The State refuses to address women’s needs and, even more, women’s lives, and that is reason for the rates and numbers of women prisoners’ self-harm. Period. At HMP Eastwood Park, women self-harm four times a day, every day, and absolutely no one cares. If we did, we’d stop it.

 

(Photo Credit: Gloucestershire Live)

National Women’s Day 2018: Where are the women prisoners?

Yesterday, August 9, across South Africa, people acknowledged, in various ways, National Women’s Day, the annual commemoration of the 1956 Women’s March on the Union Buildings, in Pretoria, to protest the pass laws and much, much more. On August 1, across South Africa, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of women and gender non-conforming people engaged in an “intersectional women’s march against gender based violence” and stayed away from all work and commerce. This was under the banner, #TotalShutdown. Organizers asked people to find ways of supporting those women who were forced to work that day. Additionally, for women in rural areas, where a march to a High Court might not be feasible, women were asked to `simply’ stand together, to unite and stay away from work and commerce. In between August 1 and August 9, on Sunday, August 5, Barbara Hogan, anti-apartheid activist and politician, returned to the Women’s Jail, now turned into a museum, on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. Hogan remembered her stay in that prison from 1982 to 1983. On Women’s Day, in Women’s Month, and in the #TotalShutdown, where are the women prisoners? Where are South Africa’s women prisoners, generally, and where are they in the movements for women’s emancipation and power?

According to the most recent Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services Report, covering April 2015 to end of March 2016, South Africa has 236 operational prisons, of which 9 house women prisoners. Only 2.6 percent of prisoners are women. As Johann van der Westhuizen, the inspecting judge of Correctional Services, noted, this is “one of the lowest percentages in the world. Not bad for a population that is just more than half female. This means slightly more than 4 000 women are in jail — some with their babies.” Not bad? No. Johann van der Westhuizen continues, “Women’s prisons are also overcrowded. I was told that a cell for 25 with 37 inmates was not overcrowded. And that, in other instances, additional mattresses were put on the floor, almost doubling the number of inmates.”

The number of women in prison is low, and yet the women’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded. How can that be? Part of the answer appears in van der Westhuizen’s report, “Due to the high turnover rate of remand detainees, remand units were found to have deplorable health conditions and dilapidated infrastructure compared to those occupied by sentenced offenders.” Pollsmoor Remand was 251% overcrowded, and was “short” 2448 beds. According to the Department of Correctional Servicesmost recent annual report, 2012 to 2017, the number of male remand prisoners has declined fairly steadily, from 44,742 to 41, 397, while women’s numbers have risen, from 998 to 1,128.

What does that look like “on the ground”? For women prisoners, and especially for those awaiting trial, from overcrowding to access to healthcare to food to hygiene and sanitation to access to education, reading materials, decent work or any work, exercise and recreation, to contact with the outside world, the conditions are “horrifying.” At Pollsmoor, for example, more than half of the women prisoners are awaiting trial. Many wait years for a trial that is often thrown out or postponed indefinitely.

Reflecting on her experiences in prison, Barbara Hogan commented, “Prisoners do not need to be told that policeman beat up prisoners. They know it.” Last year, in August, the Women’s Jail opened a new exhibition, paintings from that jail by anti-apartheid activist Fatima Meer. The paintings’ very existence testifies to the myriad forms of women’s persistent, resistant and defiant organizing. At the same time, they speak to the ongoing squalor and dehumanization of women behind bars. The conditions of women prisoners, in particular women remand prisoners, is not an oversight. Those women have not been forgotten. They have been dumped, disposed of, and that’s public policy, not some accident. Prisoners do not need to be told that, but the public does. Someday, along with the Union Buildings and High Courts, women and their supporters will march to women’s prisons across the country to acknowledge, learn from, and build on the intersectional women’s organizing taking place each and every day among those women who are forced to sleep standing but never surrender.

 

(Paintings by Fatima Meer; Mail & Guardian)