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)

Tampon Christmas at SCI Muncy

I was in for a surprise when I returned to my housing unit, the Young Adult Offender Program, after a visit with my father, June 29th, 2018. After I checked in with my housing unit officers, one of the two of them instructed me to wait a moment. She disappeared into the staff bathroom, which doubles as a supply closet. When she reemerged, she wore plastic gloves and held a large brown paper bag. Immediately I felt confusion, even irrational feelings of dread: what did this mysterious, unsolicited bag contain? My officer approached me while opening the bag, and with a grin on her face, produced three individually wrapped tampons. “Merry Christmas!” She exclaimed. Accepting the tampons, my confusion heightened. What was going on? Did I make it back to the right housing unit after my visit, or one that looked eerily similar with identical mural paintings decorating the walls? Stunned, I watched as she made her way to each cell door, doling out exactly three tampons per person. I turned to my other housing unit officer for some clarity.

The awe of the unit must have been palpable, because the officer I turned to for an explanation stepped out of the office and into the hallway to make an announcement regarding this tampon Christmas. She informed us that our prison is supplying every inmate with three tampons in addition to the thirty pads we receive monthly as a sort of trial run. Contingent upon how it goes, the DOC may start providing us with more free tampons.

Realistically, three free tampons won’t make much of a difference considering the frequency with which tampons are supposed to be changed. However, that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, or PADOC, may begin providing incarcerated people who menstruate with tampons is certainly small progress. Currently, the PADOC only provides people who menstruate with thirty free, individually wrapped pads a month. If a person bleeds heavily and needs more than thirty pads, they have to battle the bureaucratic medical department to be issued more.

Incarcerated individuals can purchase menstrual products through commissary in addition to the free state-issued pads: a 22 pack of generic panty liners costs $1.08, and a 20 pack of Always brand unscented party liners costs $1.86. A 28 pack of Always brand ultra thin pads with wings costs $7.17!

The average inmate pay is $0.19 an hour, which for most goes towards other personal hygiene products and food. Many prisoners do not have outside support, forcing them to work long hours with slave-like wages for the things they need and want.

Until now, tampons have only been available through purchase off commissary. The price of an 8 pack of regular absorbency tampons is $1.82, and an 8 pack of super absorbent tampons costs $2.05. Many people who menstruate prefer tampons as they are hygienic and allow one to comfortably remain active while menstruating.

Tragically, society has treated menstruation as a dirty, shameful issue. Thanks to many activists this perspective seems to be changing. Every woman in every place on Earth, free and incarcerated, deserves free feminine care products. Incarcerated women are one of the world’s most marginalized populations: it is imperative that we change this fact by bringing attention to and illuminating the issues incarcerated women experience. These issues include topics more frequently exposed such as inhumane treatment, disparate and unfair sentences, as well as those issues discussed less often– even period problems!

 

(Photo Credit: Ms. Magazine)

Maryland takes great strides for the reproductive rights of women inmates!

In early April, the Maryland General Assembly approved two new bills that will greatly affect the healthcare of women inmates. Maryland becomes the first state to require a written reproductive healthcare and services policy for pregnant inmates and detainees. Lawmakers in Maryland approved measures requiring correctional facilities to have free menstrual hygiene products available upon request. The House and Senate both unanimously passed the hygiene product bill. Last summer, the Federal Bureau of Prisons declared that all federal prisons must give women free access to menstrual products. Women make up less than 7% of those housed in federal prisons, and so it is imperative to also push these bills at a state level.

The second bill disallowed the use of shackling of pregnant inmates throughout pregnancy and during labor, except in individualized cases when determined necessary by the medical professional responsible for the care of the inmate. Shackling pregnant women is inhumane and unnecessary. This bill also mandates that information on abortion access, adoption, kinship adoption and foster-care be made available to all pregnant inmates, along with new updates to prenatal care and miscarriage care procedures. This bill will be put into effect in October of this year.

The momentum for women’s rights in Maryland continues with the passing of the Rape Survivor Family Protection Act that enables pregnant rape victims to terminate parental rights of their rapist. Advocates in Maryland have been pushing for this bill to pass for over a decade. Currently, 45 states and Washington, D.C. have laws in place that allow the victim to limit or terminate the parental rights of their rapists.

Both the bill disallowing the shackling of pregnant inmates and the Rape Survivor Family Protection Act have been long advocated for in Maryland, so why are these bills finally being pushed through now? Maryland is now at an almost 35% ratio of women in state legislature positions, pushing it into the top 10 for representative gender equality in state legislatures in the country. Maryland also has a growing number of women led advocacy groups that are driven to get women’s rights bills signed into law.

When asked how these long desired bills were finally able to be pushed through, Brittany Oliver, the Founder and Director of  Not Without Black Women, said, “Those were important bills for women’s rights. We worked with a variety of organizations on these bills, including Reproductive Justice Inside. I think what we did was merge policy and organizing to finally get these bills passed. “

When asked what’s coming for women’s rights in Maryland during the next legislative session, Ms. Oliver replied, “This session just ended, so while we don’t yet have an official agenda for next session, one thing we are looking to advocate on is a bill making it illegal for police to have sexual relations with inmates.”

After this successful session, advocates in Maryland have nine months to prepare for the next legislative session. Along with women’s issues, they plan to push forward with economic issues including The Fight For $15, which would raise the minimum wage in Maryland, and a Gender Equity Bill, which would prohibit employers from asking job applicants about their previous salary in hopes to close the gender and race pay gap. The struggle continues!

 

(Image Credit: The Hatcher Group) (Photo Credit: The Washington Post / Andre Chung)

At Yarl’s Wood, 120 women prisoners are on hunger strike! #ShutYarlsWood


England built a special hell for women: Yarl’s Wood. This week, 120 Yarl’s Wood women prisoners are on hunger strike. The women are protesting indefinite detention, abysmal healthcare services, abuse, and denial of personal and collective dignity and humanity. Today, after being denied entry for a year, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott was finally allowed inside the complex. Abbott was accompanied by Shami Chakrabarti, the shadow attorney general. Eight years ago, to the day, women prisoners at Yarl’s Wood engaged in a hunger strike from February 5 to March 19, 2010. That same year, in January, Bita Ghaedi entered into a weeks long individual hunger strike, out of fear of certain death if she was returned to Iran. In March 2015, women prisoners at Yarl’s Wood went on a hunger strike. Why does England, or the government of England, want to demean, abuse and traumatized so many vulnerable already traumatized women, most of women are African and Asian? Why does England hate so many women so intensely? When will this reign of terror end?

One hunger striker, an Algerian woman who has lived in England since she was 11 years old, explained, “Every day I wake up and I have to think of a reason to go on. I’ve given up thinking about the outside – I’ve given up thinking about it. I feel like I’m in someone’s dungeon and no one is letting me out. I might as well be blindfolded in a van going 100 miles an hour in a direction I don’t know. The indefinite detention causes people so much stress. People are breaking down psychologically. We have no fight left. They break you down. It’s inhumane. And there’s no psychological help. I’ve tried speaking to a psychological nurse in the centre about issues I have, and he advised me to speak to my solicitor about it.” This woman has been in Yarl’s Wood for three months. She has no idea if and when she will be released.

In 2017, `Voke’ spent eight months in Yarl’s Wood. While imprisoned there, she attempted suicide: “It was such a relief to get out of there. But I don’t understand why they had to put me through it at all. I hope I will start to feel better soon, but I will never forget being detained. I will never forget Yarl’s Wood.”

Eight years ago, Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers – including Denise McNeil, 35 year old Jamaican asylum seeker; Mojirola Daniels, Nigerian asylum seeker; Leila, Iranian asylum seeker; Victoria Odeleye, 32 year old Nigerian asylum seeker –  reported torture, rape, starvation, other forms of abuse. They described the devastating impact of Yarl’s Wood on imprisoned children, such as 10-year-old Egyptian Nardin Mansour. They mourned and protested the suicides as they explained that Yarl’s Wood was intent on killing them. As Laura A, a Sierra Leonean and former Yarl’s Wood prisoner, noted: “I am a fighter, I am used to fight to live, but to be told, ‘You faked your life,’ is a little like death.”

The Yarl’s Wood women hunger strikers took the calculus of the killing and turned it on its head, saying they were better than that. They said they were women, fighters used to fighting, peacemakers used to making peace, and no one could decide that it was right for them to be slaughtered. They called out, shouted, screamed, fasted, demanded to be heard … and here we are eight years later.

Over 80 percent of the women in Yarl’s Wood are survivors fleeing sexual or gender-based violence. The vast majority of women in Yarl’s Wood end up being released into the community. What sort of factory is designed to produce damage: damaged bodies, souls, psyches, lives? Yarl’s Wood. The time for concern and for discussion is over. The time for justice, and for reparations, is long overdue. Shut Yarl’s Wood down; do it now.

 

(Photo Credit: Politics.co.uk) (Image Credit: Detained Voices)

The number of women sentenced to more than 1 year in prison increased from 2015 to 2016

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics released its report, “Prisoners in 2016.” By and large, the numbers are “encouraging” in that prison populations, by and large, are reducing. While certain states buck the trend, overall, thanks to criminal justice reform, fewer people are spending time in prison. That would be good news, except for this: “The number of females sentenced to more than 1 year in state or federal prison increased by 500 from 2015 to 2016”. In a year of generally decreasing prison populations, this exception is noteworthy.

Here are the highlights of “Prisoners in 2016”: “The number of prisoners under state and federal jurisdiction at year-end 2016 (1,505,400) decreased by 21,200 (down more than 1%) from year-end 2015. The federal prison population decreased by 7,300 prisoners from 2015 to 2016 (down almost 4%), accounting for 34% of the total change in the U.S. prison population. The imprisonment rate in the United States decreased 2%, from 459 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents of all ages in 2015 to 450 per 100,000 in 2016. State and federal prisons admitted 2,300 fewer prisoners in 2016 than in 2015. The Federal Bureau of Prisons accounted for 96% of the decline in admissions (down 2,200 admissions). The number of prisoners held in private facilities in 2016 (128,300) increased 2% from year-end 2015 (up 2,100). The number of females sentenced to more than 1 year in state or federal prison increased by 500 from 2015 to 2016.” Why are women the exception to the new rule? What’s going on?

At the end of 2016, women comprised 7% of the total national prison population. From end of 2015 to end of 2016, there were 69 fewer women prisoners, nationwide. In the same period, the number of male prisoners dropped by 21, 137. For women, that’s a .1% reduction, and for men .3%. Twenty states reduced their number of women prisoners while 26 states increased that number, and this is in one year. Kentucky, Washington and Ohio led the pack in increased incarceration of women.

“The imprisonment rate for the U.S. population of all ages was the lowest since 1997 … On December 31, 2016, a total of 1% of adult males living in the United States were serving prison sentences of more than 1 year (1,108 per 100,000 adult male residents), a decrease of 2% from year-end 2015 (1,135 per 100,000).  The imprisonment rates for females of all ages and adult females in 2016 were unchanged from year-end 2015 (64 per 100,000 female residents of all ages and 82 per 100,000 adult female residents).”

Once again, Oklahoma had the highest rate of women’s imprisonment: 149 per 100,000 women residents. Kentucky, South Dakota and Idaho follow close behind.

“The imprisonment rate for black females (96 per 100,000 black female residents) was almost double that for white females (49 per 100,000 white female residents). Among females ages 18 to 19, black females were 3.1 times more likely than white females and 2.2 times more likely than Hispanic females to be imprisoned in 2016.”

The war on drugs continues to be a war on women: “A quarter (25%) of females serving time in state prison on December 31, 2015, had been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 14% of males … More than half (56% or 6,300) of female federal prisoners were serving sentences for a drug offense, compared to 47% of males (75,600).”

While rates of incarceration and raw numbers of incarcerated people decline, rates of incarceration for women increase and raw numbers of women sentenced to more than a year increase. That is not an oversight. That is public policy. The war on women, waged through police, courts, and prison, continues. If the report were to include immigrant detention, the profile would be that much clearer. It’s time to stop the war on women, to pay greater attention to the reasons that the State targets women for imprisonment. It’s time to end the national witch hunt.

 

(Image Credit: Prison Policy Initiative)

Tomorrow Scotland finally demolishes Cornton Vale, its only women’s prison


This morning, Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, wrote, “Tomorrow sees a major milestone in the transformation of our justice system. We will begin the demolition of Cornton Vale women’s prison, a move that marks the next stage in our plans to ensure Scotland’s penal policy doesn’t just punish people who’ve committed crimes – important though that is – but helps deliver safer communities in the long term.” Cornton Vale is Scotland’s only women’s prison, and it has been a toxic hot mess for decades. Its destruction is welcome and long overdue.

Cornton Vale has been called the “vale of death”, due to its regularly high rate of suicide. Between 1995 and 1998, eight prisoners hanged themselves. Yvonne Gilmour hanged herself in 1996. So did Angela Bollan. Outcry and inquiry ensued. In 2001, in the span of a single week, Frances Carvell and Michelle McElvar hanged themselves. Outcry and inquiry ensued. In 2012, Sarah Mitchell was “found dead” in her cell. Outcry and inquiry ensued.

Outcry and inquiry, outcry and inquiry, the same drumbeat for more than twenty years. During that time, commissions found that the prison was overcrowded. Report after report decried the rising rate of women’s incarceration. Everyone seemed to agree that too many women were being thrown into prison. Meanwhile, Scotland’s women prison population rose by 120% since 2000. As of last year, Scotland “boasted” the second highest rate of female imprisonment in northern Europe. Spain’s number one.

Last year, a commission found that women at Cornton Vale were forced to use their cell sinks as toilets at night, because they had no access to proper toilets. It was just the latest scandal to mark the dismal history of Cornton Vale. Various commissions have described Cornton Vale as “not fit for purpose”; “wholly unacceptable in the 21st century”; “in a state of crisis”; “Victorian”; “a significant breach of human dignity”; “an unacceptably poor establishment”; “disgracefully poor”; and, as always, notorious.

After all the reports and deaths and harm, Scotland finally decided to shut Cornton Vale down. The first plan was to replace Cornton Vale with a larger prison, but cooler, evidence based heads prevailed, and that plan was dropped for another, an 80-bed prison, five regional 20-bed facilities, community sentencing and service, and much greater funding for mental health, drug abuse, counseling and more.

Cornton Vale is more than a “vale of death”, although that would have been enough. It was the vale of women’s slow and painful death and deaths. For the past two decades, Scotland  criminalized women’s lives and bodies and then, by unequal funding within the prison system, ensured that no one would leave unharmed. Tomorrow is a milestone. Cornton Vale will be demolished. Which women’s prison is next?

Ava DuVernay’s 13TH is great, but where are the women prisoners?

Ava DuVernay’s 13TH is an important, must-see documentary concerning mass and hyper incarceration in the United States. It’s particularly powerful on the Constitutional sources of a national program to imprison thousands of African American men and communities of color. As film critic Manohla Dargis wrote, “Powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming, Ava DuVernay’s documentary `13TH’ will get your blood boiling and tear ducts leaking. It shakes you up, but it also challenges your ideas about the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States, subject matter that could not sound less cinematic.” Who’s missing at the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration? Women. Where are the women prisoners in this account? Almost nowhere to be seen.

The most salient omission of women prisoners in the history as told by 13TH is in the section concerning the war on drugs. While the intent of that war, from Nixon to today, is brilliantly depicted, the fact that the war on drugs has made women the fastest growing prison population is never mentioned. In 2014, the National Research Council released The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, a review of the literature on mass incarceration in the United States over the preceding four decades, which reported the following:

For four decades, women have been the fastest growing prison population. The United States has one third of the world’s female prison population. The majority of women in prison are mothers. Women’s prisons are historically `under resourced’ and that situation is only getting worse. Women prisoners face particularly high rates of sexual violence from prison staff. Women prisoners have exceptionally high rates of PTSD, mental illness, and alcohol and drug dependence. Women prisoners have astronomically, shockingly high rates of abnormal pap smears. Here are some highlights:

“More than 200,000 women are in jails or prisons in the United States, representing nearly one-third of incarcerated females worldwide. The past three to four decades have seen rapid growth in women’s incarceration rates—a rise of 646 percent since 1980 compared with a 419 percent rise for men”

“Incarceration rates have increased more rapidly for females than for males since the early 1970s. In 1972, the prison and jail incarceration rate for men was estimated to be 24 times higher than that for women. By 2010, men’s incarceration rate was about 11 times higher. Women’s incarceration rate had thus risen twice as rapidly as men’s in the period of growing incarceration rates.”

“Compared with men, women are sentenced more often to prison for nonviolent crimes: about 55 percent of women sentenced to prison have committed property or drug crimes as compared with about 35 percent of male prisoners. Women also are more likely than men to enter prison with mental health problems or to develop them while incarcerated: about three-quarters of women in state prisons in 2004 had symptoms of a current mental health problem, as opposed to 55 percent of men.

“Women’s prisons historically have been under resourced and underserved in correctional systems, so that women prisoners have had less access to programming and treatment than their male counterparts. Women prisoners also are more likely to be the targets of sexual abuse by staff.”

“A majority of women prisoners are mothers, who must grapple with the burden of being separated from their children during incarceration. In 2004, 62 percent of female state and federal inmates (compared with 51 percent of male inmates) were parents. Of those female inmates, 55 percent reported living with their minor children in the month before arrest, 42 percent in single-parent households; for male inmates who were parents, the corresponding figures were 36 and 17 percent.”

That was two years ago. In the intervening period, from the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama to the Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida to Berks Family Detention Center in Pennsylvania to the California Institution for Women to prisons and jails and detention centers from Alaska to South Dakota to Texas to Oklahoma to Virginia to New York and beyond, the situation for women at the intersection of race, class, disability, justice and mass incarceration has worsened. At the same time, women have led and are leading campaigns to do more than end mass incarceration. Ava DuVernay’s 13TH is a great, must-see documentary because it sheds light on the systemic violence committed against people of color in the name of justice and `security’ and because it opens the door to the next great documentary in which must-see women prisoners lay out the map for a justice system that includes and honors all of us.

 

(Infographic Credit: Prison Policy Initiative) (Photo Credit: Female Report)