England invented a new hell for women prisoners: gate sectioning


On Tuesday, October 19, 2021, the Justice Committee of the United Kingdom’s Parliament took “evidence on safety and wellbeing of women in prison” … or the absolute, radical and contrived absence thereof. Among the witnesses were Sandra Fieldhouse, Inspector, Leader of the Women’s Inspection Team, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons; and  Juliet Lyon, Chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody. Juliet Lyon introduced the “Justice” Committee to the practice of gate sectioning: “The other thing that has arisen that I want to put down a marker about, which I think is mostly anecdotal, although I am sure it is happening, is what is called people being held at the gate, and then put under the Mental Health Act—and then the gate sectioning, which is the way it is referred to. There have been a number of incidents, particularly in relation to women, where they thought they were leaving—they were literally at the gate—and they have to be through that gate before it can happen: they are sectioned, taken away and put in secure care. That simply cannot be right. It is a very cruel thing to do, and it indicates that prison has been allowed to hold on to someone whose behaviour and health have been very poor, and they have been very damaged by it. Gate sectioning is occurring more readily …. It has got to be stopped. It is just not the right way to proceed at all.”

It has got to be stopped. It also has to be asked why it happens at all. Prison officials claim that the main reason is that there aren’t enough spaces in mental health facilities … and so they wait until the last moment, actually the moment after the last moment? To be clear, and one must visualize this, women who have been in poor health, often before prison and more often than not intensified by their stay in prison, even brief stays, are told, “Today, your term is up. You are free to leave.” They pack their belongings, say goodbye to their sisters inside, and head for the exit. Once they have taken a step beyond the exit, they are taken off. This is not about lack of resources. Somehow, magically, when women are released from prison, the beds appear. This is about cruelty, pure and simple.

It isn’t as if leaving prison, going through the gates, is easy for women. As Carolyn Harris, MP for Swansea East, noted earlier this year, “Over half of all women leaving prison have nowhere safe to go. They walk through the gate with three things: the paltry £46 prison discharge grant, a plastic bag full of belongings, and the threat of recall if they miss their probation appointment. For some, the simple fact that they have been in prison a long way from home means that they have no local connections when they are released. For others, who are victims of abuse, returning to their homes, and consequently the perpetrators, comes at a huge personal risk.”

In 2015, the English government established the Through the Gate program, which was supposed to address the issue of people moving back into the community. At that point, the services were poor to nonexistent. In 2017, an evaluation was published that found that people leaving after longer sentences were not prepared for release. In 2016, an evaluation found that people leaving after shorter sentences were not prepared for release. Both evaluations acknowledged the greater incidence of mental health issues among incarcerated women, especially PTSD. That was five years ago, and today … women are snatched at the gates and `sectioned’ off. Meanwhile, a report to Parliament on mental health in prison, submitted September 21, 2021, found “71% of women and 47% of men surveyed by inspectors in prison self-reported having mental health problems.”

Two years ago, the Governor of Low Newton prison is reported to have said, “We wouldn’t ask someone with a broken leg to hobble around waiting until release for treatment”. We wouldn’t,  but we do. In which circle of hell does gate sectioning appear?

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Grace Wilson / Vice)

Women dying in jails across the United States: This is what catastrophe looks like

Tomorrow, Sunday, July 18, the United Nations will celebrate Nelson Mandela International Day. With that in mind, on Friday, July 16, the United Nations released its first global research data on the state of prisons over the past twenty years. It’s predictably grim, especially for women. Globally, one in three incarcerated persons has not been found guilty by a court of justice. Either they are awaiting trial or they are simply being held. This means overcrowded conditions, which means spikes in covid, as we’re seeing this week in Missouri’s prisons. A surge in prison population = a spike in covid. For women, this means a global war on women and girls. From 2000 to 2019, the number of prisoners worldwide increased by more than 25 per cent. During that period, the number of women in prison increased by 33% while the increase for men was 25%. According to the UN, “the female share of the global prison population has increased, from 6.1% in 2000 to 7.2% in 2019.” What does this trend look like in the United States? Catastrophic, and especially so for women being held in jails.

According to the latest jails report from the U.S. Department of Justice, from 2008 to 2018, the female jail population increased by 15% while the male population decreased by 9%. From 2005 to 2018, the female incarceration rate rose by 10%, while the male rate of incarceration dropped by 14%. Between 2008 and 2018, the female jail population rose by 15%, the male jail population dropped by 9%. In terms of criminal justice systems and, specifically, policing and incarceration, the past twenty years have been catastrophic for women globally and nationally.

What does catastrophe look like? According to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice report on mortality in jails, “In 2018, females held in local jails had a higher rate of mortality …  than males.” Chronic diseases, especially respiratory infections, cancer, heart disease; suicide; drug and alcohol related problems are `credited’ as cause of death, but the cause of death is jail itself. While the pandemic has exacerbated the situation, the United Nations report covers two decades, 2000 to 2019, and this is only the second time since 2000, when the Department of Justice started reporting on the situation in jails across the United States, that women had a higher jail mortality rate than men, and that was in 2018, before the pandemic.

Tomorrow, July 18, is Nelson Mandela International Day. Earlier this week, July 13, marked the sixth anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland, in a jail in Texas. Since then, the situation for women in jails across the United States has only worsened. The UN report concludes: “Measures can be taken to counteract the relative increase in the female prison population, including the development and implementation of gender-specific options for diversion and non-custodial measures at every stage of the criminal justice process. Such measures should take into account the history of victimization of many women offenders and their caretaking responsibilities, as well as mitigating factors, such as lack of a criminal history and the nature and severity of the offense.” In other words, find and enforce ways of keeping women out of jail. How many more women must die before we hear and act on this common and evidence-supported sense? 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Infographic Credit: Prison Policy Institute)

In Cornton Vale, Scotland’s one women’s prison, women with complex mental health needs are routinely thrown into solitary for days on end

Today, Scotland’s Mental Welfare Commission released the findings of their investigation into the treatment of women with complex mental health needs who have the great misfortune of ending up in Scotland’s one all-women’s prison. The Commission reports that women with mental health needs were sent into solitary confinement, euphemistically called Separation and Reintegration Units, for anywhere from a day to 82 days. The cells are described as “sparse and lacking in comfort. The narratives in women’s notes suggested there was little in the way of positive sensory stimulation in the environment of the SRU. There was limited human contact and if other women in the SRU were distressed or unwell, their vocalisations were likely to be audible, disturbing and distressing. When women’s self-care deteriorated, they may also have experienced physical and sensory discomfort in this context.”

The report goes on to note, “Part of the ethos, and indeed the name of SRUs, is that offenders are reintegrated into the mainstream environment after a period of time. Reintegration did not appear to feature in the majority of cases we reviewed …. For women who were floridly unwell with acute psychosis or manic psychosis, the severity of their symptoms and level of disturbance significantly worsened in the SRU.”

None of this is surprising or new. That solitary confinement, for anyone, is torture is not new. That solitary confinement as a response to women’s health needs is torture is not new. That solitary confinement as a response to women in need is, nevertheless, altogether ordinary also is not new. That solitary confinement worsens everything is also not new. That Cornton Vale is a toxic hot mess, with high levels of suicide and self-harm is also not new. Due to its high rates of suicide and self-harm, Cornton Vale has been called the “vale of death”. None of this is new or surprising.

In 2018, the European Commission on the Prevention of Torture visited Cornton Vale: “The CPT raises serious concerns about the treatment of women prisoners held in segregation at Cornton Vale Prison …. The CPT found women who clearly were in need of urgent care and treatment in a psychiatric facility, and should not have been in a prison environment, let alone segregated for extended periods in solitary confinement under Rules 95 and 41 (accommodation in specified conditions for health or welfare reasons). Prison staff were not trained to manage the highly disturbed women.” When they returned, in 2019, they found that the situation was somewhat improved, in some senses, but that the use of segregation, and in particular long-term isolation, persisted. None of this is new or surprising.

What is new is that this is not new. On July 10, 2017, 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.” What happened? Why, four years later, is Cornton Vale still standing? What happened to the alternatives — an 80-bed prison, five regional 20-bed facilities, community sentencing and service, and much greater funding for mental health, drug abuse, counseling? What is the investment in Cornton Vale’s catastrophic failure, such that, four years later, the vale of death, the vale of women’s slow and painful death and deaths? Haven’t there been enough inquiries and enough `discoveries’, enough corpses and enough ruined lives?

(By Dan Moshenberg)

In Ireland, the Dóchas Centre is a dumping ground for women living with mental health issues

Dóchas Centre

In Irish, dóchas means hope.  Every year, Chaplains who serve Ireland’s prisons issue a Chaplains Report. Usually, these reports are fairly modest, tame even, describing the situation in the various prisons. These reports seldom make news. This year, however, the Chaplains reported that the situation in Irish prisons has become dire, and the direst prison is the Dóchas Centre, nestled in the larger Mountjoy Prison, in Dublin. According to Ireland’s Department of Justice, the Dóchas Centre is a “closed, medium security prison for females aged 18 years and over. It is the committal prison for females committed on remand or sentenced from all Courts outside the Munster area.” The Chaplain’s report is more succinct: Dóchas has become “a dumping ground” for women living with mental health issues.

According to the Dóchas Centre Chaplain, “Most recently a prisoner was remanded to the Dochas Centre after having spent over a year in a psychiatric facility. The prisoner was clearly unwell and confused to the extent that after a few days in custody the prisoner wanted to know what hospital she was in. From as soon as she arrived in the Dochas Centre the prisoner remained in bed all day. Prison was obviously not the place for that prisoner, yet the prisoner had been charged, arraigned in Court and remanded to prison. After considerable intervention by the Governor and Health Care Staff, the prisoner was removed back to the psychiatric facility that she had come from …. While Staff were dealing with this prisoner two other prisoners on the same landing were even more difficult to deal with: both were self-harming and both were violent. Both of the prisoners had been treated for mental illness before coming to prison. One of the prisoners had been brought to the Dochas Centre infected with Covid 19. The other prisoner was returned to the psychiatric facility where she had been a patient. That prisoner however was returned to the Dochas after she behaved in the same violent way that she had behaved in when she was being held in the Dochas previously. Obviously she had been referred to the psychiatric facility for specialist treatment. How was she expected to receive that treatment when she was returned to the Dochas? This is a clear example of the Dochas being used as a dumping ground.”

While the Chaplain states repeatedly that the staff at the Dóchas Centre are doing the best they can, the best they can was never meant to address the needs of women living with mental health issues: “The Prison Service is too well aware of how prisons are constantly being used as the dumping ground for other agencies’ problems. Offenders whose offence is rooted in mental illness invariably get sent to prison because the State cannot accommodate them elsewhere. This imposes a duty of care on the Governor and his Staff which the normal exercise of their duty was not designed for. Prison Officers are not trained to handle psychiatric cases …. Covid has preoccupied all our thinking for almost a year. Hospitals filled to capacity are part of everyday discussion. At this time of terrible fear and anxiety in the community, no one is going to be surprised to hear that the Central Mental Hospital has no bed space available either. The difference however is that the CMH had no available space before the Covid 19 pandemic. Most prisons have prisoners suffering from mental illness who have been waiting for a bed in the CMH for over a year.” According to the Chaplain’s Report, the situation is “soul destroying. No one seems to care.”

The Chaplain concludes, “Government could find the resources to rescue the collapse of the banking system. Government could find the resources to pay workers to stay at home during the pandemic. Government could find the resources to protect the vulnerable from a life of addiction, homelessness and petty crime. Government instead sends the weakest and most vulnerable in society to prison at the cost of the tax-payer and the fabric of society.”

There are currently 3866 people held in prisons in Ireland. According to the Justice Minister, over 1700 prisoners are awaiting mental health and substance abuse services. Across Ireland, close to half of all those living in prisons are waiting for treatment. In the Dóchas Centre, bedridden women, dumped and abandoned by the State, stare at the prison walls and imagine they’re being helped. In Ireland, today, dóchas means hope. 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Irish Examiner)

New Jersey built a special hell for women, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women

Nafeesah Goldsmith, lead organizer for NJ Prison Justice Watch, hugs Tiera Piercy-Hollis of Camden at a protest outside Edna Mahan Correctional Facility

An ombudsman is an official appointed to investigate complaints against “maladministration” by a central government. By investigating, an ombudsman protects against governmental abuse of power. It’s that simple … unless you’re in New Jersey. On Thursday, April 8, 2021, New Jersey Department of Corrections Ombudsman Dan DiBenedetti testified before New Jersey state legislature’s judiciary and women and children’s committees. On Friday, April 9, 2021, DeBenedetti announced his resignation, effective August 1, 2021. Dan DiBenedetti has been Ombudsman since 2009. In that time, he has not suggested a single policy recommendation concerning Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, the `open secret’ open sore of New Jersey. No one from the Ombudsman’s staff has visited Edna Mahan in over a year. According to current and former residents of Edna Mahan, there’s no point in contacting the office of the Ombudsman, because they no one from that office ever does anything. Again, Dan DiBenedetti has been Ombudsman since 2009. Why did it take the state legislature over a decade to recognize that something was wrong, that women were being abused not only by the prison staff but by the entire State apparatus?

Here are just a few headlines from the past 12 months: “Sexual abuse of inmates at N.J. women’s prison is an ‘open secret,’ federal inquiry finds” (April 14, 2020); “31 Guards Suspended at a Women’s Prison Plagued by Sexual Violence” (January 28, 2021); “NJ corrections dep’t settles for over $20 million with victims of Edna Mahan abuses dating back to 2014” (April 7, 2021). The State settled with survivors of Edna Mahan, but the issue is far from settled. The abuses didn’t start in 2014. Staff sexual abuse of women at Edna Mahan go back at least as far as 1994, when Kevin Brodie was `caught’, fired and prosecuted. Not a year has gone by since without a similar incident. As last year’s Federal inquiry noted, “Current and former prisoners at Edna Mahan described sexual abuse of prisoners by correction officers as an `open secret.’ There is no indication that NJDOC officers took reasonable responses to prevent correction officers and staff from continuing to sexually abuse prisoners at Edna Mahan.” That report was filed April, 2020. Since then, no one inspected Edna Mahan and no one outside the usual suspects asked why there was no inspection. 

On the books, New Jersey’s Department of Corrections Ombudsman actually has quite a bit of power to investigate and prosecute. The Office can force people to testify under oath. But if you have, as New Jersey does, an Ombudsman who came up through the ranks of the Department of Corrections, who views his investigatory powers as a betrayal of his brothers in blue, and if the State legislature is willing to look the other way until it’s forced to look again, then the books don’t much matter. 

Now legislators demand a `clean sweep’: “`Everyone has to go,’ Assemblywomen Aura Dunn, R- Morris, Nancy Muñoz, R- Union, and Assemblymen Christopher DePhillips and Bob Auth, both R- Bergen, said in a joint statement Thursday night. What has to go is Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, and not to be replaced with a `better prison’. The Unites States is a gulag archipelago of women’s prisons, each designed as a special hell, including Julia Tutwiler in Alabama, Lowell Correctional in Florida, the California Institution for WomenHuron Valley in Michigan, Muncy in Pennsylvania, and Edna Mahan in New Jersey. Every one of them is an “open secret”, and every one of them must be shut down, once and for all. Otherwise, at some point, the State legislature will meet, in committee, and discover that the Ombudsman, whose only job is to investigate, has nothing to say about the atrocities we commit by looking the other way.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Picture credit: Keith A. Muccilli / NJ Advance Media)

For women in England and Wales, `safety in custody’ means self-harm

Quarterly 12-month rolling rate of self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners by gender of establishment, 12 months ending September 2010 to 12 months ending September 2020

On Thursday, January 28, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice issued its Safety in Custody Statistics, England and Wales: Deaths in Prison Custody to December 2020 Assaults and Self-harm to September 2020. The report is generally grim, and especially so for women. Generally, “In the 12 months to December 2020, there were 318 deaths in prison custody, an increase of 8% from 300 deaths the previous 12 months.” The real story, however, is that of women’s self-harm over the past twelve months: “Self-harm incidents have increased in the female estate and decreased in the male estate from the previous 12-month period: There were 58,870 self-harm incidents in the 12 months to September 2020, down 5% from the previous 12 months, comprising a 7% decrease in male establishments and a 8% increase in female establishments. In the most recent quarter there were 14,167 self-harm incidents, up 9% on the previous quarter, comprising a 5% increase in male establishments and a 24% increase in female establishments.”

What’s going on here? On one hand, the expanded and increased isolation, due to the pandemic, has intensified despair. As Dr. Kate Paradine, CEO of Women in Prison, explained, “Many women haven’t seen their families in person for over a year, and are confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day. It doesn’t have to be like this – the Government can honor its promise and resume its early release scheme allowing women to safely isolate in the community.”

But Covid-19 is only part of the story. Here’s the report from the same Ministry of Justice a year earlier, Safety in Custody Statistics, England and Wales: Deaths in Prison Custody to March 2020 Assaults and Self-harm to December 2019: “Self-harm incidents reached a record high of 63,328 incidents in the 12 months to December 2019, up 14% from the previous 12 months … Self-harm trends differ considerably by gender.” Where male prisoners suffered 650 incidents of self-harm per 1000 prisoners, female prisoners suffered 3,130 self-harm `events’ per 1000 women prisoners, and that was an increase of 16% from the previous twelve months.

The Safety in Custody report for the year before, to December 2018: “Self-harm incidents reached a record high of 55,598 incidents in 2018, a 25% increase from 2017.” The rate of self-harm among women prisoners that year was 2,675 per 1000, “an increase of 24% in the number of incidents from the previous year.”

The Safety in Custody report for the year before that, to December 2017: “In the 12 months to December 2017, there were 44,651 incidents of self-harm, up 11% from the previous year. The number of self- harming individuals increased by 6% to a new record high of 11,630.” The rate of self-harm among women prisoners that year was 2,093 per 1,000, “an increase of 8% in the number of incidents from the previous year.”

Want to know what this year’s report said? “Self-harm trends differ considerably by gender. The number of incidents in male establishments decreased by 7% … to September 2019 to 46,427 in the 12 months to September 2020. The number of incidents in the female estate increased 8% … to 12,443. On a quarterly basis, the number of incidents in the three months to September 2020 increased by 5% in male establishments compared with the previous three months and increased by 24% in female establishments. The rate of incidents … was 595 incidents per 1,000 prisoners in the male estate …. The rate of incidents in female establishments was far higher, and increased by 18%, from 3,016 in the previous 12 months to 3,557 in the latest 12 months.”

What is the point of calling these “safety in custody” when every single year, the rates of self-harm for women rise and the State trots out the same phrase, “Self-harm trends differ considerably by gender.” Perhaps the point is that, for women, safety in custody, like protection, means self-harm, means there will be a performance of collecting data but really no one in charge gives a damn, or worse, cares only to inflict harm, means there is no justice as long as prisons are held sacred by the State. How is the State responding to its own report of women’s self-harm `in custody’? On Saturday, January 23, it announced a plan to build 500 prison places, for the sake of women’s safety

by Dan Moshenberg

(Infographic: UK Ministry of Justice)

Why do we continue to leave pregnant women in deathtrap jails, prisons, detention centers?

Tammy Jackson

At the beginning of March, we asked if Florida would finally stop shackling women prisoners in childbirth. At the end of June, Florida’s Governor signed 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 new law bans shackling pregnant women prisoners; invasive body cavity searches; and the use of solitary confinement; and requires medical examinations at least once every 24 hours. While this is welcome news, it begs the question why it took Florida so long to address the ongoing violence against women in its prisons and jails. Why? Why are pregnant women shackled while pregnant, in childbirth, and after delivery? Why? Across the United States, women, alone in their cells, give birth to children. They are alone because … because they are incarcerated. That justifies all acts of violence and violation, especially against women. Remember, Andrea Circle Bear, the first woman to die of Covid 19 in federal prison, was pregnant when she was sent to prison. Remember, Andrea Circle Bear should never have been incarcerated in the first place, and should never have remained incarcerated. Why is it so hard to release pregnant women from clear and imminent danger?

Every month, the reports come out, and every month, for the past few months, prisons and jails have been the epicenters of Covid infection and mortality. Has that mattered to prison authorities or the public at large? No. Have pregnant women, the most vulnerable sector of the the incarcerated population, been released? No.  In North Carolina, pregnant prisoners were told they would be released. It hasn’t happenedThe women worry and organize, their families worry and organize, and meanwhile … What? 

This week, faced with a monster outbreak of coronavirus in its prison system, and in particular in San Quentin, California is beginning to consider releasing prisoners. Included in that process is the following: “The department also said it is `reviewing potential release protocols’ for those who are pregnant or in hospice.” Why only now are those processes being reviewed? Why is it so very difficult to understand that pregnant women, and those in hospice care, are at particular risk? What is it about a prison uniform that fatally hides one’s humanity? Meanwhile, part of California’s `process’ of reducing prison overcrowding is to keep people in jails. What could possibly go wrong with that plan? Equally nightmarish stories of the abuse of pregnant women in immigrant detention centers continue to pile up as well.

This is the age of mistreatment and abuse of pregnant women. Pregnant women prisoners are the tip not so much of an iceberg as of a continent-wide subterranean volcano. Why are pregnant women being warehoused in jail cells where the staff ignores and `forgets’ them? Why are pregnant women being stuffed into prisons and immigrant detention centers, where they are only meant to suffer and die? If not, we would release them. Period. Meanwhile, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill that would provide medical care for women before and after childbirth, in both prisons and jails. At the same time, “the legislature struck down proposed bans on shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant women this year.” The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: New York Times)

We regret to inform you there will NO credible investigation of the stillbirth at Styal prison

Styal prison

The prison service has launched an investigation following the death of a baby in prison … The stillbirth of a baby at Styal prison in Wilmslow, Cheshire, on Thursday has been confirmed by the Ministry of Justice. It is the second stillbirth of a baby born to a woman in prison in the space of nine months.” We regret to inform you that there will be no credible investigation of this incident at Styal prison, just as, despite the fact that eleven so-called investigations were conducted after last year’s stillbirth at HMP Bronzefield, nothing came of them. Investigations of ongoing atrocities that produce absolutely no change are not investigations. They are coverups. 

The story, such as it is, this time is that a young woman was held in HMP Styal. She did not know that she was pregnant. She did know that she was in excruciating pain. She did tell the staff, who told her to take two aspirins and chill out. The pains increased. Finally, someone realized that the woman was pregnant. By then, it was too late. Now, the Prison Service expresses their deep concern, and the headlines, which are far and few between, suggest that the impending investigation is the real story. In that case, there is no story, because there will be no credible investigation.

What exactly will the Prison Service investigate. Will they, once again, investigate the rash of suicides at HMP Styal between February 2018 to May 2019? Will they investigate, once again, the “epidemic” of women’s self-harm and suicide at HMP Styal between August 2002 and August 2003, the epidemic that prompted the Corston Report: a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, published in 2007? Will they investigate the brutal conditions at HMP Styal, as documented in HM Chief Inspector of Prisons’ 2012 report? Will they investigate the Chief of Inspector of Prisons’ 2009 warning of the real and present danger of more deaths occurring at HMP Styal, if services for the vulnerable were not improved? How will the Prison Service investigate its own refusal to act for at least the past eighteen years? There will be numerous performances of investigation and concern, but there will be no credible investigation.

A chapter of the story is this: A woman was in real pain, and the staff meant to take care of her ignored her. The story is the active act of ignoring women to death. Here’s another chapter of the story: despite earlier promises, during the current pandemic, the English Prison Service has released only six pregnant women. In fact, HMP Prison Service has only released one in forty of women prisoners who applied for early release. The story is the active act of ignoring women to death. We regret to inform you that there will be NO credible investigation of the stillbirth at Styal prison. Rather than pretending yet again to investigate, shut Styal once and for all, and release the women who are held there. 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Don McPhee)

Jails, prisons, detention centers are still COVID death traps, where, despite promises, people in large numbers are left to die. Where is the global outrage?

Two months ago, prisons and jails made up seven of the ten largest COVID clusters in the United States. Hands were wrung, voices raised, promises made. Today … the situation remains the same, and not only in the United States. In the past six days, we’ve `learned’ that prisons in Turkeythe United KingdomMexico are scandals and worse. In the jails of Maharashtra, in western India, prisoners are tested for COVID … but only once they’re dead, and even then there’s no contact tracing. Across the United States, COVID carceral policy is referred to as a massacrepunishment by pandemic, a death sentence, and a death trap. Over the weekend, COVID cases in the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona `surged’ by 460%. This list is the smallest fraction of the so-called news over the past six days. As national trends more or less flatten, prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers rates zoom skyward. In response, prisons use solitary confinement more intensely and more oftenwhich only drives infection and self-harm rates higher and higherSome are saying it’s already too late. Women are at the center of this map of abandonment and deceit. Where are the women? Everywhere. Where is the global outrage? Nowhere to be seen.

According to a recent report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, in England, women prisoners’ rate of self-harm has risen precipitously since March. Women prisoners generally have higher rates of self-harm than male prisoners, largely because so many are living with trauma and mental illness, generally. This has been exacerbated by a new policy of 23-hour a day lockdown. Again, most of the women are in jail and prison for non-violent so-called offenses that would not have been considered criminal in earlier times. One woman, currently held at London’s HMP Downview, has petitioned the United Nations for help. Meanwhile, despite all the promises concerning prisoners living with underlying conditions, as of yet, a trickle has actually been allowed early release, fewer than 30 a week. Yet again, women are at the core of this policy of abandonment and abuse. Despite earlier promises, as of early this week, a sum total of six pregnant prisoners had been released. Twenty-nine pregnant women are still waiting to be released. Of 34 women in mother-and-baby units, 16 have been released. The English government spent £4,000 for electronic tags, to facilitate the release of prisoners. The money was delivered, the tags were delivered, the prisoners remain in solitary confinement in deathtrap prisons and jails. They call it compassionate release.

The same story is true in the United States. In North Carolina, pregnant prisoners were told they would be released. It hasn’t happened. The prisoners and their loved ones are losing hope, and so the system is working perfectly. Seven women currently housed at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, KCIW, are suing for release. All of the women have serious underlying conditions; the rates of infection are rising precipitously; practically no one is being released. In Louisiana, the men’s prisons have somewhat dodged the COVID bullet … for now. But the women’s prisons, which are more dilapidated and more overcrowded, are recording infection rates between 60% and close to 90%. Nothing is being done to address the situation in Louisiana’s women’s prisons, less than nothing. Almost no one is getting `compassionate release’ and no one in charge has a plan, other than solitary confinement, to address the severe overcrowding. From sea to shining sea … 

Again, this is the news from only the past six days. Promise that you’ll release pregnant women, and then do nothing. Promise that you’ll take care of those with underlying conditions, and then do nothing. Or worse, institute universal solitary confinement protocols. The situation in prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers has been referred to as “the hidden scandal”, but it’s neither hidden nor, actually, scandalous. It’s the logical consequence of five decades of mass and hyper incarceration; of urban development through racist and misogynist violence under the name of policing; and of abandonment as the only real public and mental health system provided. Where is the global outrage at this situation? Nowhere to be seen. But hey, just remember, we’re all in this together.

(Photo Credit: KentuckyToday)

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)