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)

What’s the matter with Oklahoma? Women prisoners.

Since 1991 Oklahoma has consistently had the highest female incarceration rate in the United States. For 25 years, Oklahoma has consistently led the nation in its race to the bottom and beneath. This year is no different. According to Oklahoma Watch, “Despite years of concern over Oklahoma’s high rate of female incarceration, the number of women sent to prison jumped again in the latest fiscal year. In fiscal 2016, which ended June 30, the number of women sent to Oklahoma prisons rose by 9.5 percent, from 1,593 to 1,744, data from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections shows.” There is one somewhat bright spot: “Tulsa County … sent 24 percent fewer women … The drop over the past two years there was 49 percent for women … Tulsa County inmate advocates and criminal justice officials attribute the decline to a widely coordinated effort to provide diversion and treatment programs.” Last year, Oklahoma County sent 33 percent more women to prison than the year before. All the other counties combined sent 10 percent more women to prison. At the end of August, Oklahoma prisons were at 107 percent capacity. Except for Tulsa County, none of this is new.

Year in, year out, the same over all report emerges from Oklahoma, and the only exceptions, such as they are, have been an intensification of atrocity and torture. In Oklahoma, most women sent to prison are mothers. For years, Oklahoma has studied the impact of so many mothers being imprisoned, especially on their children, and for years Oklahoma has done nothingor worse. For years, Oklahoma has known that the majority of women prisoners are [a] dealing with drug and alcohol addiction and [b] are in for drug related offenses, usually minor ones at that, and for years, Oklahoma has increased the punishment for those offenses. For years, Oklahoma has known that, in any given year, it has the highest rate of sexual abuse and rape in women’s prisons, and done nothing. Much of that abuse comes from guards. For years, Oklahoma has known that its prisons put women in debt bondage to prison banks, and Oklahoma looked the other way. For years, Oklahoma has known that an extraordinarily high proportion of women prisoners are living with mental illnesses, and that much of that derives from traumatic experiences. Again, Oklahoma did nothing … or worse.

As Susan Sharp showed, in Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners, Oklahoma did more, and less, than nothing. Oklahoma chose its path. It chose to lead the nation in the incarceration of women, and it chose turn women’s well being into trash: “Oklahoma ranks 48 in the United States in the number of women with health insurance and first in poor mental health among women.” Oklahoma is not only mean to women. It’s the meanest. That’s why the news from Tulsa County is so important. How has Tulsa County begun to reduce the rates of women’s incarceration? Nothing spectacular, but rather common sense and evidence-based programs: treatment, education, counseling, “specialty courts”, diversion and a commitment to caring about the well-being of women. More importantly, why did Tulsa County embark on a new path? There was no great political pressure, either in the county or the State, to do so. Instead, people decided that sending women to prison for next to nothing and then keeping them in the system for life was destructive: to the women, their children, their communities, and everyone.

Tulsa County is showing that in Oklahoma, the worst of the worst, it’s possible to change the present, to not condemn anyone to recall a future already condemned. Another Oklahoma is possible, and it begins with valuing the well-being of women.

 

(Photo Credit: Newson6)

We all killed Ashley Smith, Kinew James and Terry Baker, and it’s not over yet

On October 19, 2007, 19-year-old Ashley Smith died by self strangulation while seven prison guards in a Canadian women’s prison, Grand Valley Institution for Women, followed orders, watched and did nothing. By doing nothing is meant committed homicide. That was a decision of a coroner’s jury, December 19, 2013, six years and two months later. As a result of Ashley Smith’s murder, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, issued Risky Business: An Investigation of the Treatment and Management of Chronic Self-Injury Among Federally Sentenced Women – Final Report. This also appeared in 2013. Risky Business focused on eight federally sentenced women prisoners “selected for this investigation because they were deemed to be the most high risk and chronic self-injurious women in the federally sentenced women population.” Kinew James was one of those women. Kinew James was in and out of solitary confinement. Kinew James was interviewed in the middle of 2012. In January 2013, Kinew James died, in custody, because nobody answered her pleas for help. An inquest into Kinew James’ death was supposed to start in April 2016, but it’s been indefinitely postponed. Terry Baker was another of the eight most high risk and chronically self-injurious women. On Monday, July 4, in Grand Valley Institution for Women, Terry Baker killed herself. She was pronounced dead on Wednesday. Canada claims to be shocked, and yet for nine years now the State has “done nothing”, killing woman after woman with absolute impunity. What happened to Terry Baker? Kinew James? Ashley Smith? Absolutely nothing. After scathing reports and damning juries, the murder of women living with mental illness continues unabated. Despite sincere, or not, expressions of concern, suicide among women prisoners is part of the plan. It’s the new normal, and it’s too late to protest shock or concern. Shut down the segregation units, once and for all.

Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said: “We know that she was in restraints a number of times; we suspect there were uses of force, but we don’t know that for certain and we have asked the correctional investigator to also look into it … It’s a terrible tragedy for her family, her friends, the women she served time with. It’s a tragedy all around and it’s a travesty, and it should not be happening in this country. It needs to stop. I hope the minister pays attention to this and makes a decision very quickly to end the use of segregation. Terry was a very sweet, gentle young woman except when it came to herself. She had been very self-destructive and self-harming for a number of years,” said Pate. “She’s someone who, when I last saw her in Saskatchewan, she was actually doing quite well. She was involved in a dog therapy program. From our perspective, [this] underscores exactly why we have the position of no women in segregation, particularly those with mental health issues.”

Other prisoners said she was kind and courageous, but in need of help.

The week before her death, Baker had complained to prison advocates about being forcibly bound to her bed for prolonged periods of time. She had a history of self-harming, and a revolving door relationship with solitary confinement. Rosemary Redshaw, former chaplain at Grand View, remembered Terry Baker: “I really liked her. She had a childlike sense of humor and was great to get along with. In the midst of her struggle, she seemed to get help in the time I was there.” Redshaw added that Baker should not have been in prison or in isolation.

None of this matters. Terry Baker is dead, and nothing will bring her back. Her planned death will now be desecrated by a series of reports and recriminations, just like the deaths of Ashley Smith and Kinew James. Remember this: we all killed Ashley Smith, Kinew James and Terry Baker, and it’s not over yet. Close segregation units. Don’t send people who need help to prison. Invest in mental health and wellbeing. It’s not magic.

Terry Baker’s birthday would have been July 15. She would have turned 31

 

(Photo Credit: Office of the Correctional Investigator Canada)

Senator Cotton Wants More Women of Color Behind Bars, and For Longer

On May 19th, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas stood before an audience gathered for the Hudson Institute’s event on Crime and Justice in America and argued that the United States of America is currently suffering from an under-incarceration problem. Yes, Senator Cotton believes that the country with 25% of the world’s prison population has an under-incarceration problem.

The gist of Senator Cotton’s argument, and overly simplified linear logic, is how could we have a mass incarceration problem when so many “criminals” are getting away. Well, Senator Cotton, allow me to explain. The problem with mass incarceration is not simply how many people we have incarcerated (though that is a big part of it) but who this country is incarcerating by the millions. The simple answer is low-income men and women of color for predominately low-level drug offenses.

To better understand the fallacy of the ‘Gentleman’ from Arkansas’ logic, we can turn to the fastest growing prison population: women. Since the introduction of federal and state level policies like broken-window policing, 3-strike laws, mandatory minimums (policies Cotton credits with turning around our society), the number of women in prison has risen 700%. Of the 215, 332 women who have entered prison, nearly half have entered for drug-related offenses. In the world Tom Cotton lives in, a longer prison sentence will help these women beat drug addiction and rehabilitate them into law-abiding citizens. In reality, these women will sit in prisons where only 10% will receive any form of substance abuse treatment. For those that do receive treatment, the treatment they receive is based on the substance abuse history of men and has been found to be largely ineffective.

Prisons do not just serve as makeshift substance abuse treatment centers, in which the majority of incarcerated women have substance abuse histories and barely any women actually receive substance abuse treatment. Prisons also serve as mismanaged, ill-equipped, and overcrowded places to house women with mental health concerns. While 12% of women in the general population have mental health concerns, 73% of women in state prisons, 61% of women in federal prisons, and 75% of women in jails have mental health disorders. Again, these women are largely low-income women of color. For these women, “treatment” often comes in the form of restrictive housing (solitary confinement), a form of punishment that has been shown to cause psychotic episodes, hallucinations, and suicidal tendencies.

Cotton also gives credit to the “thankless” work of Correction Officers who work tirelessly to rehabilitate individuals in prison and keep them safe. In reality, women are perhaps in more danger inside cell walls. Kim Shayo Buchanan describes prisons as if “the clock has been turned back to the nineteenth century. Women, especially women of color, are exposed to institutionalized sexual abuse, while a network of legal rules prevents them from seeking protection or redress in courts. Guards know they can sexually exploit women without fear of institutional sanction or civil liability”. Despite making up only 10% of the prison population, women make up nearly half of all survivors of sexual assault in American prisons.

Senator Cotton, the prisons you imagine, places where bad people go to repent for their wrong doings, do not exist. The US penal system currently operates as a place to control, abuse, and neglect our nation’s poor and mentally ill. The answer to the issues Senator Cotton worries about is not an increase of punishment but an increase in attention and investment to the communities that are being effected by our MASS incarceration.

 

(Image Credit: Bitch Media) (Photo Credit: LA Progressive / Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle)

Solidarity with the women prisoners of Fleury-Mérogis!

In Fleury-Mérogis, France’s biggest prison and one of its worst, women detainees have been organizing against new conditions of detention arranged by the new software GENESIS (Gestion nationale des personnes écrouées pour le suivi individualisé et la sécurité, National management of imprisoned people for individualized monitoring and security), an acronym that blurs its material reality for women incarcerated in Fleury-Mérogis. The software was sold under the aegis of efficiency and harmonization between the men’s quarters and the women’s quarters. In practice, this harmonization meant worsening the conditions of detention: reduction of the number of promenades, limitation of access to the gym and cultural activities, and reduction of visiting room sessions.

In December 2002, France ratified the United Nations’ resolution, Optional Protocol to the Convention Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). As a result of that ratification, in 2007 the French parliament passed a law creating an independent public body “contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté” in charge of monitoring all places and institutions where people are locked up.

This independent body released a report in January 2016 concerning the conditions of detention of women, which includes women in jails, prisons, administrative (immigration) detention, and psychiatric detention.

Women prisoners represent 3.2% of the prisoners in France with 5 to 6% of women prisoners in administrative detention. Juvenile delinquents may be locked up in educational centers, which resemble a prison anyway. Girls make up 6 % of incarcerated minors. Proportionately, women in psychiatric hospital are in greater number; 38.21% of those committed to psychiatric detention are women. Historically, women have been the targets of psychiatric control.

The report points out that women are more susceptible to suffer from separation from family circles, and especially from their children, than men. Although by law women are entitled to the same rights as men, the gap between them is even wider in prisons and jails.

With the consolidation of detention centers, women have been sent further away from home. This situation is well known in the United States but is relatively new in France. The report insists on the inherent injustice of this situation since about 75% of the incarcerated women are mothers. The law demands that women’s incarceration respects their familial responsibilities. Further, most of the women are incarcerated for minor offenses. Among the 188 detention centers and prisons in France only 43 may receive women. Often the women’s side in a prison is simply very basic compared to the men’s side.

The report stresses the lack of services for women detainees and disparities among the various prisons and jails receiving women; these services go from health services to judicial services such as parole and day parole. The carceral administration justifies the inequality by claiming that there are too few women to merit more equipments or services.

The report recommends adding services, improving the conditions of detention, implementing the required access to school and other activities, all in the respect of the principle of equality.

Despite this detailed and clear report that demanded actions for revising the conditions of incarceration for women, Fleury-Mérogis’s administration launched GENESIS March 3d.

Immediately, the Basque women political prisoners incarcerated in Fleury-Mérogis organized women prisoners against this injustice. A support group has also been organized. Citizens outside the prison have written letters to the prison administration. Signs of solidarity with the women inside are key when women are locked up and may feel isolated. So each rally outside has to be heard inside.

The women prisoners’ demand is simple: “We call for dignified living conditions, they talk about rules. We talk about mutual assistance and sharing, they talk about logistics and “traffic.” We talk about humanity, they talk about laws. We talk about communicating and coming together, they answer with security and solitary confinement.” The response of the prison’s management has been harsh, 4 women have been sent to solitary confinement. Since May 10th, 5 men and 2 women have been on hunger strike in solidarity with the women in isolation.

This is a struggle against the logics of over incarceration producing a carceral and societal aberration that started in early 2000. It is a fight against a higher degree of materialistic dehumanization of prison conditions, another step toward a harmonization with the United States’ penitentiary hell. Solidarity with women prisoners is required, today in Fleury-Mérogis, tomorrow …

 

 

(Photo Credit: L’Envolée) (Image credit: Paris-Luttes.info)

Why do women in every corner of the world experience shortages of sanitary pads in prison?

As of 2013, approximately 74% of incarcerated women in the United States are between the ages of 18 and 44. After adding the number of incarcerated juvenile women of menstruating age to this number, it becomes apparent that the vast majority of incarcerated women in the United States experiences menstruation while in prison.

Menstruation in prison can often be unpredictable, making it difficult for incarcerated women to prepare for their periods by purchasing or saving sanitary products in advance. The stress of incarceration on newly imprisoned women was found to have severe effects on many of their menstrual cycles, causing irregularity. After an extended period of time spent in close quarters with other incarcerated women, menstrual cycles among many women can synchronize, leading to a high demand for sanitary products within a short period. Despite this high demand, many prisons in the US do not provide their inmates with adequate amounts of sanitary products. As the majority of incarcerated women are indigent, many cannot afford to buy extra sanitary pads from the prison commissary. This leaves them with few options other than to reuse old pads or wear a dirty uniform.

The United States is not alone in this violation of human dignity. Incarcerated women across the world experience similar shortages. For example, due to lack of access to sanitary pads, female prisoners in South Sudan often use dirty rags during their menstrual cycle and sometimes insert clay into their vaginas to stop the bleeding. These practices can leave women vulnerable to infection, and often prevent them from working or leaving their cell during their period.

Why do women in every corner of the world experience shortages of sanitary pads in prison?

The short answer is capitalism, as it often is when examining injustice in the modern world; the long answer is a little more complicated.

The spread of capitalism through colonial expansion is essential to understanding why women experience similar indignities while incarcerated. Long after Europeans relinquished their territorial hold on nations across the globe, capitalist ideals remained, dividing the proletariat (and men and women) with constant competition for capital. In the past four decades, capitalism has utilized a new weapon: neoliberalism. Neoliberal rhetoric is integral in the response of the prison system to the health needs of women—with their inaction and inadequate provision of products, the state’s implication is that each woman should look after herself and provide her own sanitary pads while incarcerated. This narrative ignores the economic, social, and political circumstances of her incarceration: the state does not consider whether or not she was able to afford sanitary pads outside of prison (which is unlikely, as the majority of incarcerated women are indigent), and ignores the racist and classist sentencing practices that likely led to her imprisonment. Neoliberalism demonizes poverty and blames inadequate health care on the individual’s lack of motivation, and this dangerous narrative is accepted by the majority of the public.

When neoliberal ideology has entrenched itself so deeply into the global economic, political, and social spheres, how can one change the conversation to hold institutions accountable for their neglect of marginalized populations?

The answer is through grassroots organizing and supporting projects that focus on restoring incarcerated women’s dignity. Donate to organizations like A Woman’s Worth, Inc., which is a non-profit organization based in Oregon that works on several projects regarding feminine hygiene product access worldwide. They have a prison project called “Dignity Behind Bars,” and they suggest that activists donate maxi pads to be distributed in US prisons and reusable cloth pads to be distributed in prisons abroad. They also ask activists to contact women’s prisons in the US to inquire about the commissary stock and hygiene product distribution.

Through donations to organizations such as this and attempts to hold the prison system accountable for neglecting the needs of incarcerated women, we may be able to work towards restoring some dignity into the lives of incarcerated women.

 

(Image Credits: A Woman’s Worth, Inc)