In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are incarcerated for being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women

On August 17, the Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council issued a report, Engendering justice – the sentencing of women and girls, that found, yet again, that, from 2015 to 2019, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Queensland were disproportionately subjected to incarceration, usually for `minor offences’, usually for short less than a year periods. This happened despite numerous national, organization, and academic reports and recommendations that clearly stated that incarceration for low level offenses was bad for everyone and that short term imprisonment was deeply damaging. And yet here we are, with a skyrocketing rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women seemingly trapped behind bars.

That report follows a Guardian Australia report the week before that over 1200 people are detained without having been convicted, sometimes for decades. How? Most of the 1200+ are individuals who were deemed unfit to plead after being charged or were found not guilty due to mental impairment. So, `for their own protection”, they were thrown into prison. In the Northern Territory, one person has been in the Darwin Correctional Centre for more than 30 years. For their own good.

In 2018, Victorian Ombudsperson Deborah Glass investigated the 18-month imprisonment of a 39-year-old woman found unfit to stand trial and not guilty because of mental impairment. And so the province dumped her in solitary. Again, why? Because “Victoria has no secure therapeutic facilities for women with Rebecca’s disability. Authorities were concerned about releasing her into the community because she had no housing or services.” Nowhere to go? Go to jail, to solitary. As Deborah Glass noted, “We heard many more stories, some as sad as Rebecca’s, of people with significant disabilities who had spent long periods in prison. These stories highlight both the trauma of incarceration on acutely vulnerable people, and the threat to community safety in failing to provide a safe and therapeutic alternative to prison.” Glass concluded this case was “the saddest case I have investigated in my time as Ombudsman”.

In response to this week’s report on Queensland, Debbie Kilroy, founder of Sisters Inside, noted, “The thing with these reports and recommendations … the recommendations are not implemented. We’ve even got recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody from 1991 to decriminalise and repeal public drunkenness, and that still hasn’t happened. Governments continue to fund inquiries and reports, but recommendations continue to sit on the bookshelf, gathering dust for decades and decades and decades.”

The recommendations gather dust, the infirm sit in solitary, we hear many stories, sadness abounds. Over four years ago, Australia signed international treaties that required it to open its prisons to independent oversight. Thus far, it has successfully delayed any visit. Signing the document was the point, not changing the system. Debbie Kilroy understands this cynicism and the way in which it abuses language. When a bill was introduced this week to raise the age of criminality to 14, Debbie Kilroy replied, “So what you’re saying is a child, an Aboriginal girl that’s 14 years and one week old, can actually be put in a cage. I do not agree with that — no child should be caged ever.” Start there. No child should be caged ever, no vulnerable person should be caged ever, no person or persons should be caged ever. Ever.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: National Gallery of Australia)

Forging Friendships and Feminist Resistance: Where are the women, and what happens when they find each other

Paola helps her children with their homework over a video call in her cell

“Neighbors are the center of the universe to each other.”
Bessie Head

In March 2020, as the global COVID-19 pandemic was taking off, the Argentine government approved cell phones for incarcerated people. At that time, Paola was in Penitentiary Unit 47, in Buenos Aires. Upon receiving her phone, the first thing Paola did was call her neighbor, a number she had known by heart. The cell phones were the response to a quarantine that would have restricted visits, in-prison classes, and work outings, essentially increasing the isolation already faced by the prisoners every day. Access to phones has opened doors that were closed like zoom classes, facetime calls with families, digital payments, and one of the most important things: solidarity campaigns. Prisoners have used their cellphones to create Instagram accounts and solidarity campaigns to bridge the gap between prison and the outside world. Not only are the phones used to connect with people outside of prison, but Paola started a Whatsapp group to connect to her friends isolated in other cells, where they share information and activities and keep in touch. This story is important now more than ever because as the pandemic restrictions are lifted, families and human rights organizations are fighting to keep cell phones inside of prisons.

Prisons were designed to limit movement and connections between prisoners and the outside world; this is not a unique-pandemic experience and nothing at all like the celebrities who took to Twitter to share how their COVID-19 quarantine felt like a prison inside of the million-dollar Malibu mansions, but, I digress. What little solace there is to be found within the walls of prisons and jails is often found between the connections women can form, bonded by their mutual understanding of their positions in this world as female prisoners. With the recent death of Katherine Boudin, we can celebrate her work in creating carceral communities to share knowledge of literacy and AIDS; but we also fear for the future of such organizing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paola and her fellow inmates called their children, watched movies, celebrated birthdays together, and had increased access to attorneys, defenders, and legal information. Cellphones across various Buenos Aires prisons were not only used to organize protests but to document the abuses they were protesting and post them online. The videos called attention to the inmates’ abuse claims as well and legitimized them. In the age of social media, giving prisoners access to cellphones provides them a unique opportunity to pursue global campaigns and organizations. Prisons gain their power from isolation and severing ties within and among communities, but bringing them back together, even just virtually, could decrease the power of isolation that the carceral system holds over inmates. During a time of increased border patrol and family separation across national boundaries, maintaining global communities feels more important than ever. Where the global panopticon seems to gain control by maintaining constant surveillance, are cellphones giving us a way, when in the hands of prisoners, to reverse these effects? Does it give prisoners the opportunity to surveil their guards? To look out for each other? To look out for their families?

If neighbors are the center of the universe, then the prison-industrial complex was built to control and sever that center, and as a deadly virus spreads amongst neighbors in and outside of its walls, that center has become increasingly hard to grasp. Women have always found a way to support each other through friendships, campaigns, political organizations, and support groups. In the digital age, there is an opportunity to globalize these systems of support.

Friends watch a movie together in a Penitentiary Unit 47 cell


(By Abigail Langmead)

(Photo Credits: Rest of World / )

The global prison population is at an all-time high. Women are the fastest growing prison population, still and again.

Penal Reform International and the Thailand Institute of Justice released Global Prison Trends 2022. While not particularly surprising, it is still a sobering read. First, the global prison population is at an all-time high; 11.5 million people are currently reported as incarcerated. It must be recalled that many countries don’t gather data on prison populations, and other refuse to make public the data they have. 121 countries report prisons above official capacity … in the middle, still, of a highly contagious pandemic. 33% of incarcerated people are awaiting trial, innocent until something or other. Overall, the prison population has risen 24% since 2000. Women are the center of that catastrophic rise: “The number of women in prison has increased 33% over the past 20 years, compared to a 25% rise among men.” Where are the women?

What accounts for the rate of women’s incarceration? The short, and long, answer is patriarchy, misogyny. Women are particularly targeted by the ongoing so-called War on Drugs, especially across Latin America, as well as India, Indonesia, Kenya, Russia, South Africa and Uganda. While women make up a small fraction of people currently on death row, the vast majority are on death row for drug offenses. In Malaysia, for example, 90% of the women on death row were convicted of a drug offense, compared to 70% of the men. Women are also particularly targeted by laws that criminalize poverty and status. For example, 42 African countries criminalize people with no fixed address or means of subsistence. Petty survival theft is treated as a major felony. Women have been arrested for taking discarded food from restaurant trash receptacles.

Globally, the use of formal life imprisonment sentences has increased. In the United States, for example, since 2008, the number of women serving life imprisonment without the possibility of parole has increased 43%. In the United States, one of every fifteen incarcerated women is serving a life sentence, up 19% over thirteen years. Where are the women? In prison, for life.

Globally, the situation for indigenous women has worsened. In Canada, 48% of incarcerated women are Native women. In New Zealand, 60% of incarcerated women are Māori and Pacific women. In New Zealand prisons, Māori women make up as much as almost 80% of those sent into solitary. Further, still in New Zealand, Māori and Pacific women make up 93% of women segregated for 15 days or longer. Where are the indigenous women? In solitary.

Over 740,000 women are in prison. Increasingly, those women are in for longer and longer sentences. Over the past three decades, the number of women serving an indeterminate sentence in England and Wales has increased by 241%. In country after country, women serving life sentences, or sentences that might as well be life sentences, are living with trauma, abuse, violence. Those histories are seldom considered, and the prisons have little to no appropriate health or healing services. `Status offense’ laws – abortion, adultery, sexwork – target increasing numbers of women.

Reproductive health is practically nonexistent for incarcerated women, although eleven countries have passed laws to prohibit the incarceration of pregnant women. Incarcerated women disproportionately live with mental health issues. For example, in England Wales, 70% of incarcerated women, and 48% of incarcerated men, live with mental health `problems’. Self harm and suicide are rampant among incarcerated women. More incarcerated women live with HIV than incarcerated men. According to UNAIDS, in 2020, the average HIV prevalence among women in prison was 5.2%, for men 2.9%.

Globally, prisons are increasingly and more intensely overcrowded. Although women are the fastest growing prison population, they are still the minority. This means they have least access to water and to sanitation. Little drinking water, no toilets, broken toilets are commonplace for incarcerated women.

The global prison population has reached an all-time high. Women are the fastest growing prison population, still and again: Low-income women, Indigenous and Aboriginal women, women of color, minority women, LGBTIQ+ women, elder women, younger women, homeless women, shackdweller women, women living with trauma, women survivors of violence, and so many other women. Nation-states have invested heavily in this program and continue to do so. Last year, at least 21 countries announced their plans to build more prisons. Alabama announced it will use Covid relief funds to build a new women’s prison. The struggle continues.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Penal Reform International)

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

Once upon a time, the word custody meant protection, safekeeping, responsibility for protecting or taking care of. No longer. If one is to take the sorry and sordid output and history of the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice, custody today means the power to cage and code for cruelty. It’s that time of the year again when the Ministry releases its in no way long awaited “safety in custody” reports, and, yet again, one can only look at the numbers and wonder. If this is safety in custody, what would danger look like?

And so, without further ado, here’s the Safety in Custody Statistics, England and Wales: Deaths in Prison Custody to December 2021, Assaults and Self-harm to September 2021: “In the 12 months to December 2021, there were 371 deaths in prison custody, an increase of 17% from 318 deaths the previous 12 months … In the most recent quarter there were 84 deaths, a 29% increase from 65 deaths in the previous quarter … [In the 12 months to September 2021] the rate of self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners, which takes account of the reduction in the prison population between this and the previous year, decreased 9% in male establishments but increased 5% in female establishments … The rate of assault in male establishments decreased by 15% from the previous 12 months, while the rate in female establishments increased by 3%. Assault rates for the 12 months to September 2021 were higher in female establishments (327 incidents per 1,000 prisoners) than in male establishments (253 incidents per 1,000 prisoners). The rate of assault on staff decreased by 6% in male establishments but increased by 12% in female establishments compared with the previous 12 months. Assault rates have remained higher in female establishments than in male establishments. In the latest quarter, the number of assaults in male establishments increased by 8%, and the number of assaults in female establishments increased by 21%. In the 12 months to September 2021, the proportion of assaults that were on staff was higher in female establishments (56%) than in male establishments (38%).” This is the latest portrait of “safety in custody”.

Since 2011, the rate of self-harm in women’s prisons in England and Wales has risen 61%. That is the trajectory of “safety in custody”.

In the 12 months leading up to December 2021, deaths in custody rose by 14%. Suicides in custody rose by 28%. More than half the suicides occurred within the first 30 days in custody and the first 30 days in the current prison. Prisoners awaiting trial had the highest rate of suicide. Most of the suicides were by hanging.

Last year was the worst for deaths in custody in England and Wales in recorded, documented history. While some of that is attributed to Covid, much of it is systemic. Why is the rate of violence against self and others rising among women in custody?  Women In Prison,  Hibiscus Initiatives, Muslim Women In Prison, Zahid Mubarek Trust, Criminal Justice Alliance and Agenda: the Alliance for women and girls at risk have spent the last year poring over reports; meeting with everyone, especially  “with women with lived experience on the challenges they face at different stages of the criminal justice system, from policing in the community, to courts and sentencing, to prison, to probation and re-entering the community”, and today they released a 10-point action plan for change to end inequality for Black, Asian, minoritized and migrant women in the criminal justice system. Among the many practical, and often common sensical, actions, the fifth calls for the “use of diversion and out of court disposals and end the use of disproportionate custodial sentencing and remands for Black, Asian, minoritized, and migrant women.” Custodial sentencing. There it is again, custody. They call for “the Government to amend the Bail Act (1976) to make it unlawful to remand people to prison `for their own protection’”. By its own report, the so-called criminal justice system of England and Wales indiscriminately targets women of color, minoritized and migrant women. This is the system designated to protect women who have “exhibited anti-social behavior” … by throwing them behind bars? And then we are surprised that every year, rates of self-harm rise, rates of assault rise?

Earlier in the week, the Action Foundation released a report based on the experiences of women sent to the recently built women-only Immigration Centre in Derwentside, which has replaced Yarl’s Wood … for the moment. The study found that women in community do demonstrably better than women in detention. Significantly, community residence costs less than half the price of detention. Detention costs too much, in every sense. Custody should mean protection, safekeeping, responsibility for protecting or taking care of. Community is custody. Nothing else will do.



(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Infographic Credit: UK Ministry of Justice) (Photo Credit: Action Foundation)



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)