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)

It’s way past time to recognize AND support women prison journalists

We live in an age of news desertification. Today, May 3, is World Press Freedom Day, and much of the discussion of press freedom centers, rightly, on censorship, and on the intimidation, brutalization and imprisonment of reporters. At the same time, and especially in the United States, “news deserts” are popping up in fairly predictable communities: rural areas and urban minority neighborhoods: “Minority communities in big cities tend to be the most arid news deserts of all.” News deserts are places in which people can no longer get the local news, and it’s the no longer that matters here. News deserts are places that had local community newspapers, usually for generations that either failed or, as with the vast majority, were bought out by corporate interests and then dumped or `re-tooled’ out of their community base. While the news air is indeed very dry in urban minority communities, the epicenter of news desertification across the United States is the prison, and the dead center of that map is the women’s prison.

Prison journalism has a long and storied record in the United States. In 1887, a group of prisoners in the Stillwater Prison, in Minnesota, pooled money and energies and founded The Prison Mirror. Today, The Prison Mirror is the longest running jailhouse newspaper in the United States. Today, The Prison Mirror, The Angolite, started in 1976, and the San Quentin News, revived in 2008 after 26 years of silence, are the only three prisoner-run publications that do serious and investigative reporting on criminal justice and injustice. But the real story is the rise and fall of prison newspapers.

The Prison Mirror was wildly successful from the beginning, so much so that prison newspapers, newsletters and news magazines started popping all over the country. By the early 1960s, there were prison reporters in almost every state. From 1965 to 1990, there was an active Penal Press Awards, with real competition among real prison house journalists. Then the 1990s happened. A predictable component of mass incarceration’s austerity budgets was the elimination of educational and cultural programs, included in which was the programmatic disappearance of jailhouse news venues. More prisoners, more isolation, more self harm and suicide, and more silence. Mass incarceration = news desertification.

Today, there are very few prisoner-run news outlets, and that’s a shame. These projects did more than “help” prisoners, although prisoners certainly benefited from them. Check out The Prison Mirror, The Angolite, or the San Quentin News and you’ll see hard hitting and urgently useful news reporting.

Where are the women? Here, there and everywhere. Short-lived newspapers emerge from a journalism course, and women prisoners produce newsletters, like Through the Looking Glass, published by women prisoners at the Purdy Correctional Treatment Center, outside Seattle, Washington, between 1976 and 1987. From 2002 to 2006, women prisoners at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey published a monthly magazine, Perceptions. In 2003, women prisoners in Oregon approached Vikki Law to help them publish their voices and visions, and so was launched Tenacious, a zine of art and writings by women incarcerated across the United States. The most recent issue, Tenacious 35, was published in December 2015.

None of these has received the kind of support, institutional and cultural, given to similar projects in men’s prisons. The Prison Mirror, The Angolite, and the San Quentin News are great examples of prisoner run news media, and they are great examples of the resources needed to sustain such projects, from the warden and staff to time and space to training to encouragement, from within and without. It’s way past time to recognize AND support women prison journalists. Prison doesn’t have to be a news desert, and women’s prisons don’t have to be shrouded in silence.


(Image Credit: California Coalition for Women Prisoners) (Photo Credit: POC Zine Project)

The abuse of women convicted in Washington, DC, is a crime

Tonya Kamara and her grandson Antonio walk to the entrance of DC’s Correctional Treatment Facility to visit April, Tonya’s daughter and Antonio’s mother.

The United States has the largest prison system in the world. With a constantly shifting population, in state and federal facilities, our communities suffer from the hardships of physical distance, loss of capital and an overall detrimental impact on our most vulnerable communities. Take Washington, DC, as an example. Since the Revitalization Act of 1997, the Federal Bureau of Prisons houses District of Columbia sentenced felons, a DC prison no longer exists. This “revitalization” legislation means persons convicted of a felony in DC can be housed at federal prisons anywhere within the United States, regardless of physical proximity or personal circumstances.

For women prisoners, the lack of regard for how far those convicted of a felony in DC are housed becomes a salient issue. The incarceration rate of women, specifically women of color, is constantly on the rise throughout the country. Washington, DC, has a Correctional Treatment Facility where women are placed before sentencing. Then they are turned over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons for placement. Information concerning the placement of women who are convicted of a felony in DC is vague and ambiguous. The lack of clarity shows how this issue is neither discussed nor on the forefront of our minds, as it should be. Why are we not questioning the whereabouts of women who are incarcerated in the Nation’s Capital? Are we not more concerned because the population that this issue affects is a population that constantly faces factors of oppression, a population that this country treats as if they hold no value? The needs of female prisoners have been constantly overlooked and handled inefficiently due to a male dominated environment where they are disadvantaged because they are the minority in numbers. Women prisoners’ needs not being met results from stereotypes of female criminality, which place women outside the norm of gendered behavior. As a society, then, we care less because female offending doesn’t fit within the norm of a how women are supposed to behave.

When convicted in Washington, DC, women are housed by the Bureau of Prisons and can be placed a long way from their families. By placing women thousands of miles away from their families, the assumption is made that men and women share the same experiences. For example, women have children and many women who are incarcerated have had the experience of motherhood. According to the idea of gendered normed behavior, women are the caretakers to their children. Therefore, the long distances punish women offenders twice over, once for the crime and then for having stepped outside the norm of dutiful mother. Sending women far away completely discounts any significance to their being mothers. While men also shouldn’t be subjected to this treatment, if we analyze how society thinks in terms of a mother and child relationship, disregarding and dismantling this relationship is shameful.

At the same time, communities incur a loss of capital due to the increase of prisons. Ruth Wilson Gilmore has traced the relationship between land development and the prison binge. In California and other places, prisons were initially located in urban areas. Then, they shifted been to rural areas where the land value was initially low. This shift brings to surface numerous problems including the financial value the area holds and the shift of political power. Inmates are often counted within the census in the area they are located in so that the area the prison is moved to has an increase in population, especially if the area was initially rural. Urban areas already face forms of oppression in terms of political representation and are considered to posses no social capital. Shifting prisons from urban to rural areas is an extension of that claim.

The prison system seems to be a way to further silence urban minority communities. Whether it’s destroying a mother and child relationship or stripping the power from an entire community, the United States prison system is growing at the expense of those who are vulnerable. When will these silenced populations be given a voice? When will those communities be repaid for the theft of their value, and when will Black and Latina women of Washington, DC, be reinstated and repaid for the losses they have been forced to endure?


(Photo Credit: Vera Institute / Gabriela Bulisova)

In Virginia, Raja Johnson, Kimberly Carter and 206,000 more people just won back the right to vote!

Raja Johnson and Terry McAuliffe

Sometimes, as in Virginia this past week, democracy happens, and when it does, it’s largely thanks to the work of women of color organizing. Last Friday, Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting and civil rights to 206,000 people who had been disenfranchised permanently, thanks to Virginia’s lifelong voting ban on former prisoners. As the Governor explained, “I believe our commonwealth can not achieve its full potential until all men and women act on this fundamental right and participate in the decisions about their own children’s education, about their taxes and every aspect of their lives. Unfortunately, Virginia has had a long and sad history of effectively suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women at the ballot box … I believe it is time to cast off Virginia’s troubled history of injustice and embrace an honest clean process of restoring the right of these men and women. And so today, I will sign an order restoring the civil and voting rights of every single individual who has completed his or her sentence as of this day.” On that day, Raja Johnson stood with Governor McAuliffe as he spoke, and Kimberly Carter watched on television. These women, and thousands of others overwhelmingly women of color, will finally be able to vote, and so a chapter in Virginia’s decades long war on women of color may be drawing to a close.

In 1999, Raja Johnson, an 18-year-old Black woman, made a mistake. She was convicted of grand larceny. In 2014, Governor McAuliffe restored her right to vote. According to Johnson, “It sort of did something on the inside…and it gave me that motivation to go on. I’m about to graduate. I’ll have an associate degree in two months. In June I’ll be going for a bachelor’s degree. So, it’s sort of made me feel more like a citizen, just having my right to go back.” About ten years earlier, Kimberly Carter, a woman in her late teens, was arrested on a drug charge. Today, Kimberly Carter is 45 years old. Last Friday, Kimberly Carter watched Governor McAuliffe’s speech and then went and filled out a voter registration card: “You make a mistake, 20 years later you’re still paying for it.”

According to Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, “It is a historic day for democracy in Virginia and across our nation. The disenfranchisement of people who have served their sentences was an outdated, discriminatory vestige of our nation’s Jim Crow past.”

Virginia’s current code of lifelong disenfranchisement began, in 1902, as a racist attempt to keep newly enfranchised Black populations from voting. For over a century, the Commonwealth actively sustained and intensified that racism. According to Governor McAuliffe’s office, “It is estimated that 1 in 5 of the African American voting-age population is disenfranchised in Virginia because of this provision.” While the lifelong voting ban in Virginia has always been an assault on African Americans, and then on communities of color more generally, in recent years, it has also been the preferred weapon of State in a war against women of color. The so-called war on drugs targeted women of color, in particular through conspiracy laws, which have caught women for the crime of intimate relationships with someone involved in the drug trade. That’s the reason Virginia’s rate of incarceration of women has soared to 146 per 100,000. With the war on drugs, Jim Crow became Jim and Jane Crow.

It’s time Virginia returned the right to vote to those who paid their debt, a debt was largely the result of racist legerdemain. It’s past time to stop the war on communities of color, and in particular on women of color. It’s time for Virginia, and all the States, to pay back their debts to the unfinished project of democracy. Raja Johnson, Kimberly Carter and hundreds of thousands in Virginia and millions across the United States are saying that the time for democracy-to-come has passed. It’s spring, and it’s time for democracy here and now.

The crowd responds to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s restoration of voting and civil rights to 206,000 neighbors.

(Photo Credit 1: New York Times / Chet Strange) (Photo Credit 2: Richmond Times-Dispatch / Mark Gormus)

Pennsylvania built a special hell for Miriam White

Yesterday, Ellen Melchiondo reported on a visit to the Restricted Housing Unit in SCI-Muncy, a women’s prison in Pennsylvania. She noted, “In one of the pods is confined Miriam White, who in 1999, at the age of 11, stabbed a complete stranger to death in Philadelphia. Miriam was sent to various institutions before landing in Muncy. I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.” Here is Miriam White’s story.

On August 20, 1999, eleven-year-old Miriam White argued with a cousin. Miriam then grabbed a knife and ran out of her South Philadelphia foster home. She ran down the street, passing some children, turned the corner, and saw Rosemary Knight, fifty-five years old. Miriam ran up to Rosemary Knight and stabbed her in the chest. Rosemary Knight died on the spot.

Rosemary Knight was a hairdresser and the principal wage earner in her household. August 20, 1999, was the twenty-seventh wedding anniversary of Rosemary and Jerome Knight. Miriam did not know Rosemary Knight.

Miriam White was a young “troubled” Black girl. Her infancy and earlier childhood was one of violence and abandonment, followed by a succession of institutionalization and foster homes. In February 1995, Michelle White Stevens took in the then-seven-year-old Miriam and her two younger siblings. In 1999, Stevens adopted the children. By all accounts, the house was a loving household.

Miriam White progressed and crashed, progressed and crashed. She has been diagnosed with severe mental illness and severe intellectual disability.

According to Miriam White, she wanted to hurt someone so that she would be sent back to a juvenile institution. She was careful not to attack children. After she stabbed Rosemary Knight, she ran to nearby hair salon, “trembling and begging for help because she had just stabbed someone.”

Up to this point, the story of Miriam White and Rosemary Knight, and all those around them, is tragic. Then it gets worse.

Pennsylvania is one of the few states in which anyone charged with first-degree murder must be tried as an adult. That includes eleven-year-old Miriam White. So Miriam White was placed in solitary in an adult jail while the adults tried and failed to figure something out. The judge tried and failed to find a compromise. The defense attorneys tried and failed to argue for reason. As her attorney argued, “Who, judge, at Muncy is going to take young Miriam through her first menstrual cycle. . . . The older, nurturing inmates?”

And so, in August 2007, Miriam White, eighteen years old, pleaded guilty in adult court to third-degree murder and possession of an instrument of crime, and was sentenced to 18 to 40 years. According to some legal scholars, it’s doubtful that Miriam White is competent to take a plea or anything else in court.

Miriam White’s “case” is littered with fine language. She “haunts” the criminal justice system. The initial judge’s ruling concluded, “I cannot exonerate Miriam just because I feel sorry for her. I cannot return Miriam to juvenile court just because her life story makes my heart weep. My oath as a judge requires that I decide this case on the basis of the proofs in court. The decertification petition is denied.” Miriam White’s case is “tragic” as it is “heartbreaking.”

That’s how the story is told, but not how the life is lived. Today, sixteen years and two months later, where is Miriam White? “I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.” Justice is served, humanity denied.


(Image Credit: Martin Vargas / Solitary Watch)