Michigan Women’s Prison: “Ripe for Abuse”

News broke this week that Michigan’s only women’s prison, Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, is under investigation from the ACLU, Michigan Department of Corrections, and US Department of Justice for alleged human rights abuses against mentally ill female inmates.

Inmates are being hog tied naked, with their feet and hands cuffed together behind their backs, for two hours or more as a form of punishment if they do not “learn to behave,” witnesses claim. Prisoners have also been denied food and water. According to Kary Moss, executive director of ACLU of Michigan, the water was shut off in solitary confinement and guards failed to provide any to inmates for hours or even days. Some women are left standing, sitting, or lying in their own feces or urine for days on end, denied showers, and often controlled by the use of tasers.

For one mentally ill inmate at the Valley, poor sanitation, lack of food and water, and other forms of continuous abuse ended her life as she knew it. Last month she was found non-responsive in her cell. She was transferred to an outside hospital where she was pronounced brain dead. She is not the only the only casualty to come out of WHVC. There have been several prisoners who have died from both suicide and medical neglect in the past few years alone. Is this the intended function of our criminal justice system? What is the role of corrections in America today? Is it to punish mentally ill women until they are pronounced brain dead?

Luckily, women prisoners in Michigan have some advocates on the outside. Carol Jacobsen has been working for years to expose the conditions inside the prison. Jacobsen is a professor at University of Michigan and director of the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project. While she has done many interviews with inmates throughout the years, she has found that civilian access to living quarters inside the prison is nearly impossible. Jacobson stated, “As long as it’s such a closed system, it’s ripe for abuse.” Why the secrecy? According to Jacobson, “Abu Ghraib has nothing on Huron Valley or Michigan prisons. Our prisons in Michigan have torture going on every day.”

Prisoners themselves are speaking out against what they see as intolerable conditions. In February, three inmates wrote formal grievances to the MDOC describing how four women were housed together in a 96-square foot chemical caustic closet repurposed into a cell. Inmate Karen Felton wrote, “The cell I’m in is inadequately small for myself and three others, and there are not enough lockers, no privacy, inadequate desks and chairs, and there is no ventilation.”

The three women’s grievances, however, did not change their living conditions. As a matter of procedure, when more than one complaint is submitted regarding a given issue, all duplicates are rejected by the grievance coordinator. Therefore, only one of the three grievances, submitted by a prisoner named Robin Sutton, was investigated. The MDOC responded: “All prisoners housed in Dickinson unit have been treated humanely and with dignity in matters of health care, personal safety and general living conditions.”

The use of hog-ties, denial of food and water, unsanitary conditions, excessive use of tasers, and forcing four women to live in a chemical closet is considered humane? All inmates, including the mentally ill, deserve more dignity than this.

 

(Photo Credit: Michigan Deparment of Corrections)

Getting A Conversation Started About Women Serving LWOP in Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Sharon Wiggins

I set up twelve wooden fold-up chairs around four long, wooden, primitively made tables that I arranged in an open square. One chair was for me. In the middle of the education building at the Solebury Meetinghouse, in a quasi-rural -suburban place an hour outside of Philadelphia I was prepping the room for a free public meeting or rather a conversation that I had been wanting to have for over a year; ever since Peachie died.

The squared stage I set up surrounded by an even dozen chairs appeared warm and balanced-conducive for a conversation about the struggles that women and girls experience while serving life without parole in Pennsylvania. If by chance fewer people showed up for the meeting, the arrangement wouldn’t look empty and feel cold. If by chance more people showed up, there was room to sit behind those seated at the table. I placed my agenda and handouts in a well made basket; a gift from a friend many years a go.

This room, I am comfortable in. In this room, once or twice a month for three and a half years I held Cub Scout den meetings. Two years a go, I welcomed the Fight For Lifers to present their educational initiatives at a meeting I had organized. Scouting and life sentences. There has got to be a connection: the responsibility that we have to be informed citizens? That might be it. By the way I am not a Quaker.

My plan was to share the devotion I have for Naomi, Marie, Sheena, Juvenile Girl, Avis, Joyce, Jessie, Tequilla and others. And to convince the citizens of Bucks County that these are just a handful of the women I have become acquainted over the last three years as an Official Visitor with the Pennsylvania Prison Society and who have earned and deserve to be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the the free world. But because I have been thinking about this problem of no parole in Pennsylvania for lifers for three years, I have come to realize that the average person in my part of the state, knows nothing about this injustice. Not only for adults, but definitely not about juveniles serving this capital equivalent sentence.

So, because of that I needed to give some historical information about mandatory sentencing, the shut down of commutation and comparisons to other states and countries in order to illustrate with as much punch as possible how Pennsylvania is in a time warp and in terms of penological practices, about as progressive as a closed, oppressed Asian nation. And I realized that before I could concentrate on women’s issues, I was half way through the meeting discussing general prison issues that affect both men, women and their families: the cost of making phone calls, lousy food and medical care, staff turnover, lack of educational opportunities, isolation in remote parts of the state affecting visitation, commutation futility, well trained staff, leadership turnover and that for lifers, doesn’t get any easier or cheaper.

I tried to illustrate all of these struggles with the views and experiences of a woman or grown up juvenile girl serving life. I shared the accomplishments that the women are proud of, the sentence of life that they received that clearly does not reflect their degree of guilt, decades of isolation and the absurdity of being deemed unworthy and too dangerous to live in the free world. Ever. The small and nearly empty visitor’s room at Muncy and Cambridge Springs speaks loudly: where are the male relatives? How can women become better and more effective leaders while incarcerated? How can their voices be heard?

The excessive power that the victim’s rights groups have over our criminal justice system and their success in hijacking any sense of compassion and mercy to our most marginalized members of our society has retarded our spiritual growth. The ignorant and lazy elected officials who do nothing to not only educate themselves about this tragedy, can’t even take the time to meet a women serving life for decades has trumped any chance of Pennsylvania to be an evolving and decent place to empathize with those who have served many decades in prison and who have served their time so well, that many have more to be proud of then those who have never served a single day in prison.

The meeting was attended by nine engaged and thoughtful people. Four of us were already in this struggle and the remaining five came with some knowledge of the absurdity of our overly punitive incarcerated state and have the desire to learn more. The woman from her book club will undoubtedly be more effective in her upcoming group discussion on the book “Doing Life.” I guess this is a step in the right and just direction.

 

(Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Canada’s walking zombies: women prisoners

Across Canada, federal prisons have routinely prescribed psychotropic drugs, and in particular quetiapine, to women prisoners. Women prisoners, friends and families, and advocates have long complained that the women’s prisons are a factory for zombie production, that women go in with some problems and come out stone cold zombie. They were right.

Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, has been on the case since last year, when he was informed, by the Canadian Press and CBC, that the Correctional Service Canada had told them that, basically, it didn’t have data on prison prescriptions. It had general information but nothing specific.

The conditions in women’s prisons are specific.

Sapers found that, of 591 federal women prisoners, 370 are on psychotropic drugs, prescribed by the prison staff. 63% of women prisoners are on heavy medication, with dangerous side effects. The more local, the more vicious are the numbers. For example, in the Nova Institution for Women in Nova Scotia, the Joliette Institution for Women in Quebec and the Fraser Valley Institution for Women in British Columbia, the prescription rate is around 75%. Three out of every four women is being given drugs. By contrast, in 2001, the prescription rate was around 42%.

Why are so many women on quetiapine? Not to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, which is what quetiapine is meant for. No. In Canada’s federal prison system, quetiapine is the go-to drug for any sleeping discomfort, for women, that is. Further, many of the women prisoners are given multiple psychotropic drugs.

There’s a special fate in store for women prisoners: “Women are prescribed more psychotropic medications than men, both in the community and in prison. Prescribing psychotropic medication in the prison setting is particularly problematic given the hierarchical relationship between psy and correctional mandates – where psy care is executed through a correctional system that inherently prioritizes security and carceral power over therapeutic care. Due to the fact that provincial and federal correctional systems are responsible for providing mental health care to prisoners a power imbalance exists between psy and medical experts and the correctional administrators to whom they are accountable and the prisoner-patients. It is important to remember that a prisoner’s ability to refuse medication is not always guaranteed; medication orders are often written into the prisoner’s correctional plan and thus become compulsory.”

For Aboriginal women prisoners, it’s worse. For women in provincial prisons, it’s worse. For all women prisoners, however, the prison produces a mass population of women “walking zombies.”

Current and former women prisoners report now what they reported three years ago. They were given drugs, without explanation. They received little to no real counseling. They couldn’t say no. They were prisoners, after all, and they were women prisoners. If the state wants women to become walking zombies, so be it.

 

(Image Credit: https://thenonconformer.wordpress.com)

From Gezi Park to Bakirköy Women’s Prison, the struggle continues

In Ankara, a #standingwoman surfaces. She is standing in Kizilay Sq, where Ethem Sarisuluk was shot dead by the police.” Across Turkey, individuals are standing, facing, moving while perfectly still. #duranadam. It means, “standing man.”

Revolutions change our language. How many around the world knew of Tahrir before the Egyptian uprisings? Now, we all do. It’s a gift Egyptians have given to the world.

The democracy and social movements across Turkey have given us Gezi, Taksim, and now #duranadam. This is part of the inherent creativity of people in movement.

The State has responded with predictable, moribund redundancies. First, it tried to criminalize the protesters. Then it claimed they were foreign agents. Then it tried to claim they were only a dissident, spoiled fringe minority. This is textbook `Statecraft’ at its emptiest.

Then the State sent in the police, to `clear’ the parks, to `reclaim’ the commons in the name of `the people’. Familiar, no?

Today’s news is filled with the predictable: “Turkey arrests dozens in crackdown”; “scores detained”; “dozens detained.”

Behind the `niceties’ of detention and arrest stands the prison. Turkish prisons are notorious for their human rights violations and abysmal conditions. On October 20, 2000, Turkey “gave” to the world the longest and deadliest hunger strike in modern history. Across Turkey, for three years, prisoners fasted, and died, protesting the construction of F-Type prisons, which are basically supermax. Across Turkey, women prisoners went on hunger strike, `even though’ women prisoners weren’t sent to F-Type prisons. In Turkey, solidarity is not a new phenomenon. Neither is standing, seemingly alone and yet decidedly with others.

Since then, hunger strikes, by prisoners and others, have become a regular part of the Turkish political landscape. Last September 60 or so Kurdish prisoners went on hunger strike. By the end of the strike, close to 70 days later, close to 700 prisoners had joined the strike, plus untold others across the country and even around the world.

At the same time, sexual violence, rape, and torture also form a part of the Turkish political landscape that emerges from and returns to prison. Women, like Hamdiye Aslan and Asiye Zeybek, have reported on the extreme and continuous violence they suffered. For more than a decade, national and international groups have documented this. Little to nothing has changed.

Some things have changed. In 2002, there were 55,000 people in Turkish prisons and jails. In early May, there were more than 130,000. Health care in the prisons has gone from bad to criminally worse, as acknowledged recently by none other than Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In October 2011, Ayşe Berktay, writer, translator, peace and justice activist, pro-Kurdish activist, was arrested. She’s still in prison, two years later. In December 2011, Berktay wrote from Bakirköy Women’s Prison: “The situation here is rather critical. Feeling ever more powerful with the support he is getting from `Western powers’ as a representative of so-called `Western ideals of democracy and freedom’ in the region, Erdoğan has turned his back on—or done away with—all semblance of democracy at home and is preparing to intervene actively in the region. Your action is valuable in the sense that it exposes the true nature of the Erdoğan government…He feeds on this `democratic prestige’ he has abroad to take harsher measures against democratic opposition at home. Such prestige makes his hand stronger against opposition in the country. Anyone who does not agree or go along with his way of solving the problem is a terrorist, an enemy—familiar, no?”

Familiar, no?

This morning, Rumeysa Kiger, a journalist who had been part of the delegation that met with Erdoğan last week, was arrested. According to her husband, she was on the way to an interview when she saw police arresting protesters. She went to object and was herself arrested. Familiar, no?

As Berktay concluded, two years ago, “Protests against this anti-democratic obstruction of political struggle and the arbitrary nature of the detentions, against arbitrary detentions to obstruct political struggle and democratic opposition, are very important. They need to know that the world knows and follows.”

One man standing. One woman standing. Thousands of women and men standing, in prisons, parks, squares, and streets. Extraordinary, no?

 

(Photo Credit: http://www.ayresmendevrim.com/2013/07/dunyadan-ve-turkiyeden-duranadam.html)

Ashley Smith died while seven guards followed orders and watched

 

Ashley Smith

Ashley Smith was 19 years when she was allowed, or encouraged, to die. At the time, she was a prisoner of the Grand Valley Institution for Women, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.

According to the Canadian government, Grand Valley is in many ways a model women’s prison. Organized around cottages, allowing for maximal self-sufficiency, it fosters a sense of personhood and humanity through what might be called normative social contacts. Women prisoners are allowed a certain level of discretionary time, quiet time, social time, alone time.  According to a 2005 commission report, by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, Grand Valley, or GVI, is a relatively open and `healthy’ prison, fostering “safety, respect, purposeful activity and reintegration”. It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, but as prisons go, it’s pretty good.

When thinking of Ashley Smith’s story, remember that the place in which she was allowed, or encouraged, to die is one of the model women’s prisons in Canada and in the world at large. This is as good as it gets.

Ashley Smith was a `troubled’ youth, in and out of trouble for minor offenses. She needed help, and in New Brunswick, where her family lived, the public mental health system could not address her needs. And so, instead, she was allowed to go `into the system.’

In March 2002, at the age of 14, Smith was sentenced to one year of probation for harassing phone calls, assaulting strangers on the streets, insulting bus passengers and drivers. A year later she was ordered into a youth center for probation violations. There she underwent psychiatric evaluation that suggested borderline personality disorder, among other possibilities. She was released. Seven months later, while at home, Ashley Smith threw apples at a postal worker. For that she was returned to the youth center, where she spent most of her time in solitary. From then on, she stayed pretty continuously in prison.

In October 2006, Ashley Smith was moved to federal prison, for violations committed while in prison.  A year later, she hanged herself.

In less than a year, her last year on earth, Ashley Smith was transferred seventeen times, from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan. Different prisons, same treatment.  Full body constraints. Shackles. Solitary confinement.

On August 30, 2007, Ashley Smith was returned to the Grand Valley Institution for Women.

During her time at GVI, Ashley Smith somehow made ligatures, strips of cloth clearly intended for self-harm. In a two-month span, fifty ligatures were confiscated. On September 24, 2007, Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, visited Ashley.  At her request, Pate filed a grievance, pleading for release from segregation and transfer to a hospital.

Smith knew she needed help. She knew that segregation was a death sentence. She had spent almost the entire preceding eleven months in solitary confinement. That’s a cell 6 feet by 9 feet: no books, no mattress, no writing implements; often, no clothes. The prison calls it `therapeutic quiet.’ While in federal custody, Ashley Smith received much `therapeutic quiet’, but never a comprehensive psychological assessment.

Pate’s grievance was placed in a grievance box that is only checked once the box is full. The box never filled. In the meantime, Ashley Smith hanged herself.

Seven guards watched and did nothing. They did nothing because they had received orders, in September, to not intervene. Ashley Smith had attempted suicide on numerous occasions. If guards entered to stop her, their actions were considered `use of force’, and involved videotaping, paperwork, and hearings. Rather than waste resources, the prison instructed the guards to not enter as long as Smith was breathing. Once dead, it’s no longer use of force.

This week, almost four years later, the coroner’s court began its inquest. Psychologists argue that Ashley Smith did not commit suicide. She thought people would come to her. She was trying to get help.

Seven guards watched and did nothing, which is to say, they did a great deal. They followed orders.

And Ashley Smith struggled to get help.

There are `ghastly’ videotapes of Ashley Smith’s death. Some say, “Ms. Smith’s death should haunt Canada.” Indeed, it should. At the same time, it would be more apt to say that Ashley Smith haunts Canada and the world. Ashley Smith was sick, she needed help, tried to get help. How did the State respond? It condemned her to live in a box for her last year on earth in a box, preceded by an endless series of cages.

Seven guards watched and did nothing. They were not alone in doing nothing. Ashley Smith haunts everyone.

 

(Photo credit: UWaterloo.ca)