Last night at the Clean Lounge, a Clean and Sober
space located in
Bayview Hunter's Point in San Francisco, LaSalle at Third Street, which
is having its 1 year anniversary early November, was full of FIRED UP!
women and supporters, family and friends. There was so much collective
healing wisdom in the room. So many our sisters present had suffered
tremendous pain and were now on the upswing of their journeys. Samantha
Rogers, an original member of FIRED UP!
and newest employee at
California Coalition for Women Prisoners shared that she is graduating
from her sobriety program Monday, October 22. Another woman, announced
she is starting a new job Monday, and the woman I gave a lift to BART in
Oakland shared with me her wrongful termination from a job as a para
transit operator and her decision to go to college and get a degree.
Much of what many of these women had suffered, and in the repair of
their lives on the outside were still suffering, is captured in Joanna
Sokolowski's film about LaKeisha Burton, the first juvenile in
California sentenced to life imprisonment, Still Time
eight years ago, LaKeisha tells her story, not of necessarily the twenty
year journey, but of her internal struggle or battle with the physical
captivity and then her release. When she was locked up at 15 and
sentenced at 16 to life, LaKeisha wasn't the only person affected. One
of the beautiful aspects of this film is the parallel story, the
cumulative affect of incarceration and how this shows up in LaKeisha's
mother's body just as her daughter is about to be released. One also
sees the impact on LaKeisha's uncle whom when we meet him is dying from
LaKeisha's imprisonment seems to shatter her family, which according to
her uncle, wasn't that close; and her return seems to bring the
splintered edges of this family back together to heal from the trauma
her absence caused.
At the event and in the film LaKeisha speaks to the 16 year old inside
of herself. She recognizes that to a certain extent this child never had
the opportunity to grow up and that she still suffers internally, even
if she is no longer in view. In a series of stills we get glimpses of
this LaKeisha, as we also see how important LaKeisha and her mother are
to each other.
In real time this is translated again when we see LaKeisha taking care
of her mother, who suffered a stroke just before LaKeisha was released
and cannot speak.
The stoic, resilient and optimistic LaKeisha in Still Time
multiplied in the room Saturday, October 20, 2012, as women shared their
stories of imprisonment. One woman told me that all four of her
children (two daughters, a set of twins) were taken by the state and
adopted out to three families. She had her last child in prison, a son,
and he was taken from her sister, and adopted out too. She told me of
falsified records which painted her as a negligent mother, which was not
the case. She is 24 years old, her children 4 to 15 months.
I contrast her story with those of other formerly and still incarcerated women compiled in Inside this Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women's Prisons
by Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman, with a forward by Michelle Alexander.
The institutionally sanctioned and/or ignored sexual and medical abuse
these women experience, quite a few as children, is appalling. These
women have no rights "our government is obliged to respect" (1857 Dred
Scott case http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2933t.html
The mistreatment centered in the Dred Scott case, around the definition
of "citizenship" and citizen rights. What Michelle Alexander raises in
her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
is that prisoners have no rights in the US Constitution so the issue is
human rights. When one is incarcerated one is still a human being
guaranteed certain basic human rights one of them Constitutionally
guaranteed, "no cruel of unusual punishment."
When I put these terms in a search engine this came up from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cruel_and_unusual_punishment:
"These exact words 'cruel and unusual punishment' were first used in the English Bill of Rights in 1689, and later were also adopted by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1787) and British Slavery Amelioration Act (1798).
"The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution
states that 'cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted.'
The general principles the United States Supreme Court relied on to
decide whether or not a particular punishment was cruel and unusual were
determined by Justice William Brennan
In Furman v. Georgia
, 408 U.S. 238
(1972), Justice Brennan wrote, 'There are, then, four principles by
which we may determine whether a particular punishment is 'cruel and
- The 'essential predicate' is 'that a punishment must not by its severity be degrading to human dignity,' especially torture.
- 'A severe punishment that is obviously inflicted in wholly arbitrary fashion.'
- 'A severe punishment that is clearly and totally rejected throughout society.'
- 'A severe punishment that is patently unnecessary.'
'And he added: "The function of these principles, after all, is simply
to provide means by which a court can determine whether a challenged
punishment comports with human dignity. They are, therefore,
interrelated, and, in most cases, it will be their convergence that will
justify the conclusion that a punishment is 'cruel and unusual.' The
test, then, will ordinarily be a cumulative one: if a punishment is
unusually severe, if there is a strong probability that it is inflicted
arbitrarily, if it is substantially rejected by contemporary society,
and if there is no reason to believe that it serves any penal purpose
more effectively than some less severe punishment, then the continued
infliction of that punishment violates the command of the Clause that
the State may not inflict inhuman and uncivilized punishments upon those
convicted of crimes.'
Continuing, he wrote that he expected that no state would pass a law
obviously violating any one of these principles, so court decisions
regarding the Eighth Amendment would involve a 'cumulative' analysis of
the implication of each of the four principles. In this way the United
States Supreme Court "set the standard that a punishment would be cruel
and unusual [,if] it was too severe for the crime, [if] it was
arbitrary, if it offended society's sense of justice, or if it was not
more effective than a less severe penalty.'"
What gives certain people the right to dismiss the basic needs of
others? How does the interjection of state or government power
especially when one is looking at the judicial system, translate as
abuse? One visits these questions often when one looks at the stories of
LaKeisha Burton and Samantha Rogers and other women prisoners and
former prisoners who are victims of a judicial system that denies their
humanity before they set foot in a court. More than one woman states in Inside this Place, Not of It
how she had to first see herself as worthy of humane treatment, to let
go of the fear that she might hold that she was not worthy of just and
fair treatment behind bars, to be willing to stand up for herself even
with allies were few if any.
LaKeisha spoke of how important visits and letters are to women inside,
how this acknowledgement of their presence is often what keeps a woman
going in a place where every breath is forced, oxygen in limited supply.
From the stories of the women compiled and edited by Levi and Waldman,
it seems that when there are no outside ears and eyes present in these
places, the institution has no oversight and is not held responsible for
egregious breaches of these women's human rights. In many of these
stories, the women have no options especially when the warden and/or
guard target them for punishment. One woman's mail was destroyed and she
missed court dates for her release and important communication from her
attorney. Still other women were not told of their medical status. One
women's ovaries were removed without her permission and she was never
told until Prison Focus sued CDCR for her records.
So many women speak of how they felt they deserved to be treated badly
or others had been socialized into accepting mistreatment as the norm,
like sexual and physical violence. The sentences also reflect poor legal
consul and judicial malaise. Many of these women also as children had
to take on adult responsibilities because their parents were drug
abusers. More than one women interviewed spoke of mothers who gave them
to men as sex toys to do what they wanted to them while their parents'
Despite the child abuse, in retrospect these women prisoners and former
prisoners spoke of loving their mothers and understanding why these
women did not protect their girls.
Teri Hancock, a child when convicted and whose mother was killed says:
"[T]he ADW [or Assistant Deputy Warden at Western Wayne Prison] was
stealing my stuff. I was eligible for camp at that time, which meant I
was eligible to go outside the gates and work in society. But my papers
kept disappearing. It turned out that he'd been shredding my legal mail,
and had put a red flag on my file that said I was a problematic
prisoner, so they couldn't trasnfer me out of Western Wayne. . . . He
was trying to hold me there until my max day--that way he could have
what he wanted (97).
"I had bruised all over my body, and he would tear me up. It would make
me walk funny, and some of the officers would joke about it. They'd say
things like, 'Oh, did you run into the mop bucket again?'
"Finally in 2001, after about a year, [the sexual] abuse got so bad that
I decided to say something. I told the counselors, and they had me file
a grievance against him, but the warden rejected it. They said I hadn't
done it in a timely manner" (98).
The abuse continued and the officers kept targeting Teri for harassment,
from "tossing her cell" to not telling her her father died until almost
a week had passed and then they would let her use the phone. They told
her she'd have to go through the man who was abusing her. He was the one
to decide on her mental capacity. "Of course he said [she] was fine"
Teri says "the assaults only ended when [she] wrote a letter to a friend
who was at camp. . . . The camp then sent the letter to internal
affairs. The ADW had his friends threaten [her] before the
investigation. They told [her] that if [she] kept quiet [she] wouldn't
be retaliated against. . . . They said [she] wouldn't be retaliated
against, [she] would be left alone. They said [she'd] be able to go
home, but if the investigation continued, he'd lose his job, and then
everybody would come down on [her]."
So Teri lied to investigators about the ADW, and she was transferred to
another facility where she was still the target of harassment. The
investigators didn't believe her new story and followed her there where
Teri decided to seek legal help. She talks about the first meeting with
her attorney which started out with a raid or toss of her room where all
her legal notes were torn up and then before she was allowed in the
visiting room she was strip searched "in front of everybody in the
bathroom, even the male officers, because she'd kept the door open"
This same officer tried to disrespect Teri in front of her attorney, but
her attorney "got the attorney general to tell the officers that they
couldn't abuse [her], they couldn't come into [her] room without
permission, and they couldn't strip [her] without permission, unless
[she] was on a visit or [she] was doing a random urine drop" (100). Then
when she was transferred once again to the camp beyond the reach of the
ADW, seven years after her sentencing she appeared before the judge who
was according to Teri, outraged that she's spent so much time behind
bars. The judge released her, yet the officers didn't agree.
Free now, Teri talks about her haunting nightmares where she sees the
ADW, of how hard it is to look in the mirror, because she sees her
mother in her reflection.
She sued the state again once she was released. "The state's answer [to
the charges of sexual abuse] was that he's working at a men's facility
now, so it's okay. From their point of view, whatever he did to me was
all right because I was a convict. That really upsets me. How can a
woman bring charges when they're abused, when they know they're just
going to be retaliated against? Even the officer who was assigned to
help women like me with this kind of case, she was really on the side of
the officers. She lost paperwork on purpose and disciplined women who
filed charges. Officers stick together, right or wrong" (100-101).
Francesca Salavieri, who suffered from mental illness as well as
domestic violence and sexual abuse (both inside and outside prison),
says "Today I see a therapist and I am on minimal medication. My belief
in myself is what keeps me clean and sober. I'm not garbage. That was a
hard lesson to learn. . . . I am not a criminal; I am a person led
astray, who didn't have enough confidence to do the right thing. I am
now a grown-up, and I take responsibility for my actions. I entered
prison at forty-one, but emotionally I was twelve. That girl doesn't
exist anymore" (Levi and Waldman 148).
Samantha Rogers says and so many women agree, that prison is not the
place for women who are addicts. Prison is not a recovery program; when
one gets out if one doesn't get treatment, one ends up right back
FIRED UP!'s first anniversary celebration certainly lifted my spirits
even as it pointed to how much work is left to be done. Recently
released women were there, lots of women from Walden House and several
women paroled this year after serving 20+ years. It's always great
seeing the women hugging each other on the outside when the last time
they saw each other was on the inside. It is a unique and special moment
to witness these survivors of the Prison Industrial Complex, the New
Jim Crow Slave Plantations.
Escaping is not a long term option anymore, what is needed are abolition
strategies like legislation and lobbying and direct action. Visit http://firedupsf.wordpress.com/