a bird and a bottle

Gay Conjugal Visits (not a punchline)
June 4, 2007, 9:34 am
Filed under: criminal justice, feminism/s & gender, guests, news, news & views, sexuality

(Guest post by SF; no connection to San Francisco)

As the NYTimes recently reported:

Gay and lesbian prisoners in California will be allowed overnight visits with their partners under a new prison policy, believed to be the first time a state has allowed same-sex conjugal stays.

The change arrived over two years after a 2003 California law provided equal rights for registered domestic partners in California, both same sex and non-married heterosexual couples. The delay, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, was due to considerations of whether allowing the visits would expose gay inmates to danger inside the prison, where they are sometimes singled out for attack. The policy shift – finally enacted under the threat of an ACLU lawsuit – is a double victory: for gay rights and prisoner rights. But the sum of the victories is greater than their individual parts.

As a rule, groups that are doubly (or triply) discriminated against (black poor women, for example) are redressed only in one capacity or, in the best case scenario, in each of their individual discriminated capacities. What remains unaddressed is the harm inflicted by multiple, simultaneous discriminations. The situation is even worse in the case of prisons. Scholars and activists like Angela Davis have convincingly demonstrated that racism lies at the heart of the American penitentiary system; in sum: if the people being locked up weren’t black, America would be much less willing to lock ’em up under such harsh conditions and for so long. (Slavery’s long lasting legacy.) We lock up the Other much sooner that we’d lock up our Selves. Viewing the prisoner as Other allows us to deny their basic humanity.

Many states don’t even offer conjugal visits. The fact that California – which now spends more money on its notorious prisons than it does on its vaunted universities – allows conjugal visits in the first place is a recognition (small as it may be) of the humanity and basic human needs and desires of prisoners. That this recognition would be extended to a group whose basic human needs and desires have only rarely been recognized in America is all the more impressive.

It is sad, of course, that gay prisoners in California – deprived of so many freedoms taken for granted outside the prison walls – now have basic human needs and desires recognized in a manner that much of the rest of the country (the current Supreme Court included) likely would reject even for gay female and male American citizens walking freely.


Check me out
April 10, 2007, 3:48 pm
Filed under: blogsturbation, guests, me

Thanks to the generosity of Scott Lemieux, I’ll be guest posting this Wednesday through Saturday and next Tuesday through Friday over at Lawyers, Guns & Money.

Come on over and check me out.

(I’ll also provide links to my LG&M posts here).

Guest Post: NAPW Staff Attorney Tiloma Jayasinghe

Continuing with the Bean in Berlin Guest Posts, National Advocates for Pregnant Women‘s Staff Attorney, Tiloma Jayasinghe, today contributes her thoughts on the prosecutions of pregnant women, which are occurring in ever-increasing numbers around the country. Together with Feministing’s series of posts by NAPW National Summit presenters (here, here, here), Tiloma’s post shows how vulnerable women’s civil rights are, particularly when a woman becomes pregnant. So without further ado….Tiloma:


I am working right now on a case in New Mexico where a woman was charged with child endangerment for continuing her pregnancy to term in spite of her cocaine addiction. She gave birth to a baby that tested positive for drugs, pled guilty at the trial court stage while reserving her right to appeal, won a favorable decision before the appeals court, and now the State of New Mexico has appealed that decision and the case is going before the Supreme Court of New Mexico.

Among the facts that I am forced to use, since the facts were stipulated to at a lower level, and on appeal, you can only rely on what is in the record, is that Ms. Martinez told staff at the state health department where she received some prenatal care that she used drugs. Instead of being provided with treatment, she was censured and told that using drugs harms her baby. End of story. And now that one fact is also being used by the prosecution to show a sense of knowing intent to harm her baby – that she was told that drugs were bad, so you can’t say she didn’t know it could impact her baby.

That assumption, that argument is wrong on two counts (if not more). Medical science has not established a link between drug use and adverse pregnancy outcomes. The crack baby myth of the late 80s has been now debunked – most of those children, their trembling, their wailing, could not be adduced to cocaine, because their mothers were poor, and also used alcohol and tobacco. These were “poverty babies” more than anything else, resulting from lack of adequate nutrition faced by so many low income women. And scientific research could not target a particular harm established by cocaine, separate and apart from the impact that alcohol and tobacco had on the developing fetus.

And that brings me to the next point why this argument is wrong – EVERYTHING a woman experiences during her pregnancy could potentially affect her fetus. If we are talking about licit or illict drugs, tobacco and alcohol are shown to cause fetal harm, as does large doses of aspirin, and certain anti-depressant drugs. Now let’s expand our focus to all the things present in this world that can affect a woman’s pregnancy – stress, violence, depression, eating mercury-laden fish, living with a smoker, breathing the air of our cities, crossing the street, skiing, having sex, drinking a Guinness, drinking caffeine, standing on a crowded subway, riding a bumpy bus, taking care of other children who may have measles, or chicken pox, or the flu.

The argument that these prosecutions are to deter women from engaging in behavior which could potentially harm their pregnancies does not fly, in that case, because tobacco and alcohol have proven adverse effects on pregnancy outcomes, but they are still legal, although there is always that one prosecutor who tries to violate the Constitution and prosecute a pregnant woman for smoking or having a glass of wine. Anything a woman does could potentially harm their fetuses.

But women do everything they can during her pregnancy also protects her fetus. Cynthia Martinez went to a STATE public health facility to seek prenatal care, because she cared about her pregnancy. She may not have been able to seek or obtain drug treatment, but she accessed the services that she could to ensure a health pregnancy. She even confessed to authorities about her cocaine addiction because she was seeking assistance to ensure a healthy pregnancy.

Even if you don’t believe the science, do you really think that incarcerating a pregnant woman is the best way to deal with issues of addiction and pregnancy? Do you think throwing a pregnant woman in jail, where she will not receive adequate nutrition, rest, exercise, prenatal care, vitamins or support will enable her to have a healthy pregnancy and birth? Do you think that giving birth alone in a jail cell, or bound by shackles on your arms and legs is a healthy way to give birth?

And did you ever think about why that woman is using drugs in the first place? In a NIDA funded review by Dr. Lisa M. Najavits and her colleagues at Harvard Medical School in Boston, they found that among women in drug abuse treatment, 55 percent to 99 percent reported a history of physical or sexual trauma. “Most of the trauma occurred before age 18 and was commonly related to repetitive childhood physical or sexual assault. When the women are victims of both types of abuse, they are twice as likely to abuse drugs as are those who experienced only one type of abuse.”

Prosecuting a woman for self-medicating away her painful memories of child abuse or other trauma is not going to resolve anything. Treatment and education and providing access to resources is the real solution to this issue. Medical and scientific groups are unanimous that prosecuting pregnant women only deters them from seeking prenatal care and drug treatment, which harms both maternal and fetal health. Addiction is a medical condition that responds to treatment. There are few treatment centers that accept pregnant women – even less that accept them on Medicaid, and even lesss that accept them and their other children. There aren’t many family-based residential treatment centers, which is one of the best type of facility for women and children. There are few treatment centers at all accessible by low income women. There are not much of anything in rural areas – prenatal clinics or drug treatment centers.

Instead of passing bills to punish pregnant women, or bills to limit abortion, or bills to regulate and limit licensure of birthing centers and the practice of midwifery, why not pass some bills to really improve and impact women’s health? Why not increase funding to rural prenatal clinics? Why not increase funding to residential, family-based treatment centers? Why not foster a dialogue between addiction treatment professionals, medical doctors, legislators, child welfare workers, domestic violence activists and other interested parties to really address the issue properly?

I would like to be out of a job. I would like to not have any reason to have to educate any court that not only are prosecutions of women like Ms. Martinez unconstitutional, but also bad in terms of promoting and protecting maternal and fetal health.

Socialism for Bobos (Bean in Berlin)
March 11, 2007, 2:23 pm
Filed under: food, guests, wider world

(Regulars might know me as SF, but today I am a guest-poster. Bean has blitzkrieged the German capital, where I am living for the year, and we are eating our way across the city. As German prison reform is decades ahead of America, it’s time to put the focus back on the food…)

The Wall has fallen, but socialism lives on. At least gastronomically.


Berlin has a great socio-economic-cum-culinary institution: the Weinerei. Literally translated as “winery,” these restaurants – which now number at least five in the Prenzlauerberg-Mitte area of the former East – offer a little taste of the Marxist paradise the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany) was never able to realize. They are all guided by a basic principle: you pay a nominal fee (maybe one euro) to become a member and receive a glass, after which you can eat as much food and drink as much wine as you want. At the end of the evening, you pay what you think the evening was worth, often into an oversized wine glass or a hollow glass fish or something else absurd. (Their menus could be emblazoned with the motto: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”) The food is sometimes simple (pasta, bread, salad) sometimes impressively complex (pumpkin soup garnished with pumpkin seeds and oil, homemade ravioli, etc.) and the wine gets better with each glass after the third. The atmosphere is usually hipster homey (old furniture, flea market wine glasses, super-kitsch interior decorating: cheap prints of 19th century genre paintings or religious themes – jesus and mary being favorites).

But at the end of the day, what makes the arugula taste that much crisper and the last drops of wine that much richer is the feeling that a better life, unencumbered by monetary values, may still be possible.

(Nothing makes me wax poetic about socialism like a few bottles of Weinerei wine.)

We have a reservation for Monday night at the flagship enterprise. Stay tuned for Bean’s full review and photos…

Guest Post: Men Make the Jokes, and Women Make the Laughter (and the babies)
February 13, 2007, 6:11 am
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, guests, news & views

To make up for my protracted absence this weekend, some thoughts on comedy and sexism courtesy of the inimitable KMZ:

An acclaimed director of an acclaimed comedy theater once distilled the strategy behind casting a Main-stage company of six people: four men (the everyman, the black guy, the fat guy, and the weird guy) and two women (the funny girl and the pretty girl). This director asserted the casting was actually a compliment to women. Women, he told me, were more versatile actresses. Women, he assured me, could play outside their physical and vocal ranges more easily. Women, he assuaged me, could come up with a broader range of characters that sketch and improvisation required. The men were more limited, and that was why a company needed more of them.

With the commencement of the Sara Silverman Program on Comedy Central, there has been much writing as of late on women and funny. Why? Because this is one of the last great boys clubs in the American entertainment industry. “Oh my goodness! The girl is making jokes! And about defecation! And about sex! Tee hee hee and tsk tsk tsk!” Sadly, it is out of the ordinary to see a funny woman’s name as a headliner for Comedy Central. The writing staffs of the most influential comedy programs on television are dominated by men. Currently Conan has zero ladies on staff, while Jon Stewart boasts a whole one; yet, leaps have been made by Allison Silverman, head writer of the Colbert Report, to the top of the heap. I think I speak for most women who are in the business of being funny when it’s truly insulting that our gender is still called out as opposed to our humor. Why are men never referred to as male comics or those male comedians?

Even more personally, I remember how my junior-high-school-defense-mechanism of going for a joke made me an instant buddy with the boys. Let’s be clear: When he asks for “sense of humor” on his online dating profile he is asking for a woman who gets and laughs at his jokes, but she lists “sense of humor” she’s just asking for a guy to make her laugh. The interesting thing about the sexism of funny is that it’s not just affecting those of us who want to work in sketch, improvisation, sitcom, and film. It’s affecting all of us, and it’s affecting the ability of women to gain and remain in powerful positions in every industry.

On Hillary being lambasted for her attempt at a joke, Los Angeles Times columnist, Meghan Daum, said the following:
“But then again, female humor is easily bent into the worst clichés about women. Funny men, after all, are considered smart, confident and sexy. But wisecracking chicks risk accusations of bitterness, hormonal instability and the assumption (no matter what they look like) that they’re using wit to compensate for physical unattractiveness.

As a result, a lot of ambitious women have been conditioned not only to tone the comedy down (remember the old dating adage, “Laugh at his jokes, but don’t be funnier than him”?) but to resist witty self-deprecation, a genre that some old-school feminists were too tin-eared to interpret as anything other than a sign of low self-esteem. What’s left is stridency, earnestness and painstakingly rehearsed jokes ripe for reducing to male-bashing sound bites.”

Until women begin to own humor (not just tampon-jokes and male-bashing jokes), until television executives begins to embrace female comics as equals, (we have lesbians on during the daytime, but has anyone mentioned Amy Sedaris or Tina Fey as a successor to Letterman?), and until we start applauding our young girls as equally as our young boys for silly, out of character, zany behavior, we will continue to support the idea that men make the jokes and women make the laughter.