a bird and a bottle

A New Kind of Incarceration: Giving Prisoners The Keys (Literally)
March 28, 2007, 8:44 pm
Filed under: criminal justice, law, news, news & views, politics, Uncategorized, wider world

There’s an uproar in the U.K. these days over a new policy in place in several prisons there: giving incarcerated men and women the keys to their cells.

Rubbing your eyes? You read it right.

It has become widespread practice in British prisons to give the incarcerees keys to safety locks on their cells. Focused on those men and women who are nearing release, the policy is meant to help inculcate responsibility for one’s own belongings and respect for others.

British right wingers, of course, are in a frenzy:

Shipley Tory MP Philip Davies accused the Government of “turning prisons into hotels”.

He said: “People will be horrified to know so many prisons give inmates their own keys. It will reinforce their views that the regime is far too lax and cushy.

“These people are banged up for a reason. But the Government seems more concerned about the human rights of criminals than those of their victims, who are footing the bill to keep them in increasingly pleasant surroundings.”

(don’t you just love how the Daily Mail puts “human rights” in scare quotes like that (not in the quoted portion)? As if it’s not a real concept.)

Anyway, of course this policy doesn’t mean that incarcerated men and women actually roam free. They are in prison, after all. There’s the whole trouble of armed guards and barbed wire fencing. It’s not as if keeping someone locked in a 8×10 cell is requisite to incarceration. The British Home Office agrees.

Home Office Minister Gerry Sutcliffe said: “It’s mainly used for people who are soon going to be released or in open prisons.

“It’s all part of providing incentives to encourage them to take more responsibility for themselves, to give them a little bit more respect and decency.”

He stressed that the prisoners’ locks could be over-ridden by staff keys and insisted: “There are no security issues about this. The keys are for their own cells and nowhere else.”

Could this work in the U.S.? Is it a good enough policy that we should care? Is this even a place where prisoner’s rights activists should be expending their energy?


The World’s Only Municipal Haunted House
March 18, 2007, 2:11 pm
Filed under: frivolity, me, Uncategorized, wider world

The World’s Only Municipal Haunted House. That’s what G — SF’s friend with whom we stayed in Moscow — called Lenin’s tomb, the huge black granite monument to the early Communist leader. Apparently, Lenin was virtually mummified despite his wishes, and became what one website calls “Russia’s Statue of Liberty.” Right. Anyway, Lenin wanted to be buried in a much more discreetly:

When Lenin died of a stroke and heart attack on Jan. 21, 1924, his widow said he’d wished to be buried next to his mother in a simple cemetery plot. But the communist elite had other ideas.

They originally planned to freeze their beloved leader, but his body began to deteriorate badly as a super-freezer was being built. Instead, using an untested chemical process, Lenin was embalmed and his skin carefully treated to preserve a lifelike appearance.

The giant sarcophagus sits on side of Red Square, in front of the Kremlin’s outer wall.

lenin’s tomb

Behind the tomb, past Russian leaders, including Stalin, are buried and have statues in their honor. Year round, huge wreaths of flowers ring Stalin’s grave (this goes back to the common Russian sentiment I mentioned in an earlier post — he didn’t really kill all those people, or if he did, it was for the good of the country).

Inside, it is all black granite and few lights, Soldiers every 10 feet or so keep you moving (no stopping, no photos). Lenin lies there in a black suit, one fist clenched in Communist salute.


The photo doesn’t quite do it justice, but it’s the best one available, and after two metal detectors and 2 pat-downs, I definitely couldn’t take any of my own. When we were there, it was much darker — so much so that I didn’t know there were red lightning bolts around the walls — and the looming guards only heightened the haunted house feel.

Here’s a close-up of the man himself:

lenin closeup

Understand now why it’s creepy?

Girls in Custody

I am often frustrated with the lack of conversation about criminal justice reform both in the blogosphere and in the American political discourse. But then there are days like today, when there is a ton of good stuff out there (TimesSelect) about issues related to criminal justice.

This weekend, the NY Times featured an article about the rising numbers of young women involved in the juvenile justice system. It’s not that girls are becoming more involved than ever before in criminal activity; they’re just getting noticed more.

TomPaine (which is on a roll) is also considering the special issues related to girls in state custody, the other day publishing an article by ACLU Fellow Mie Lewis about violence and abuse of women and girls who are incarcerated.

Lewis focuses on the recent meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which discussed violence and discrimination against women and girls, particularly the treatment of girls in state custody — an issue of special concern for Lewis, who authored the ACLU’s recent report, Custody and Control: Conditions of Confinement in New York’s Juvenile Prisons for Girls. She writes:

One group of girls routinely denied basic rights in the U.S.—and in many other nations represented at the CSW session—are those in conflict with the law, and especially those in state custody. The reports of U.N. and NGO representatives during the CSW session made it clear that, in spite of a mountain of international norms dictating how governments should care for children in custody, incarcerated girls are still targeted for abuse. I spent my time at the meeting attempting to garner support for an amendment, introduced by the Turkish delegation, aimed at recognizing the vulnerability of incarcerated girls. The language calls on governments to lock girls up only when absolutely necessary and to protect those incarcerated from abuse.

Girls confined in the U.S. face excessive use of force, verbal abuse—often sexual in nature—indifference to their grievances and excessive and demeaning security measures such as strip searches conducted so often that they begin to look less like a correctional necessity and more like state-sanctioned humiliation. Girls’ needs are neglected and they often receive fewer rehabilitative services than boys. The recent news of serious abuse and an official cover-up in juvenile prisons in Texas is just one in a steady drumbeat of such revelations all over the U.S.

The U.S. which touts itself as a leader on women’s rights, lags far behind in its treatment of women and girls who have contact with the criminal justice system (in addition, of course, to lagging in child care and other services that would help women participate equally in society). Lewis calls for several reforms that the U.S. and other countries can implement to protect the rights of girls in conflict with the law:

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA) sets forth requirements for states seeking federal juvenile justice funds. In 1992, the JJDPA was amended to require states to identify gaps in services to girls, and the law’s reauthorization—scheduled for this year—provides Congress with an opportunity to strengthen the law by requiring better data-gathering and by making gender-based standards mandatory.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), authored by the same man who wrote the infamous Department of Justice “torture memos,” prevents many adult and child prisoners from complaining about abuse by blocking their access to courts. Repealing the PLRA’s applicability to children, as the American Bar Association has urged, would improve girls’ chances of realizing their constitutional and human rights.

In the wake of the World Health Organization’s finding that domestic and sexual violence are global public health concerns, lawmakers are expected to introduce an International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA). The law would commit the U.S. to supporting international efforts to end violence against women in a variety of ways, including strengthening women’s economic independence.

Although the United States claims to champion women’s rights, it has refused to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), making it the only industrialized country to scorn what has been described as an international bill of rights for women. (During the CSW, the U.S. delegation moved to eliminate language in the Agreed Conclusions calling for the ratification of CEDAW and other agreements protecting women and girls.) The Senate Foreign Relations Committee should move CEDAW forward by voting to send the treaty to the full Senate for ratification.

It seems to me like the repeal of the PLRA is the most important action item on this list. While the ratification of CEDAW would be wonderful, my sense is that these treaties can, in U.S. hands, be more symbolic than powerful, even when fully ratified (take, for example, the Convention Against Torture). The PLRA, on the other hand, actively impedes the rights — and the ability to sue for those rights — of men and women, boys and girls in state corrections custody throughout the U.S., even when they are raped by prison guards or endure similarly awful and dehumanizing experiences.

As Lewis points out, there are tens, or even hundreds, of ways that the U.S. could better protect girls in the criminal justice system. It’s just that right now, there isn’t the political will to hold the government (and the state governments) accountable.

An Honest Debate
February 27, 2007, 8:28 pm
Filed under: law, news, NYC, politics, Uncategorized

Contract via Abolish the N-Word.

The New York City Council is considering a ban on the N-word. A symbolic ban. But a ban on the use of a word nonetheless.

The ban was introduced by city councilman Leroy Comrie, and the black community has been both vigorously supportive and strongly opposed.

I’m not sure what to make of it. Since the ban is only symbolic, the ACLU has remained neutral. But it’s still a speech restriction, which in itself gives me pause. That said, the N-word has a violent and hate-filled history and deserves to scrubbed from speech and seen/heard/read in history classes alone. But as I say, I don’t have an opinion on this one. Which is a rare thing indeed.

So I am curious. What do you think?

More NAPW Conference Posts: Priscilla Huang
February 6, 2007, 10:01 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Over at Feministing, Priscilla Huang, of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum has a great post about immigrant women and reproductive justice.

In it, she highlights the ways in which anti-choice groups are trying to capitalize on anti-immigrant sentiment to push for restrictions on abortion rights. Huang writes:

Anti-choicers are also starting to get in on the immigration debate. In fact, many anti-immigrant advocates are also long-time anti-choice advocates who are manipulating the issue of immigration reform to advance their anti-choice agenda. In November 2006, a report from the Missouri House Special Committee on Immigration Reform concluded that abortion was partly to blame for the problem of illegal immigration because it caused a shortage of American workers. As the author, Rep. Edgar Emery, explained, “If you kill 44 million of your potential workers, it’s not too surprising we would be desperate for workers.”

Huang is right — There’s no question immigrant rights are a reproductive justice issue. Check out the full post here.

Why I want to be Dorothy Roberts When I Grow Up (Day 2 @ NAPW’s Conference)
January 20, 2007, 4:27 pm
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, Uncategorized

So, this morning I got to sit next to the amazing Dorothy Roberts (law prof and author of Killing the Black Body and Shattered Bonds, two indispensable books about reproductive justice, race, and poverty). My reaction was something like I imagine my older brother would have if he ever met Springsteen. In my head, I was thinking, “oh my gosh oh my gosh. don’t say anything stupid.” And outwardly I was cool. Or at least I hope so.

I just left today’s lunchtime plenary session, which was about who gets to be a legitimate reproducer/mother/parent and why. Professor Roberts (let’s just call her Dorothy), started from the premise (with proof) that black women have been treated badly throughout American history (slavery was not a promising start), and then said, “Racism affects all women. White women are regulated and punished under the same policies as are black women. If you [as a white woman] don’t do what you’re supposed to, you’ll be treated like a black woman too.” If white woman do not conform to the expected norms of motherhood (either by refusing a c-section or choosing a home birth or eating sushi during your pregnancy), she too – under the logic used to justify the prosecutions of (predominantly black) women based on their decision to carry a pregnancy to term in spite of a drug addiction – could be handcuffed and prosecuted. As NAPW often says, women are being told that they must secure perfect birth outcomes…or else.

Today’s lunch panel moderator, Rickie Sollinger, added further complexity to this question of who can legitimately parent (and what that even means) with her reframing of the issue of “choice.” There are three problems, according to Sollinger, with the concept and label of choice: 1) it assumes that all women are making a free choice and that there choices are of equal value and are equally respected; 2) it pretends that so-called “good” and “bad” choices the product of free people and pretends that the most vulnerable are the most powerful; and 3) it reifnroces the law/idea that some women are not legitimate reproducers because once they “choose” to have a child, if they cannot take “proper” care of it, they should not be reproducing in the first place. I think Sollinger is right on. And if we take what she says and combine it with Roberts’s highlighting of the inequities faced and state control practiced particularly by black women but that threatens all women, we see that “choice” is a misnomer at best and a real willful misrepresentation at worst. As Roberts herself said, there is this notion that there is no racism in the U.S. and that we’re all equal, and if you don’t make it [and by extension cannot fulfill the expectation society has for you as a woman or mother], it’s your fault. That doesn’t sound like a real choice to me.

There has been a ton of other interesting stuff today – including, at two panels, a real questioning of the idea of “normal.” What is a normal birth? Or a normal child? What is a disability even? Who is a normal mother? Asking this question is a powerful tool for getting at our own biases, and at how we have bought into social constructs.

I’ve also been deeply disturbed by some of the stories I have heard today. Laura Pemberton, a religious Catholic and vehemently anti-abortion rights woman from Florida, shared her experience of being forcibly dragged to the hospital by her local Sherriff under court order while strapped to a stretcher because she wanted to have a vaginal birth after cesearean (VBAC), against her doctor’s wishes. Pemberton, already a mother of 4 at that time (now a mother of 8 children) did extensive research into VBAC and knew her body and knew that she would be able to give birth vaginally. After 2.5 days of labor her fetus had a healthy heartrate and her uterus was nowhere near rupture. Yet she was forced to udnergo invasive surgery against her will. This does not happen to anybody but pregnant women (in fact, according to a case called McFall v. Shimp it is illegal to force one person to undergo medical treatment for the benefit of another). Another woman (who I will leave anonymous out of respect for her privacy) told of being thrown out of the hospital and told to leave by the backdoor after a doctor diagnosed her as HIV positive. She had checked into the hospital seeking a free tubal ligation, which were in 1989 being granted to poor women in rural South Carolina (eugenics anyone?), and the doctor popped his head into her hospital room, told her she had AIDS and he wouldn’t perform the surgery, and ordered her to put on her clothes and leave through the back door. After a series of negative experiences in which doctors refused to treat her because of her HIV status, she went 5 years without medical care. Today, she is managing the diseas and is healthy, but insensitive care put her health in grave risk. Finally (because this is getting depressing), I heard about a proposed policy in California. The state’s Department of Corrections put out a statement in July 2006 to investiate the cost effectiveness of sterilization in the state’s correctional facilities. That proposal is still on the table. We have gone so far backward in this country that we are back to the historical sterilization of women of color.

There’s a lot to be angry about here, but also a lot of humor and a lot of hope. It’s not often that reproductive justice advocates sit in rapt silence as an admittedly anti-choice woman shares her personal story. And then, when she’s done, stand and applaud.

For more about Day 2, check out BrownFemiPower. Bitch PhD is also blogging the conference (and has the adorable Pseudonymous Kid, as are the other blogs I mentioned yesterday. I’ll be attending a panel about pregnancy in prisons in a few minutes, and hope to post more on that later.

What do they really want?
January 14, 2007, 9:20 pm
Filed under: news & views, politics, Uncategorized

Everyone acknowledges that the midterm elections were a referendum on the war in Iraq. And the votes were clear — we want out of Iraq. And fast. Yet the Bush administration, blinders on as usual, pushes ahead with the surge, which in turn has many people (my parents included) terrified of a draft. This has left many of us scratching our heads and wondering what the hell they’re up to, and how they have managed to do such great damage to the democratic process in just over six years.

In today’s Washington Post, Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick puts her finger right on it:

But it has finally become clear that the goal of these efforts isn’t to win the war against terrorism; indeed, nothing about Padilla, Guantanamo Bay or signing statements moves the country an inch closer to eradicating terrorism. The object is a larger one: expanding executive power, for its own sake.

And she’s right. Since day one, the Bush Administration has been maneuvering to bring its dream of the unitary executive into being. Whether by bypassing Congess altogether in the march to war, spying on Americans without warrants (or cause), using “signing statements” to try to unconstitutionally amend Congressionally-approved legislation (only allowed by veto) or appointing cabinet members (Cheney) and judges (Alito and Roberts, and several more on the appellate level) who support the unitary theory, the Administration has shown it has little respect for the other branches of the federal government and even less respect for the American people. Lithwick has been giving the warning call about the Bush Administration’s unitary push for some time now (see here and here too), but with the exception of an article here and there in the major newspapers, the fear hasn’t spread. But now we’ve gotten way beyond chicken little scenarios.

And the surge, which is essentially a big F*$& you to the electorate, is just the latest symptom of a years-old campaign. Nevermind that for many American soldiers stuck on third or fourth tours of Iraq, this snub of democracy may mean the final nail in their coffin (and not proverbially). Lithwick puts what’s at stake with this surge into stark relief in her piece’s closing paragraph:

In a heartbreaking letter from Guantanamo Bay last week, published in the Los Angeles Times, inmate Jumah al-Dossari writes: “The purpose of Guantanamo is to destroy people, and I have been destroyed.” I fear he is wrong. The destruction of Dossari, Padilla, Zacarias Moussaoui, Yasser Esam Hamdi and some of our most basic civil liberties was never a purpose or a goal — it was a byproduct. The true purpose is more abstract and more tragic: to establish a clunky post-Watergate dream of an imperial presidency, whatever the human cost may be.

What’s the solution? There’s little short of impeachment that we can do on the presidential level before November 2008. But looking ahead to the ’08 elections, we can make sure that no one who supported this countermajoritarian surge ends up in the White House (that would be you, John McCain and Joe Lieberman). At least that’s a start.