An immediate independent investigation into the violence and excessive force used by guards in this incident.
Suspension of guards involved pending investigation.
Comprehensive medical treatment for injuries sustained during the incident.
No retaliation for speaking out against this abuse.
Please sign and share these important Petitions:
Read more about their cases and the Women in Prison Defense Committee Let’s Get Free here.
|Donna Hill and Charmaine Pfender (Mother and Daughter)|
By Ian Dunt, Feb. 5, 2014
An occasional series of Immigrant Stories, shining a light on the people trapped in Britain’s immigration system.
“I was working in a local hospital when I saw these women come in with handcuffs on,” Susan says.
Susan is not her real name. She talks on condition of anonymity.
“I asked about it. It was clear they’d committed no crime.
“They’d been hunger striking in the corridors of the nearby detention centre. They were grabbed by the guards.
“The nursing notes said they had no injuries and were fine. When I saw them they clearly had wrist bruises which they sustained in Yarl’s Wood. There were bruises on their backs as well. They were very distressed.”
Susan’s experience left her disturbed. Why were women who had committed no crime arriving in handcuffs, bruised, under detention?
A little while later she read a newspaper report about Yarl’s Wood. Security personnel were guarding the perimeter fence against a reverend dressed as Santa trying to give gifts to the children locked up inside.
Reblogged from: New Statesman, Nov. 9th 2013
By Katharine Sacks-Jones
The reports of sexual abuse at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre were sadly not much of a surprise to people who work with immigration detainees.
Recent reports of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood shine a small spotlight on the otherwise invisible world of immigration detention. They detail how guards preyed on isolated women, subjecting them to unwanted advances, using their positions of power to coerce them into sexual acts. Shocking yes. But sadly not much of a surprise to people who work with immigration detainees.
As a trustee of a small charity, Bail for Immigration Detainees, I visited Yarl’s Wood late last year. The desperation was palpable. One of the women I met had heavily bandaged wrists. She was on 24-hour suicide watch after one failed attempt to take her own life. She, like others I spoke to, was desperate to get out of what is little more than a prison. With 30,000 people detained per year, these women are far from rare.
Many people in detention – both men and women – are incredibly vulnerable. They are often fleeing violence and persecution. About half have claimed asylum. Some have been the victims of torture and rape. To have faced and survived such trauma, to have undertaken a difficult journey to get away, to have left behind loved ones and the world that you know, to then reach supposed safety only to be locked up is a cruel irony. And to be detained with no release date and no time-limit must be utterly hopeless.
It is little surprise that detention is incredibly damaging. Self-harm and detention go hand in hand, with studies suggesting there are higher levels of suicide and self-harm amongst detained immigrants than amongst the prison population. The impacts on physical and mental ill health are well-documented – severe distress and depression as a result of detention are common.
Read the rest here.
Caravans leaving from MacArthur BART in Oakland at 10:30AM and Chuco’s Justice Center in Inglewood at 8:30AM. We will gather at 2PM at SE corner of Ave. 24 and Fairmead Blvd off Highway 99 in Chowchilla.
The benefit will feature “Fighting For Our Lives,” a short documentary about the history of resistance to medical neglect at CCWF & VSPW plus presentations by prison survivors, information about the protest and sign-making. We’re so grateful for the community support!
Can’t make the benefit but want to donate? Contribute online at womenprisoners.org
Solidarity actions encouraged! If you cannot make the rally or do not live in California, we encourage you to organize a solidarity action on the same day in your community. Hold a demonstration in front of the DOC offices or the county jail, organize a speak-out against prisons in a public space, stand in solidarity the Chowchilla Freedom Rally! Please let us know how we can support you! Contact email@example.com.
The Chowchilla Freedom Rally Coalition includes members from California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Justice NOW, All Of Us Or None, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, Fired Up!, Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project, Critical Resistance, Youth Justice Coalition, Global Women’s Strike, Occupy 4 Prisoners, Asian Pacific Islander Support Committee and the California Prison Moratorium Project.
More Questions than Answers about Jackie’s condition
Posted on May 30, 2011 by Disarm Now Plowshares
This has been, and continues to be, a difficult time for all of us who know and love Sr. Jackie Hudson. First – Please know that there is an extraordinary convergence of people, including lawyers and physicians who are working virtually 24/7 on Jackie’s behalf. As of this moment none of us has had direct contact with Jackie, and so we cannot confirm her present health status. That having been said, here is what we know.
Since Sr. Carol Gilbert, who is also at Irwin County Detention Center (Georgia), informed us (on May 29th) of Jackie’s severe chest pain and that nothing was being done for her medical condition, Joe Power-Drutis immediately set a process in motion to secure her transportation to a hospital to reserve proper medical care. He contacted everyone possible, and engaged 2 physicians and 3 attorneys to engage directly with the prison staff. The prison has been completely uncooperative, only saying that Jackie “was being taken care of.” She is evidently in the prison medical facility (God only knows what that is like!!!).
At one point there was an indication that Jackie may have been transported to the local hospital and then returned to the jail. However, a followup conversation with staff at the local hospital confirmed that Jackie has not been admitted there, and he staff indicated that theirs is the only hospital in the area. There is absolutely no evidence that Jackie has been sent anywhere for proper medical evaluation.
The prison medical facility, as far as I know, is ill equipped to evaluate or treat Jackie’s possible medical condition and experts (MDs) agree that based on her presentation to prison medical staff, she should have been immediately transported to a hospital emergency facility for a thorough cardiac work-up.
Based on all the information we have received it appears that her treatment since her chest pain began, even beyond her basic medical needs, has been substandard and inhumane.
The legal team working on Jackie’s behalf includes Bill Quigley, Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights; Anabel Dwyer, lawyer and international human rights expert; and Blake Kramer, Tacoma-based attorney who has been deeply involved in defending the Disarm Now Plowshares. I understand that the legal team is currently working every possible angle, and one involves getting the Judge for the Y-12 trial, which was the reason for Jackie’s current imprisonment, to order her release/transport to the hospital.
Another major concern and an egregious disregard for the rule of law is prison’s refusal to allow Jackie’s right to legal counsel. Jackie’s court-appointed attorney, Brad Henry, found out at the jail that the Warden told all the staff at the jail that no information was to be given out about Jackie, including her appointed council. The prison is stonewalling every step of the way.
Beyond the obvious moral and ethical implications of the prison’s treatment of Jackie Hudson, it is evident that she is being deprived of her Constitutional rights as well as essential human rights. This on top of Jackie’s very real status as a Prisoner of Conscience, quite literally a political prisoner in a nation that flouts both national law and international humanitarian law and then imprisons those who follow their conscience and the law to speak and act out to call on our nation to uphold these laws.
This maltreatment must not stand. The people operating Irwin County Detention Center, a private, for profit prison, must be held accountable for their actions. If this is how they treat Jackie, someone with a broad base of support, I can only imagine the mistreatment of a vast number of prisoners who have no one to advocate on their behalf. What of the forgotten???
Besides the work being done by this dedicated group to whom I’ve referred, many of you out there are working on Jackie’s behalf, and for this I thank you all! We evidently flooded the prison phone line with calls, and I have no doubt that this has had an impact. They know we are watching! I have contacted the ACLU of Georgia, asking them to act on Jackie’s behalf. We are working on alerting media locally(Georgia), regionally and nationally to Jackie’s plight, and will also be contacting members of Congress to act on her behalf.
What can you do to help Jackie? For one thing, we can continue to call, fax and/or email the prison to let them know we are watching and demand that they send Jackie to the hospital. The phone number is 229-468-4121. You may get a recorded message during some hours. There is also an email listed: firstname.lastname@example.org. Fax is 229-468-4186 Additional phone numbers: Warden Barbara Walrath – warden of Irwin County Detention Center, 229-468-4120, Dr. Howard C. McMahan – Medical Director of Irwin County Detention Center, 229-468-5177. If you get into a message system, LEAVE A MESSAGE!
Irwin County Detention Center
132 Cotton Drive, Ocilla, GA 31774
Telephone: 229-468-4121 Fax: 229-468-4186 Email: email@example.com
Here are some suggested talking points:
Sr. Jackie Hudson, who is in your care and for whom you are responsible, has had intense heart pain, which began Saturday afternoon. She is being obstinately denied proper medical care. Her symptoms suggest that she may have one or more occluded coronary arteries. If this is the case, her heart, as a muscle, will progressively worsen in the hours and days to come.
Jackie must be taken to an emergency room immediately. The Emergency Department at the Irwin County Hospital verifies that Sr. Jackie has not been taken to their hospital, and that there is no other local hospital to which she might have been taken. They Emergency Department has been in contact with the ICDC to no avail.
Such treatment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and if Sister Jackie is not moved to an emergency room immediately and suffers any negative medical consequences as a result I will hold Michael Croft Enterprises, operator of ICDC and in particular Warden Barbara Walrath and Medical Director Howard C. McMahon personally responsible.
Those supporting Jackie Hudson must have direct access to her and her physicians so they know her whereabouts, her condition and her treatment. These people include: Sue Ablao, Sr. Jackie’s housemate at Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, Poulsbo, WA; Frank Hudson, Sr. Jackie’s brother; Sister Nathalie Meyer O.P., provincial of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, Sr. Jackie’s religious order; and Brad Henry, Jackie’s attorney.
Send an email to (or call) any news media contacts you have, or even if you don’t have any you email the newsroom (look them up in the contacts section of that newspaper’s Website).
I understand that the Koinonia Partners community in Americus, Georgia, is planning a vigil at the prison tomorrow.
As I stay focused on dear Jackie’s immediate needs I find myself also focusing on a much broader issue. Here is a person with so much support from so many wonderful people. And yet, there is a huge percentage of the U.S. prison population (with the largest incarceration rate in the world) for whom there is no support. What becomes of these forgotten prisoners when they become ill??? We will take up that issue once we get Jackie taken care of!!!
One last thing before I close; an excerpt from something by Liz McAllister and Chrissy Nesbitt of the Jonah House community that I find quite pertinent today:
It is Memorial Day as we write. Meaning no disrespect, but on this “war heroes’ weekend”, isn’t it time to also honor those who have “fallen” in a different battle – against the slaughtering wars?
It often takes a different kind of moral and, yes, even physical courage to resist a war and/or a weapons system that you believe is a crime, when all your family, friends, teachers and the vast American majority support them.
But what about the Sr. Jackie Hudsons who don’t want to kill people, who don’t believe it is right to build more and more weapons of mass destruction? They’re an odd breed who count among their number such as Muhammad Ali, Mahatma Gandhi, Sergeant York, David Hockney, three US weapon-refusing combat medics who won the medal of honor. What kind of guts does it take for war objectors, whether they’re Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonites or Roman Catholic, who simply don’t want to kill? On this Memorial Day, it might be a time to think about the outcasts who refuse to take life. Should Sr. Jackie Hudson be required to give her life in a jail that displays absolutely no respect for life? Is this what the U.S. is about?
That’s all for now. In between these emails I am regularly updating the Disarm Now Plowshares Blog as I hear of anything that you should know. Please check in at the top of the home page occasionally for updates. And – Please forward this email far and wide.
Thanks to all who have offered to help in so many ways. As bad as this all is, Jackie is surrounded by such a wonderful, loving community, and I can imagine that this knowledge is deeply embedded in Jackie’s heart and mind, and that it is a great comfort to her.
Update on Jackie May 31, 2011
This day promises to be a pivotal one in Jackie’s life and ours.
Whatever struck Jackie in the afternoon of May 28th, we can only
assume it heart because of its symptoms, she has remained in pain,
frequently crying out for assistance, and at least many of her cries
have gone forth unanswered by her human captors.
Nearly 65 hours have elapsed since Sr. Carol Gilbert first called
pleading for someone to come and provide Jackie much need care. Yes,
65 hours have elapsed when medical authorities tell us minutes make a
difference. It is 65 hours that Ardeth, Carol, Jean and Bonnie had to
sit helpless, literally feet away from where Jackie would lay. During
these 65 hours the legal system would ostensibly shut down and
everyone would go to the beach over Memorial Day Weekend.
Well now we are at the end of that 65 hour period and I feel confident
in my heart that Jackie will be liberated from, as Dorothy Day would
say, “this dirty filthy rotten system” that keeps her in chains and
without the care she so desperately needs.
Over the past 48 hours you have been a part of a very large response
from people North to South and East to West, that have wrote, called,
planned and made contacts on behalf of our sister Jackie. This morning
Medical, Legal and Political representatives will weigh in on Jackie’s
behalf and I believe they will accomplish their objective.
Our main hope is that the courts will intervene and order Jackie either
released from Jail so that we might ensure her care or order the
Irwin County Detention Facility in Ocilla to send her to the Irwin
County Hospital immediately for proper evaluation and treatment.
Nothing short of this will be acceptable. I am making plans for going
to Ocilla soon and will send out word through this service when I
catch wind of any development.
I pray this day that the men and women, who will do all they can on
Jackie’s behalf, will be successful in ensuring she receives the care
she desperately needs.
Help us ban the practice of shackling of incarcerated women during transport, labor, delivery and recovery in Georgia jails and prisons
Clearly, the time to end this practice in Georgia is upon us. How many more women will labor in pain, silence, obscurity and shame? It is indeed a cruel, inhumane and unsafe to force women to endure the laboring and birthing process with chains on their wrists and ankles.
Please sign the petition calling for an end to this heinous and unsafe practice.
by Iresha Picot on Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 6:28pm received via Email and published with permission.
Last weekend, I was supposed to have presented at the Fourth Annual Regional Build “Supreme Mathematics: Black Woman, Man, Child.” However, due to time constraints, I had to leave before the presentation got under way. I was pretty bummed about that because I wanted to share such important information to the people about my topic “Black Incarcerated Mothers”. Below is my presentation.
Peace. As a local organizer/activists in Philadelphia, most of my work is centered around prisoner issues. This consist of demanding the release of political prisoners, with the MOVE organization as a supporter to free the MOVE 9–nine MOVE members, going on their thirty-third consecutive year of incarceration or fighting to keep Bro. Mumia alive, as a member of the International Concern Family and Friends of Mumia Abu Jamal (ICFFMAJ). I also work in supporting our politicized prisoners in resisting on the inside, against this corrupt system with the Human Rights Coalition and sending literature to prisoners in the mid-Atlantic region as a collective member with the Books through Bars program. This summer, I was asked to write a curriculum on Women Prisoners with the Books through Bars’ service learning program that we do with local high school students who come to volunteer. As I was conducting research, I came across the statement that “Black Women are the fastest growing population in prison”. So much so, that they are outnumbering Black men in terms of the numbers of physical entry to prison. I immediately thought “well, if Black Women are usually the caretakers of our youth, and they are the fastest growing population in prison, then who are taking care of the babies?”
For anyone who may not be brushed up on this serious issue, Black and Latina Women make up 67% of Women in prison; with Black Women going to prison three times more likely than Latina Women, and six times more likely than White Women. Eighty-thousand of these Women are mothers, leaving two-hundred thousand children under the age of eighteen without mothers to care for them.
What these statistics do not tell you about, are the children and family, incarcerated mothers have to leave behind. I made it my quest to devour all of the information that I could get on this topic, because I noticed how skewed the work that I have done around prison issues, have been. This has mainly been around black male prisoners (besides the relationship that I have with the three MOVE women who make up the MOVE 9). As I was reading (and there was little to be read, because no one is writing about this), I came across narratives of Sistas continually going to prison on conspiracy charges, where they are judged guilty of the same crimes as their boyfriends or lovers, just because they lived with them and “benefited” from drug money income, or have either partaken in carrying guns, putting apartments and cars in their name for these men. Prosecutors, often try to force women to testify against their husbands, brothers, or family members with threats of harsh charges and long sentences. Many times, these Women uphold the “no snitching” code and they are sentence as harshly as the men who commit the actual crimes.
When these women are arrested, they are usually arrested at home in front of their children, with 2 out of 5 Black children witnessing their mother’s arrest. Very few police departments allow Women to call anyone to care for their children, so Women are often carted off to jail not knowing what will happen to their children. How can you advocate for the placement of your child(ren), behind bars, with limited resources? In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Family Act, made it legal to snatch incarcerated mother’s children away from them, removing all maternal rights, if the child was in foster care for 15 of the 22 months the mother was incarcerated! Under this act, you cannot even call or write to your own child and therefore become a stranger to your own children. There are currently twenty-five states that have this act on the books! Also, court appointed attorneys rarely disclose this information to the mothers or other challenges that are bought about from being a convicted felon and a mother. One story I read about while doing research was about a mother who pleaded guilty to a drug felony charge that involved her children’s father. For a lesser prison sentence she plead guilty, but the attorney failed to tell her that by pleading guilty and having a permanent record, that it would prevent her from certain governmental assistance and student loans for upward mobility. Therefore making the re-entry extremely challenging in terms of taking care of your children once release with a felony.
Even if Black Women can get kinship to care for their children during their incarceration, the system makes it hard for Black Mothers to parent behind bars. Many Women state prisons (including Pennsylvanian) have only one or two prisons in the entire state, and they are usually hundreds of miles away from urban cities. Visiting is difficult for most families travelling long distances and many are dependent on public transportation even for families living in the general vicinity. This is also true from mothers in county jails. Some county prisons only allow three children on the visiting lists per year. So if a mother has more than three children, she has to choose which children she could see that year.
That is why if we are serious about restoring equilibrium back together with the Black Family: Man, Woman, and Child, we have to take on this issue of Black MOTHERS being the fastest growing population in prison as a serious one! There is a stigma around mothers when they go to prison that we do not uphold with fathers when they are incarcerated, which is “she must not have been a good mother”. Which from the literature that I have read, most Black Women go to prison by committing acts of crime so their children could SURVIVE. Furthermore, Black children are always connected to the mother and with a barrier such as prison destroying that connection, it leaves room for anger and abandonment to arise that tears at this relationship. This system has no care about this issue, but as a community, we have to take it on as one of the more important ones, because without the mother to provide direction/care/love for the babies, then who will?
Let’s rally around this issue for the sake of Black children.
For the sake of the Black Woman.
For the sake of the Black family.
Now that’s Supreme Mathematics!
From: Monthly Review
August 5, 2010
by Susie Day
Marilyn Buck died on 3 August 2010, less than a month after her release from federal prison. The interview below was first published in the July-August 2010 issue of Monthly Review. — Ed.
After years of neglect, the issue of women in prison has begun to receive attention in this country. Media accounts of overcrowding, lengthening sentences, and horrendous medical care in women’s prisons appear regularly. Amnesty International — long known for ignoring human rights abuses inside United States prisons and jails — issued a report, two days shy of International Women’s Day 2001, documenting over 1,000 cases of sexual abuse of U.S. women prisoners by their jailers. However, we seldom hear from these women themselves. And we never hear from women incarcerated for their political actions.
Here are the voices and observations of two women political prisoners. Laura Whitehorn, released in 1999, served over fourteen years behind bars for a series of property bombings, including one of the U.S. Capitol building, to protest police brutality and U.S. foreign policy (the “Resistance Conspiracy” case). Marilyn Buck, Laura’s friend and codefendant, was also convicted for her alleged role in the 1979 prison escape of Assata Shakur, and a number of armored car expropriations in support of the Black Liberation Army. She is serving a total sentence of eighty years and remains in the Dublin California Federal Correctional Facility. (Her codefendants on that case include Dr. Mutulu Shakur and Sekou Odinga, both also incarcerated in federal prisons.)
While it was possible to talk to Laura at length about her time behind bars, Marilyn was able only to make four long-distance phone calls, each summarily cut off by the prison after fifteen minutes. After reading Marilyn’s words — and having known and lived beside Marilyn for years in prison — Laura added to what Marilyn wasn’t able to say, as well as expressing her own experience and recollections.
SD: You both were arrested and imprisoned in 1985. How have prison conditions around you changed over those years?
MB: They’ve become much more repressive, particularly since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Each year, there’s been slippage. And certainly Clinton played a big role with the Anti-Terrorism Act, which further limited people’s legal rights.
The balance of who is in prison has also changed. There’s a much higher percentage of blacks and Latinos, and — at least in the Federal system — an enormous number of immigrants. Not just immigrants but foreign nationals, who’ve been arrested for incidents in crossing borders. People are detained for years without ever being given any kind of judicial decision.
LW: I think it’s typical of Marilyn not to complain in an interview about her own conditions. When we look at the two million people now in the federal and state systems, the proportion of women in those numbers has gone way up. What that means to someone like Marilyn is tremendous overcrowding: you’re living the rest of your life in a tiny cell that was built for one person and now houses three. It means you have no property, because there’s no room. Little by little, they took away any clothing that was sent to you, and put down much more stringent requirements. It means that you have no desk. Marilyn Buck, like many prisoners who fight very hard to get an education, has to sit on a cot and write on her lap. The overcrowding means that people are treated like problems and like baggage.
The other thing is the federal conspiracy laws, which are particularly pernicious for women. In 1985, when people heard that I was facing thirty-three years, they were astounded. That seemed like so much time. In 1990, when I ended up with twenty-three years, people were less astounded, because the laws had changed and sentences were much longer. By then, my cellmate had a twenty-four-year sentence on a first offense. This was a drug conspiracy case where it was really her husband who had run this drug ring, and she was swept up in the indictment. Or there’s our friend Danielle, who has a triple-life sentence for another drug conspiracy — her crime was basically refusing to testify against her husband. We found many more women with those kinds of sentences.
SD: How do you think these last fifteen years have affected you, personally?
MB: Imagine yourself in a relationship with an abuser who controls your every move, keeps you locked in the house. There’s the ever-present threat of violence or further repression if you don’t toe the line. I think that’s a fairly good analogy of what happens. And imagine being there for fifteen years.
To be punished, to be absolutely controlled, whether it’s about buttoning your shirt; how you have a scarf on your head; how long or how baggy your pants are — all of those things are under scrutiny. It’s hard to give a clinical picture of what they do, because how do you know, when you’re the target, or the victim, what that does to you? But there’s a difference between being a target and being a victim.
LW: The largest proportion of guards in federal women’s prisons are men. That’s who’s in your living unit. That’s who’s looking through the window in your door when you might be using the bathroom or changing your clothes. There’s the total loss of ability to defend your person.
For me, the hardest part was the pat-searches. In the federal system, it’s legal for male guards to pat-search women prisoners. That means they stand behind you and run their hands all over your body. The point is not to locate contraband; it’s to reduce you to a completely powerless person. If I had pushed a guard’s hands away they would have sent me to the hole for assault. In fact, that did happen once. It reduces you to an object, not worthy of being defended. The message is, “your body is meaningless, why don’t you want this man to put his hands all over you?” Very, very deeply damaging.
Marilyn talks about being “a target or a victim.” She makes a distinction. That’s really important because the struggle inside prison is to refuse to be victimized. Once you allow yourself to be a victim, you lose your ability to stand up and say, “I’m a person; I’m not a piece of garbage.”
But over the years, when you have to put up with that again and again, you avoid situations because you just don’t want to go through it. You have to exert an enormous amount of psychic energy to remove yourself from the situation, where this guy’s running his hands over your body. You end up exhausted at the end of the day, and your nerves are shot. Your only life is resisting these situations.
SD: Is there a portrait of a typical woman prisoner you could draw?
MB: No, except in the broadest strokes. Typically, she’s a woman of color. When she first comes to prison, she’s twenty-three to twenty-four years old. Probably the median age of women here is thirty-five to thirty-six, which is much older than it used to be because women stay in prison much longer. Presently, in this particular institution, over 50 percent of the women are Latin American, a large percentage of that, Mexican. You could also say — and this is not news — a lot of the women here come from abusive relationships, whether parents or husbands. . . . If you look at the statistics, it says up to 80 percent.
LW: I would also say that a huge number of the women are mothers. It means that, on the outside, there are basically a lot of orphans. I consider the prison system today to be a form of genocide. Prison has been used against third-world populations inside the United States, in particular African-American and Latino populations. These women are very young when they come to prison. They have sentences that will go through their childbearing years. Their children are either farmed out to relatives, or they become wards of the state. It means that the women, who would form some sort of collective bond when there’s a need for struggle, are gone from the community. And it means that their children may well go to prison themselves. Those of us who grew up with mothers have complaints that we didn’t get enough love. What does it mean to have your mother in prison?
One thing that would strike me whenever people came in from the outside for something like an AIDS health fair — we fought very hard to have those fairs — is that these straight, middle-America types would be sweating bullets, they were so scared. And they would be so expansive and warm when they left. They would say, “My picture of you all was so wrong. I pictured these killers with knives in their teeth, and I find you’re just like my neighbors.”
If you look at the number of women in prison, some of us are your neighbors. I don’t care where you live. People who read Monthly Review: your neighbors are in prison, OK? I must have met thousands and thousands of women over almost fifteen years, and I would have to say that, of the women I met, there are probably ten or fifteen who, in a socialist society, would need to be in prison.
SD: Do women ever get “better” after they go to prison?
MB: Sometimes. I think there’s the possibility of coming to terms with the fact that you were abused. Basically, you have two things happening. One is that you have this potential, because you’re not running around, doing the things you had to do as a mother, a wife, a partner, or as someone who had to go to work. When that daily activity stops, then the potential exists to discover a sense of independence.
The other side is that we’re in a situation where we’re absolutely controlled. That sort of enhances another abusive relationship. It can limit your imagination and shut you down. So a lot of women become more creative here, in terms of arts and crafts, but it doesn’t necessarily open them to their potential as human beings.
LW: Also, a lot of women who have been in abusive relationships get into lesbian relationships. And one of the things the chaplains do is preach against homosexuality, because they’re terrified of it. I was once in a prison where there was a progressive chaplain who told other chaplains that for a lot of the women, these relationships were the first time someone looked at them and saw beauty and not something to be used and abused. There were also some horrible lesbian relationships that were a recreation of the worst in straight relationships.
Can we talk about medical care? The women are getting older. A lot of women in prison are going through menopause. Many have gynecological problems. I had surgery when I was in prison. There you are: you’re bleeding; you’ve had surgery a few hours before. You’re strip-searched, shackled, chained, and you have to walk back to a van. If you’re lucky they’ll have a wheelchair for you to take you back to your unit.
I now work at POZ magazine, and a woman in Danbury Prison wrote a column for the magazine. She has HIV and goes to the male gynecologist to be told that she needs surgery on her cervix. She says to him, “I have to be completely sedated for this operation.” And he says, “No you don’t.” And she says, “Yes, I do. I have a history of sexual abuse and I have a panic attack when I have to lie on my back with my legs spread open and chained in front of strangers.”
And he laughs at her. He tells her, “Well, then, we can’t do the surgery.” And she writes, “I hate my doctor. And that’s a problem. For me, but not for him.” That’s so profound. That relationship of being “cared for” by someone who sees you as their enemy is completely deleterious to your health.
I hope everyone who reads this article is familiar with the medical crisis in the California Women’s prison at Chowchilla. “Health care” there is left to the guards: they are trained as low level EMT’s and they do the first stage of triage, deciding whether a woman should be seen by a doctor or not. Seventeen women died in that prison last year alone and independent investigations concluded that medical incompetence or refusal of medical attention contributed to the deaths.
The other thing I saw so much in women was the further erosion of already-low self-esteem. What does it do to you to have to go stand in line and get a man’s attention and ask him for sanitary napkins and then be asked, “Didn’t you ask me for some yesterday?”
SD: How do you deal with the deaths of family and friends while you’re in prison?
MB: My mother died about six weeks ago. She became ill in September, so I went through a phase of real guilt that I wasn’t there. And real sorrow and real anger. I think I’ve looked at the guilt a little more. I just couldn’t be there. But the sorrow of not being able to hold my mother’s little bird hand by the time she was starving to death from the cancer … just breaks my heart. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
I could intellectualize it. I could have been on a ship halfway around the world, and we got stuck in the trade winds and couldn’t get there in time. But I’m an extreme realist and understand who I am as a political prisoner. I knew that I would not be allowed to go to her bedside, nor to her funeral. That was just the reality. She died on a Sunday. And she was buried on my birthday. So it’s just all very hard.
I talked to my mother every week I could. And she came to visit me once a year. It was hard for her to get here. My mom was seventy-four. She had to drive a long way and go through all the emotional turmoil that you can’t avoid when you see somebody you can’t do anything for. So I had to look at her anger, too.
In a certain way, I want to be able to lie on the floor and bang my heels and cry and scream, but that just hurts my heels… So what can I say? I’m having a hard time. I’m having a very, very hard time. I . . . you know, it’s grief. But it’s grief under dire conditions. I’ll always miss my mother.
LW: One of the hardest things about being in prison is losing somebody you love and being unable to be there with them while they’re dying, or go to the memorial service afterwards. Being in prison through some of the worst years of the AIDS epidemic meant that I lost friends, both on the outside and the inside, very dear women who were among the best friends I’ve ever had in life.
My father died while I was in prison. I was very fortunate that there was a chaplain who allowed me to phone him twice while he was in the intensive care unit. It’s just an emblem of how families are destroyed by prison — the fact that Marilyn was not permitted to go; that I was not permitted to go to my father’s funeral; that there was no question of ever being permitted to go.
SD: What kinds of internal resources have you developed to deal with these years in prison?
MB: For me, the main thing is that I recognized, after the first five years of being imprisoned and on trial a lot, that one tends to build one’s walls. Which means that you begin to censor yourself, so that they can’t censor you.
I censored how I spoke to people, how I interacted. It goes in tandem with, “If I button my shirt the way they want, they won’t attack me for not buttoning my shirt properly.” In some ways, I found myself trying to be a “good girl,” because then maybe they’d see I wasn’t a “bad girl.”
When I got a handle on what I was doing, I was horrified, because how can you be a women’s liberationist and worry about being a good girl or a bad girl? What I believed in my gut was being turned inside out by my actual life. And it made me understand a lot more about how any woman — it doesn’t matter who you are or what you think — can get in a relationship with another person — generally a man, but not always — who can become your abuser, your owner.
So once I could begin to see that, I tried to find ways to tear down my walls, to protect myself less. It’s always a risk, because when you open a door, you don’t know what’s going to come in, or what’s going to go out. And everyone is needy in prison. When you’re a prisoner, you’re needy. It’s emotionally, psychologically devastating. But I felt like, if I didn’t take that risk, that I was going to smother the essence of who I was.
What I do is that I write. I write poems. Over the years I’ve moved from being a rhetorical, frozen writer to try to put out more of who I am, and how I feel. . . . I think that ultimately, if we want human liberation, we have to be able to be honest with ourselves and other people about our desires, our resentments, as we say these days, our “issues.”
So I look to that as a little flame before my face. I can’t say I’m there. But I can at least keep that in my mind.
LW: I think the hardest thing to maintain over the years, for me, was my sense of outrage. After a while, your heart hurts so continually, you begin to build a sort of padding around it. For example, one of the hardest things for me in prison was at the end of the visiting period, when you see children being led away from their mothers and they don’t understand, especially the little ones are just screaming and crying. I got to a point where I would try to leave my visits early because I couldn’t stand that any more.
I really started to disrespect myself for that. I felt like, the mother’s going through it, how do you get the right to remove yourself from it? I think from that, I understood something of why people don’t want to know about prisons, because it’s too hard; there’s something so painful about seeing a woman being removed from her baby. A woman who gives birth in most U.S. prisons gets somewhere between eight and twenty-four hours before she is taken back to the prison and separated from the infant.
When people say, “God, how did you survive prison?” I think the way I did it was by touching the lives and being touched by the lives of women around me. I mean, I was in prison with women who had been raped repeatedly by a stepfather when they were between seven and eleven, who had to go through pat-searches every day, through shakedowns where some man comes in your cell and paws through your underwear. They would call home and find out that their daughter, who was thirteen, was again being abused by that same stepfather, who was back in the picture. They had to deal with the most intense levels of abuse, and yet were able to stand up through it, were able to survive.
I learned early on how people can communicate with each other on a really deep level without having to give up their own personal strength. I learned how to get emotional sustenance from the women around me and how to try to give some to them. That’s the main thing I learned from prison. And it was easy for me because I knew I had a release date. For someone like Marilyn, or our friend Danielle, finding the strength to survive is an enormous job.
SD: What reactions do you get as a political person from other prisoners?
MB: Most people don’t know my politics specifically. As I get older and tireder, and more beaten down by being in prison, I’m not out there as much with the population. I don’t go to the dining room very much. I’m too tired to do that. So less and less, people know me.
But some people do understand my politics. You know, one woman who’s twenty-two years old just left. A young black woman, we talked sometimes, and I have been supportive and critical of her in a couple of situations. When she left, she said, “Thank you. You helped me a lot.”
So, to me, what your politics are in the abstract don’t mean a damn; it’s how you practice them. For myself as a white woman, I ask, how do you treat people; how do people receive you as a human being? Are people abstractions to you, in terms of racism? Or do you treat people as real equals, even given all the issues of privilege? Because they exist in prison, too.
Sometimes I’m treated differently by the administration. I know that my mail gets opened. That’s not true of everyone else. So I end up getting envelopes without any contents. Every time you say anything about it, it’s “Oh, it must be the post office.”
LW: Marilyn’s right that people knew us as political prisoners by how we dealt with people and situations every day. I remember feeling that the main impact I’d had was when I would intervene when a guard was picking on a woman, or help somebody get her privileges back when they’d been taken away unjustly. More than if I gave them a lecture on the history of something.
But Marilyn’s also way too modest. When we were in prison together, all the other women knew she represented the politics of struggles for justice, human rights, liberation. Women would always approach her for help in understanding not only incidents on the news, world affairs, but also incidents of racism and hostility among different nationalities in the prison population. She may tire of talking about it, but I know for a fact she never tires of acting on all of it, treating people with respect, making peace in difficult situations, basically doing the right thing no matter how tired she is, how long she’s had to do it.
One thing that changed while I was in prison is that there were many more women political prisoners. It was a shock to the prison system itself because they were terrified of us.
The government created a control unit. They tested it out on two of the Puerto Rican women, Lucy Rodriguez and Haydee Beltran. Then they put Alejandrina Torres and Silvia Baraldini and Susan Rosenberg in an underground unit at the Federal Correctional Institution at Lexington. It was actually a basement unit and they were supposed to be there for the rest of their sentences, which were fifty-eight and forty-three and thirty-five years. It was a big mistake because it got international attention. It was one of the first times Amnesty International got involved in the conditions of incarceration in the United States. Part of it was that they were terrified we would revolutionize the rest of the prison population.
A few years after that unit was closed down, I was in Lexington and working in the landscape crew, mowing grass, and my boss was a guard who had been assigned to that basement unit. She told me that they had been told not to speak to the prisoners there because they would brainwash them. I thought it was hysterical. I said, “You’ll see after we’ve worked together, whether I brainwash you.”
About three months later, that guard asked me, “Who’s that guy who’s the biggest mass murderer ever?” And I said, “George Bush.” Then we got into a discussion about who is a mass-murderer — someone who kills five people or a president who — ? And she says, “You know, you’re making a lot of sense, Whitehorn. Uh-oh. I am being brainwashed.”
SD: Some people say that political prisoners get more recognition and support than social prisoners. What’s your reaction to that?
MB: There’s a misconception that political prisoners always get so much support. There are some who were in prison for years before they got any support at all, except for a few people they’d worked with in the world. We could look at Mandela. All these people worked to free Mandela. What was done about all the other [African National Congress] prisoners? Probably ninety-nine out of one hundred political prisoners didn’t join the struggle to become famous.
Also political prisoners tend not to get parole. Particularly men political prisoners, they’re in isolation for years and years. There’s a lot of things we don’t get that sometimes other prisoners do get.
LW: If you want to understand prisons, you have to understand both political and social prisoners. They’re two sides of a program of repression. One is, you terrify communities and tell them the law is all-powerful and people will lose their freedom for many, many years if they transgress. The other is, you give huge sentences to anyone who says, “There are such egregious social injustices that we have to go up against the government.” You lock those people up for long periods of time, and that will prevent the rise of a new generation of leaders or activists. If you leave out one side of that equation, you’ll never understand what prisons are. You’ll think they’re just about making money, which is ridiculous.
Having said that, I think the current building of a mass movement about the prison industrial complex began with political prisoners. There is absolutely no division between supporting political prisoners and fighting for an end to the prison system. Angela Davis has been instrumental in it. Who’s she? She’s an ex-political prisoner. The people who have organized a lot of young activists in that movement are political prisoners or ex-political prisoners.
Every single political prisoner did prison work before they went to prison. We were the people who supported the Attica brothers; we were the people who were in the Midnight Special Collective back in the early ’70s in New York, which was a prison support collective. We’re not the ones who don’t think social prisoners are important.
And political prisoners often need extra support. Marilyn Buck has an eighty-year sentence and she has never been accused of actually hurting a single person. Or Teddy Jah Heath, who just died in prison. He had been convicted of a kidnapping, where a big-time drug-dealer was put in a car, driven around, talked to, and let out. No injury; no nothing. Jah did twenty-seven years in prison. After twenty-five years, he went to the parole board and was rejected. Two years later, he died in prison of colon cancer. Because his act was a political act. It was done in line with the programs of the Black Liberation Army, growing out of the Black Panther Party, to stop the drug trade in the black communities.
SD: Marilyn, what do you need from people on the outside?
MB: What I need from people is what we all need: to seize our human liberation as much as possible as women, as lesbians, as heterosexuals. To support the right of human beings to have their own nations, their own liberation, and their own justice. If we stopped police brutality; if black women and men were treated like equal human beings, that would make me feel really, really good, because I would be less dehumanized as a white person in this society. I would not be objectified as the oppressor.
I would like us to be more creative; to be the artists that we all are. I don’t want to see child prostitution. That to me is oppression in the concrete; people having to sell their children to stay alive. Or watching their children in the clutches of the police. Or a woman standing on her feet as a waitress for ten hours a day when her veins are breaking and still not be able to pay the rent and be there for her children.
I was thinking about this the other day — I think about the vision I had when I was a nineteen-year-old of justice and human rights and women’s equality. It was a wonderful vision. I think how it got implemented — how we became rigid and rhetorical within that — took away from that vision. But without a vision, you can’t go forward.
SD: Laura, now that you’re out of prison, what do you want to do?
LW: I don’t ever want to forget. That would be like putting calluses over my heart. It would be forgetting the people I owe something to. I guess the hardest thing for me about getting out was leaving so many people behind. I’ve been working in release efforts. We filed papers for clemency with Clinton for all the federal political prisoners. I try to do work for HIV+ prisoners through my job at POZ magazine. And when people ask me, “How can I support your friends who are left behind?” that makes me feel whole.
It’s made me sad that I’ve tried to interest different groups of women in supporting young women in prison on these ridiculous [drug] conspiracy cases. The “girlfriend crimes,” like Kemba Smith. There are hundreds of Kemba Smiths in the federal system. And I have been singularly unsuccessful in interesting any organized women’s groups to fight for those women.
One thing that makes prisons so criminal is that they damage people over time. I’m very damaged, and I had tons of support. I did prison work for years before I was arrested, so I knew what to expect. Nothing could really catch me off guard. Yet I find I have places in me that I don’t know how to go to, that are so filled with pain.
Especially late, in the middle of the night, when I think about some of my friends, these young women who are doing life sentences. They didn’t kill anyone. They didn’t hurt anybody. They gave a fucking message to someone, or maybe they didn’t turn their husband in, and they knew he had killed someone. They’re doing life, and they have very little chance of getting out. There’s a pain in me that I don’t know how to deal with.
You know, it’s very difficult to carry on relationships with people on the outside while you’re in prison. Your friends shield you from things because either they think you don’t want to hear about the great dinner they had the night before, or you’re going to think their problems are trivial because, after all, they’re not in prison. It damages your ability to have human relationships. And I have to say that the people I’ve seen who carry on friendships with prisoners are few and far between, and I honor them.
So I need to continue to struggle for prisoners and to win their release. And to say, it’s extremely important for people on the outside to understand what prisons are and who’s in prison and to visit them. To bring that kind of humanity into the prisons — but most of all, to bring those prisoners out, back into the communities.