by Wanda Sabir
The Clean Lounge, a clean and sober space located in Bayview Hunters Point in San Francisco, LaSalle at Third Street, was full of Fired Up! women and supporters, family and friends. There was so much collective healing wisdom in the room.
So many of 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 [Fired Up! is an insider-outsider grassroots network founded by CCWP former prisoners that meets weekly in the San Francisco County Jail], shared that she is graduating from her sobriety program. 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 paratransit 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.” Released eight years ago, LaKeisha tells her story, not necessarily of the 20-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 effect 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, who when we meet him is dying of cancer.
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.
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.”
The stoic, resilient and optimistic LaKeisha in “Still Time” was multiplied in the room that Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, at the Clean Lounge as women shared their stories of imprisonment. One woman told me that all four of her children – two daughters and 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 U.S. 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 or 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). …
Prisoners have no rights in the U.S. 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 or unusual punishment.”
“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 unusual.’
- 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 when 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 woman’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 counsel 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 woman interviewed spoke of mothers who gave them to men as sex toys to do what they wanted to them while their parents watched.
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.
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?
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 transfer me out of Western Wayne. … He was trying to hold me there until my max day. That way he could have what he wanted (“Inside this Place, Not of It,” page 97).
“I had bruises 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 wouldn’t 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” (98).
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” (99).
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 41, but emotionally I was 12. That girl doesn’t exist anymore” (148).
Escaping is not a long term option anymore. What is needed are abolition strategies like legislation and lobbying and direct action.
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 inside.
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-plus 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/, http://www.womenprisoners.org/ and http://www.allofusornone.org/.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 6-7 a.m. and Fridays at 8-10 a.m., can be heard by phone at (347) 237-4610 and are archived on the Afrikan Sistahs’ Media Network. This story first appeared on Wanda’s blog, at http://wandaspicks.com/home/index.php?option=com_wrapper&Itemid=8.