"Prisons aren't safe for anyone," declared CeCe McDonald during her recent appearance on the Melissa Harris-Perry show. McDonald should know—she is a Black trans woman who was arrested and sentenced to 41 months in prison after defending herself against an attack. She was released from prison earlier this month.
Keeping people safe in prison is not an issue that’s on the radar of many non-incarcerated people, but it’s a huge challenge. On an average day in the United States, nearly 2.4 million people are locked in jails and prisons. In addition to that, 34,000 people are locked in immigrant detention fulfilling a Congressional quota.
While jails and prisons can never truly be made safe, there has been a lot of activism recently around lessening violence within the prison system. Here are three recent actions that aim to help protect people behind bars:
1. The government has finally admitted that rampant sexual abuse and harassment inside an Alabama women’s prison is cruel and unusual punishment.
Alabama’s prisons have all kinds of problems: Just this September, Alabama finally became one of the last states to stop segregating women who are HIV-positive. Meanwhile, the state’s Julia Tutwiler women's prison continues to be an extreme example of the sexual harassment and abuse faced by people inside women's prisons face everyday. After the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative filed a complaint with the federal government demanding they investigate the prison, the Justice Department officially reported this month that Tutwiler “has a history of unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse and harassment.“ I won't go into the horrific stories from the prison, but the Department of Justice found plenty and charges that such conditions violate the Eighth Amendment.
The Justice Department found that many problems come from prison staff—including sexual abuse, profane language, and “deliberate cross-gender viewing of prisoners showering”—and that prisoners often did not report abuse for fear of retaliation.
Of course, this doesn’t just happen in Alabama. People imprisoned in other states are speaking up to demand safe living spaces, too. Women incarcerated in North Carolina filed a suit against pervasive sexual violence and harassment from prison employees. The suit was settled last year with the state investing $100,000 in new cameras, windows and other safety features at its women's prisons. It will also establish a 1-800 phone line for reporting sexual abuse—the number will be posted in all women's prisons in the state.
2. Massachusetts and Maryland may stop shackling incarcerated pregnant women.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term shackling, imagine being handcuffed. Then imagine a chain attaching your cuffed hands to a chain around your waist, which is about the weight of a bicycle chain. Then imagine another chain leading from your belly to your feet, which are cuffed together.
Now imagine trying to give birth like that. While some states have banned the shackling pregnant prisoners as a cruel and unnecessary policy, for many pregnant prisoners, it’s a grim reality.
Last month, Massachusetts legislators held a hearing on two bills that would prohibit shackling after the first trimester and immediately postpartum. The prohibition would extend to both local jails and state prisons. Marianne Bullock, a doula and co-founder of the Prison Birth Project, told legislators: "My clients are brought to the hospital in handcuffs or leg irons, in the back of a police car, with hard metal seats and no seat belt—more often than not in the throes of active labor. A handful have delivered only minutes after they arrive at the hospital. They undergo vaginal exams in labor with a leg or wrist shackled to the bed…After they give birth, they often shower with legs chained together, they shuffle across the room in leg irons to give their babies their first baths."
This month, Maryland legislators—working with a coalition of advocates and formerly incarcerated women, including some who have given birth while behind bars—have introduced the Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women Act. If passed, it would ban shackling during labor and delivery without exception. It would apply to all state prisons, local jails and juvenile detention facilities. It also bans the use of waist chains and leg restraints.
If both states pass their bills, they would become states 19 and 20 to legally protect people from being shackled during childbirth.
3. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will have to start making sure it's following its own policies regarding pregnant women.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) official line is that imprisoning pregnant women is low on their priority list. But an investigation into just the immigration prison in El Paso, Texas found that between August and November 2013, ICE imprisoned 13 pregnant women. One woman miscarried while detained.
In addition to the concern that ICE isn’t making pregnant women as rare of targets as they officially claim, there’s a lot of concern that pregnant who are detained could be shackled when they give birth. ICE policy states that pregnant women should not be restrained "absent extraordinary circumstances" and that they are never to be restrained during active labor and delivery. In reality, however, when women are held in local jails contracted by ICE, this protection may be overlooked.
Immigrants are held for an average of 31 days, often in local jails, but many are imprisoned for much longer than that. You can imagine how scary it would be to be a pregnant woman in the custody of immigration and see your due date approaching.
But there’s some good news in the fine print of the federal budget Obama recently signed into law. The budget includes a provision requiring ICE to "ensure all detention contracts and agreements implement the Use of Force exception for all pregnant women in ICE detention."
So we have it on paper. Now we have to ensure that the prohibition is actually enforced. Small steps here.
This is only a sampling of actions to challenge and change inhumane prison conditions. What efforts are you involved in organizing? What have you heard about? Share what you know in the comments below!
Related reading: What does "justice" mean besides prison and police?