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Climate Justice Fast, Day 10: Why I am fasting

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

When I talk about my reasons for going on a long hunger fast, people often look at me like I’m crazy and I’m reluctant to correct them because fasts are difficult to explain. But I will explain, again. Before the hunger strikes, my life belonged to the bay. My dad and his Dad and his Dad were commercial fishermen so I was the daughter of a son of a son of a son of a fisherman. Then, too, growing up on a Texas bay and having a Cherokee grandfather who liked talking with the dolphins and spotting moon signs in the sky before night turned to day made me into something of a mystic. I remember being out on the shrimp boat with my daddy and feeling my skin stretch and thin like fog, leaving gaping holes that the waves and wind would run into and the sea would fill until my blood was so thick with salt that I could taste it on my tongue. At night, we anchored in a far bay where sea horses hid under the rocks and pink sea birds dined on oysters and I’d lay on top of the wheel house with a blanket up to my nose, and it was like going to bed with a hunk of seaweed and deck load of shrimp and fish and crabs. I didn’t need a sleeping pill. The smell knocked me out.

I learned a lesson or two on the bay. How to spot shrimp from a mile away. (Look for the sea gulls!) What does a watermelon smell on the bay mean? (trout just threw up) How to tell if a squall was gonna knock your boat over or lay down as harmless as a kitten. (anybody’s guess) But the best lesson that came home to roost was that boundaries were lies. There was no separation or division. No brick wall that divided San Antonio Bay from Esprito Santo Bay. Nothing to keep the sky from the water or the wind from the sea. Nothing to keep one person from a billion others. There was just flow and continuity of water and moon and dolphins and ratty ole captains in ratty ole shrimp boats hauling boogie across the bay to find those most elusive shrimp.

Pregnant In A Texas Lock Up

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Being pregnant in a Texas lock up can be hell. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the practice of shackling women during childbirth and recovery is still done in some Texas jails even though the United States Bureau of Prisons has banned the practice. Texas jails are able to use restraints on women as a matter of course regardless of whether a woman has a history of violence (which only a minority have), regardless of whether she has ever attempted escape (which few women have), and regardless of her state of consciousness. Hopefully, that will change with HB 3653 which, if signed by Governor Rick Perry when it hits his desk this month, will prohibit the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Youth Commission, and municipal and county jails from using restraints to control the movement of pregnant inmates in custody while the inmate is in labor or delivery, or recovery from delivery. The bill could take effect as early as September l.

A sister bill, HB 3654, requires county jails to have a plan for medical care of pregnant inmates in county jails as well as requiring administrators to include the number of pregnant women in their population reports. Presently there are NO numbers on pregnant inmates or the number of infants born in jail. Also, under current law, there is no mandate for medical care or nutritional supplements for pregnant inmates. Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project who worked with Texas ACLU staffer Matt Simpson to create the initial drafts for both bills, said many people believe all of the above will occur automatically. But in her experience, unless there is a law on the books, it won’t be considered a priority or even considered at all. Texas county jails hold up to 80,000 inmates a night and approximately 14 percent of those are women. Claitor said, “The public has no idea how many young mothers and their babies come out of jail injured or traumatized.”

Most jail health-care systems function independently, have no checks and balances, and are isolated from the outside medical community, except for inspections by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards which typically look for problems with male inmate overcrowding and fire exits. It doesn’t help that jail administrators and staff are prone to lump complaining inmates into one big group: whiners- liars- and troublemakers. That’s why an inmate with a serious illness and injury can suffer without treatment, often until they are dying or dead.

Claitor said, “I can say with utter conviction that just because you ask for medical care or even beg for medical care in Texas jails, there are plenty of times when you’re not going to get it. Period. If it doesn’t happen when a person is convulsing in seizures or going into a diabetic coma [see a federal report on Dallas County Jail: http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/split/documents/dallas_county_findlet_12-8-06.pdf], it is certainly not likely to happen when a pregnant woman says she is not getting enough food or that she’s in pain and bleeding.”

The Texas Jail Project, a volunteer jail advocacy group that is based in Austin, became increasingly aware of cases on pregnant women through a ‘listening project’ publicized through their website (www.texasjailproject.org). Families and friends were encouraged to email and phone about problems pregnant women faced in county jails, including shackling during childbirth.

Shacking during labor and delivery can cause intense pain, cramping, swelling, reduced circulation and increased risk of thrombosis or blood clots. It can interfere with appropriate medical care, be harmful to the health of the mother and infant, and violate the dignity of the pregnant inmate. It is not uncommon for a shackled inmate to soil herself or her bed sheets because she could not get unshackled quickly enough to get to the bathroom.

One such victim of this practice was Shanna (not her real name) at the Lew Sterret jail in Dallas, Texas, in 2009. She wrote an eloquent letter about what it was like to spend a month in Parkland Hospital eight months pregnant and with a staph infection. She was transported to the hospital with chains around her legs, hands, and lower waist, although she was charged with a non-violent crime. When she reached the hospital she was escorted down a long hallway with people looking at her like she had just killed someone. For one whole month, Shanna was without TV, phone, or books and chained to her hospital bed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Even though Shanna’s ankles and feet were badly swollen and she had developed bedsores, the guards refused to allow her to walk around. A doctor had to intercede on her behalf in order for Shanna to be allowed to walk in the hallway, her hands and feet still chained to a long monitoring pole.

An inmate we will call Roberta was a trustee for three months at Harris County’s Baker Unit last year. She described her wait for medical attention sitting on the floor next to a woman who was pregnant with twins. The pregnant woman had waited 5 or 6 hours to see a nurse. She was cramping, in pain, bleeding through her pants onto the floor, and extremely upset. Roberta said she remembered the woman repeating how scared she was that she might lose her babies. Roberta and the other waiting inmates kept telling the guard to take the pregnant woman first, but the guard only replied with something along the lines of, “Shut the f… up!”

Claitor was contacted in March of this year by a woman in Henderson County Jail who said her pregnant daughter had requested to see a doctor four times but had yet to see one. She was having a fever, discharge, swollen glands, and she was six months pregnant. Her daughter ended up in the emergency room where the nurses told her she was dehydrated and undernourished. Luckily, she had only a few days before her release and her mother had her in the doctor’s office the next day. But what if she had another two months to serve?

Women in jails differ from their male counterparts in more ways than that they can get pregnant and give birth. Women's crimes are less likely to be violent and more likely to be motivated by poverty and addiction where drugs are often used to medicate the pain of abusive relationships. Women are seldom drug dealers or traffickers. When they do commit a violent offense, it is often against a man who abused them. They rarely pose a violent threat to the general public. Jailed women also have more challenges to overcome in dealing with their pregnancies and their birth experiences. Their pregnancies are often high-risk and complicated.

Frankie was 24 years old and six months pregnant with her first child when she was picked up on a warrant in Victoria, Texas and thrown into jail. Frankie had a rare uterine condition and so, immediately, she began bleeding. When she notified the guard, the guard demanded that Frankie show her the bloody underwear. Frankie’s condition worsened further: her water broke. But the guard said Frankie was hallucinating and that she wouldn’t have the baby for a month. Then the guards decided that Frankie was faking and a troublemaker so she was put into isolation and threatened with a taser gun if she didn’t go. Frankie proceeded to go into labor in an isolated cell and, with a breech birth, the baby died. Frankie was not even allowed to attend the baby’s funeral.

Last year, 19-year-old Amber was in the Ellis County Jail when she was 10 weeks pregnant. Recently, however, Amber brought the story of her experience to the Texas capitol, where she helped HB 3654 pass the scrutiny of the House County Affairs Committee. Her voice trembling at times, Amber described her stay at the jail. She said no one seemed to care that she needed prenatal vitamins, the right food to eat, or milk to drink for her baby to grow normally. She never saw an obstetrician or had any prenatal checkups. For several weeks she bled and spotted and she reported that to the guards. The guards in turn would call the nurse who gave her Tylenol. She finally saw a doctor who told her that he did not think she was pregnant or even had a uterus. A nurse listened to the baby’s heartbeat and told her she could not hear the baby’s heartbeat. She thought the baby might have died. Amber called her mother and begged her to do something. She became so upset that the jail put her on suicide watch in an isolation cell where she bled even more. After her release, Amber’s baby, Zannah, was born, weighing 6 lbs and 6 ounces. To this day, Amber said, she still worries that something might not be right with Zannah as she grows older because of the neglect and unhealthy conditions that she suffered in the Ellis County Jail.

Amber summed up her unsettling testimony before the Texas legislature in April by saying, “Babies deserve to be taken care of no matter what the mother has done. The baby is not responsible.”

These stories are only too common because many jail administrators, without rules and guidelines, fail to do the right thing for the women in their care and the babies they carry. However, even in the midst of the chaos of a Texas legislative system that was overburdened with bills and dominated by controversy, an unlikely coalition– the Catholic Conference of Texas, Texas ACLU, Texas Right to Life, and Texas Jail Project– worked on passing two small bills that may start Texas on a path to more healthy moms and healthy babies.

During the long tedium of one House committee hearing, Representative Valinda Bolten asked a pointed question of Adan Munoz, the director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. He was providing background information when Bolton abruptly asked, “How long have county jails in Texas been housing incarcerated women?”
Munoz replied, “As long as jails have been open.”
Bolton said, “So…we don’t really have the answer to why it’s taken ‘til 2009 to address this issue of the medical needs of pregnant women.”

It is a question and answer that is long overdue.

Airports and Hunger Strikes

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

This is day 6 or 7 of the hungerstrike. I dont know which. I just came back from a Stop Blackwater Conference in Stockton, Illinois and i did ok dragging my suitcase up 3 or 4 ramps and i stayed awake during the conference. i think i rated pretty good. I was freezing but that was because the weather was freezing and had nothing to do with the hungerstrike. I have an interesting story to tell about hungerfasts and airports. Back in the '90s I did a hungerfast against Dupont and traveled all over the country tracking Dupont chemical companies to press my point. It was very tiring and around 31 days it ended. Thank goodness. i think i can truthfully say that was the only hungerstrike where I actually felt like I might die. That feeling was a shocker and it made me realize what the Belfast prisoners on their hungerstrike must have felt because 8 men died. It is one thing to do a hunger strike knowing it will end in 40 days but it is quite another knowing you will fast until you die. As Ive said before, a hungerfast is a very mental thing.

Speaking of mental and hungerstrikes and those airports. After my 31 days of fasting against Dupont (by the way, Dupont considered my hunger fast an act of terrorism. their words not mine) I had to climb on a plane outside of Washington DC and fly to Houston, Texas. I needed someone to go with me to the ticketing counter because I couldnt understand compound sentences. You know, two sentences with an 'and' between them. It was too much information and my poor brain could not compute. Finally, I made it to the plane and was fixing to store my suitcase in the luggage compartment when I stood transfixed with the word " PUSH" on the overhead compartment. PUSH? PUSH? What was push?

Diane Wilson is a longtime environmental activist. She is the author of An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas and Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; or, How I Quit Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus. Diane is on a hunger strike to create awareness about global warming.

Eight Days in a Texas County Jail

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

I have been transferred three times. The first cell (a 20 x 150 ft. cinder block) had 9 women inmates and they all slept on bottom metal bunks but kept their ‘stuff’ on the top bunk. That was their shelf. They didn’t want nobody up there. Especially a new cell mate. They told me I could put my mat anywhere on the floor. Just throw it down there.
The mat was like an exercise mat and if I wanted a pillow, then I could roll the mat at one end. Nothing fancy here, moma. Not the Hilton Hotel. So wrap yourself in the blanket ( you’re lucky you got one) and you’re set for the night.
This cell, I was later to find out, was a rowdy cell where the women (out of bordem or depression) slept until noon then raised hell the rest of the night. The minute the lights went out, the women started hollering about all manner of stuff to anybody that would listen. About three hours later, a woman jailer all dressed in black, came to the door and yelled, “WiILSON! GET YORE STUFF!”
Everybody’s got ‘stuff’. Stuff you’re marched in with and stuff you can buy at the jail commissary. Things like shampoo and conditioner, and ragoo noodles ( no hot water to mix with it) and pencils (no sharpener, use the cement floor) and paper and stamps and envelopes and baby oil and underwear and long-johns( to ward off the bonechilling cold). The jailhouse commissary is a cart that comes around every Tuesday night–but it took me 8 days to figure that out. Then the next question becomes: How do you get money into the commissary account? (drop a money order off at the correct slot on the correct day on the correct side of the jail house wall) How do you know what’s in the commissary? (you don’t)

Cardinal Rule NO. 1. Nothing is done in jail that is not done on the prescribed day. The Commissary cart only comes on Tuesday. The medcart only comes on Thursday. The mail only comes on Wednesday– and so on and so on. So it was 8 days figuring how to get shapoo, three days figuring when I had visitation, and three days figuring how the showers worked.

In jail cell No.2 I found out how the showers worked. Jail cell No.2 (the “Lock Up”) held the problem prisoners and I was a problem because I was on a hungerstrike. Actually cell No.2 wasn’t that bad except that it only was big enough to hold a suspended cot and a metal toliet. So most of my time I was sleeping with my nose pressed against the ceiling like a spider. When I got bored in my little metal cell, I read the names scrawled in penciled on the wall. Rosa. Krystal, Nico, Me! Geneva. Then I read the messages: Why am I trying lying to live living to death? That was too much thinking for me so I went on to the Jesus messages—and there were always Jesus messages: Only Jesus loves me!! Jesus calls everyone of us!!! One wall was scratched with the entire life of Jesus in stages.
The main selling point of Lock Up was the privacy but the weak point was lunacy. The woman next to my cell got into screaming arguments with a woman in a far cell often around 3 in the morning. These arguments would escalate into screaming fits of profanity and I learned exactly what one moma would do to another moma if she ever got ahold of her. This in turn brought out the guards (males and female) who then tried to drag the woman out of her cell to go visit “THE CHAIR” down the hall. (The chair was straight jackets and chains and an occasional zinging with an electric cattle prod) By this time, the woman was wild as a mustang horse and she was fighting the guards and running and slipping and they were hauling her ass off to the chair. And there she stayed- screaming and howling the rest of the night.

But getting back to how the showers worked in cell NO. 2. By the third day I still hadn’t had a shower but then I didn’t care. I was in my little cell, minding my own business. I didn’t have a frazzling thing to read so I spent a lot of time focusing on my breathing. Counting to twenty, then starting over and counting again. That got me to noon and the lunch hour, but since i wasn’t eating, I’d sit in my cell and do exercises. Push ups and sit ups and pacing around the 5×10 cell. Occassionally a woman would go to the only curtained shower in the unit and sometimes she showered and sometimes she’d just washed out her single piece of underwear in a plastic bucket she bought from the commissary. Since laundry was only done once a week and only on the prescribed day, if a woman wanted clean anything, she’d go to the shower and stomped on her clothes on the floor or wash it in a bucket.
So it was the bucket that was the cause of the biggest fight of them all. The female inmate that had quarrled with the inmate the night before went into the shower and filled up her wash bucket with cold water, Then she came out and slung the entire contents of the bucket onto the woman lying in her cell. That day two inmates were sent screaming and hollering to “THe CHAIR”. That day, too, I got transfered to Cell NO.3. The guard dressed all in black came to the cell and hollered,”WILSON, GET YORE STUFF!”
I still didn’t have a lot of ‘stuff’. I hadn’t been able to order anything from the commissary so my stuff was jail stuff:
l) 2 inch tooth brush
2) tiny container of toothpaste that the women in the jail used as paste to hang up sketched pictures of their children or roses
3) 4 inch plastic comb
4) 2 inch square piece of soap
5) hand towel the size of a washcloth
So I took my handful of ‘stuff’ and my mat and my blanket and went into my final cell where I spent the remainder of my time. Cell NO. 3 was a quiet cell and the women were mothers and they talked and wept about their children all the time. One inmate’s husband was in the next cell over and they pounded messages on the wall to each other. Rita had been jailed many times and had even been sent to the federal pen which she had loved. It was much better than jail, she said. Much better. She prayed to God everynight that they’d send her to prison. Rita had went into the pen a size 14 and came out a size 4. She was in the county jail for lying to a cop about her name and because she couldn’t pay her $200 bond, she had been sitting in jail for 3 weeks waiting on her trial.
Another of my cell mates was a much younger woman. It was her first offense and she had been in jail for two weeks for possession of marijana. Her bond was set at $350,000 and she had no idea when her trial was or how long she would be in jail. The state of Texas had tried to take her 3 children while she was in jail and that was most of her torment. Worrying about her kids.
Cell NO. 3 was totally shut off. The windows were covered and the only opening was a twelve inch door slot for food trays. Needless to say, on that first day when I went up and refused my tray, the women shouted “LET ME HAVE IT!” So for the rest of my time in jail cell no. 3 and while still on the fast, the women ate the extra meal and felt that they had got one over on The System. They complained about the weight gain and laughed at how they would have to walk it off. But the food tray was pure pleasure. It was the most exciting and gratifying thing in jail. It was the only thing that broke the day.