Yesterday, the United Nations Commission on Population and Development convened for the 42nd time at UN headquarters here in New York. The Head of the US delegation, Margaret J. Pollack, announced the US’s continuing support of the ICPD’s goals, “most particularly universal access to sexual and reproductive health, and the protection and promotion of reproductive rights.”
Yesterday, the United Nations Commission on Population and Development convened for the 42nd time at UN headquarters here in New York. The Head of the US delegation, Margaret J. Pollack, announced the US’s continuing support of the ICPD’s goals, “most particularly universal access to sexual and reproductive health, and the protection and promotion of reproductive rights.” She said that the US is committed to ensuring access to contraception and abortion, prenatal care and STI and HIV treatment.
Pollack cited Obama’s repeal of the Mexico City Policy—which had been re-instated by George W. Bush in 2001 and prevented NGOs who also discussed safe abortion from using government funds to provide family planning assistance in developing countries—as an example of America’s renewed commitment to global access to reproductive healthcare. (It actually seems to be a renewed commitment to the UN in general—Obama is seeking to have his cabinet represented in the Human Rights Council. Perhaps he is the anti-Bush!)
The conference was also a chance for China to report on the progress of their family planning initiatives that began in the 1970s. “At present, China has a total population of 1.328 billion,” said China’s Minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, Li Bin. “Without the implementation of the family planning policy, total population in China would have exceeded 1.7 billion in 2008."
But while China took the time to remind the international community of their success in life expectancy, lowered infant, child, and maternal death rates, and the rising average education levels, the US spent most of its time emphasizing the new administration’s devotion to family planning and women’s rights. Pollak said that the White House will join 66 other UN members to support a statement on “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity” that was presented to the General Assembly in December.
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In both the Netflix series and real life, overcrowding has serious ramifications for those behind bars. But the issue isn't limited to privately run institutions; public prisons have been overflowing in many states for years.
“I’ve been in Litchfield for a while now,” says Piper Chapman (actress Taylor Schilling) in the latest season of Orange Is the New Black, “and I’ve started to feel unsafe lately.”
Season four of OITNBhas taken on prison overcrowding. Viewers may recall that, in the last season, the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary was taken over by a corporation, transforming it from an already underfunded state prison to a private facility whose sole purpose is the bottom line. That means each woman inside Litchfield has become a commodity—and the more commodities locked inside, the more profit the corporation receives.
In both the Netflix series and real life, overcrowding has serious ramifications for those behind bars. But the issue isn’t limited to privately run institutions; public prisons have been overflowing in many states for years.
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In the latest season of OITNB, viewers see some of the potential consequences of prison overcrowding: It is accompanied by increased threats of violence and abuse, as people, packed like sardines, step on each other, jostle each other, and can’t get away from each other. Supplies, such as soap, sanitary napkins, and toilet paper, are never in abundance in a prison setting; they become even more scarce as the number of people clamoring for them soar. Even food, which prisons are required to provide in the form of regular meals, becomes in short supply.
A scarcity of resources isn’t the only problem in Litchfield. Again and again, we see long lines for the bathrooms and showers. When the prison installs “porta potties” in the yard, there are long lines for those as well. “Too many people in here, everybody getting on each other’s nerves,” remarks Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), another of the show’s long-term characters. Conflicts emerge as women struggle to navigate daily living in a narrow room with multiple other women. Some of these may seem small, like the nightly snoring of a new bunkmate keeping another one awake all night. But these seemingly inconsequential issues lead to larger ones, such as sleep deprivation. In the show, women resort to comic measures; but these conflicts, especially in a closed and cramped environment, can quickly erupt into violence.
This is the case in Litchfield as well. Conflicts quickly turn into threats or actual attacks. While prison socializing has always been racially segregated, some of it now becomes racialized and racist. Some of the new white women, noting that they are in the minority among the large numbers of Latina and Black women being shuttled in, are unwittingly pushed by Piper to form a white power group. They hurl racist epithets at the women of color and, when they spot a lone Dominican woman on the stairs, move together to attack her.
Prison staff perpetuate the violence, using their authority to do so. They begin their own version of “stop and frisk” in the prison’s hallways, targeting the growing Latina population. While the body searches in and of themselves are humiliating, the (male) guards also take advantage of the additional security measure to grope and further abuse the women. They even force women into fighting, which they then bet on—a nod to the actual allegations of guard-instigated gladiator fights in California’s prisons and the San Francisco County Jail.
Although not everything in OITNB is realistic, the problems the show portrays in this respect reflect the frequent results of overcrowding—and some of its causes. As OITNB notes repeatedly throughout the season, private prisons receive money per person, so it’s in the company’s interest to lock up as many people as possible.
In 2014, for example, private prison contractor GEO Group contracted with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to open and operate a women’s prison north of Bakersfield, California. Under the terms of the contract, California pays GEO Group $94.50 per person per day for the first 260 women sent to that prison. The contract also includes an opportunity for the company to expand its prison by another 260 beds—although, if it does that, the state only pays $86.95 per person per day. But even at that lower rate, doubling the occupancy increases the private prison’s overall four-year revenue from roughly $38 million to $66 million. (As of June 8, 2016, that prison held 223 people.)
California, for instance, is one of the most egregious examples of such legislation leading to prison overcrowding. Years of extreme overcrowding ultimately led to Brown v. Plata, a class-action lawsuit charging that the state’s severely crowded prisons prevented it from providing adequate medical and mental health care, thus violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ordered California to decrease its state prison population from 180 to 137.5 percent capacity.
To do so, the CDCR took several actions: It began shipping thousands of men to private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. In addition, it converted Valley State Prison for Women, one of its three women’s prisons, into a men’s prison, and transferred the approximately 1,000 women there from Valley State Prison for Women to two other prisons—the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and the California Institution for Women (CIW). It also opened the 523-bed Folsom Women’s Facility in January 2013.
Even before the influx of women from Valley State Prison, though, the numbers of people packed into CIW had led to reports of violence from inside. In 2012, Jane, who has been incarcerated at CIW for several years, wrote in a letter that was later reprinted in Tenacious, “When eight women of widely disparate ages, social backgrounds, ethnicities and interests share a 246-square foot cell, there are bound to be conflicts, and there is little tolerance for any behaviors that are different.” She recounted a woman named Anna who spoke little English and was mentally ill.
“Little Anna has spent the last several weeks being alternately beaten up by her cellmates, who don’t understand her behaviors, or drugged into a drooling stupor in the Specialty Care Unit,” Jane wrote. According to Jane, housing staff ignored the violence. When Anna tried to complain to a higher-ranking staff member, Jane said that correctional officers, “angry at her inability to follow directions, threw her to the floor, cuffed her hands behind her back and twisted her arms until she screamed in pain.”
Two years later, after women from Valley State Prison were moved to CIW, Jane wrote in a second letter published in Tenacious, “What this overcrowding has created in terms of living conditions is continued horrendous health care and failed mental health care.”
The situation seems to have persisted. As noted earlier, women have also reported a pervading sense of hopelessness, exacerbated in part by the inability to access mental health care. CIW has a suicide rate that reportedly is eight times the national rate for women behind bars. In 2015, it had two suicides and 35 attempts. As of June 16, 2016, there have been two successful suicides and nine attempts. “A lot of us are only hanging on by hope alone. In a hopeless place, most don’t make it,” one woman told Rewire one month before her friend’s suicide this past April.
In many men’s prisons, overcrowding is even more severe. Valley State Prison, now a men’s prison, is currently at 172 percent capacity. The vast majority of the state’s other male prisons operate at over 100 percent capacity.
But it’s not just California that suffers from prison overcrowding. Oklahoma, which has especially harsh sentencing laws—particularly for drug offenses—has the country’s highest rate of incarceration for women. And the number of those behind bars continues to rise: In 2014, the state imprisoned 2,979 women, a 9.3 percent increase from the 2,702 women imprisoned the year before.
Mary Fish has been incarcerated at Oklahoma’s Mabel Bassett Correctional Center (MBCC) for the past 15 years. She told Rewire that prison administrators recently added 40 more beds to each unit, increasing its capacity from 1,055 to 1,291. (As of June 13, 1,250 women were incarcerated at MBCC.) This has led to competition, even for state-guaranteed items like cafeteria food (especially fresh fruit, which is infrequent in many prisons). “This overcrowding is all about who can get up there and bull dog [sic] their way to the front of the line,” she wrote in a letter to Rewire. She said that two days earlier, the prison’s cafeteria was serving bananas with lunch. But, even though each woman only received one banana, by the time she reached the window, all of the bananas were gone.
“It really gives new meaning to overcrowded,” Fish reflected. “Bodies rubbing in passing, kind of space-less, boundary-less environment. I’ve never had so much human contact in the 15 years I’ve been incarcerated.”
The state’s medium-security women’s prison, the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center (capacity 988) currently holds 1,010 women. “There are huge overcrowded dorms crammed with bunk beds and steel lockers,” wrote “Gillian” in a letter to Rewire, later printed in Tenacious, shortly after being transferred from MBCC to Eddie Warrior. “The population is young, transient and the majority are disrespectful. They have no clue how to live successfully in a crowded communal environment. The dorms are filthy, loud and chaotic for the most part. There is no peace.”
The situations in Oklahoma and California are only two examples of how state prison overcrowding affects those locked up inside. Institutions in other states, including Alabama, North Dakota, and Nebraska, have also long been overcrowded.
On OITNB, the private corporation in charge plans to bring even more women to Litchfield to increase revenue. But in real life, as state budgets grow leaner and prison justice advocates continue to press for change, local legislators are beginning to rethink their incarceration policies. In California, a recently proposed ballot measure would change parole requirements and allow for early release for those with nonviolent convictions if they enroll in prison education programs or earn good behavior credits. If the ballot garners at least 585,407 voter signatures, it will be added to the state’s November ballot.
In Oklahoma, meanwhile, where the state now spends $500 million a year on incarceration, former Republican house speaker and leader of the coalition Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Kris Steele is pushing for two ballot measures—one that allows reclassifying offenses like drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors, and another that sets up a new fund that would redirect the money spent on incarceration for low-level offenses back to community programs focused on rehabilitation and treating the root causes of crime.
Still, these changes have been slow in coming. In the meantime, individuals continue to be sent to prison, even if it means more bunk beds and less space to move (not to mention the devastation caused by breaking up families). “Last week, Oklahoma County brought a whole big RV-looking bus to deliver a bunch of women here to [Assessment and Reception],” Fish, at MBCC, noted in a May 2016 letter to Rewire.
The following week, she told Rewire, “They keep crowding us. There’s no room to even walk on the sidewalks.” Fish regularly reads the local newspapers in the hopes of learning about pending legislation to ease overcrowding and allow for early release. Though the senate recently passed four bills that may reduce the number of people being sent to prison, she feels that the new laws won’t help those currently trapped inside. “It’s getting pretty awful, and it looks like no bills passed to help us so there’s NO END IN SIGHT.”
Erika Rocha's was the first suicide of the year at Corona's California Institution for Women (CIW), which is currently at 130 percent capacity. CIW's suicide rate, however, is more than eight times the national rate for women behind bars.
On April 14, 2016, one day before her parole hearing, Erika Rocha committed suicide. The 35-year-old had spent 21 years behind bars. But what should have been a day of hope for Rocha, her family, and her friends instead became a day of mourning.
Rocha’s was the first suicide of the year to rock Corona’s California Institution for Women (CIW), which is currently at 130 percent capacity. CIW’s suicide rate, however, is more than eight times the national rate for women behind bars. The prison had four suicides and 16 attempts in 2014. In 2015, it had two suicides and 35 attempts. And in the first two months of 2016, CIW had four additional suicide attempts.
These numbers, advocates say, display the consequences of the lack of mental health resources for women in prison, some of whom have been behind bars for decades.
The need for comprehensive mental health care has long plagued California prisons. In 1990, advocates filed Coleman vs. Wilson, a class-action civil rights lawsuit alleging unconstitutional medical care by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). In 1995, a U.S. District Court ruled in Colemanthat mental health-care access in the state prisons violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment; the following year, it appointed a special master to review California’s prisons and to monitor mental health care. That special master is still monitoring CDCR’s mental health care.
In 2013, Lindsay Hayes, a suicide prevention expert, audited all of the state’s prisons for their suicide prevention plans. In 2015, he re-audited 18 of those prisons. In the report he released in January 2016, he noted that, while some prisons had made progress on the issue, “CIW continued to be a problematic institution that exhibited numerous poor practices in the area of suicide prevention.” These poor practices, Hayes wrote, included low completion of suicide risk evaluations, inadequate treatment planning, low compliance rates for annual suicide prevention training, and multiple suicides during the calendar year.
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No one will ever know what pushed Rocha over the edge. But others at CIW say that those who need mental health treatment there, both before and after their suicides, face a lack of preventive treatment, including counseling, and almost no follow-up.
Amber, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym, noted that the prison lacks available mental health programming. She had already spent 14 years at another prison when she was transferred to CIW. There, she found that nearly every self-help and support group had a long waiting list.
In addition, mental health treatment was sparse. “I would only see mental health [staff] every 90 days, and that was only about five minutes,” she recalled in an interview with Rewire. “As time went on and I became more and more frustrated by the lack of anything to take my mind off my emptiness, I got more lonely and hopeless.” She stopped talking to her friends, stopped eating, lost interest in her appearance, and began losing weight. No one noticed these red flags. She told mental health staff that she wanted to stop taking medication. No one, she said, questioned her decision.
In July 2014, Amber and her friend Mindy (also a pseudonym) decided to end their lives together. Once they made their decision, Amber remembered feeling a sense of relief: “I was happy. I knew my misery and pain were ending. … This seemed to be the only way.” The two slit their throats, losing consciousness. But someone found them, alerted staff and they were transported to the hospital. How they were treated next, they said, didn’t make them feel any more hopeful about life.
After being released from the hospital, both women were placed in a mental health crisis bed, commonly referred to as “suicide watch” among people in prison. Amber described suicide watch as a place “where they strip you naked and put a hard gown on you, basically a life jacket. They give you a blanket made of the same material and have a bright light on with a nurse watching and recording [on paper] your every move. … You are not allowed anything for the first week. Then you can ‘earn’ a book. And maybe a muumuu gown if you are calm and cooperative. You aren’t even allowed a roll of toilet paper. When you need to use the toilet [in your cell], they hand you a tiny bit and watch you use it.”
Mindy spent 11 days in suicide watch; Amber was there for two weeks. Both were then placed in the prison’s specialty care unit, where they were able to have human interactions and access to group programming, which Amber described as 14 hours a week of coloring, watching movies, singing karaoke, and walking.
However, suicide watch is frequently full. In those cases, people are placed in an “overflow unit” in the prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), an isolation unit where people are locked in their cells for 23 to 24 hours each day. This kind of isolation can cause myriad mental health issues, including anxiety, panic, depression, agoraphobia, paranoia, aggression, and even neurological damage.
Krista Stone-Manista is an attorney with San Francisco-based Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, which co-litigated the Coleman case. She is also part of the team now monitoring compliance. She notes that, when a person reports feeling suicidal, she is supposed to be moved to a mental health crisis bed. But, because there aren’t enough mental health crisis beds, California prisons utilize what’s known as “alternative housing,” which might include isolation until a bed opens up. “What we’re seeing is that people are repudiating their suicidal ideation to get out of alternative housing,” she told Rewire. That means that they don’t receive counseling or any other type of mental health treatment.
But even when they are placed on suicide watch, the special master, in his 2015 review of CIW, found that “patients were discharged from the mental health crisis bed as soon as they reported they were no longer suicidal, with little effort to determine the underlying causes of their initial reports of suicidality.”
People incarcerated at CIW report that its environment has not improved in the two years since Amber and Mindy attempted to take their lives. In March 2015, Stephanie Feliz hung herself. Mindy, who was in the mental health unit at the time, said that Feliz walked in and requested services for a mental health crisis. Despite having a history of suicide attempts and self-mutilation, Mindy said staff told her that she had already been seen the day before. According to Mindy, Felix returned to her cell, where she was found dead two hours later. This treatment is not unusual, Mindy noted, writing to Rewire in a letter that she too has requested mental health services only to encounter delays and, at times, outright dismissal.
But no matter what changes the institution makes, Stone-Manista pointed out, “There’s only so much CIW can do for someone who is chronically suicidal. They’re not a hospital.”
CDCR did not respond to queries about the numbers of suicides and suicide attempts at CIW or about its suicide prevention practices.
Rocha’s Years in Prison
When Rocha was 14 years old, she and several older teens were arrested for an accidental shooting. Rocha was charged as an adult and, without a parent or guardian present, questioned by police and, according to advocates, pressured to plead guilty by the prosecutor. She did and was sentenced to 19 years to life. Rocha was initially sent to a juvenile prison, where she spent two years. At age 16, she was transferred to the adult Valley State Prison in Chowchilla. There, prison officials placed her in solitary, ostensibly for her own protection due to her age. She stayed in isolation for one year.
Windy Click is now program coordinator for the advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). She was imprisoned at Valley State when Rocha arrived and met the girl shortly after she had turned 19. Rocha was looking for something positive to do and asked how to get to the prison library. While Click, then in her 30s, and Rocha never became close friends, each time Rocha was released from solitary, she sought the older woman out.
“She was a funny girl,” Click recalled in an interview with Rewire. “She liked to joke and be light-hearted.” One of the topics that Rocha frequently joked about was growing old in prison. “She’d say she would be an old lady in prison.”
Other times, however, the girl had a hard time coping with prison. “She would be very shaky, trembling almost,” Click recalled. “‘I can’t do this no more,’ she’d tell me.” During those times, Click said, Rocha would tell prison staff that she was afraid for her life and request to be placed in administrative segregation, a form of isolation commonly known as ad-seg, where she would be locked in a cell for 23 to 24 hours each day. Prison staff obliged and Rocha would be placed in isolation. When she returned to general population, Click remembered that the girl would seem better but “after a day or so, she’d be back to that shakiness.”
Click recalled one conversation in which she told Rocha, “This place isn’t the last place you’ll ever be.” But, she remembered, the younger woman couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
It didn’t help that Rocha spent more than a decade without seeing her family, who lived nearly 300 miles in the Los Angeles area. Lacking a car, they could not make the trek to Central Valley. It was not until Rocha was moved to CIW, 15 minutes from their home, that they could visit. By then, Rocha’s father had died; her stepmother Linda Reza brought her three daughters as soon as Rocha was allowed to receive visits.
“She was still the same little kid that left us,” Reza remembered of that first visit in an interview with Rewire.
That was how Geraldine, Rocha’s half-sister, saw it as well: “She’s nine years older than me. But it was like I was the big sister.”
Rocha got along best with her teenage sister Freida, who was born after her incarceration and whom she met for the first time in the CIW visiting room. When the family visited, Reza remembered that Rocha and Freida would head to the visiting room’s play area and play on the swings. Reza recalled that, when Rocha received news of her upcoming hearing, she and Freida made plans to share a room at Reza’s house, clipping magazine pictures and envisioning how to decorate the room.
Colby Lenz, a volunteer legal advocate with CCWP, saw a different, more vulnerable side, one that Rocha did her best to keep from her family. “She was the most fragile and traumatized person I had ever met in prison,” Lenz recalled about their first meeting less than two years ago. It was only partway through the legal visit that Rocha began to open up. “She went back to [age] 14 or 15 and talked about her early years—how much time she had done in solitary, how they treated her.”
Under California’s SB 260, which passed in 2013 and went into effect in January 2014, Rocha became eligible for a youth parole hearing for youth sentenced as adults to long prison sentences. As part of the hearing process, she was given a psychiatric evaluation. But, said Lenz, no one explained to her why she was undergoing a psychiatric evaluation. The process brought her back to the police interrogations she had gone through at age 14 without a parent or guardian present. Frightened and retraumatized, Rocha not only waived her hearing, but also attempted to take her own life.
In 2015, Rocha learned she was scheduled for another youth parole hearing on April 15, 2016. In the weeks before, Reza recalled that Rocha was excited. The last time she called, Reza wasn’t able to answer her phone. The message Rocha left was hopeful. “Tell my sisters I know they’re going to kick my ass when I get home,” she said. “But that’s okay, I’ll take it.”
“In a Hopeless Place, Most Don’t Make It”
Since Rocha’s death, CCWP has reported that at least 22 people in CIW have been placed on suicide watch for attempting suicide or stating that they felt suicidal.
Mariposa, who asked to go by her stage name, is one of those 22 placed on suicide watch. She is the co-author of the one-woman play Mariposa and the Saint about her own time in solitary. She was also Rocha’s cellmate and fiancée. After Rocha was found hanging in their shared cell, Mariposa was immediately placed in suicide watch, where she was not allowed regular visits, phone calls, or mail. She was, however, allowed a legal visit with CCWP, but, advocates told Rewire, kept in a treatment cage the entire time.
Those inside the prison report that the lack of programs and activities contributes to the feeling of hopelessness. “People have way too much time to think and be in their heads,” wrote another woman at CIW to Rewire one month before Rocha’s death. “A lot of us are only hanging on by hope alone. In a hopeless place, most don’t make it.”
Krista Stone-Manista noted that CDCR is working on new policies and procedures to move people who need more care or longer-term care to inpatient care rather than keeping them inside the prisons, which are often inadequately staffed with mental health professionals. She also pointed to CDCR’s reduction of the use of solitary confinement, noting that studies have shown the damage to mental health and that suicides and suicide attempts often occur in segregation. In addition, she says, CDCR is working on how to respond to reports of suicidal thoughts before they become attempts or actual suicides.
All of these efforts are too late for Rocha. “When I get out, I want you to take me to the park,” Reza remembered her stepdaughter telling her and her sisters during one visit. “I want to play on the swings and the slide and run in the grass.”
Reza plans to honor that wish. “After her cremation, we’re going to have a reception in the park,” she said. “We’re going to put her on the swings.”