The North Dakota hearing regarding outlawing abortion-inducing drugs to provide medicated abortions in the state has been once more put on hold, this time with a judge saying it will not be heard until next year.
Although the state is claiming the restriction is simply a common sense way to ensure that all drugs are used according to FDA regulations, which would require them only being taken in the presence of a doctor, reproductive health activists counter that the true goal is to make abortions more expensive, and thus harder to get.
Tammi Kromenaker – Red River Women’s Clinic: “It would triple the price, it would require women to return to the clinic for a second visit to take medications and we believe that women are perfectly capable of taking medications in their own homes.”
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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.”
After a full day of testimony, which included an investigator's account that Dear had stopped at a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) before moving on to the Planned Parenthood, it was clear that neither the prosecution nor the defense wanted to talk about the central issue of Robert Lewis Dear Jr.’s case: anti-choice rhetoric and violence.
We won’t know until mid-May at the earliest whether the State of Colorado considers Robert Lewis Dear Jr. legally competent to stand trial for the murder of three people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood last November. Thursday was the first round of Dear’s competency hearing as to his mental state and whether he should stand trial or face commitment at a state mental hospital. But after a full day of testimony, which included an investigator’s account that Dear had stopped at a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) before moving on to the Planned Parenthood, it was clear that neither the prosecution nor the defense wanted to talk about the central issue of Dear’s case: anti-choice rhetoric and violence.
According to Colorado law, a defendant is competent to stand trial so long as they do not have a mental disability or developmental disability that prevents them from having the “present ability” to consult with their attorney and a “reasonable degree of rational understanding in order to assist the defense,” or “prevents the defendant from having a rational and factual understanding of proceedings.”
A person could have a mental illness or a disorder that produces hallucinations or exaggerated thoughts, but so long as they understand what’s happeningwith regard to the charges against them, and have the ability to defend themselves if they choose, the law in Colorado says that’s enough to go to trial.
So do sincerely held religious beliefs and a paranoid belief the federal government is persecuting Christians rise to the level of a diagnosable delusional disorder—the kind of mental illness that meets one prong of the competency test for Dear but alone is not enough to declare a person legally incompetent to stand trial? What about Dear’s unwillingness to cooperate with his state-appointed attorney because he wanted to assert his constitutional right to self-representation? These were just a handful of questions at issue during the hearing for prosecutors, defense attorneys, and state mental health experts.
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Prosecutors argued Dear clearly and methodically charted out his attack on the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. Detective Jerry Schiffielbein, who was the primary investigator tasked with interviewing Dear, testified that Dear made several stops to try and locate the Planned Parenthood at issue, including one outside a CPC, where he asked a postal worker if the CPC was, in fact, the Planned Parenthood clinic he was looking for.
Prosecutors portrayed Dear as a man with deeply held religious and political convictions. They noted Dear is college-educated, though acknowledged his history of run-ins with law enforcement, including one incident of alleged sexual assault that Dear described to investigators as a “false rape.” Prosecutors noted that Dear had an issue with women; he referred to them, they said, as “honeypots” who were his “weakness.”
Dear’s political beliefs may be extreme, prosecutors argued—among them include the idea that President Barack Obama is the Antichrist and that martial law is imminent—but they should not disqualify Dear from standing trial. (Coincidentally, as noted by the medical professionals hired to evaluate Dear, radio personalities like conservatives Glenn Beck and Alex Jones say the same thing.)
But Dear’s attorneys worked on a different picture, calling forensic psychologist Jackie Grimmett to offer her opinion that Dear was delusional and not able to stand trial. Grimmett testified it was her opinion that Dear was not competent to do so, in part because he inconsistently shared information with his state-appointed attorney. At this point, Dear spoke out, saying “I’m going to represent myself. It’s my constitutional right. It’s my life on the line.”
Grimmett also testified that she believed Dear to be a “spiritual” man and was reluctant to “pathologize” Dear’s religious beliefs, but noted his religious sense of persecution was intertwined with his deep political convictions. That statement allowed Dear’s attorneys to try and focus her testimony on Dear’s distrust of the federal government, on his rage after the Waco siege of Branch Davidians and the Oregon militia standoff, and Dear’s desire to live off the grid.
Those beliefs, Dear’s attorneys argued, suggest Dear is irrational. And for the most part, Grimmett played along, stating it was her professional opinion that Dear’s paranoia of the federal government was so severe he lacked capacity to stand trial.
While a forensic psychologist, Grimmett acknowledged she was not certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology, the professional organization that sets standards of care and practice for the industry.
The State of Colorado called as a witness a second forensic psychologist, Thomas Gray, who had also evaluated Dear. While Gray agreed with Grimmett that Dear holds “extreme” political and religious beliefs, Gray also testified that it was clear to him that “Dear wanted to be able to dictate the scope of his defense.” Gray signed off on Grimmitt’s initial evaluation of Dear as not legally competent, though he conceded during his testimony that Dear appeared coherent, intelligent, and engaged with his defense.
What was largely overlooked during the hearing was what that “scope of defense” would be. As has been reported, Dear initially intended to plead guilty to the more than 170 counts he faces. But during Detective Schiffielbein’s testimony on the point of whether he believed Dear was competent enough to participate in his own defense, the detective testified that in recorded jail calls, Dear mentioned disagreeing with his attorneys. Dear now wants to raise a “defense of others” argument in his case, Schiffielbein said, and believes his attorneys are pushing an insanity defense over his wishes and his constitutional rights.
Defense of others is, broadly speaking, the legal argument that a crime is justified because its commission is preventing a greater evil. Anti-choice terrorist Paul Hill argued his murder of Dr. John Britton and Britton’s bodyguard was justified because it prevented Britton from performing more abortions, an act Hill equated to murder—as does Dear. Scott Roeder, during his trial for the murder of Dr. George Tiller tried to put forward a similar defense—that Roeder’s actions in assassinating Tiller were justified to prevent the “greater evil” of legal abortion.
Notably, Schiffielbein testified that Dear emotionally discussed both Gunn and Roeder as heroes, even tearing up at one point during the interview. Dear allegedly also told Schiffielbein he wanted to talk about anti-choice Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, but was too tired.
Schiffielbein did not follow up on Dear’s offer to discuss Rudolph’s case.
By the end of day one of the hearing, it was no clearer how the judge would rule on Dear’s competency than at the beginning. But based on Thursday’s testimony, Dear’s beliefs and actions—the ones the defense framed as evidence that he was not competent to stand trial—are directly in line with other anti-abortion terrorists he named as admirers. And those terrorists were deemed competent to stand trial.
Dear’s hearing may not be finished yet, but it was very clear from the established testimony that not only did Dear know exactly what he was doing when he attacked Planned Parenthood, he wants a trial for the rest of the country to know about it. Not to talk about Barack Obama as the Antichrist, like his attorneys suggested, but to justify committing heinous crimes in the name of trying to stop legal abortion.
Will Dear get the venue? We won’t know until at least May 10, when his hearing is scheduled to continue.By then, anti-choice radical and Roeder associate Angel Dillard’s FACE Act trial will have concluded. Roeder, thanks to an unassociated Supreme Court ruling, will have had the opportunity to argue for a decrease in his life without parole sentence. Let’s not forget the forthcoming Summer of Mercy anniversary protest in Wichita, Kansas.
Which makes it odd that in a case where a man was arrested for shooting up a Planned Parenthood on purpose, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and even the judge spent next to no time on the role anti-abortion rhetoric played in Dear’s alleged actions. If the forensic pathologists are positing that Dear’s extreme anti-government beliefs are delusional, what about his extreme anti-abortion beliefs?
That may be the ultimate question in the Robert Dear trial, but it’s not one the State of Colorado appears that interested in answering.