Bork | 03.12.2003 23:48 | Repression
“Come on Ladies, no talking allowed…Eat faster, Ladies or lose your food…Midnight, Ladies get out of your beds and in line for count…Ladies, if you are found with more then one blanket you will be disciplined…Ladies, it’s four in the morning: time for count and then breakfast. I said ‘WAKE UP!’ Ladies. You don’t want to see me angry!”
Who are these “Ladies”? They are the women inmates of the Miami-Dade County Corrections and Rehabilitation Department. Don’t be fooled. Many of these women (65%) have not been convicted of crimes. They are merely too poor to secure the funds necessary to free themselves with bail and obtain legal counsel other than a public defender.
Ninety-two percent of these women have incomes of less then $10,000 per year with which they must support themselves as well as their families. They may spend more then five days in jail before a magistrate reviews their case. Then they are often given a difficult choice. They can plead guilty and go free on the spot with a mark on their record. This option leaves them less likely to get a job and more likely to get jailed again. Or they may “choose” to remain in jail, for weeks and sometimes months, if they can’t raise their bail money, before their court date. For these women, innocent before proven guilty has become a joke.
The vast majority of those who have been accused, or convicted and sentenced to the facilities are there for nonviolent crimes. More than 85% of women prisoner’s crimes fall into that category. These are mostly drug-related, more likely, economic in nature. Take Thelma (not her real name), for example. Her shoplifting charge for diapers and a sandwich is a case point. So are the charges of Bitsy, Susan (not her real name), and Doreen, who, like so many of the incarcerated women, were picked up on warrants because they didn’t have the money to pay for their last go-around with the justice system of Florida. Doreen’s case is a fairly common one: failure to pay the fine for a traffic violation.
Most of the other’s charges stem from a relationship with an abusive partner. When women stand up or fight back against their abusers, they often find themselves within these jail-cell’s walls. Some have disturbed the peace, others are charged with domestic abuse or assault, a few, murder.
All the women prisoners, innocent or guilty, convicted or just being held for lack of funds, face the dreadful conditions that exist within Miami-Dade County Corrections facilities. These range from the merely uncomfortable and unfair to gross human rights violations that Americans, like President Bush, denounce in third world countries that we don’t like.
On the second floor of the Miami-Dade County Jail /Women’s Annex, a “pod” is eight two-bunk cells surround a common room which hold four bunks and whatever mattresses are put on the floor to accommodate those not lucky enough to have a bed. The commons room has a TV with a few blurry channels, two pay phones that rarely work ($2.25 for local calls), and a water fountain. These often do not work except to leak large amounts of water on the floor creating a walking hazard. It is open to a corridor with two sinks, a single commode, and a single shower stall which houses bugs and a persistent black mold.
The women’s day starts at 4:00 a.m., when they are awoken and lined up for a headcount, allowed a few moments to clean up, then taken down to the first floor for breakfast. There the women are given food. For breakfast, a substance, apparently representing eggs, looking, smelling, feeling, and tasting like a yellow and white hockey puck, is often the best thing on the menu. Sometimes the fruit is only lightly bruised. Sometimes it is rotten. They are instructed with varying degrees of harshness not to speak, where to sit, to eat faster. (Ten minutes per meal is the average time allowed). The slightest breach of rules can cost a prisoner her meal. Teresa, a twelve-day prisoner because she could not pay $150 in bail, was fortunate to retain her meal despite having prayed aloud. But she would have lost it if it were not for the intervention of a relatively benign guard. After their meal, the women go back to their cells and those lucky enough to have a court date are taken away.
The nurse with her medical cart goes around the floor but the women who ask her for things like a band-aid for a cut are out of luck. Nothing can be dispensed without a doctor’s order but the only physician for the more then 400 women in the facility is in for just one day a week. Heaven help you if you need regular medication for things such as asthma or diabetes and you come in on the wrong day. And if you are transferred to the facility, it’s unlikely your file will follow you. Also, medical treatments, which range from $80 to $5, will be deducted from your financial account. Cordele, who has been there almost a year, explained that patients with severe contagious diseases were not isolated from the general population during their treatment.
The same procedure applies for lunch, which begins at 11:00 a.m., and dinner, which begins at 4:00 p.m. At supper, if the guards are feeling indulgent and don’t interfere, the women can get a mystery meat sandwich and a cookie for a snack to take back to their cells. On certain days, cleaning supplies are brought into the cell and the women are allowed to clean the floors and plumbing. For a short time afterward, the stench of so many anxious bodies in so confined a space is replaced by the smell of cleaning fluids.
Cell checks, headcounts and shakedowns occur sporadically. Fear intensifies then. “Contraband” such as a second blanket or a food item smuggled out of the cafeteria is confiscated and all the women in the cell pod can be punished.
“It’s so cold!” the women whimper as the inspection is made. “Quiet, Ladies!,” the guards yell. “Shh! Shh!” Alice, a cell-savvy one-month veteran commands. “You’ll bring them down on us!” Extra contraband blankets are sought after by the women because of the chilled air. In order to reduce the spread of disease, guards say, the building’s temperature is kept uncomfortably low; however the women are only dressed short sleeve jumpers plus whatever street-clothes they had when they were arrested. Most are not allowed to keep their shoes, and are issued flip-flops. Like the bunks, or blankets, some women are not even issued the footwear. If the women don’t start wearing socks, they don’t get them. Alice makes a point of reminding newcomers to use the shoes at all times and tries to arrange the sharing of flip-flops when necessary. “You’ll catch your death!” she repeats. Despite being loud and overbearing at times, many of the women are drawn to her. She is the one who gathers left over items and distributes them to newcomers, thus allowing many to get an extra blanket.
The women take turns using the shower, wiping up water leaking from pipes, picking a TV show to watch, and washing what is often their only set of panties in the sink. If the women are only in for a few days or weeks, then that is pretty much the extent of their day.
Sometimes a counselor will come around and take the women’s commissary orders for extra food or clothes if someone has put a few dollars in their account. This is the inmate’s opportunity to ask for a piece of paper or an envelope with a stamp or a library book. Medical and grievance slips also get processed. But these requests are often completely ignored.
If, and only if, the women are sentenced to any length of time, they currently have opportunities to get trained in things like hairdressing, sewing, working in the kitchen or on the cleaning crew and they can earn a few dollars for their accounts. And some church and educational services are still offered to all. But each second blanket confiscated, each slow count, each breach of rules can result in the loss of those privileges.
If the guards feel indulgent during the day, some of the women will be offered a chance at the outdoor recreation space. Even when being “nice” by doing their job, the guards are routinely callous. The few exceptional guards who are genuinely polite, or even kind, are spoken about by the women as if they were saints. The worst euphemisms are reserved for the worst guards.
Some guards are known to punish prisoners for looking at them “the wrong way” or even for asking for access to the medical clinic. Prisoners in Miami-Dade County have been punched in the head and face for politely insisting on their right to use the phone. Esmeralda (not her real name), a seventy-five year old woman, was slapped in the face for arguing to keep her shawl because she was cold. Most guards are not exceptionally cruel, though they will look the other way if one of their own is mistreating someone. However, no matter how nasty a guard may get, there is one “courtesy” that is never forgotten.
“Midnight headcount; then lights out, Ladies.”
A group of more then 60 of the “Ladies of Dade,” fed up with their conditions within the Women’s Annex and other faculties for women in the county, and supporting the political actions taken against the FTAA meetings in Miami this year, issued the following statement:
(November 24th, 2003) The Miami-Dade County Jail/ Women's Annex Prisoners express their solidarity with the protesters of the FTAA. We know you are working for the rights of the poor. Many of the conditions the arrested protesters found in the Miami jail and detention centers, however horrific, are just examples of what we live with every day. There are many health code and civil rights violations in the Miami-Dade County jail system. The women prisoners would like the following conditions to be addressed immediately:
1) There is black mold in our showers that causes rashes and breathing problems.
2) There are large amounts of bugs in our cells and in our showers.
3) The food is often in terrible condition, sometimes even rotting. We have no salt or pepper and are fed mostly starches and sandwiches.
4) We are not given enough opportunities to clean ourselves. Not enough cleaning supplies.
5) Though there is a 24-hour health clinic with a nurse, we are rarely allowed access to it or her, and our medical requests are not dealt with promptly. Prisoners with serious illnesses such as TB are neither attended to regularly nor segregated from the rest of the population. We have almost 400 prisoners and access to one doctor (during an eight hour period) per week and only one OB/GYN visit a week. So many women need access to more health care.
6) We were promised pillows: nobody has pillows. We only get one blanket, despite the temperature being kept at 50 degrees. Our blankets are threadbare and holey.
7) We have to beg for paper, pencils, and envelopes so we can write to our loved ones. Many times they are denied us. The so called councilors are often as cruel and whimsical as Guards.
8) Despite what they’ve promised, there is not enough access to regular libraries and never any REAL access to the law library. We cannot work on freeing ourselves. And we must hide books and pass them between us at risk of punishment to get to read anything.
9) Our guards are often arbitrary and brutal, often beating us for simple requests such as a phone call. These guards need to be removed and punished.
Please add our cause to yours and do not forget us!
Prison issues are economic issues.
Please call the jail or the following officials and demand these needs are met.
ALEX PENELAS, Mayor, Miami-Dade County
Chief of Staff: Francois Illas
Miami-Dade Jail [woman's annex]
Facility Supervisor: Captain E. Cambridge
Address: 1320 NW 13 Street Miami, FL. 33125
Facility Phone: 786.263.4100
KATHERINE FERNANDEZ RUNDLE State Attorney 305.547.0100 - supposedly this one can investigate the jails and its guards.