On June 2, 2012, Nicole Guerrero was arrested by the Wichita Falls Police Department for a possession charge. At the time of her arrest, Nicole was five months pregnant; a fact that was confirmed by Dr. Ghanbar, OBGYN, on June 11, 2012 in an appointment during which the baby’s heartbeat was heard and Nicole’s stomach was measured. Transported back to Wichita County Jail with iron tablets and antibiotics used to treat a vaginal infection, Nicole was assured that her baby was fine. Less than twenty-four hours later, however, Myrah Arianna Guerrero, Nicole’s baby, would be pronounced dead.
Between approximately 6:00pm on June 11th and 6:30am on June 12th, Nicole was forced to endure labor alone, complete with intense rectal pressure and emotional distress accompanied by screams and pleadings for help that were ignored for hours. After being advised that she was not experiencing labor pains, after finally being spoken to by jail staff, a heavily bleeding Nicole was ignored for several more hours despite constant cries for help. It wasn’t until a detention officer noticed a nude Nicole begging for someone to check her vaginal opening for signs of her baby’s head that any sort of “help” would arrive. Shortly after, Nicole gave birth to a dark purple baby with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Until an ambulance arrived, none of the jail staff present attempted to perform CPR on the unresponsive baby. Nicole, who remained in the “cage”, an infirmary cell furnished with nothing but a mat on a cold, cement floor, while EMTs took her baby to United Regional Healthcare Services (URHS), delivered her placenta until she, too, was transported to URHS. “I can’t even tell you what she looked like,” Guerrero said. “I already knew she was gone.”
Nicole and Myrah’s story is not rare.
In Milwaukee, Rebecca Terry informed jail staff that she was beginning to experience labor pains during booking and was transported to a local hospital: while shackled. During transport, Rebecca was shackled at the legs, wrist, and belly. In the hospital, she was shackled at the legs and waist. Following her medical examination the jail was informed that she was in labor but able to return to jail. Shackled in leg irons, wrist restraints, and a belly-chain she was brought back to the jail and detained in an “extremely dirty” cell that contained a “filthy sink, toilet, and floor” in an infirmary cell. When her labor pains became more frequent and more painful, she pushed the emergency button in her cell to alert jail staff that she was in need of assistance. After intensified labor pains and vomiting, her water broke and she began to scream for help. Even though, according to court documents, the nearest Corrections Officer was a few yards away she continued to be ignored. When help refused to arrive, Rebecca started to push, screaming to jail staff outside that she had done so. Three hours later, Rebecca’s baby was born: blue in the face and choking. It wasn’t until after three hours of screaming and painful labor that the Corrections Officer entered the blood-covered cell, refused to cut the umbilical cord, and called for the assistance of the emergency medical staff. With the baby’s head wrapped in bloody paper towels, medical staff transported Rebecca and her baby to Sinai Hospital, shackled.
Two years later, in the same jail, Shade Swayzer went into labor and was ignored by jail staff for hours as she wept, screamed, and bled, finally giving birth to baby Laliah. It wasn’t until two hours after the multiple hour, grueling labor that jail staff even realized that she’d actually given birth. Shortly afterward, unfortunately, Laliah was pronounced dead.
Outside of jail cells there are carrying parents, a term I use to refer to any pregnant person regardless of gender identity, who suffer as a result of the police state. On March 19, 2016, in a town south of Orlando, Florida, Alteria Woods and her unborn child were shot and killed during a SWAT raid after her partner used her body as a human shield. Despite the tragic deaths of Woods and her unborn child there has been minimal national outrage. One could attribute this radio silence to the normalization of police use of deadly force or any other number of reasons related to life in a police state, a global carceral machine.
There are countless stories like these that most people will never hear about. Stories that detail a type of reproductive negligence and biopolitical violence that should not be possible.
How are they possible, though? What are the conditions of possibility for these types of harms that negatively impact the lives of carrying parents and their unborn children? How does the fatal grip of the prison-industrial complex extend beyond the reaches of jails, prisons, and detention centers and infiltrate homes and intimate relationships? In what ways are we all complicit in the perpetuation of cultures of domination that result in these types of harms?
In order to even begin to answer any of these questions we have to consider two ideas. First, that the so-called public-private distinction is an illusion, much like other binaries constructed in order to maintain certain forms of social control. Like gender that conditions us to believe that the world is made up of beings that are either boys/men or girls/women, like morality that conditions us to belief that the world is made up of actions and ideas that are either good/right or bad/wrong. Imagine for a moment that there is not such thing as the “private sphere”. Susan Okin once argued, in Justice from Sphere to Sphere: Challenging the Public / Domestic Dichotomy, that prior to devolving a humanist theory of justice one must complete an analysis and critique of the illusory public-private distinction because that method is necessary in order to 1) understand why exclusionary models of justice perpetuate cultures of domination and to 2) ensure that the theory is both sound and inclusive. She argued this mainly as a critique of liberal theories of justice, possibly with Rawls in mind, so as to highlight the ways in which the idea of a public-domestic/public-private dichotomy mask social injustices in the home while providing the conditions of possibility for them. This is important because it helps one start to make sense of the questions I posed earlier. What are the conditions of possibility for these types of harms that negatively impact the lives of carrying parents and their unborn children? In what ways are we all complicit in the perpetuation of cultures of domination that result in these types of harms? Once we start to consider the possibility that even in our homes or in our intimate social relationships we are capable of perpetuating cultures of domination that, when taken into account collectively, impact overarching structures and systems we can be more honest when we communicate about steps we can take for change.
Second, after you’ve considered that the so-called public-private distinction is an illusion, consider the possibility that mass incarceration is a phenomenon that imprisons people in spaces not just confined to jail, detention center, and prison cells; that, the “cell” itself is a part of a multicellular network comprised of other celled spaces that thrive as a result of social processes that function and behave in a fashion similar to that of biological organisms. Except in the case of the global carceral machine, these processes are not natural like those of plants, fungi, and other multicellular organisms. In the case of the global carceral machine the social processes are carefully and purposely designed to ensure that only certain parts of the global population are disproportionately destined for the types of reproductive negligence and biopolitical violence mentioned earlier, in addition to other human rights violations suffered by billions around the world. In the same way that the nervous system, the endocrine system, and most importantly, the reproductive system, but others as well, make it possible for human beings and nonhuman animals to survive and thrive…the school system, the healthcare system, the housing system, and others, make it possible for the global carceral machine to survive, to thrive. The veins are familiar, like the school-to-prison pipeline or “paths” to citizenship. A complex network moving billions of bodies through different spaces of confinement. A multicellular organism fueled by power and hungry only for wretched of the earth.
Therein lies a reasonable point of departure for the questions previously asked.
Certainly there are countless victims and survivors under global capitalism, suprastructural violence. I often wonder what exists beyond the base and superstructure, what houses the political economy. The μετά + οίκος. I like to think of it as suprastructural violence, some sort of illegitimate child of a self-destructive universe that paints the topology of human understanding with the color of blood money. The shade of the dying Myrah Arianna Guerrero.
So how does the fatal grip of the prison-industrial complex, we ask, extend beyond the reaches of jails, prisons, and detention centers and infiltrate homes and intimate relationships? By conditioning us to believe that it can’t touch us. By selling us an illusion of privacy, of choice, of power. By underfunding communities in need of resources and overemphasizing the importance of law and order. Evidence of global injustice is constant and obvious. It’s homeless veterans of every nation, global child sex trafficking, food insecurity faced by billions, rampant gun violence, intimate partner violence as a leading cause of death, the normalization of child abuse under the guise of discipline and punishment, mass incarceration, the conditions of confinement suffered by carrying parents and their unborn children. Suprastructural violence makes this possible and starts and ends with power; language and logics of power that ensure that certain people constructs policies and certain people are controlled by them. Suprastructural violence is the immaterial substance that influences and informs the actions, beliefs, and ideas that lead to global injustice. It is the cancer that invades the complex network moving billions of bodies through different spaces of confinement. It is form that shapes the spaces of confinement. It is the invisible hand that lays the bricks of our socially-constructed ideas about the world as we think we know it.
Dionysius I of Syracuse, a tyrant of antiquity, is alleged to have had an artificial limestone cave carved into the shape of an ear so that the sounds of political prisoners’ screams would be amplified while they were confined. Whether or not that legend speaks to anything true it certainly speaks to how suprastructural violence works. It drives all actors on the global stage. It drove Alteria Woods’ partner to use her body as a human shield when the SWAT team unleashed a hail of bullets into his home through the window. It drove jail staff to ignore the screams of Nicole, Rebecca, and Shade while they experienced traumatic labors. Different cells, same lifeblood: suprastructural violence.
In what ways, I wonder, are we all complicit in the perpetuation of cultures of domination that result in these types of harms? Whether driven by fear, ignorance, exhaustion, numbness, or some other sort of feeling, we all participate in a cruel system. A cruel system we were born into. Different cells, same lifeblood. I’m not arguing that we are to blame for the human rights violations that are suffered by other members of our global community. We are all victims or survivors of something. Of life, existence.
The stories I described earlier represent a population of victims of the prison-industrial complex who are often silenced. Mothers, and other carrying parents, who enter the jail and prison cells are most often also victims of sexual and physical abuse, mental illness, poverty, and other tragic circumstances that negatively impacted the life of the parent and unborn child years before they were locked behind bars. Most are woman-identified, black and brown, and already deemed disposable prior to incarceration. Their life sentence began at birth, in some cases, as part of what I call the placenta-to-prison pipeline. A system that makes it possible for people to be born into circumstances that predispose them to the opening arms of the global carceral machine.
Given literature in the fields of embryology and developmental psychopathology, we know that humans in utero, during pregnancy, labor and delivery, are susceptible to countless harms that can lead to developmental defects, negatively affected life prospects, or even death. In many states, consequently, amendments have been added to their constitutions specifically with humans in utero in mind that make it possible for assailants who harm pregnant women to be charged on two counts: one for the carrying parent and another for the unborn child. Those fetal homicide laws, while primarily focused on cases related to manslaughter or abortion, showcase the ways in which state law/policymakers can take unborn victims’ rights into account within the realm of legislation. Some argue that such laws have the potential to instigate an adversarial relationship between the carrying parent and the unborn child given the alleged tension between unborn children’s rights and reproductive rights of the carrying parent. I’d argue, however, that in cases where the carrying parent has chosen to carry their fetus to term with intent to assume the role of legal guardian, or with intent to place the child under the guardianship of another adult who has accepted the role as legal guardian, there is no adversarial relationship created.
As illustrated by the stories of Nicole, Rebecca, Shade, and Alteria, both the unborn child and the carrying parents suffer harms…that could be prevented. The prevention is more than finding alternatives to incarceration for carrying parents, though. It involves examining all spaces of confinement and discipline that carrying parents, particularly carrying parents who are also people that are oppressed in various ways, must navigate. The home, intimate social relations, school, hospitals, and other celled spaces that we only recognize are connected to the prison-industrial complex when we free ourselves from the illusion of privacy. There is no such thing as a space that is free from government involvement. There is no such thing as a space protected from state interference. In the case of incarcerated, or at-risk of being incarcerated, carrying parents there is a serious lack of legislation that protects them or makes it possible to hold their abusers accountable. Carrying parents who have chose to carry their unborn children to term and suffer the loss of their children as a result of reproductive negligence, of biopolitical violence, are a growing population. They also represent a silenced narrative that could be the key to understanding just how complex and far-reaching the prison-industrial complex truly is.
One could argue that (supra)structural violence is grooming people, prior to birth, for entrance into the prison system. The ways in which poverty, abuse, mental illness, and other aspects of the phenomenology of structural violence negatively and often fatally impact unborn children, and their carrying parents who also were conceived in and born into similar circumstances, create a feedback loop that sends certain people from the placenta to the prison through a lifelong pipeline of intergenerational trauma. While in jails and prisons the horrors are intensified, outside of those cells other celled spaces create the conditions of possibility for the particular harms suffered by the black, brown, and poor with respect to gestational injustice and structural violence.
We may not have carved the cave but, in a way, we are all the epistemic descendants of Dionysius I of Syracuse unless we choose to actively work, in our homes, in our intimate social relations, in all spaces, all cells, to dismantle the systems that perpetuate cultures of domination. Holding ourselves and others accountable. Amplifying often silenced voices. Communicating honestly.
Just as a small hole can sink a great ship, a single push can start a powerful movement. In the movement for abolition, destroy the conditions of possibility for abuse of power in every celled space.