No One is Disposable: #JusticeForJane and why dignity is a human right

Jane Doe, portrait by by Molly Crabapple http://mollycrabapple.com/

Jane Doe, portrait by by Molly Crabapple http://mollycrabapple.com/

As of this writing, seventy one days have passed since Jane Doe was unjustly incarcerated in the Connecticut State Prison by a government body charged with protecting her—a vulnerable, sixteen year old trans girl.

To recap her situation: Jane Doe was a ward of Connecticut State’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) for much of her life, but according to the DCF’s commissioner, Joette Katz, became violent and unruly. Her transgender status also, allegedly, complicated her placement in alternate facilities. So, the DCF availed itself of statute 17a-12: an obscure law that allows it to place children in the Connecticut State prison system.

Thus it was that she was sent to the York Correctional Facility for Adult Women in Niantic, Connecticut where she has been held in solitary confinement for over eight weeks, with the threat of being sent to a men’s prison looming over her.

All this without having been convicted of a crime and functionally denied her right to due process of the law.

At present, no evidence substantiates the claims advanced by Commissioner Katz that Doe was an irredeemable case. What has emerged, instead, is another reminder that the self-defence of trans women of colour is always interpreted as a primary violence to be punished with extreme prejudice.

“Jane herself will tell you that when scared, she instinctively responds in self-defense and that she has spent her life fighting to survive,” notes the ACLU’s Chase Strangio. “But if you had endured what Jane had, wouldn’t you? And if you, like me, are white and wealthy, isn’t it very likely that you would not be perceived as the most violent person DCF had ever seen?”

And yet even if Jane Doe had, as is alleged, struck DCF staff unprovoked, the solution is not solitary confinement in an adult prison; such a fate is a shocking mockery of the very notion of “child protective services.” It is not, I hope, controversial in these strange times to argue that Jane Doe deserves much better than this. 

Portrait of a Young Girl

On June 12, Jane Doe asked her supporters to share a beautifully sketched portrait of her; it is the first time most of the world gets to see what she looks like. There is something particularly lovely about what it represents: in artist Molly Crabapple’s painterly strokes is a beautiful portrait of humanity, unbowed and undimmed. “Jane asked her supporters to share this representation of her so you can see her as the person that those of us who know her best do,” wrote Chase Strangio and Reina Gossett.

This effort at humanisation is a reminder of what is at stake. Through putting a face to the most inherently anonymous of names, Jane Doe and her allies remind us of the immanent humanity of the incarcerated, which is often cast adrift amidst stultifying and impersonal legal proceedings.

Doe has been in the care of DCF for most of her life, struggling against abuse, and trying to make sense of a world that refused to march in neat, predictable lines. Its senselessness has now reached its most extreme incarnation, leaving her with a cruel parody of dignity and few answers.

She is a person, not just an anonymous name or serial number, but a human being whose aspirations and personhood are militating with decidedly inhumane circumstances.

“I Can’t Be Myself in this Place”: A Constitutional Right to Dignity

In an open letter to Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy Jane Doe wrote that “I can’t be myself in this place,” and indeed, who could in solitary confinement? Selfhood requires society; personhood requires people; humanity requires the dignity of human contact.

Dignity is what has always been at stake here, and a glowing consciousness has been slowly spreading across the horizon of American politics that suggests we as human beings have an inherent right to dignity.

In the landmark 2011 court case, Brown v. Plata, Justice Anthony Kennedy—in a surprising departure from his usual disdain for the marginalised—wrote an impassioned majority decision that averred California’s overcrowded prisons, and their attendant scarcity of resources, were a violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights. “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance,” he wrote, “including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.” Of special interest, however is the way he, and the Court’s majority used the concept of dignity to further their arguments:

“Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”

This is not a trivial side-note; it is a fundamental reconsideration of what the Eighth Amendment means. Dignity is a constitutional right, and the wages of mass incarceration are a litany of offences to that right.

This should remind us all that what Jane Doe is experiencing—a carceral society run amok, a culture that values prison as the hammer to every nail it conjures, a prison system that is inherently opposed to human flourishing and expression—is bigger than any individual. What is happening to her is so frightening because it represents a promiscuous expansion of the role of prison: a one size fits all solution to every problem encountered by the state. But beyond even this, in Brown v. Plata there is a recognition that human dignity must prevail even in prison, and what has run like a current through the entirety of Jane Doe’s case is the fact that she has been denied her dignity.

That is what is revealed by the need to show her face, and what is contained in the words “I can’t be myself in here.” It is the antidote to the carceral conceit that some human beings are inherently disposable.

#JusticeForJane and the Politics of Reality

Jane Doe is reportedly to be transferred to a safe and nurturing facility for foster children in Massachusetts that can attend to her needs as a transgender girl, that will both take care of her and respect her sense of self. But it is not unreasonable to suggest that one should continue to hold the State of Connecticut to account here. A protest was held the other day at the Department of Children and Families offices in Hartford to make clear that Jane Doe has not been forgotten. To be one’s self, to be cared for, to be nourished in every sense of the term.

Janet Mock, who, in finding out she had a fan in the young girl, reached out to her with epistolary love and an offer to send her a copy of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was not wrong to wonder aloud why this unfolding tragedy has made fewer ripples than the tidal waves of outraged bickering over the word “tranny.” There are, doubtless, bad faith actors profiting mightily from the slur who should shame us all, and language politics retains its importance. But it is a sorry testament to the state of our activism that we are so easily goaded by the relentless trolling of someone like Andrea James and less moved by the very concrete harms that we are purportedly organising against.

Though many online feminists wince whenever “hashtag activism,” “call-out culture,” or “rage politics” are criticised, we must admit that there is an ugly truth to the idea that outrage over abstractions or language leaves us more satisfied and enthusiastic than staring into the abyss of material reality and asking ourselves what can be done about it.

We are more likely to retweet a meme than we are an actual person.

Jane Doe is not a theoretical argument; she cannot be found in a gender studies textbook, nor in a witty Tweet; she is not the dead matter of so many academic lectures, nor is she an abstract bumper sticker slogan. She is a trans Latina like myself, who was dealt a less propitious hand than I was. She is a human being who dreams of freedom, and she is here and now; she is immediacy incarnate, with a future impatiently awaited; she longs for the flourishing, thriving life in the company of loving others who affirm her for who she is. She yearns for what should be the vouchsafed birthright of all.

Through her words—letters passed to the outside world, an op-ed to The Hartford Courant, and her court affidavit—she sings to us: will we listen?

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross thinks a little dignity could save us all.

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 19, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I just created an account specifically because I wanted to comment on this post. I do read this site daily, however, so perhaps I will start putting my thoughts out here more often.

    As a former case manager for a state child welfare department, this is an issue that is very near and dear to my heart. Kids with behavioral problems, much of it related to underlying developmental and mental health problems, often end up in a situation similar to Jane Doe. If kids have any behavioral issues, state agencies tend to lean towards more restrictive, mainly due to liability. But these places almost never benefit the kids.

    I want to speak out on this because child welfare and the institutions that serve wards of the state may have good intentions but often end up failing the kids that need the most help. These are kids from lower social and economic status and, kids who have been exposed to drug abuse, violence, and so many other forms of trauma. Systems of trauma based and trauma informed care that could benefit these kids are out there, but don’t accept Medicaid or whatever state insurance is provided for these children.

    And these things should be talked about far more often than they are. Jane Does are everywhere in the United States, and no one ever talks about them or advocates for them. I have seen the system fail older kids like Jane Doe and it tears me apart. Ensuring that these kids receive adequate services should be a feminist issue.

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