One of Detroit’s foremost environmental activists, a black woman who fought against Southwest Detroit’s Marathon Oil Refinery and the Detroit Renewable Power trash incinerator, developed educational outreach for local mothers and schoolchildren on nutrition and environmental issues, and represented Detroit at the Paris Climate talks may now be forced to give birth behind bars.
Last month, Siwatu-Salama Ra was sentenced to a mandatory two years in prison following an incident in which she brandished a handgun while defending her mother and young child. According to Ra and other witnesses, a verbal dispute between Ra and another woman, Chanel Harvey, turned violent when Harvey got into her car and began ramming Ra’s vehicle with her own. Inside Ra’s car was her 2-year-old daughter.
As the Detroit Metro Times reports, the 26-year-old environmental activist alleges that Harvey then tried to run over Ra’s mother. That’s when Ra pulled out a handgun—lawfully registered, and unloaded—from her glove box in an attempt to scare Harvey off.
No shots were fired. No one was harmed. But that incident was enough to get Ra convicted of one count of felonious assault—a crime that carries a mandatory two-year minimum.
The law, the Metro Times says, failed her.
Michigan is a “Stand your ground” state, which generally protects people from using deadly force against an alleged assailant. But because Harvey filed a police report mere hours before Ra reported the incident, Harvey was considered the victim. According to the Metro Times, Ra was thus always treated as the aggressor, and detectives were not allowed to speak to Ra directly about the incident.
This characterization—of Ra as the overly aggressive, angry black woman—was how prosecutors swayed the jury against her, Ra believes.
“The prosecutor convinced the jury and judge that I lacked fear and that’s not true,” Ra told the Metro Times. “I was so afraid, especially for my toddler and mother. I don’t believe they could imagine a black woman being scared—only mad.”
Ra’s legal team is appealing the decision. The Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization, released a statement on behalf of Ra on Monday this week, lauding Ra’s career of advocating for environmental justice, which began when she was just 18.
“Siwatu has spent her life fighting environmental injustice and pushing back against the big polluters who are violating the law to poison her community,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.
“Her unjust incarceration during a high-risk pregnancy is just one example of the racism people of color in our country experience every day,” he continued. “Her story underscores the reality that our struggles are all deeply connected—from environmental justice to the fight against racialized oppression in the criminal justice system.”
Brune requested that either Ra’s sentence be commuted or she be released on an appeal bond so that Ra may give birth outside of prison and continue to mother her toddler. The call for action comes as Ra’s legal team has raised concerns about her health (she suffered complications during her first pregnancy, causing her to give birth early).
The defense says that it previously asked for Ra’s sentence to be delayed until after she gave birth, but a judge denied the motion. Victoria Burton-Harris, one of Ra’s attorneys, told the Metro Times that Ra is receiving poor health care and treatment while under state supervision:
She’s Muslim so she doesn’t eat pork, but isn’t provided a pork-free diet in prison. On a recent trip to the hospital for treatment for an infection that caused contractions, she says guards tightly chained her ankle and feet to her bed, cutting off circulation and causing pain.
“They put the shackles so tight around her ankles that she couldn’t even walk and lost all feeling in her feet,” Burton-Harris says. “She’s six to seven months pregnant, so ankles are already swollen. She doesn’t have access to good health care, and it’s totally inhumane to shackle a pregnant woman’s feet to a bed as she’s getting a vaginal exam.”
Shackling pregnant women and women in labor is illegal in federal facilities, but regional and state prisons can still continue this practice. And many do. Further, as Vice reports, the experience of giving birth in prison can traumatize women for decades—leaving mothers with anxiety and depression issues for years.