Many respondents wove the thread between the environments of abuse they endured and the situation for which they are incarcerated. For many, the link is direct – they were convicted of killing their abuser. One third of cases involved the death of a romantic partner, and in 85% of those cases, the participants had experienced partner abuse.
From childhood physical and sexual abuse by male relatives and family friends, to sexual assault by male friends and strangers, to partner abuse by boyfriends and husbands, violence at the hands of men can be traced throughout and between participants’ lives.
An overwhelming majority experienced physical and/or sexual violence prior to incarceration (81%). More often than not, the abuse they endured as children was at the hands of men – fathers, mother’s boyfriends, uncles, brothers, family friends. Following childhood, most participants became involved in abusive romantic relationships (81%). Even regarding the crimes for which they are incarcerated, many testimonies depict individuals trapped in situations that turn violent due to escalation by men.
Last week, the Abolitionist Law Center dropped a new report called From Victim to Victor: An Inquiry into Incarceration, Gender and Resistance in PA. This was the first-ever report to examine the gendered experience of Death by Incarceration in Pennsylvania from the direct perspectives of those living it.
Abolitionist writer, Victoria Law covered the unveiling of this mammoth 107 page report in Truthout. Her article starts like this:
When she was 20 years old, Sheená King was sentenced to life without parole. Two years earlier, King’s boyfriend had coerced her into fatally shooting another woman, threatening to kill her and her family if she refused. She was convicted of murder, which, in Pennsylvania, mandates life without parole.
It’s a sentence that King, now age 50, and other advocates call “death by incarceration.”
“Freedom is ensured when my ashes are shipped to my daughter in a cardboard box,” she explained in a newly released report on women and trans people serving similar sentences.Sheená King
67% of participants have children, and several participants described losing contact with their children or not knowing much about their children’s lives.
“I haven’t seen them since I’ve been locked up”Mirinda Boob
“I don’t know where she is. I do know she is married and as far as I know has 2 children.”Paula Johnson
“Do not know, do not have communication with them.”Elizabeth Collazo
Over half of respondents were separated from their children when they were under 5 years old.
Number and Age of Children. Participants had on average 2 children. For those with children, 58% were separated from them when the children were between the ages of 0-5.
Studies show that children with incarcerated parents are more likely to struggle in school, have poor mental health, be antisocial, and develop substance abuse issues. As adults, they are significantly more likely to become engaged with the criminal justice system than their peers (Huebner & Gustafson, 2007; Murray, Farrington, Sekol, & Olsen, 2009; Poehlmann, 2005; Poehlmann, 2010). Indeed, this study, some participants reported that their children were incarcerated
“All three of my children who were the ages of 6, 13, 15 years old at the time of arrest have all been incarcerated off and on through out my incarceration.”Jennifer Rhodes
“He’s grown up in Cincinnati with my mom’s brothers. He now lives in Pittsburgh after being incarcerated in PA”Dierdre Owens
“My son is in SCI Albion and my daughter has her own home”Sheená King
What’s more, over 30% of participants listed family members who were currently or formerly incarcerated, suggesting entire family lines disrupted by incarceration.
Incarcerated Family Members. A quarter of participants have immediate family members who are currently or were formerly incarcerated.
After she was incarcerated, Sheená’s children went to live with her mother and two younger sisters. She writes, “My incarceration devastated my family…at ages 30 and 33, [my children] still have enduring effects of my incarceration.” Keiff is currently serving the same sentence as his mom- a life sentence without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder.Sheená’ King
- “I didn’t take just one life, I took four. The other three were my children. All that they could have been, all they were meant to be. If only…”
- She wants to start a latchkey program for girls with incarcerated mothers. The program already has a name: Girls Just Like Us. With enough funds – the plan now is to sell homemade cookies – the program could organize educational field trips and collect funds for the children’s futures. So by providing a safe place to go, an adult to look up to, feel accepted and loved, it would tackle something more fundamental:
- “These kids go through hell. They might get visits or phone calls, but that’s not a hug from a mother. A mother’s presence is her assurance.”
- “It will be a place to feel sheltered from peer pressure, shame, and abandonment issues from having a mom in prison. A place to demolish their shame, build self-esteem and hopefully keep them from becoming one of the statistics: 85% of children with mothers in prisons become incarcerated themselves.”
Elizabeth’s incarceration and the realities of her crime caused a severing of her family. She writes, “My incarceration caused a lot of pain, suffering, torment and separation. Anger, questioning, abandonment, addiction.” She says, “I lost all ‘family’ support upon my crime.” She does not have communication with her children, now in their early-mid 20s, who went to live with her victim’s family when she was incarcerated. She never receives in-person visits. As Elizabeth distills it, “Prison is a lonely life filled with suffering.”Elizabeth Collazo
Participants described witnessing neglectful conditions for elderly individuals. Many feared how they would be treated in their old age. As Maria Spencer summarized it, “LWOP means you will die in a dirty diaper, begging for someone to come help you and be abused for losing your memory”
“It is shameful and there will be little support as any of us age. Surgeries take many years before they are approved and the medical care provider denies basic needs which, if preventive measures were taken, medical costs could be significantly reduced. Medical, like every department in this facility, is reactionary.”Sheená King
“The disabled and mentally ill have a lot of difficulty in prison. The activities building and gym is not handicap accessible. The kitchen refuses to meet dietary restrictions. Those that are having mental health issues as they are ignored until it’s an emergency. But, my heart goes out to the inmates with dementia or mental illness. One inmate named [name redacted] is 90 years old. She has been here 40 years. She NEVER gets out of her cell. She can’t walk and she has dementia. She often cried out for someone to come and talk to her. Another lifer named [name redacted] had a stroke. She has beginning stage dementia. She rarely gets out of her cell. The officers tell me they don’t have the time to watch her. There are so many others. The real tragedy is these women will get lonely and frustrated and start screaming. The COs will give them a misconduct, the women will be taken to the RHU for 30-90 days and then brought back.”Maria Spencer
“The staff look at the elderly as a burden. The elderly are treated horrific…One thing about Muncy they deliver the meals to the elderly here never. There was a woman partly paralyzed who went without meals for 30 days… I am scared to be a senior here! I would rather be in heaven than live here as a senior.”Elizabeth Collazo
Sarita Miller wrote that most of the elderly women in prison are serving death by incarceration sentences and have spent well over 20 years in prison. She asks, “Why must they die like this? Who are they going to hurt?”
- Inside prison, medical care is as lacking as punishment is plentiful. She explains that the COs determine who receives medical care. “If you are sick to the point of death they would rather death than place a call to medical.” If an incarcerated individual is refused care, their only recourse is to wait for someone from the psychology department to see them, which could be a minimum of three days. In that interim, Elizabeth has witnessed individuals self-harm, commit suicide, harm others, or die from lack of medical care.
- Elizabeth has experienced the same battle for mental health care. She was diagnosed with PTSD in her late 40s, but was repeatedly denied mental health treatment when she was at SCI Muncy. It wasn’t until she was transferred to SCI Cambridge Springs that Eilzabeth finally received care. It was in the course of the aforementioned drug test debacle that Elizabeth met a staff psychologist. She says, “she took interest in me and provided me with information and tools I still use 5 years later to maintain stability.”
“She also talks about the lack of support for the mentally ill and physically disabled, and how the prison is not the right environment for care. She writes, “Prison is no place to house those with physical and mental issues…In both cases the origin of the problem is not investigated, pills are remedy.” She thinks that if prisons are meant to be rehabilitative, they need more educational and vocational opportunities that do not have barriers based on sentence minimums. She recommends more trauma counselors so all incarcerated people can have access to therapy.Michelle Hetzel
“I have spent the last 32 years of my life doing everything possible that I could to make me a better person. … I understand my moral obligation, not only to the victim, but to others and with that comes a deep remorse and conviction to contribute to something positive to those around me. I want to reach teens and let them know that they are not alone, that it is okay to speak and there is always someone who will listen.”9031
“I was tried in front of a known racist judge, prosecuted by a known racist DA, plenty of articles on him as well concerning false racial allegations, arrested drunk, the list goes on and on. And I was taken to trial found guilty by an all white jury, the only black juror was stricken by the DA. I had questioned my lawyer at the time wasn’t I entitled to a jury of my peers, he told me that there is no such thing, and this was the best I was going to get.”Jenn Rhodes
“At the time of my arrest, I had a point score of 0. I had no prior convictions, juvenile record, etc. The prosecutor did an excellent job in discrediting me in front of the jury. It was not necessary for the DASarita Miller
during my trial to question my ex partner about my sexual performances with her. During DA Lineberger opening statement I was referred to as a predator. Also by the DA during questioning of Commonwealth jailhouse witness· Lakia Green, I was referred to by the DA as “an admitted murderer.” I will be the first to admit that my past life was totally messed up. This is no excuse, but what junkie has a normal life? I never admitted to this crime as being the sole perpetrator.”
The majority of respondents (59%) were first-time offenders. Survey after survey reported no or minor criminal histories prior to the participants’ current life sentence. Of all the respondents, only five listed a previous conviction for a violent offense. And most participants (63%) had never even been arrested prior to the current sentence.