Currently, more than 5,000 people in Pennsylvania are serving life without parole, a full 10% of the imprisoned population, a higher percentage than any other state. As people in prison age the cost of incarcerating them goes up while simultaneously their likelihood of recidivism decreases. Many of these people are deeply remorseful about the situations that brought them to prison and want to be able to give back to their communities by sharing their wisdom with today’s youth to keep them from making similar mistakes., many of whom are now senior citizens. Restoring Meaningful Commutation is one way to help deserving lifers get a 2nd Chance.
“Women have always been the change agents of our society,” said Vivian Nixon, executive director of College and Community Fellowship, an organization committed to educational advancement for women with criminal record histories and their families.
Nixon was keynoting the landmark conference, FreeHer, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 4 and 5, where more than 43 formerly incarcerated women and their allies convened to rally an audience of 300 at Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. Leaders from across the country highlighted why this is the time for the United States to fund and support strategies to decrease the number of women behind bars and to end the mass criminalization of Black and poor women.
Women’s incarceration has not been fully addressed, however. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison system.”
Nixon had barely landed from a whirlwind week, the culmination of her years of fighting to return federal Pell Grants to prisoners. Her activism had landed her a seat at the table with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She was at the Maryland Correctional Institute-Jessup on July 31 as the Obama administration unveiled a pilot program that will allow a group of prisoners to use federal Pell Grants to fund their education behind bars. Nixon also urged the FreeHer audience to fight for the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, far-reaching legislation sponsored by Maryland congresswoman Donna Edwards and others that would reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for federal and state prisoners. She said her path from incarceration to national leader taught her that “education is a path to escape the cycle of poverty and criminal recidivism.”
Nixon was passionate about the problem: “When we include probation, 7 million people are experiencing mass criminalization and racial discrimination. … Women’s incarceration has not been fully addressed, however. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison system.” According to the Sentencing Project, the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for women is 1 in 56. But the likelihood increases to 1 in 19 for Black women; 1 in 45 and 1 in 118 for Hispanic and white women, respectively. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics special report, “The number of children under age 18 with a mother in prison [has] more than doubled since 1991,” and, “Sixty-four percent of mothers in state prisons lived with their children before they were sent to prison, compared to 47 percent of fathers.”
Nixon declared that “Locking up women means paying the tab for the care and shelter of kids.” Her call for activism echoed Alice Walker from In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Those who fight for women’s justice are “womanish,” she said. “Freedom and justice for all means every woman,” she added. “We care about all oppressed peoples, and we must turn the current moment into a movement.”
Building a Network
FreeHer is an attempt to turn this moment into a movement – at a time when criminal injustice is undeniable nationwide, and the leadership of Black women is crucial to justice. The term is the brainchild of Andrea James. James, a founding member and executive director for Families for Justice as Healing (FJH), is a formerly incarcerated woman, former attorney and current Soros Justice Fellow. Her intention is to build a network of formerly incarcerated women and their allies to create change through action.
James met many compatriots when she was sentenced to 24 months behind bars and served time at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, the women’s prison “camp” made famous by Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black. James described that experience, collaborating with other incarcerated women, and the development of FJH in her book, Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts On The Politics of Mass Incarceration, published in 2013. Since her release in 2011, she has worked relentlessly, traveling throughout the country to connect with other leaders.
Her Soros fellowship is “an incredible opportunity” to build this network, James told Truthout. She now becomes one of Open Society’s core change-makers: “challenging the overreliance on incarceration and extreme punishment, and ensuring a fair and accountable system of justice.”
Last year, James and members of FJH, held a rally in Washington, DC, to bring attention to the needs of female prisoners, unjust sentencing, and the inequities of justice, and to demand an end to the mass incarceration of women.
The FreeHer Conference, this year, was the kickoff for James’ Soros Justice project. The Open Society Foundation is funding James, one of only 15 to be so honored by the foundation this year, to create a national network.
In an interview, James said she aims to expand awareness of how prison and jail impact women, their children and their communities: “My purpose is to connect those I have met throughout the country, who are doing work to restructure the criminal justice system, and to bring on board other formerly incarcerated women – with the goal of giving everybody a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on.” To that end, James organized the conference with panels according to theme, and panel by panel, the conference speakers articulated both current activism and ideas to inspire leaders to future action.
Ending the Criminalization of Women
Kemba Smith never touched a drug but was the girlfriend of a man who sold drugs, and still, in 1994, she received a 24 and a half-year sentence, making her a poster child for overly-harsh mandatory-minimum sentencing policies. Her book Poster Child tells the story of her path from being a college student to experiencing domestic violence to giving birth to her son behind bars at 23 – and finally to receiving executive clemency after six and one-half years.
Smith acknowledged that she was one of the lucky ones. She has been able to turn her unjust criminalization into a book, a movie, and a series of speaking engagements around the country, fighting for those left behind. “There are still thousands of women in prison,” said James, adding to Smith’s story. “And young women are still going to prison for things they should not be going to prison for.” The National Institute of Corrections estimates, as of 2013, 1 million women were under some kind of correctional control.”
Throughout the day, advocates said the United States must end the criminalization of women because of addiction, poverty, race and sexual violence.
Smith left behind a son when she went to prison. She said that years later, after her release, he told her,”As much as you tried to make my life normal, it wasn’t.”
Jasmine Barclay was one of those youngsters left behind. “One in nine African Americans have a parent in prison,” said Ellen Barry, a social justice activist who has worked on behalf of prisoners, their children and their families for her entire career.
Barclay’s short film, When Life Hands You Lemons, tells the story of how her father was incarcerated when she was 14, and her family, including her mother, turned their backs on her. But Barclay didn’t cave. In a summer youth program, she worked at a local TV station and got involved in creating and producing films to deal with her pain. Barclay is now connecting with others, teaching film at that same station, attending college, and acting as a support for other young men and women who have family members behind bars. She said, “When someone dies, people send a casserole, but when your parent goes to prison, no one is sending anything.”
Powerhouse Deborah Peterson Small brought down the house when she shared her vision of “Why We’re Here.” Small, who has been at the forefront of changing drug policy and sentencing is the executive director of Break the Chains, an advocacy group fighting the failed “war on drugs.” She said, “The United Racist States of America” has allowed people to be destroyed. She said we must “bury that conversation” and understand that the real conversation is about “freeing our minds,” not just getting us out of prison. She challenged everyone to decide how to fight mass criminalization by deciding what purpose they had in this movement and what each could bring to the table. She received thunderous applause with her words, “What are you built for?”
Building a Movement
Barbara Fair, a community organizer in New Haven, Connecticut, who founded the original “My Brother’s Keeper,” an advocacy group, said she is the mother of seven sons. “Every one spent time in prison,” she added. “If not for our drug policy, I never would have been in this position. … Prison destroys and tears you down.”
In 2012, Fair testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights about the horrors of solitary confinement. At 17, one of her sons was sent to Connecticut’s Northern institution, a supermax facility, and the conditions there caused him to suffer a severe mental breakdown and lead to multiple hospitalizations. “Solitary confinement stole my son from me,” she told the FreeHer audience. “After 30 years of doing reform work, I have learned that we need to tear the whole system down.”
Now she is one of a number of women answering Deborah Small’s question by sharing stories of their lives and their family’s incarceration, creating organizations, filing legislation, testifying before Congress and working for change. Advocates shared bills they were working on, trending legislation and the value of education to create change in people’s lives.
Many spoke of how they have faced the incarceration of their children, partners or parents. Gina Clayton, founder and executive director of the Essie Justice Group, a nonprofit in California named for her great-grandmother, said that “One in 4 women have a family member in prison, but for Black women it is 1 in 2.” Her work, also as a Soros fellow, has enabled her to create a safety net for women with incarcerated loved ones.
Dorothy Johnson-Speight channeled her anger when her son, Khaaliq was shot to death, at age 24, over a parking space in Philadelphia. She created Mothers in Charge, a grassroots organization dedicated to violence prevention, education and intervention. Johnson-Speight knew that going inside prison and meeting those who had murdered boys like her own would be difficult, but she did, believing “they are all our sons.”
“My journey is different from your journey but it brings me to the same place,” she said. “Collectively we’re all just a sister away, and we’ve got to work together to make a difference.”
Christina Voight, a formerly incarcerated woman who gave birth to her son in shackles, was denied access to the prison nursery program for her son at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.
“When I was incarcerated, I did everything I could to teach women what to do. Women need love. If you can’t get it from the world, you can get it from each other.”
After her son was taken away, she sued and eventually regained custody, becoming one of the first women prisoners in a New York state prison to win a suit against the Administration of Child Services. In spite of the fact that she is a program coordinator with Soros Justice Fellowships, Voight said, the government doesn’t see her that way: “I am a violent offender for the rest of my life.” She summed up why the FreeHer movement was important to her: “Legislation begins with the true stories of people.”
At the end of the conference, Andrea James honored “Grandma” Phyllis Hardy, by giving her time to speak to the gathering on Skype. Hardy, who was released from Danbury in March, 2015, after 23 years and five months, had been ill and unable to attend. James said she had been the matriarch for many of the women on the stage at Harvard.
“When I was incarcerated I did everything I could to teach women what to do,” Hardy said. “Women need love. If you can’t get it from the world, you can get it from each other. We as women who are free have to help the ones who are left behind. We can teach them from the outside in.”
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
Families of Prisoners Panel
etta cetera and Ms. Lillie Branch- Kennedy celebrating 10 years of prison justice solidarity & frienship!
Kayla Bower from Amachi Pittsburgh!!
PA Represent! Patrica Vickers from HRC – Philly, etta & Ursula from Let’s Get Free
When we think of protest behind bars, what comes to mind? For many people, that list would include the Attica uprising, the work of George Jackson, the struggles of the Angola 3 activists, the 2013 California prison hunger strike and other crucial instances of resistance – mostly organized by incarcerated men.
Too often, organizing work done by incarcerated women goes wholly unrecognized. In her book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, Victoria Law focuses on the many forms of activism happening inside of women’s prisons, most of which never reach the dominant media.
In the following interview, Law shares stories of little-known actions, insights into what constitutes “activism,” and ways in which individual acts of resistance are building toward a transformational new reality.
Maya Schenwar: You discuss in the book how, when you first got interested in resistance within prisons and noticed a dearth of information about women’s organizing, you were often told, “Women don’t organize.” I’ve definitely noticed that the actions that we hear most about (particularly in mass media, but even among outside activist communities) are focused on men. What are some of the factors that create and perpetuate this myth that women behind bars aren’t “politicized” or engaged in resistance?
Victoria Law: We don’t hear very much about what’s happening in women’s prisons. If we hear about what’s going on inside, it’s usually framed as “these are the conditions,” not “these are the conditions, and this is what people inside these jails and prisons are doing about it.”
Even in this day and age, prison issues are frequently framed as men’s issues.
Even in 2015, prisoner resistance is still largely thought of as male. Part of it is that more attention is paid to men’s jails and prisons – they do, after all, make up approximately 90 percent of those behind bars. Part of it is that support networks for men are different than for women (including trans women) behind bars. For example, during the Pelican Bay hunger strike, we saw women family members stepping to the forefront to speak about the conditions their loved ones have been enduring. Although we know (barely) that people in California’s women’s prisons had also been fasting in solidarity – and we know that there is also a SHU (Security Housing Unit) at the women’s prison – we’re not seeing (or hearing) outside loved ones amplifying their voices and efforts to the same extent that women like Dolores Canales, Marie Levin and Daletha Hayden are doing for their male loved ones.
In addition, even in this day and age, prison issues are frequently framed as men’s issues (unless it’s an issue like pregnancy, reproductive health or sexual abuse). So when we talk about solitary confinement, even though solitary confinement is used throughout women’s prisons and jails, coverage is often about what happens to men. The people spotlighted are men. Sometimes, women will speak, like Evie Litwok and Donna Hylton about their experiences in solitary at a NYC hearing. But, unless it’s specifically a story about women in solitary or trans people in solitary, we don’t often see recognition that these conditions affect people of all genders. It’s not just solitary confinement where male becomes the default gender.
Prisons isolate people. … People inside prisons can be punished for simple, humane acts like hugging or sharing.
Finally, some of the ways women are challenging and resisting aren’t seen as fitting what we might think of as “resistance” or “organizing.” For example, currently and formerly incarcerated women have been involved in challenging policies around parenting – or maintaining their right to parent. It’s an issue that disproportionately affects incarcerated mothers because, when a father goes to prison, he often has a female relative willing to take care of his children. When a mother goes to prison, she is less likely to have that same network of support and faces a greater chance that her children will end up in foster care. Children of incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to end up in foster care than children of incarcerated fathers, which makes fighting to maintain custody an issue that many incarcerated women face.
Some women have individually helped challenge these policies – I wrote about Mary Glover, the legendary jailhouse lawyer in Michigan’s women’s prison, who helped women with their custody cases during the 20 or so years she was behind bars. (She also filed Glover v. Johnson, which required the prison to have equal educational and vocational programing for men’s and women’s prisons, a landmark 1970s case.) More recently, Arlinda Johns did the same for moms in the federal system. Moms have also organized to change policies around termination of rights – collecting and compiling testimony on the effects of permanent separation from their children, sharing their stories, etc.
Not all of the forms of resistance you discuss correspond to a normative idea of what “protest” means. For example, you chronicle the prisoner-led establishment of unique literacy programs at a prison in New York – a process that involved collaborating with prison officials (working “with the system”). You even discuss “listening” – in the service of community-building – as a type of action behind bars. Can you discuss why it is important to recognize this wide variety of activities as political acts?
Prisons isolate people. They’re not meant to strengthen bonds between people or build community. People inside prisons can be punished for simple, humane acts like hugging or sharing. Prison rules and staff discourage people from helping each other out. One example: A woman in an education program recently told me that one of her classmates has arthritis and thus cannot type the paper assigned to the class. Prison rules prohibit anyone else from typing her paper for her. “Do I type the paper for her so that she can pass the class or do I go by the rules?” the woman wondered.
While typing a paper doesn’t overturn this particular rule, the act of doing so not only helps the woman with arthritis, but also demonstrates caring and compassion in an environment designed to break it out of people. I’ve heard from women who have lost family members or custody of their children. … A listening ear makes all the difference in how they are able to process their grief.
Sometimes these acts of listening turn into something more widespread – for example, through the act of creating an environment in which women could share their experiences, the support group for women serving long sentences in Ohio realized that abuse and domestic violence were a pathway to long or life sentences and launched the first successful mass clemency campaign for battered women. But this wouldn’t have happened without that first step of listening.
I think it’s so important that your book contains a chapter about grievances and lawsuits, and the importance of the media in amplifying those efforts. How do these legal tools, which often stem from individual harms, contribute to larger goals of resistance? And how can we as the media serve to amplify them in a way that supports the work?
We need to remember that, while a grievance might reflect one person’s experience of individual harm, that experience is frequently reflective of a larger, more systemic reality affecting everyone in that jail or prison. A woman filing a grievance against a particularly abusive officer, for example, is probably not the only person who has experienced abuse from that person. One woman’s complaint about inadequate or negligent health care probably reflects many other women’s experiences. These grievances are important because, under the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act, people in prison are required to exhaust every administrative remedy before filing a lawsuit in civil court. In other words, if the person hasn’t been filing grievances and appeals, the court won’t hear their case.
In jails and prisons, movements are very restricted. So strategies that might work on the outside … don’t work in prison.
Individual – or even collective filings of – grievances don’t make the news. Lawsuits occasionally do. Covering lawsuits allows journalists to highlight some of the conditions that people in prison are litigating to change, conditions that may not be considered newsworthy otherwise because they happen all the time. One of the ways in which media can serve to amplify these efforts is to talk with people most affected – the people inside and their family members and friends on the outside. Those are the people doing the on-the-ground work and who know exactly what’s happening. Of course, trying to communicate with people inside takes time, patience and sometimes money (especially if you’re relying on collect calls, for-profit email servers and snail mail). These may seem to be luxuries for people who are on a deadline or operating on a small budget, but they are crucial to understanding the crux of the problem from the people who are forced to live it every day.
I love the section of your book that talks about how women behind bars do their own media work, finding creative ways to raise consciousness. Can you discuss some of the ways that women in prison get the word out about what’s happening behind bars?
As I said earlier, the networks that women are able to tap into are often different than those that men utilize. But women in prison use the networks and resources available to them to get the word out. Some of them use whatever email service the prison has to let people know about conditions. Their supporters then post their emails online, whether on dedicated sites, blogs or Facebook pages.
Contrary to what … Orange is the New Black may have you believe, most trans women are not placed in women’s prisons.
In the past, these networks have often included feminist publications. During the 1970s, off our backs regularly published writings by women in prison or updates by outside supporters about what was going on inside women’s prisons. Several other feminist publications also had regular imprisoned contributors. They also sent copies of their publication to women inside so that they felt connected to the outside world – and the various political struggles. In the online age, that kind of inside-outside connection is a little harder to maintain, but several groups continue to produce print newsletters that can be mailed into prisons: For instance, Black & Pink has a newspaper that they send to over 7,500 LGBTQ people imprisoned across the country, while the California Coalition for Women Prisoners has, since the 1990s, produced The Fire Inside and sent it to its members imprisoned in California.
They also write letters to anyone and everyone whose snail mail addresses they can get their hands on, letting them know what’s going on inside.
Sexual abuse by correctional officers is rampant in women’s prisons, and you discuss some of the ways in which incarcerated women are confronting the issue. This is a particularly difficult battle to wage, given the real threat of retaliation for women who speak out about sexual violence. What are some of the strategies that women use to protect themselves and each other, and to challenge the larger problem of sexual violence that is ingrained in the system?
Keep in mind that in jails and prisons, movements are very restricted. So strategies that might work on the outside – like staying in groups or avoiding deserted areas – don’t work in prison. Staff not only hold the keys to people’s cells, but also have the ability to give orders to those in custody. If they refuse, they risk being charged with “disobeying a direct order,” which can lead to time in solitary confinement and/or be used against them during a parole hearing.
Despite this, women have figured out ways to try to protect themselves and others. One woman, incarcerated in the mid-1990s, recalled a guard who constantly harassed her cellmate. He threatened her and her friends that, if they tried to report him, he would place cocaine among their possessions. His threat worked – the women kept quiet about his harassment. Then, one night, they heard their friend screaming; they found her with semen on her face. Despite his threats – and their fears – they filed a complaint with prison officials and later testified before a grand jury, which led to the guard’s arrest and conviction. After that, the woman stated, the nastiness and vulgarness that had been part of staff treatment of the women began to decrease. Other women felt less afraid of reporting sexual abuse, and at least two other officers were escorted out of the prison.
Women have also filed lawsuits to try to change policies that allow such abuse to happen. In Michigan, one of the dozen lawsuits Mary Glover filed led to a change in policy banning men from pat-searching women, being in the housing units and limiting other areas they could be in (such as medical examining rooms).
The newest edition of your book has a chapter that’s specifically focused on trans, intersex and gender nonconforming people in prison. What are some specific struggles that trans, intersex and gender nonconforming people face in prison – and some sites of resistance?
Keep in mind that trans people behind bars face all of the same struggles as their cisgender (or people who identify with the sex assigned to them at birth) counterparts. But, being trans also means that they face a whole host of other problems, too.
Let’s start with placement. Contrary to what the Netflix series Orange is the New Black may have you believe, most trans women are not placed in women’s prisons. Sentencing usually goes by the sex on a birth certificate, meaning that trans women are often sent to men’s jails and prisons. There, they face the very real threat of sexual harassment and assault by both staff and the men with whom they are incarcerated. They also face physical (and often brutal) violence.
People who are on hormones before entering prison often have to fight to maintain access to hormone treatment. Some prison systems only allow hormone treatment if the person had a legal prescription before their arrest. But, like their cisgender counterparts, many who end up in prison are low-income or underemployed and may not have had health insurance or access to legally prescribed hormone therapy. Without that prescription, they can be denied treatment altogether.
But even having a prescription is no guarantee that the prison will honor it. As I reported in one of my earliest stories for Truthout, CeCe McDonald entered prison with both a legal prescription and a court order for 20 milligrams of hormones. Despite that, prison staff only gave her 6 milligrams until supporters from around the world flooded the prison with calls, demanding that she receive her full treatment.
Ashley Diamond had to file a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections to get access to hormone therapy. Her lawsuit led to a New York Times profile and several articles about her struggles against medical, physical and sexual violence in a men’s prison, which led to the Department of Justice getting involved on her behalf. In response, the Georgia Department of Corrections changed its policy around hormone therapy and began issuing her a small amount of hormones.
These are the stories that we know and that have been publicized. There are many more names and experiences that we don’t know – I recently received a letter from a trans woman in California who said that she had been sexually assaulted by a guard. She was only believed after she showed prison officials his semen and took a polygraph test. The guard was allowed to retire with full benefits. She remains in prison.
You discuss how activism extends beyond the bars – how the work that women have done while they’re incarcerated “doesn’t stop at the prison gate.” Can you talk about some of the resistance work currently being done by formerly incarcerated women?
Yes! Since Season 3 of Orange is the New Black is now out, readers should know about the work of Families for Justice as Healing, an organization that was started at the real-life prison where OITNB takes place. The organization has worked to raise awareness about the impact of the War on Drugs on women. Last year, it held the FreeHer! rally in Washington, DC, bringing together people working against incarceration as well as formerly incarcerated women, like Dorothy Gaines and Susan Rosenberg, both of whom were issued clemency by Clinton before he left office. Families has also worked to free women incarcerated as part of the drug war: Earlier this year, they celebrated the release of “Grandma” Hardy after nearly 23.5 years in prison.
Now, they’re pushing for a bill that would push Massachusetts judges to consider whether a person is a primary caregiver and, if so, to sentence them to a community-based alternative rather than to prison. This summer, they’re also organizing a summer camp for daughters of incarcerated women in which the girls will have the opportunity to learn both computer coding and criminal justice organizing. And, because incarceration not only isolates people inside prisons, but family members on the outside from their communities, it gives the girls the opportunity to connect and build with each other.
Andrea James, the director and one of the cofounders of Families for Justice as Healing, was recently awarded a Soros Justice fellowship to organize a national network of formerly incarcerated women. I’m hoping that the award indicates a lifting of the invisibility surrounding incarcerated women’s organizing and resistance.