Spotlight Blog Series on Women in Prison & Detention

V-Day’s Spotlight on Women in Prison, Detention Centers, and Formerly Incarcerated Women has been created in collaboration with Kathy Boudin and Cheryl Wilkins and formerly incarcerated women and activists working on prison reform and prison abolition. In this blog series you will hear from women whose lives have been profoundly impacted by the prison and detention system on issues as far ranging as: trauma and abuse; shackling; transgender experiences; dignity; health and mental health; experiences of long term inmates; the youth/school to prison pipeline; the experiences of mothers and children navigating the immigration system; higher education in prison; and reentry and technology.

Incarceration: Violence, Accountability and Transformation

“U.S. incarceration of women remains at historic and global high. Despite recent reforms, the United States still incarcerates 698 people for every 100,000 residents, more than any other country. Compared to that number, the women’s incarceration rate of 133 seems quaint. But it’s the highest incarceration rate for women in the world. And while the overall U.S. incarceration rate is falling, the women’s rate remains at an historic high.” – Aleks Kajstura in the “States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context 2018.” [1]

The path of women to prison has been documented and increasingly understood as having many gender specific factors. Women who are incarcerated or who have come home from incarceration such as myself are speaking about our lives more and more. We contribute to the knowledge about how the life experiences of women play a role in them ending up in prison, including those women who are convicted of harming others.[2]

Going to Prison

In 1979, at the age of 17, I was sentenced to 50 years to life for the crimes of second degree murder and robbery.[3] I spent 39 years and two months in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women. I spent a year on Rikers Island. Upon turning 18, I was shipped to Bedford Hills Correctional facility[4] for women to serve out my life sentence. My initial thoughts on entering a maximum security prison at 18 years old and having a life sentence were horrifying. I knew that my life was over, that this was the end of the road for me. There would be no proms, dates, college, or any seemingly normal teenager’s life in my future. All my family and friends would desert me and I would be left to die, old and alone. I was so ashamed of what I was arrested for because my own mother had abused me for years and that abuse created shame in me, and now I was convicted of a violent crime. For many years I lied to my family and friends about my actual sentence. I would tell people that I only had 25 to life because just the thought of 50 years to life was too overwhelming for me to conceive or to explain. I know now that this hurt many of my relationship because it was public knowledge that I had 50 years to life and many people knew that I was just lying. But the truth is that by not verbalizing my sentence it made it less real for me and it was a way for my young mind to cope.

The Complex Road to Crime: Violent behavior is often strongly influenced by family experiences, cultural norms and social determinants.

I was convicted of a violent crime and society locked me up and vanquished any ideas I had for my future. Any girl/ woman who commits a violent crime is considered the worst of society. Women are expected to be the nurturers and caregivers of the family nucleus and the consensus is to punish them and throw away the key. What troubles me the most is that no one took into consideration the circumstances that led up to the crime, what influences in my life contributed to this, and what could be done to help me now that I was incarcerated. I was physically and emotionally abused by my heroin addicted mother; I watched my sister being raped by my step-father, and witnessed violent behavior growing up. Violence is everywhere in our society; we are bombarded by movies, video games, television shows, and news channels which broadcast all the horrible acts of violence that occur daily. Instead of incarceration, many preventive measures need to be implemented in schools and community centers, in PSA announcements and through social media. We need to take a closer look at violence in our society and make some changes on how we help people on both sides of the coin, victim as well as those who harm others. And the separation between those who are harmed and those who act and harm others is often blurred: those people in prison for harming others are often people who have been harmed themselves. [5]

Taking Responsibility

How does a person who has committed a violent crime accept responsibility and become remorseful for their action?  Does the prison system help people convicted of a violent act cope with the myriad of emotions associated with the act? Does it help them understand and accept responsibility for the pain that their actions have caused in the lives of the victims and survivors such as family and friends and community? The truth is that the prison I lived in for 39 years, did little to help me, a person who was involved in an act that took the lives of others and caused so much pain for others who survived; nor did the prison provide any program available for healing the hurts on both sides.

My experience of dealing with responsibility started by putting the blame on others; it was extremely hard for me to acknowledge that I had to take responsibility for the loss of two lives. My denial became my wall of protection from facing the horror of my crime and it ate at me day by day and year by year. I wrestled with the idea that I was not a violent person and blamed everyone but myself: it was my mother’s fault; my upbringing; my ethnicity; the neighborhood I grew up in; my co-defendant; the list continued to grow the more I thought about how to skirt responsibility. I decided to stop thinking and resigned myself to put it in the recesses of my mind. I often numbed the pain with drugs. The shame was too much for me to bear and I just could not view myself as a violent person and certainly refused to have violence associated with who I was. I was the abused target of violence by my own mother, not the perpetrator of violence.

The people who aided in my being able to accept responsibility were the other long termers who were incarcerated with me. We would often times sit down and our crimes would come up in the daily conversations, and there is one conversation in particular that was the starting point of my realization in accepting and understanding the vast repercussions of what I did and who I was. The road was not an easy one because I was in deep denial and didn’t connect my participation in the actual crime to responsibility; yes I was there; yes, I agreed to participate in the robbery but I was definitely not responsible for the deaths. This was the mantra I resigned to tell myself over and over.

The one conversation that got me thinking differently was with a woman who had a drug charge and she was constantly saying that no one was harmed by the crime. Many of us were in disagreement about her crime being victimless. As we continued to talk I found myself saying that although she didn’t physically harm anyone and the people who brought illegal drugs from her were making their own choices, she still was affecting their lives and the lives of their family and friends; what if they took an overdose and died, would she then feel responsibility? Or what if their children were left alone and something tragic occurred? My friend was in denial just as much as I was. That night I grappled with my thoughts concerning questions about my own crime. Was I just as responsible as my friend? My victims had family and friends that would be affected by their lost. What about plans they had? What about their children? What if someone depended on them financially and now they couldn’t or wouldn’t survive? Life is precious and every life matters. The questions kept coming, yet the sad fact is that it took about 10 years for me to completely understand and accept that I was an integral part of two lives being taken from this earth.

There came an enormous amount of pain and shame with accepting responsibility. I had to rethink my entire life to understand how the hell I got to that point. I spent many nights crying and asking my victims for forgiveness, I felt I didn’t deserve to be forgiven. I read book after book on reconciliation and forgiveness to see what others had done to heal. I meditated and joined the prison Church to try and absolve myself from sin. I resigned to commit myself to serving others in my community because I just felt as if I had taken so much from the world and I needed to give back in a huge way. I was in the beginning stages of something transformational and my life was going to change drastically because of this. I began to look inside myself and discover who I was – the positive as well as the negative- and to fully accept that took an enormous amount of courage on my part, because I struggled with acceptance of my crime for years. I would waiver back and forth on whether or not I was really responsible. This was the game I played with myself for years. I had to learn to forgive myself first so that I could extend that forgiveness to others and make amends for the crimes I had committed. I was responsible for all of my actions, deliberate or unintentional; this is what I learned from my peers: be responsible; stop blaming; acknowledge what happened, especially your role; see yourself clearly and honestly (strengths and weaknesses). It took 15 years, until I wrote my first letter of remorse to the surviving family members of the people who died because of my acts.

As I think about both the roots of my involvement in violence and the issue of responsibility, I know that increasingly it is understood that people who cause harm have often been victims themselves of violence. I also read more and more about the recognition that prisons are mainly sites of punishment, not places designed to help people grow and find self-worth, develop the capacity to redirect their lives, and to confirm their humanity. We, who were in prison, know that and now there is a growing recognition of that. [6]

There is an increasing focus on understanding why women in particular commit violence and this work sometimes positively impacts legislation. For example, the New York State legislature just passed a Domestic Violence Survivor’s Justice Act that reduces sentencing for victims of domestic violence if the person (male or female) was largely influenced by domestic violence at the time of the crime, including options to be sentenced to community alternatives and includes the right for those already in prison to apply for resentencing. [7]

And there are programs that help imagine approaches to create accountability other than just punishment. [8]

We have a long way to go to make the changes needed but I can see some hope.

Roslyn Smith was arrested at age 17, served 39 years in prison, and recently came home at the age of 56. She is busy building a new life and being a mother, doing all the things a person has to take care of after 39 years in prison. Dedicated to making a contribution to issues faced by women impacted by incarceration, Ros is working as V-Day’s Beyond Incarceration Program Manager.

[1] This report updates how U.S. women fare in the world’s carceral landscape, comparing incarceration rates for women of each U.S. state with the equivalent rates for countries around the world.


[3] In New York State, “50-life” means that you cannot even have the opportunity to see a parole board until you have served 50 years.

[4] Rikers Island is the large jail where people arrested in New York City are sent. Bedford Hills Correctional Facility is the New York State maximum security prison for women


[6] Sered, D. (2019) Until we reckon: Violence, mass incarceration, and a road to repair. New Press, NY


[8] Common Justice; Longtermer Responsibility Program Osborne Association; Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth