Dispatches from Beyond Incarceration

Roslyn Smith, V-Day’s Beyond Incarceration Project Manager, has been writing blog posts as part of V-Day’s 2019 Spotlight on Women in Prison, Detention Centers, and Formerly Incarcerated Women.

In her newly expanded blog, Dispatches from Beyond Incarceration, Roz writes an ongoing series about her experiences as a formerly incarcerated women, including short and long dispatches on prison reform and prison abolition, often highlighting news articles around the experiences of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, pieces highlighting what she’s thinking about, what she’s worried about, including interviews with formerly incarcerated women, stories from prison, visions of a world without prison, how violence against women leads to women coming to prison and then the violence they experience there, all the while highlighting important data and facts that shed light on incarceration and our commitment to restorative justice models. 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.

What’s Happening With Bail Reform in New York 1 April 2022

What's Happening With Bail Reform in New York

I had the opportunity to go to the New York state capitol in Albany three times in March with Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) to urge lawmakers not to sign onto Governor Hochul’s plan to push back bail reform.

It is appalling that she wants to implement the passage of her 10-point public safety plan into the budget with bail reform and rollbacks as a caveat. This controversial safety plan and budget is an insult to all advocates and activists who have diligently worked to protect the most marginalized people in our city over the past decades.

What's Happening With Bail Reform in New York

We photo bombed the Republicans who are advocating for bail reform. The messaging is inaccurate and based on fear. Bail reform is not responsible for the rise in crime.

Advocates addressed a letter to Governor Hochul. “The proposed amendments to bail, discovery, and Raise the Age are not evidence-based interventions and will not increase community safety,” according to the letter. “Her plan, however, results in an explosion in the incarceration of New Yorkers, particularly poor people and people of color.”

Insha Rahman and Andre Ward of the Vera Institute of Justice and The Fortune Society, respectively, joined PIX11 Morning News to discuss the letter. They explained their organizations’ stances. “It rolls public safety by requiring more incarceration for lesser crimes that could be addressed by services and support from the government,” Rahman said.

Assemblywoman Latrice Walker proposed a hunger strike to highlight the importance of what these rollbacks would do if implemented. We know that crime has been on the uptake in New York and all over the country.

What's Happening With Bail Reform in New York

See us standing in the back.

We know that the safest communities have resources and that bail reform will not make us any safer, and we know that our Black and brown communities lack resources. A ten million dollar budget should go to the communities that need it the most. Let’s stop playing around about safety. We all want to be safe, but the truth is that the pushback on bail reform is wrong and that the process is unfair; it’s a bad policy and destructive to sneak this into the budget. Who is directly affected by this? Black and brown communities. Who will be spending time in jail? Black and brown communities. Hochul’s plan would let judges consider the defendant’s criminal records and past use or possession of firearms before setting or denying bail.

It would also expand the number of offenses for which bail could be set and allow teens caught with guns to be prosecuted in criminal court instead of family court, reversing provisions signed into law by the previous Governor in 2019. This plan is a gross injustice to the civil rights movement. Those who support this bill have used cases of individuals with mental health issues to push forward, but have they even attempted to figure out how to help them? We criminalize these individuals, and the media uses them as scapegoats to promote their rhetoric. The real issues are Covid, the lack of housing, mental health services, employment opportunities, resources, and programs for our youth to succeed in marginalized communities.

These are issues close to my heart since leaving so many women behind bars and visiting Rikers Island several times at the beginning of the year. This plan can only hurt the communities of poor, marginalized people, and it is so wrong.

Let’s stop playing politics and put people before prisons.

News and Social Media Coverage:
Legislative leaders push back on Gov. Hochul’s plans to revise NY’s bail laws | WAMC
https://twitter.com/cca_ny/status/1508471255598522375?s=10&t=hQYV22F_kZDx6Q-p8vrUqw
https://twitter.com/therealjsolo/status/1508507732181147654?s=10&t=hQYV22F_kZDx6Q-p8vrUqw
https://twitter.com/bdlimm/status/1508520645092683784?s=10&t=hQYV22F_kZDx6Q-p8vrUqw
Criminal rights organizations send Gov. Hochul letter, slam bail reform plan
No Bail, Less Hope: The Death of Kalief Browder | The Marshall Project
Why We Can’t Go Backwards on Bail Reform | New York Civil Liberties Union

Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center 3 December 2021

New $10 Million Women’s Re-entry Center Opens in Maine»

After three years of parole supervision, New York State finally discharged me. As a free woman, my excitement brewed for my first visit to  Maine. Cheryl Wilkins and Yolanda-Peterkin Johnson accompanied me. We wanted to connect with the women in our group, Right/Write to Heal, for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women in New York and Maine and see them in person. Cheryl and Yolanda were also crucial speakers in the Abolition Night at the Strand Theater. I couldn’t have had better companions.  I admire these women for their strength and dedication to fighting to make the lives of people who have justice-involved backgrounds successful.

My first thoughts were that it was going to be cold in Maine. I had wool sweaters, hats, long johns, and a down coat packed. To my surprise, the weather was warm and beautiful each day of our stay. We arrived the night before the event and settled in our rooms. I commented that it looked a little like some of the neighborhoods in Queens, NY.

Erica King (https://placemattersmaine.org/who-we-are/) came to the hotel to meet and greet us. Jacinta Earnshaw came along with Erica. The warmth of her smile and bubbly personality cut through all the jitters I had; I felt at home. We all got acquainted and settled in for the night with the excitement of visiting and seeing the women tomorrow morning and the Abolition Night event at the Strand theater later that night. It was a long day ahead of us.

Traveling to the prison, I observed the beauty that Portland offers – the foliage of browns, oranges, yellows, and greens hues displayed on the trees. any doorsteps had fall decorations and pumpkins to feast your eyes on, a stark contrast to the tall buildings of New York City. We all ooohed and ahhed at the beautiful scenery and commented on the laid-back vibe of Portland.

Before entering the prison, I wondered how I would feel. Would any anxiety start creeping up on me? After all, this was my first time back in a correctional facility.  We made sure to empty our pockets for items not allowed and only took our IDs with us.  Animal lover that I am, I noticed a rehabilitation facility for horses directly across from the prison. I found out that the women volunteer there, but due to covid, it’s closed. The prison had a vegetable garden right outside the facility. What a pleasure to grow your food. I thought about the Bedford Hills garden at Fiske cottage and how much we all loved growing and sharing the harvest.

The Supt. Michelle McLauchlan greeted us at the door with hugs and sincere words of how happy she was we came.  She expressed her concern about being depicted as soft on crime because of the progressive choices she has made honoring the women’s dignity. She was very emotional and compassionate, talking about her wishes for the success of the women in prison and kept expressing how she wanted to treat the women with dignity in all aspects of their lives.

We toured the prison and talked to many of the women and officers. The officers were very helpful and happy to explain the day-to-day characteristics of the prison—what a different vibe than in  New  York.  We talked about our reentry process, the importance of education and planning for the future, as well as recruiting new members for the writing group. To my surprise, there were a few women there from New York, who, once released, will be returning back. We shared information and left feeling inspired and hopeful. A great visit and I look forward to going back soon.

Our next event was at the Strand Theater, “ABOLITION  NIGHT AT THE STRAND THEATER.” The first inaugural Justice Scholar Strategy Network Showcase will be hosted on November 5th, 2021, at The Strand in Rockland, Maine. This event was hosted and co-designed in partnership with the Opportunity Scholars of the University of Southern Maine, the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, the University of Maine Augusta Prison Education Partnership, and the Freedom and Captivity Project. As I walked into the Strand Theater, something came over me and I experienced a moment of deja vu. Had I been here before, or maybe it just reminded me of my elementary school auditorium, with the folding seats, wooden stage, and black curtains.   We proceeded downstairs to the Greenroom and waited for others to arrive. There were refreshments and beverages, and the atmosphere was filled with positive energy. Yolanda and Cheryl went over their performance and I helped read some lines with them as people slowly drizzled in.

The announcement came that the doors would be opening in 30 minutes, and I wanted a good seat and proceeded upstairs to the theater, purchased some popcorn and Dots candy. I sat with the women from the Southern Maine Re-entry Center which I visited earlier. I was astounded that the prison let them attend this event along with Abbie Turner (Our Right/Write to Heal liaison).  It was amazing, they were excited and nervous to read their poems and go on stage and I was glad to be there supporting the women.

The evening went off without a hitch. Everyone was engaged in the spoken word poetry and prose while Ali and Yolanda’s comic vibes were a big relief to take the edge off the seriousness of the pieces.

The night ended with a Q & A, and, to my surprise, Yolanda called me up on stage while acknowledging I was finally off parole and everyone applauded. Nerves came alive as I walked on the stage and headed to sit down. There were a few more questions and the big one was what can we do to help? I spoke up this time and said that we are all here because we share the same vision of reform or abolition, yet we know co-workers, family members, and friends who do not share our vision. I ask you to have the hard conversations about mass incarceration and how it is destroying communities and families, get them involved in a small way, and keep watering the relationship until it grows.

Abolition night was a huge success for all who attended, and I was honored to be a part of it.

The Closing of Rosie’s 3 December 2021

On October 13, 2021, several organizations came together to protest closing the death camp; closing this death chamber has been a long-standing issue for advocates of criminal justice reform and abolitionists throughout New York State for decades. The crumbling infrastructure, the infestation of rodents,  inhumane living conditions, the onset of COVID-19, and the ongoing deplorable abuse from staff and persons in custody have resulted in far too many deaths.

I remember back in 1979 being shipped off to Rikers Island at 17 years of age. I was petrified because of the stories I heard about the rapes, the rat infestation, the officer’s treatment of the residents, the fights with shanks, and that you might not make it out once you were there. The conditions I encountered were far worse than the stories. The cells were filthy, with residue of food and feces dried  or smeared on the walls. Rats, water bugs, and mice infested the units. When locked in for the night, that was your problem. The mess hall food was inedible, and I lived off of packaged soup and snacks I purchased at the commissary. I watched women fight over what to watch on the TV while the officers just sat back and ignored it. I  rarely came out of my cell for fear that I would be a target.

How officials will implement these changes is yet another cause for debate. Abolitionists and advocates for prison reform are opposed to the building of new prisons and jails. They would like to see many residents moved to existing facilities or to alternatives to prisons and jails for those who need mental health and substance abuse intervention and nonviolent crimes that people are being detained for because they could not pay the bail fees.

There is a lot of controversy about the next steps and how to ensure that everyone is safe. The residents at Rikers have signed a petition because they will be farther away from their lawyers, children, and family if put into the upstate facilities at Bedford Hill or Taconic. There have been numerous discussions about housing women and gender-expansive people; some of the suggestions have been to release people on their recognizance, supervised release for those on pre-trial detention, and grant clemency for others.  We want the women in the community, not in cages, advocates demanded.

The statement by Governor Hochul mentions integrating people coming from Rikers with people at Bedford Hills and Taconic facilities in Westchester, New York.

Many questions have arisen among advocacy groups as to the fate of these women. What are the consequences of such a transfer?  What are the pros and cons?

Who is being transferred? Those serving a conviction, or those in pre-trial detention, or both?

How will those with pending cases be served so far away from their lawyers and families?

If there are people on pre-trial detention moved, that poses constitutional/legal issues for the state?

Are those in Riker’s with parole violations being moved as well? Are there any people who could have their parole warrants lifted by the attorney general in alignment with Less Is More? How will this transfer impact women’s access to necessary support, such as legal counseling, service providers like WPA, and their families?

A Summary of the Less is More Act

More than 200 women and transgender Rikers Island inmates to be moved to state-run jails»

A Summary of the Less is More Act»

Protesters rally outside City Hall calling for Rikers Island shutdown»

How Can NYC End Rikers Island Chaos? We Asked Four People on the Front Lines»

City Hall rally calls for immediate shutdown of Rikers Island»

Stay the course: Rikers Island protesters demand mayoral candidates support jail’s planned closure»

What Is Happening With Rikers Right Now? Here’s Everything You Need to Know.»

More detainees moving out of Rikers»

Most Women Detainees To Be Moved Off Rikers Island»

Women at Rikers Sign Petition Against Moving Them to State Facilities

Rikers to Close

Major Milestone Reached in City’s Commitment to Close Rikers Island Jails»

Manhattan Jail Design Forges Ahead Even as Plan to Replace Rikers is Delayed to 2027»

Remembering Val Gaiter 25 August 2021

Remembering Val Gaiter

 

With the pandemic’s devastating effects on the prison communities and the world, this year has been tough on all of us.

August 12th, 2021, was a day criminal justice advocates set aside to remember the life of Valerie Gaiter, my co-defendant. Val never received the proper medical evaluation and attention that could have saved her life. She also was never granted clemency.

A group of formerly incarcerated women, men, and several assembly members came together for Val Gaiter: Chris Burdick, Carmen De La Rosa, Julian Salazar, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, Harvey Epstein, Taylor Darling Latrice Walker, David Weprin, and Assembly Deputy Majority Leader Solages. We convened at several locations in New York to memorialize her death and ask for the support of the Elder Parole and Fair and Timely bills.

Remembering Val GaiterVal suffered in silence with her misdiagnosed cancer as I watched her lose weight and could see the pain and sadness in her eyes. She constantly went to the Regional Medical Unit (RMU) to complain and kept being told it was acid reflux. They did not provide an effective communication system, diagnosis, and prompt and adequate treatment for her until her last days when she could not get out of bed and was admitted to the outside hospital only to die within days.

The sentencing judge convicted us of the murder of Mr. and Ms. Fiet in 1979. It took a long time to accept responsibility for the violence we caused and a whole lot of therapy. We blamed each other for years, and even though we were co-defendants, we had no other real connection. We were cordial to one another and even worked together in certain areas in prison. We were not friends but built mutual respect over the decades. We would talk from time to time about clemency and encouraged each other to apply, yet at each attempt, we were both denied.

Remembering Val GaiterI eventually secured the attention of a lawyer who took on my case pro-bono and secured my release in 2018. Val’s lawyers were working on her case, as well. And after my departure, our lawyers collaborated in an effort to get her out; unfortunately, Val would not live to see that day. On the day she was supposed to sign her release papers, she passed away, never knowing that freedom was just around the corner.

Going to the site that I was imprisoned in for 39 years was not easy. Haunting memories of locked cells, inadequate medical treatment, and lives lost quickly surfaced. Yet, I knew that being there was a vital testament to my work as an advocate.

I continue to fight for those women still incarcerated by giving voice to their struggles, advocating for legislative and policy change, and never forgetting the lives lost in the bowels of the beast.

Rest in peace, Val.

California Journey: With A Little Piece Of Light 24 June 2021

California Journey: With A Little Piece Of LightAs an advisory board member of Donna Hylton’s A Little Piece of Light, I was invited to attend the organization’s trip to touch base with their California partners. A Little Piece of Light is a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower and facilitate healing for women, girls, and gender-fluid individuals who are directly impacted by trauma and involvement in the criminal justice system. Our flight was on time and we all settled in for the 6-hour trip. We were fully vaccinated and excited to be traveling again.

We arrived, and LaVell Baylor, Deputy Director for Freedom4Youth, was there to greet us. Freedom4Youth is an organization based in Santa Barbara, California and its mission is to empower youth in the juvenile justice system through education, self-realization, transformational leadership and community integration. She was bubbly, bright, and the best tour guide ever; she pointed out various sights and places we should see and provided some history about Los Angeles in context to the work she has been doing. So our luggage was packed in the car, and off we went. We heard a loud popping sound, and horns started honking. Still, we kept driving, oblivious to it until a passing car yelled out,“Your trunk is open!” So we stopped and ran out to find a woman rolling my luggage towards me. I thanked her profusely, and I made sure the trunk was locked. We had a good laugh.

The trip included a fantastic tour of a hydroponic garden plant, (unfortunately I was not allowed to take pictures) with the desire to replicate, learning about, and incorporating a system at the offices in Brooklyn and California, where the clients can learn about sustaining our precious earth and growing produce to feed their communities.

I had a wonderful conversation with Aloe Blacc, singer and musician, as we sat by the beautiful mountains near his home. He has used his platform as an artist to address social issues and supports the work A Little Piece of Light is doing to bring awareness and change to criminal justice reform. Most people don’t know who he is, but he is a great artist. He has such a fantastic voice. I immediately felt warmth and love in his presence from listening to his calming soft-spoken words of encouragement and his easy demeanor. “When things happening in the world seem so terrible and dark, it’s so easy to get stuck in all the negative,” he says. “But I try to do whatever I can to help people out of that. I want my music to be the light.”

Robin Barkins, who is the California component of A Little Piece of Light, met with us at our lodgings. Ms. Barkin is a fearless and outspoken peer advocate. Every day, Ms.Barkins embraces her mission to empower the reentry population and the women and men who suffer from the diseases of trauma, addiction, and HIV.

Her transformative journey began at the tender age of fifteen when she was diagnosed with HIV. Upon receiving this devastating news, she spiraled into self-destructive activities as a sex worker and substance abuser. She thought her life was over. When she hit the lowest point in her life, she found herself spiritually and emotionally bankrupt. After ten years, she finally decided to attend a drug recovery program.

California Journey: With A Little Piece Of LightMs. Barkins never thought it was possible to live a life without drugs and alcohol, but with her fierce determination to improve her life, she began to face her emotional injuries and fears head-on. In the process of becoming sober, she learned new coping skills and strategies to deal with life. Finally, with a brand-new lease on life, Ms. Barkins regained her confidence and cultivated healthy self-esteem.

In 2010, Ms. Barkins chose to go public with her story because she knew that her journey could impact other people’s lives. For so long, Ms. Barkins kept her HIV status a secret. By telling her story, she seized her power back. Currently, Ms. Barkins is a Peer Re-Entry Community Health Worker at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center. She manages the cases of individuals coming out of jail or prison and prepares them to reenter society. She follows the Whole-Person Care Model to prioritize her client’s health and mental and social well being. Through her work, she provides her clients with the supportive tools and resources to reenter society effectively.

Ms. Barkins’ story allows her to empathize with her clients. It encourages her to advocate for the HIV community, those afflicted by trauma/domestic violence, drug addiction, and formerly incarcerated individuals.

Our journey would not be complete if we couldn’t visit Joshua Tree’s indigenous lands. We prepared for the day with a prayer and dressed in all white to honor and respect our ancestors and the land. We smudged sage and said prayers of thanksgiving for those who walked this earth before and those to come. Our gratitude for surviving this world and coming out strong.

California Journey: With A Little Piece Of LightOf course, we took a few hours to go to DisneyLand, where my 17-year-old self emerged as did others while we enjoyed the day going on kiddie rides, eating ice cream, candy, and acquiring our official ears.

A Little Piece of Light is a new 501(c)3 organization making great strides in the fight to tackle the issues women, girls, and those who hold fluid identities face before, during, and after incarceration. I am honored to be a part of the process. There is much work to be done and they are shining a beacon to guide the way with a little piece of light.

A Little Piece of Light Summer BBQ 3 June 2021

(Reposted from vday.org)

Donna Hylton is a Jamaican-American author and criminal justice activist. She founded, A Little Piece of Light, the non-profit, which bears the same name as her book, both created out of her lived experience of 27 years of incarceration. Ms. Hylton pulled off a fantastic event in the community of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Since her release, she has been a staunch advocate for the rights of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, cis, trans, and those who hold fluid identities. Her work and dedication to this cause have led her to speak at the Women’s March in 2017, the Democratic National Convention video last year, and various legislative platforms to ensure prison safety and end mass incarceration. http://www.alittlepieceoflight.net

Preparation for this event began weeks ahead with food orders of hamburgers, franks, fish, steak, and an abundance of side dishes. The staff worked effortlessly, excited and enthusiastic for their first BBQ since opening in 2019 amid the pandemic that changed our lives forever, while social distancing was the order of the day. Flyers were created and sent out early via email and anyone in the neighborhood was encouraged to come in as they strolled by.

ALOP’s staff of formerly incarcerated women set up the grill, decorated the beautiful office, yard, and garden area with balloons, and filled the swag bags with treats, face masks, pens, and tote bags. Invited guests included the neighborhood and people impacted by the prison industrial complex who enjoyed a day of food, fun, and celebration.

It was a beautiful May day, the sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky, as women who haven’t had the opportunity to see one another, some for years since being released, came together, reunited, reconnected, shared, and exchanged pictures and contact information reminisced about the days behind the bars, and shared what they are doing now.

A few men’s organizations stopped by as well to support ALOP.

Cory Green, founder of HOLLA was there with his wife and dog, as well as Renny Smith from Families and Friends of the Wrongfully Convicted who brought his beautiful grandchildren.

As the day came to a close people were given plates of food to take home, handed swag bags, we said our goodbyes, kissed, hugged (something we were restricted from doing in prison and since Covid), and We laughed, danced to the music while eating, drinking, making new friends and enjoying coming together after the long isolation of Covid-19 and celebrated a long-overdue birthday for one of our sisters Bella with a beautiful and delicious cake.committed to staying in touch. A wonderful day of freedom in the neighborhood of Bed Stuy, Brooklyn.

Formerly Incarcerated Women Meeting the Needs of Their Communities 2 April 2021

According to the Sentencing Project, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 222,455 in 2019.1 Though many more men are in prison than women, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980.

Nationally, about 1 in 8 (13%) of all individuals released from state prisons and more than 1 in 6 (18%) jail releases are women.2

We rarely hear the stories of women after they have been home and what their lives look like now. I want to highlight three formerly incarcerated women who are doing amazing work for Criminal Justice reform and their communities.

Jonel Beauvais and Sharon Richardson were both incarcerated with me at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York and through the many years, we remained friends, reconnected when I came home in 2018. In 2019 I met Evie Litwok and instantly made a friend while taking a training workshop in Los Angeles with Susan Burton’s organization, A New Way of Life Reentry Project, an organization that promotes healing, power, and opportunity for formerly incarcerated people. Susan Burton is another remarkable formerly incarcerated woman healing her community. These women who survived incarceration came home and devoted their life work to creating opportunities for other women, their communities, and families to prosper, grow and heal. I want to shout them out and give kudos to the hard work and foresight these women had to create such amazing programs.

Jonel Beauvais is a member of Wolf Clan, Mohawk. She is the proud mother of three children and chosen auntie, sister, and friend to many. She works diligently to empower and induce healing within all Native/Indigenous communities in order to prosper in the Haudenosaunee teachings of good medicine and good minds.

Jonel’s most current endeavor is the founder of “The Welcome Home Circle” that she created out of a need to provide homes for her community members re-entering society from institutions to have reliable safe places to live and thrive while receiving cultural support from their peers. For more information about this program, you can directly contact her at [email protected] or view their work on Facebook.

Sharon Richardson is the founder and CEO of Just Soul Catering and Reentry Rocks which teaches culinary skills to formerly incarcerated women in order to help them become financially independent while learning vital skills to help them navigate their individual reentry process. She survived 20 years of incarceration for a domestic violence case and did not let it make her bitter.

Sharon’s programs are designed to help formerly incarcerated women with histories of domestic violence achieve their goals, become leaders, and rebuild their lives. Her organization provides healing tools through virtual and hands-on experiences to become financially independent, learn communication skills, entrepreneurial skills, food handling, Domestic Violence counseling, dance classes and so much more.

Evie Litwok is the founder and executive director of Witness to Mass Incarceration. Evie is a child of Holocaust survivors and an avid activist for ending mass incarceration, using her experience as a formerly incarcerated woman to bring to light the atrocities and collateral consequences of imprisonment through her research work and speaking engagements.

Evie’s program puts the voices of women and LGBTQ+ people’s experiences in the fight for alternatives to mass incarceration with initiatives designed to change the narrative about incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people from invisibility and victimization to empowerment through documentation, leadership training, organizing and advocacy.

Please support these women and the phenomenal work they are doing. You can get involved by donating to their organizations and becoming a supportive partner by sharing their stories on your social media sites and connections so that the world can see that we all deserve second chances. Second chances have empowered these women to do extraordinary things in their lives and the lives of others.


1 “Incarcerated Women and Girls Fact Sheet” (The Sentencing Project, 2019)
2 “Who’s helping the 1.9 million women released from prisons and jails each year?” (Prison Policy Initiative, 19 July 2019, Wendy Sawyer)

100 Women 100 Days – Report from My Trip to DC to Advocate for Incarcerated Women’s Release from Prison 2 April 2021

The pandemic hit hard and restricted our travels, so I have not had the opportunity to travel and report on criminal justice reform issues since early 2020. This was my first time visiting Washington D.C. and I was proud to be doing it in a capacity to advocate for incarcerated women’s release from prison.

There are over 200,00 women incarcerated in prisons across the United States. The United States incarcerates1 more people than any other country in the world.

On March 12th, I traveled to DC to participate in a campaign with The National Council for Women and Girls to ask President Biden to release 100 women with his executive power of clemency in his first 100 days in office.

Democratic Rep. Cori Bush, of Missouri, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts, were present to support this initiative and add their voices to the platform. Pressley stated in her speech “ …intersection of policy and Black liberation is more than symbolic. It is the intentional decision to follow the lead of our foremothers. [Biden] can grant clemency to the 100 women by the stroke of a pen. When this country incarcerates Black women, their entire family suffers, which causes intergenerational trauma and hurts communities.” She has also reintroduced The People’s Justice Guarantee2, which aims to beat mass incarceration while working to make the criminal legal system more equitable. This was introduced in 2019 and is being re-addressed now as the House is passing other criminal justice and police reform legislation.3

Cori Bush also spoke very powerful words stating “Every mother that is arrested and every unfair arrest maintains a locked-in-cycle of trauma that will continue for another generation.” She acknowledged that thousands of children are separated from their families by the criminal justice system.

There were over 100 women who attended the rally, most of whom were formerly incarcerated or impacted by the criminal justice system. I reunited with several women who were in Bedford Hills Correctional facility with me such as Donna Hylton, who started a non for profit organization called “A Little Piece of Light”, Colby Anderson, Kay Wilson, Tracy Lang and Athena Stripling. It was a wonderful experience being with these women who are fighting for our incarcerated sisters.

The U.S. Constitution allows the President the power to grant clemency for a person who committed a federal crime. This can be a commutation, which reduces a person’s sentence, or a pardon, which absolves them of the crime. Draconian penalties and mandatory minimum sentence statutes dictated the country’s “War on Drugs”, as well as the 1994 crime bill4 that targeted low-level dealers who were mostly from black and brown communities with conspiracy charges in drug trafficking. Many people who were charged have never seen or touched drugs but were charged with conspiracy.

While in the Senate, Biden authored and supported many of these tough-on-crime bills that have had a direct impact on Black communities and increased the prison population. He has since offered criminal justice reforms that counter some of that earlier legislation. In Biden’s current/Presidential criminal justice plans, he pledged to help end mass incarceration in the United States by using his power to grant clemency.

The U.S. Department of Justice publishes clemency statistics5 going back to the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt in the 1900s. The numbers from recent years show that George W. Bush pardoned 189 people and commuted 11 sentences. Obama, who encouraged people to file petitions during his administration’s clemency initiative, granted 212 pardons and commuted the sentences of 1,715 people. President Donald Trump, who largely bypassed the traditional Justice Department process for some of his clemency decisions, granted 143 pardons and commuted 94 sentences during his presidency. The Justice Department also shows, at last count, nearly 400 clemency petitions asking for President Biden to pardon or commute sentences have been filed. He has not granted a clemency petition yet.6

As a formerly incarcerated woman and mother, I know all too well the collateral consequence of mass incarceration on the family. Since coming home, I have faced many obstacles in my relationships with my daughter, siblings, colleges, and intimate relationships. I have to relearn everything because prison is a different world with different sets of rules for engaging with others. I am learning to take my power back and develop new social skills that were non-existent behind prison walls.

I will continue to fight for the freedom of all women and girls. No one is free until we all are free! #FREEHER. #UntilTheViolenceStops

I ask that anyone who is moved by the mass incarceration of women and girls connect with the National Council or donate to the plight. You can contact me at roz (at) vday.org for ways in which you can join campaigns and be a part of changing history for women and girls impacted by the criminal justice system.


1 “States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2018” (Prison Policy Initative, June 2018, Peter Wagner and Wendy Sawyer)
2 Rep. Pressley Launches A Bold, Progressive Criminal Legal Reform Resolution: The People’s Justice Guarantee, (Press Release, 2019 November 14, Ayanna Pressley)
3 “We must act now: House passes police reform bill named for George Floyd” (USA Today, 3 March 2021, Savannah Behrmann and Jeanine Santucci
4 “Joe Biden’s Controversial 1994 Crime Bill, Explained” (Vox, 29 September 202, German Lopez)
5 “Clemency Statistics” (U.S. Department of Justice)
6 “Pardons Granted by Joseph R. Biden” (U.S. Department of Justice)

“Menstrual Equity” by Roslyn Smith, V-Day Beyond Incarceration Project Manager 15 September 2020

Most women don’t think twice about where they are going to acquire menstrual products, yet that is not the case for incarcerated women in prison, jails, detention centers and women’s shelters across the United States. Incarcerated individuals and other people in the criminal justice system often have to resort to begging or bargaining with staff[1]for basic hygiene needs. Thirty-eight states do not require prisons to provide menstrual products[2] to incarcerated people. The voices of incarcerated women are not broadcast as loudly as their male counterparts. Now that the influx of women coming to prison has vastly increased,  women’s unique issues need attention with gender responsive policies that take their specific needs into account.

Historically, menstruation has been stigmatized, ignored and not included in everyday topics of discussion, despite that once a month women – and transgender and non-binary people who menstruate – experience their menstrual cycle for an average of seven years[3]. Period awareness has progressed in recent years as activists have worked hard to push for menstrual equity, such as urging states[4] to exempt menstrual hygiene products from sales taxes.

The communities of incarcerated women not only face stigma but have little or no access  to varied products to ensure proper menstrual supplies each month. One might think that because a prison is supposed to uphold the care, custody, and control model, that they would have a sufficient amount of products available to sustain women’s menstrual cycles while in custody.Unfortunately that is not the case.

During the beginning years of my incarceration, we were not allowed to receive menstrual products from packages, vendors, or have them brought in via visits. We were only allotted the 12 pack sanitary pads given out once a month and when many women, including myself, experienced rashes and skin irritations from them, we had no other choice of products. Some of us just used a wad of toilet paper in lieu of the pads. Having a limited amount of products also caused a big issue because I suffered with fibroids and bleed heavily and for more than 7 days. I would have to beg other women for their pads or sometimes even barter to get them.
https://www.cbsnews.com/news/period-the-bloody-truth-about-poverty-inequality-cbsn-originals/

Despite the passing of the nation’s first legislative package ”The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act in June 2016”  which aims to create better visitation policies for primary caretaker parents, effectively ban the shackling and solitary confinement of pregnant people, and ensuring access to menstrual products for women in public school, shelters and correctional facilities.   This law only applies to federal prisoners and most prisoners are under state jurisdiction. Out of the 231,000 women and girls[5] in correctional facilities, only 16,000 of them are in federal prisons. States have passed laws to provide incarcerated people with menstruation products, but often provide no funding, therefore the burden for the products falls on the schools, jails, and homeless shelters. People who menstruate are still being subjected to lack of products, abuse by male officers surrounding their cycles and  period shaming.

Menstrual equity falls at the intersection of sound health, economic and educational policy Access to these products should be safe and affordable. They should be free to those who can’t afford them. Incarcerated women made on average 7 dollars every two weeks and shouldn’t have to make a decision to buy menstrual products over food for our basic needs.

I am looking to bring these issues back to the forefront of what incarcerated women are still facing throughout this nation. We need more awareness and better solutions, with policies that guarantee menstrual equity.

My plan is to start with the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where I was housed and provide these women with more availability of products. I am currently in conversations  with some college students who are devoted to this cause and how we can achieve this. The plan is to provide educational materials, products, and take surveys on exactly what their needs are so that we can better serve them, especially in this pandemic.

If any of my readers are concerned and what to help please contact me via email. Let’s keep this conversation going and bring about change and dignity for our sisters behind the walls.

To read more about menstrual equity in prisons:


[1] “The Unequal Price of Periods: Menstrual Equity in the United States” (ACLU and Period Equity)
[2] “Incarcerated People Deserve the Dignity of Menstrual Equity” (Ms. Magazine, 15 November 2019, Kimberly Haven)
[3] “Celebrating menstruation, from menarche to menopause” (UNFPA, 24 May 2018)
[4] “It’s Not Just the Tampon Tax: Why Periods are Political” (New York Times, 22 July 2018, Karen Zraick)
[5] “Because Most Locked-Up Women are in Jail, not Prison, State Reforms Often Fail to Reach Them” (Witness LA, 31 October 2019, Taylor Walker)


Roslyn Smith, V-Day’s Beyond Incarceration Project Manager, has been writing blog posts as part of V-Day’s 2019 Spotlight on Women in Prison, Detention Centers, and Formerly Incarcerated Women.

In her newly expanded blog, Dispatches from Beyond Incarceration, Roz writes an ongoing series about her experiences as a formerly incarcerated women, including short and long dispatches on prison reform and prison abolition, often highlighting news articles around the experiences of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, pieces highlighting what she’s thinking about, what she’s worried about, including interviews with formerly incarcerated women, stories from prison, visions of a world without prison, how violence against women leads to women coming to prison and then the violence they experience there, all the while highlighting important data and facts that shed light on incarceration and our commitment to restorative justice models. 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.

Read more from the Dispatches from Beyond Incarceration series here

“Free in the Time of Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter Movement” by Roslyn Smith, V-Day Beyond Incarceration Project Manager 9 June 2020

“We are a society that has been structured from top to bottom by race. You don’t get beyond that by deciding not to talk about it anymore. It will always come back; it will always reassert itself over and over again.” – Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw

I was released from prison in October of 2018 and have been home now for a year and eight months. I remember counting the years and days of my confinement with a heavy heart, now I count my days of freedom with pleasure and gratitude. We measure time in many different ways but for me these are the most precious of times, not only because I am free, but because I am experiencing history for Black Americans in my own backyard.

The police killing of George Floyd combined with the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the festering sore of indifference for the most marginalized groups of people in society. This legacy of slavery and white supremacy that America has perpetrated for far too long needs to be addressed and dismantled.


(Roz at the Justice for George Floyd protest at the Barclays Center, Brooklyn 29 May 2020, at Rage Rejoice Rise event at Middle Church 26 February 2019)

For the last several days and nights of protest, Americans are confronting the systemic racism in our country with a vengeance, we are coming out in numbers, strong and powerful. We are tired of the blatant injustices put upon black shoulders each and every day of our lives for centuries. We are tired of being left out of the conversations. We are tired of being portrayed as menacing, threatening, dangerous, lazy and no good. We are tired of our Black men and women being killed by the police. I mourn for George Perry Floyd, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice and all the other men and women whose lives were taken. I mourn for the known and unknown and not just about police brutality but for the racism that permeates our world and provides a platform for this injustice that dictates that it’s ok to murder Black people and their lives have less significance than whites.

I am saddened and outraged by our history of lynching/killing/executing black people, the knees of white racist America has been on our necks too long and change is in the making, justice has been denied for far too long. We have suffered with our children having the most inferior schools and educators, our neighborhoods are food deserts with liquor stores on every corner, our communities are without adequate resources available for mental and physical health care, we are discriminated against in housing and job opportunities and are unproportionally herded into the criminal justice system because of the color of our skin.

We are in dire times with a demagogue president who continues bombarding the media with deliberate seditious rhetoric, who campaigned against the Central Park Five in 1989, and was furious about Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to protest in silence. Who reportedly tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” the racially charged statement that dates back to the civil rights era and is known to have been invoked in 1967 by a white police chief Walter Headly during hearings about crime in Florida city.

“The challenge of the 21st century is not to demand equal opportunity in the machinery of oppression, but rather to identify and dismantle those structures in which racism continues to be embedded.” – Angela Davis

This pandemic spotlights the indifference towards the black population and the poor in our society who are dying at three times the rates of whites. The movement that is sweeping this country is one that has finally reached its time. This has been the perfect environment for change, with the pandemic that occurred and Floyd’s unnecessary death at the hands of police. Now is the time for change, now is the time for open discussion and now is the time to reimagine the world we want to live in. We can’t change what happened in the past, but we can determine what happens in our future. We can get this right!

In Solidarity,

Roslyn Smith
V-Day Beyond Incarceration Project Manager

READ Roz’s ongoing blog series, DISPATCHES FROM BEYOND INCARCERATION

SUPPORT black led grassroots groups, engage in racial justice work and system change. We encourage you to research who is doing the work in your immediate community, follow their lead on how you can best help, and use social media to amplify and support.


Roslyn Smith, V-Day’s Beyond Incarceration Project Manager, has been writing blog posts as part of V-Day’s 2019 Spotlight on Women in Prison, Detention Centers, and Formerly Incarcerated Women.

In her newly expanded blog, Dispatches from Beyond Incarceration, Roz writes an ongoing series about her experiences as a formerly incarcerated women, including short and long dispatches on prison reform and prison abolition, often highlighting news articles around the experiences of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, pieces highlighting what she’s thinking about, what she’s worried about, including interviews with formerly incarcerated women, stories from prison, visions of a world without prison, how violence against women leads to women coming to prison and then the violence they experience there, all the while highlighting important data and facts that shed light on incarceration and our commitment to restorative justice models. 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.

Read more from the Dispatches from Beyond Incarceration series here

“Covid-19: The First Reported Death at The Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women” by Roslyn Smith, V-Day Beyond Incarceration Project Manager 4 May 2020

Covid-19 is an unprecedented and unpredictable global crisis, a defining moment in our history. This virus has affected everyone, but not equally. The deep structural inequalities in economics, health care systems, prisons, race, class and gender around the world are being exposed with devastating results to the most vulnerable people, particularly women.

The general population at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility was informed about the death of a fellow resident Lulu, on April 29th, 2020. There were 627 women housed there; now one is gone and we mourn for her with her family and friends.

This is a sad time for all of us, especially for me. I did my entire 39 year sentence at Bedford Hills. The women there are my family and dearest friends. I love and care deeply for them and have vowed to fight for their rights and dignity. Most of these women are past the age of 50 and many have poor health issues that are not being addressed properly. Visiting has been suspended indefinitely and phone calls are limited to within an hour time frame along with taking a shower, washing clothing, fixing a meal or going to the kiosk to send an email or download a book. The mess hall has limited food to dispense and the commissary is short on supplies. The women must be so lonely and frightened at this time my heart is broken, especially for the children who haven’t seen their mothers since this began and for the woman in federal prison who was serving a 26-month sentence and died of Covid-19 several weeks after giving birth to her child while on a ventilator.

We knew that this time would come and yet we diligently prayed for a different outcome. Unfortunately, 2 women have succumbed to Covid-19 while detained in prison. Despite the many efforts of Freedom Fighters/Advocacy groups for criminal justice reform and decarceration, who voiced their concerns by submitting letters, petitions, rallying, holding events and forums on Zoom, Facebook and other social media outlets about the safety and vulnerability of incarcerated people, many will die. Since April 26, 2020 there have been 21 positive cases of Covid-19 and 4 recoveries reported at Bedford Hills facility.

Are we so hell bent on punishment that we no longer see that all life is precious? Does being incarcerated now, because of Covid-19, denote a death sentence? We are supposed to be protecting the most vulnerable of society – our elders and those with underlying health issues that make them subsequently at risk of contracting Covid-19.

V-Day is raising funds for our incarcerated sisters at Bedford Hills this Mother’s Day to provide them with care packages of food and essentials to help ease conditions and to let them know we care.

Please support the Mother’s Day Fund for Incarcerated Women.
Donate at vday.org/mothersdayfund

Your donation will provide much needed support and hope for women in these uncertain times. This is an opportunity for all of us to come together, help one another and heal each other even if they are incarcerated.

For additional reading, please visit:


Roslyn Smith, V-Day’s Beyond Incarceration Project Manager, has been writing blog posts as part of V-Day’s 2019 Spotlight on Women in Prison, Detention Centers, and Formerly Incarcerated Women.

In her newly expanded blog, Dispatches from Beyond Incarceration, Roz writes an ongoing series about her experiences as a formerly incarcerated women, including short and long dispatches on prison reform and prison abolition, often highlighting news articles around the experiences of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, pieces highlighting what she’s thinking about, what she’s worried about, including interviews with formerly incarcerated women, stories from prison, visions of a world without prison, how violence against women leads to women coming to prison and then the violence they experience there, all the while highlighting important data and facts that shed light on incarceration and our commitment to restorative justice models. 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.

Read more from the Dispatches from Beyond Incarceration series here

“Covid-19 & Incarceration” by Roslyn Smith, V-Day Beyond Incarceration Project Manager 21 March 2020

This virus is affecting all of us, those in prison are especially vulnerable. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, nearly 2.3 million people are held in prisons and jails nationwide (Prison Policy Initiative).

Prison populations cannot “self-isolate,”  “social distance” or “flatten the curve,” nor are they allowed sanitizing gel or disinfectant liquids because it is considered contraband. Most of the time they don’t even have running water in their cells.

Prison populations tend to have higher rates of elderly people (due to longer sentences) with serious health issues. In addition, the prison staff come and go each eight hour shift, which increases the risk of the disease spreading to their families and communities. Prisons and jails often lack adequate sanitization practices or health care, putting those inside ever more at risk.

Prisons are holding pens for massive amounts of people forcefully grouped together at various times throughout the day, such as 3 times a day for “chow” (mess hall), “yard” (recreation) the dormitories  house over 10 people in close quarters. It’s a breeding ground for death and disaster.

An employee at New York’s Sing Sing prison tested positive for the virus. I can’t help but wonder how many more have Covid-19 but have not been tested or reported. How many people are at risk due to insufficient tests?

The New York State Department of Corrections decided to suspend visits at its 52 correctional facilities in New York in effect from 24 March 2020 till 11 April 2020. Some measures are being taken to provide those inside with 5 free stamped envelopes, 2 free messaging on tablets and 1 free phone call per week.

On 13 March 2020, The Justice Collaborative hosted a national webinar on Covid-19 and how that will impact the criminal, legal and immigrant detention systems.. The panel consisted of experts in the criminal justice field as well as lawyers, medical professionals who work in prisons, and activists to discuss best how to protect prisoners from Covid-19.

Advocates are calling for the release of people at risk in prisons, jails and detention centers. In Los Angeles, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Ohio jails, some people have been released.  Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Presley called on President Donald Trump to exercise his authority to reduce the federal prison population.

We must call our Governors and Mayors to demand that people most at risk be released and those confined be given proper education and tools to ensure safety for all. In addition, we must call on prosecutors to exercise discretion to reduce the number of people in jails and the police to exercise discretion by limiting stops and warrant enforcement to situations where there is an imminent concern for public safety.

The gravity of this situation cannot be overstated. People on the inside are at serious risk and we must take action now to prevent unnecessary death.

TAKE ACTION NOW:

The ACLU is calling on President Trump and state governors to follow public health expert advice by releasing individuals vulnerable to Covid-19 from jails and prisons. Add your name HERE because this is an essential step to stopping the spread of the pandemic.

For additional reading, please visit:


Roslyn Smith, V-Day’s Beyond Incarceration Project Manager, has been writing blog posts as part of V-Day’s 2019 Spotlight on Women in Prison, Detention Centers, and Formerly Incarcerated Women.

In her newly expanded blog, Dispatches from Beyond Incarceration, Roz writes an ongoing series about her experiences as a formerly incarcerated women, including short and long dispatches on prison reform and prison abolition, often highlighting news articles around the experiences of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, pieces highlighting what she’s thinking about, what she’s worried about, including interviews with formerly incarcerated women, stories from prison, visions of a world without prison, how violence against women leads to women coming to prison and then the violence they experience there, all the while highlighting important data and facts that shed light on incarceration and our commitment to restorative justice models. 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.

Read more from the Dispatches from Beyond Incarceration series here

Life In Prison 18 November 2019

Gabriel Sanchez’ article “Here’s What It’s Like For A Woman To Serve Life In Prison” (Buzzfeed, September 12, 2019, by Gabriel H. Sanchez) highlights the work of Sara Bennet’s “PhotovilleNYC”, who represented me in the early 90’s when I was applying for clemency. My first petition was sent when Governor Pataki was in office and then another one when Patterson took over, both denied my petitions. The women in this article, (many of whom I know) from my 39 years spent at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the only maximum security prison for women in New York, are only sharing glimpses of hope they may have or the psychological place they were in during some point in their incarceration, highlighting what they may be feeling or have felt.I read many of the responses and just feel as though people really need to understand what our criminal justice system is really doing to women especially handing down these draconian sentences they impose on them. I have been in groups with many of them and can attest to the remorse they expressed time and time again. As a person who was incarcerated I will NEVER forget the victims of the crime nor the pain and heartache I have caused in their families and friends lives. I live with that shame and despair each and every day, free or bond and being constantly judged by that one criminal act that constitutes for me and many, the biggest mistake of our lives, is not helping to heal anyone. I just ask that we begin to educate ourselves and know that “But for the grace of God go I.” Look at the history of who is being locked up, look at where they come from, their backgrounds will tell you the whole story and also know that many people are being released who are innocent of any crimes but guilty of being poor and black or brown. What can we do as a society to change the criminal justice system that imprisons 15 year old children until they are senior citizens, that takes a mother who is protecting herself and her children from an abusive husband or partner and gives her 25 years to life, while her children are placed in foster care and she loses all parental rights of having any contact with them again, no phone calls or visits, a system that fabricates evidence and uses coercion to get a false confession. Now it is targeting immigrants and separating and imprisoning them and their children who are fleeing from horrific violence and abuse. Let’s ask what is wrong and how can we change it, instead of concentrating on what someone did. There is always a bigger story than the actual crime. Trauma and abuse runs rampant in our society and we really need to stop inflicting it on our most vulnerable people, our poor. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

Babies Behind Bars 18 November 2019

“Women’s prison opens nursery for mothers, babies behind bars”
(The Blade, September 16, 2019, Kaitlin Durbin)

The women’s prison in Marysville, Ohio has just opened up a new $2 million dollar addition to their nursery for women to promote family bonding. It is refreshing to know that some states in the US are seeing the importance of having a child bond with their mother despite the fact they they are incarcerated. Statistics have proven that the more social experience a child has with a person, the more likely the child will become attached to that person. This initial social tie between mother and child serves as a prototype for all future relationships. This practice is also helpful in teaching new mothers and mothers who may lack parenting skills, the necessary tools to raise healthy children and become better parents. I was fortunate to be able to bond with my daughter and gain vital skills from prenatal and parenting courses that were available at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, one of the first of its kind to have a nursery for incarcerated women. Unfortunately I did not fit the criteria and had to send my daughter home after 8 weeks.

America has the largest prison population in the world and the biggest female prison population and it’s growing (Sawyer and Wagner, Prison Policy Initiative). Far too many of our lawmakers and politicians fail to think progressively about the future of the women they put behind bars as well as the long term effects that these laws have on the lives of their children. Programs geared to encourage and support a healthier community for incarcerated mothers and their children will help to keep mothers from recidivism and reduce the chance that the child will become an offender. We have to engage our rights as citizens by getting educated about the mass incarceration of our sisters and create opportunities for the most marginalized groups in our own communities. I strongly recommend that anyone interested should look for shelters, jails and prisons or local faith based organizations and women’s groups that support these venues by volunteering and get involved with. We can all make a difference in the lives of women and children. With the political climate so strongly opposed to women’s rights, we can not let our voices go unheard.

To read more about the issue:

A Free Woman’s Hunt for Affordable Housing 18 November 2019

I am having the most incredible experience of trying to find housing after being incarcerated for 39 years.

The graces have been with me and I have a dream job thanks to the connections I acquired while incarcerated, yet the picture is still not complete. I need a place to call my own. It’s been 10 months that I’m free and I have been faced with so many harsh realities of just what freedom looks like, feels like and actually is, especially for women such as myself, whose past includes having served a lengthy sentence. There have been many amazing experiences I’ve encountered such as going to the beach and smelling the salty ocean, taking driving lessons and failing my first road test (I drove up onto the curb because I was so nervous, which resulted in an immediate fail, LOL, going out with friends to really elegant restaurants, walking down the crowded streets of the city and just absorbing it all. Doing so many wonderful things that I was unable to do, locked behind the barbed prison walls for 39 years.

I thought it would be relatively simple to find an apartment and yet once again reality slaps me in the face like a hard brick.The truth is I had no expectations except that I would get an apartment and live independently. I definitely didn’t know how hard getting housing could be and now I’m finding out some hard truths about the process of gentrification and the lack of housing for the poor, mentally ill, homeless and people who have been incarcerated.

My journey began in May 2019 after I decided to leave the program in which I was paroled. In all honesty the program was wonderful but just not a good fit for me. I felt like I was still incarcerated and after 39 years I wanted a less institutionalized residence, somewhere that I could feel like it was a home or my house, without all the rules of cleaning and cooking and showering. I moved in with my stepmother and we agreed on a set price for rent. I would provide my own food and personal hygiene items, help with cleaning, without having to be told what day and time, and I’d have access to a quaint little backyard and could invite friends over without restrictive hours or days of the week. This felt exciting and liberating, this is what my freedom was all about or at least that’s what the vision was. Sometimes I tell myself I have been wrong on so many things since being liberated, yet I damn sure know I don’t long for those prison cells.

I have a job and finally could afford to pay someone rent, take care of myself and contribute money and time to the upkeep of my new home. I was living my best life yet. The time came to pay my rent and I was gung-ho to hand over my money and show that I was responsible and willing to partner with my stepmom on this. The next month comes and I was hit with an electric and gas bill that I was not expecting and felt that she should have mentioned this when we first discussed my fee for rent. I felt a little betrayed and naive because when I said something to her about it she said “You use lights, watch TV, blow dry your hair, shower, iron and cook, well, sweetie pie, all these things take electricity and I have to pay the bills.” Wow that really hit me hard – wasn’t she was supposed to be helping me save money, not extracting every dime I earned? Oh how I vented my frustration with other friends, some of whom agreed that it should have been mentioned initially and others who just said welcome to freedom. Reality sure slapped me across the face and I vowed to go search for my own place to live.

So the hunt begins. I’m on several different sites: Zillow, renthop, hotpads, StreetEasy, Facebook, Zumper, rent.com, nyvApts, apartmentlist, nyconnect as well as Craigslist.

I signed up for New York Housing Connect Lottery when I first came home, having no income, on public assistance, receiving checks for food and rent at the halfway house I was living in, clueless thatI needed a decent credit score, a voucher (from some program), rent receipts, pay stubs (which were non existent at the time), a list of my assets (the clothes on my back) and a bank account. I thought they would accept me because I just came home and they would surely give me a place to live until I was able to get a job and take care of myself, but the hard truth is that without a history of work it’s extremely hard to be approved for an apartment.

My hunt is ongoing, I learned to utilize connections with community housing groups such as Fifth Avenue Committee and Neighbors Helping Neighbors, an affiliate. In Brooklyn where they have meetings to inform the interested community about current applications available, how to qualify and fill out the application properly so that you will have a better chance at being called and then selected. The thing is they might call you but it’s no guarantee you will get a place to live. It’s important to make sure you have all the necessary paperwork once you are called for an interview (the list is provided on the site). I’ve enlisted the help of friends, hoping they know someone who is renting or subletting. I also connected with an organization that may help assist me with subsidized housing, which requires a referral from my parole officer in order for them to help me, and my P.O agreed to provide the letter. It’s been a few weeks and I’m still waiting.

Wait wait wait…I call everyday just to check and see if she emailed it to me, still waiting…There are so many unnecessary rules, such as providing a years worth of paystubs and rent receipts, having a credit score of 700 or more, a salary 40 times the monthly rent and if you have a guarantor they have to have a salary of 80 times the rent and in some cases much more. It’s as if the system is designed to discourage people from pursuing getting housing. But I have to go to these places and get them involved if I want a place to call home.

Despite all the running around and figuring out the rules I can say that I’m hopeful that I will find a decent place to live, maybe not this month or the next but I have never been one to give up easily. My advice to anyone is to stick with it, learn as much as you can, go to the meetings, enlist friends, families and anyone in the housing business because you’re going to need all the help you can get. Happy hunting.

Opioid Addiction 18 November 2019

Opioid addiction is just one component of mass incarceration. In the past several years it has bombarded our daily news feed. We hear about the opioid crisis throughout the United States and different approaches to ending it, creating safe measures to eliminate overdoses or finding ways to help people who have been diagnosed with this condition. This is a major breakthrough because years ago while black and brown people and war veterans were addicted no one really cared. They were sent to prison and jails or just left to die in the streets. I think the conversation is important to address and seriously look at as well as question the people who make our laws in this country. Although measures have been taken to address this epidemic there are still many marginalized groups of addicts denied drug treatment program. This crisis has been around before prescription drug use became prevalent and its still relevant. There are more women being sentenced to prison because of opioid use, whether it’s prescription drugs or heroin and there should be measures during prison and post incarceration to help and assist their needs.

The Women’s prison in Oregon has taken a huge step in addressing the needs of women diagnosed with opioid addiction by creating programs prior to release to ameliorate the recidivism rate from drugs. Every prison should look at this program and model it, or create something similar to support the success of people diagnosed with addiction being released.

If we are going to heal our world we have to start with our communities.

To read more about the issue: