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.

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: