New Report Looks at Strategies to Cut Incarceration of Illinois Women by Half

Truthout

Victoria Law
April 29, 2021

Colette Payne (right) speaks at the annual Mother’s Day vigil, organized by Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, outside Cook County Jail in Chicago. Payne and other organizers at the Women’s Justice Institute released a report detailing the impact of incarceration on women and explaining how to dramatically reduce the Illinois women’s prison population. SARAH-JI

Between 1980 and 2014, the number of women incarcerated across the United States increased by 700 percent. In Illinois, women’s incarceration increased by 767 percent during that same time period. While that number has slowly decreased over the past two decades, the 1,418 women in the state’s prisons at the end of 2020 is still more than quadruple the 401 women imprisoned in 1980. (These numbers only include people in Illinois’s “women’s prisons;” they exclude people in women’s jails and trans women in men’s jails and prisons.)

In July 2018, the Women’s Justice Institute (WJI), a Chicago-based nonprofit, convened a Women’s Justice Task Force to create strategies to reduce the state’s women’s prison population by at least 50 percent.

Halving the women’s prison population may not be as difficult as some might imagine. In 2020, as COVID-19 swept the nation, arrests decreased, courts came to a standstill and jails stopped sending many people to prisons after sentencing. Admissions to Illinois’s women’s prisons fell by nearly 50 percent, decreasing the number of women in prison by over 37 percent from 2,264 in December 2019 to 1,418 one year later.

The Task Force’s new report, “Redefining the Narrative,” not only highlights the realities of women’s incarceration, but also charts ways to halve the state’s female prison population, reduce the harms caused by current policies, and improve the lives of women, children, families and communities most devastated by mass incarceration. While its scope is limited to Illinois, the report reflects the reality of women’s incarceration nationwide.

The Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline

Women of color experience higher rates of domestic and sexual violence than their white counterparts. An estimated 4 in 10 Black women have experienced intimate partner violence. They are more than twice as likely to be killed by their partner than white women. At the same time, Black women are disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated and, in many cases, their experiences of abuse are ignored or disbelieved.

The WJI report includes the experiences of Black women who have experienced both domestic violence and incarceration, like Paris Knox and Tewkunzi Green. In 2007, Knox was convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years after defending herself from her ex-boyfriend’s attack. She spent 13 years in prison before her conviction was vacated for ineffective legal counsel, thanks to the long-term work of organizers. In February 2018, she pled guilty to second-degree murder, was given time served and released from prison. In 2009, Green was convicted after defending herself from a boyfriend’s assault and sentenced to 34 years in prison. In November 2020, under sustained pressure from organizers to free Green, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker granted her clemency and she was released from prison.

Even when abuse has not directly contributed to the criminalized action, women with histories of abuse and neglect are 77 percent more likely to be arrested than those without those histories. A survey at Logan Correctional Center, Illinois’s largest women’s prison, found that more than 99 percent of those surveyed had experienced abuse and intimidation during their lives.

The entanglement of gender-based violence and incarceration is not limited to Illinois. Across the country, 86 percent of women in jails reported experiencing sexual violence; 77 percent also reported having experienced partner violence.

In a handful of states, lawmakers, at the urging of advocates, are considering or passing laws allowing survivors of gender-based violence a second chance. In 2015, Illinois passed the Corrections-Mitigating Factor Act, allowing abuse survivors to petition for resentencing if evidence of their abuse was not introduced during sentencing. Since then, only two women have been released from prison under the new statute. The WJI report notes that other women’s petitions have been rejected under the erroneous assumption that the law is not retroactive. It recommends that the law’s language be clarified and that those whose petitions had previously been denied have the chance to refile.

In 2019, after nearly a decade of advocacy, New York passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, allowing judges to consider the role of abuse in sentencing and, for those already sentenced, the opportunity for resentencing. Since the law was passed, two women were convicted in the deaths of their boyfriends. Both petitioned to have abuse considered at sentencing as directed by the new law. In both cases, the judges denied to consider abuse under the new law and sentenced them to prison.

As of March 2021, several dozen women who had been sentenced in previous years have applied for resentencing. Ten have been resentenced: four were released from prison, while the remaining six, who had already been released from prison, were able to have their post-prison supervision shortened. Others, however, have had their applications for resentencing denied and remain imprisoned.

Organizers in other states have pushed for similar bills, allowing judges to consider the role that domestic violence played when sentencing survivors, but most have yet to see success. In Oklahoma and Oregon, similar bills failed. In California, a similar bill is winding its way through legislative committees.

In courts across the country, prosecutors decide which charges to pursue or dismiss. In Cook County, Illinois, after urging from advocates, the state attorney’s office reduced charges against one abuse survivor and dismissed charges against another. The “Redefining the Narrative” report recommends that state actors, such as prosecutors and courts, utilize their power to reduce or dismiss charges. It also recommends the creation and funding of diversion services for survivors of gender-based violence as well as changes to laws that currently punish them for defending themselves or engaging in criminalized actions under the coercion of abusive partners.

“There Is All This Talk About the #MeToo Movement, But Who Is Fighting for Us?”

When she was 18 years old, Celia Colón was sexually assaulted while in Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Terrified and without a support system, she did not report the assault. “Who was going to believe me, someone in a jail cell, vs. an officer?” Colón said. “The answer was no one.”

Twenty-five years later, incarcerated women are still often dismissed when they come forward about sexual violence and misconduct. Logan Correctional Center had 115 reported cases of sexual misconduct between 2015 and 2017; only five of those claims were determined to be substantiated. A lack of substantiation does not mean that an assault did not occur; it simply indicates that investigators report that they did not find enough evidence to determine whether it occurred.

The lack of substantiation isn’t limited to Illinois. Nationwide, of the 24,661 reports of sexual victimization in prisons in 2015, only 1,473 (less than 6 percent) were determined to be substantiated by prison authorities. Between 2012 and 2015, there were 67,168 reports of sexual victimization; prison authorities completed investigations for 61,316 and found 5,187 (8 percent) to be substantiated. (These are the latest data available from the Department of Justice.)

A 2019 survey at New York’s largest women’s prison, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, found that 74 percent of women surveyed had witnessed violence or abuse by staff; 53 percent had personally experienced staff violence or abuse.

Colón has been out of prison for over 20 years and, as the founder of Giving Others Dreams, facilitates mental health workshops for those currently in the jail. (Like other programs, the workshops are paused because of the coronavirus.) But, because she did not report the assault, she still encounters disbelief and skepticism when she shares her story. “There is all this talk about the #MeToo movement, but who is fighting for us?” she asked.

That’s what Tracey Nadirah Shaw, a 52-year-old incarcerated in Pennsylvania, wants to know. Shaw entered prison in 1996. Shortly after, she says she was heading to the evening meal when a prison officer instructed her to follow him to the basement. There, he raped her.

Like Colón, Shaw did not report the rape, explaining that not only did she have to see him daily, but also, the officer had threatened to hurt her family if she said anything about what happened. The rapes continued for four years, stopping only after Shaw was moved to a different housing unit.

Seven years later, in 2013, she learned that the officer was applying to become the manager of her unit. This time, she contacted her family and the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an outside monitoring agency. She also reported his assaults. In response, she was transferred from the prison at Muncy, a two-hour drive from her family in Philadelphia, to Cambridge Springs, a six-hour drive across the state. She was later told that prison investigators dismissed her claims as not only unfounded but, because so much time had elapsed, frivolous. “I can tell you there is nothing frivolous about being raped,” she wrote in a letter to Truthout.

The majority of people in women’s prisons have experienced sexual violence before arrest. Once in prison, they often face even more. Even when they are not overtly sexually assaulted, prison policies, such as strip searches and invasive pat-down searches, can be retraumatizing.

The Women’s Justice Task Force report recommends that prisons provide a safe and confidential way for women to report sexual abuse and other harmful conditions. This includes the creation of an independent ombudsman as well as a greater number of phones and kiosks so that women can report without being overheard. The report also recommends overhauling strip search policies and the creation of a statewide task force to create a plan to eliminate sexual assault and staff misconduct in jails and prisons.

“Moms and Babies Won’t Stop Needing to Be Together After the Pandemic Is Over”

Across the country, approximately 1.5 million children currently have a parent behind bars. Illinois ranks sixth in the nation, with one of every 20 children having experienced parental incarceration. Some were born while their parent was incarcerated; one was even born on the floor of the prison shower after medical and prison staff dismissed a woman’s labor pains. Between 2016 and 2018, 94 babies were born in Illinois prisons.

Illinois is one of seven states with a prison nursery, where incarcerated mothers can spend up to two years with their newborns. But the state’s Moms and Babies program has only eight slots and, though Illinois prisons incarcerate an average of 30 pregnant people each year, the program has rarely filled more than half of those slots in recent years. Admission requirements are strict — women must be convicted of a nonviolent offense, not have a history of child welfare involvement, and not have objections from the baby’s other parent or other immediate family members. Women who have outstanding warrants because they failed to pay past fines and fees can also be denied entry to the program. The program stipulates that mothers must be within two years of release, but mothers who are close to release, like Emily French who had two months remaining on her sentence, might be denied as well.

In March 2020, as COVID began exploding throughout the nation’s prisons, Illinois released the five mother-baby duos and one pregnant person in its Moms and Babies program as well as nearly all of the 17 pregnant people in its pregnancy unit. Danielle, who was only identified by her first name in the report, was able to give birth outside prison after being released from the pregnancy unit. She reflected, “I have to wonder, if we could release all of the pregnant women to be with their babies because of the pandemic, why can’t we do it all of the time? Moms and babies won’t stop needing to be together after the pandemic is over.” The Moms and Babies program remains empty though the prison has started accepting newly sentenced people, including those who are pregnant.

New York also has a prison nursery program which can hold 27 mother-baby duos, at its Bedford Hills prison. At the start of the pandemic, officials released nearly all of the mothers and babies. One year later, however, its prisons began accepting new arrivals, including pregnant people and new mothers into its nursery program. COVID soon followed, with 108 women testing positive at Bedford Hills by mid-April, including at least two mothers and three babies in its nursery.

“Redefining the Narrative” is filled with recommendations to halve the state’s female prison population and strengthen individuals, families and communities.

Illinois actually has two laws that could allow for rapid decarceration of its women’s prisons. The 1998 Women’s and Children’s Pre-release Community Supervision Program Act directs the state to establish a community-based program allowing mothers and their young children to live together outside of prison. The directive has been underutilized, according to the report: Only one program, the Women’s Treatment Center in Chicago, has been contracted and has received only three women from prison during a four-year period.

The other law, the 2019 Children’s Best Interest Act, requires courts to consider the impact of imprisoning a parent or caregiver in sentencing them for a nonviolent felony. That year, approximately 947 imprisoned mothers might have qualified. But the law, which went into effect in January 2020, is not retroactiveIf it was, sending even 10 percent of these mothers to a community-based program would reduce the prison population by 101; 25 percent would mean a reduction of 253 in the prison population.

The report recommends expanding the 1998 law, including contracting with more community-based programs and approving more mothers to enter these programs. It also recommends the statewide implementation of the Children’s Best Interest Act, which would not only decrease the numbers in women’s prisons, but also prevent the separation of children and parents.

The recommendations don’t stop inside prisons. They also include strengthening resources outside of prisons and in communities, including access to safe and affordable housing, an end to gendered pay inequality, affordable child care, accessible health and mental health care, and paid family and medical leave. “Redefining the Narrative” recommends investing in resources that prevent gender-based violence, from age-appropriate education about consent and violence prevention for children to programs that support people who have engaged in such violence, and greater services and supports for those who have experienced this violence.

“Decarceration work cannot occur by exclusively addressing risk factors,” the report states. “Rather, it must focus on building the protective factors that must exist for women — before, during and after their criminal justice involvement and incarceration — to prevent their system contact and entrenchment.”

As Willette Benford, who spent over two decades in prison and now works as a decarceration organizer with LiveFree Illinois, an organization working to end mass incarceration and gun violence, said, “Keeping women in prison does not keep us safe.”

Highlights from CURB’s People’s Plan for Prison Closure

Black and vulnerable communities have been ‘disappeared’ into California’s prisons for forty years. The price of this social abandonment is of course incalculable. How can we begin to address racism in America with a response that is anything less than unapologetically bold? Closing ten prisons in five years would be a truly bold step toward accountability and racial justice in the interest of public health.

Accomplishing our goal of closing ten prisons in five years will be hard. It will require political courage. But history is watching us, and waiting for California to finally address what are the most significant moral and ethical issues of our time. California sentences one in four women to life in prison, which is a higher proportion of women serving life sentences than anywhere else in the country.

The case for closing all women’s prisons is articulated through the lived experience of formerly and currently incarcerated women, TGI folks and their allies. It will be articulated further in CURB’s forthcoming report (2021-22) calling for the closure of all women’s prisons in California. We know that people in women’s prisons can be incredible community builders who can follow paths to wholeness–when and if they receive the respect and support they deserve. Isn’t that what all people need? If we can imagine a world without women’s prisons, what else could we achieve with a deeper shift in thinking? We hope The People’s Plan for Prison Closure sparks such a shift. 


From CURB: The People’s Plan for Prison Closure is a visionary roadmap detailing:

  • Ten prisons directly impacted people prioritized for closure, and why
  • An analysis of cost-savings to be captured and reinvested in prison-adjacent communities. 
  • Data-driven information about the roles racism and draconian sentencing continue to play in both prison expansion and overcrowding
  • The case for closing all women’s prisons in California 

Prison abolition will uplift our society’s needs. Cages are used to “solve” problems created by political actors and failed policies. People have intrinsic value that can and must not be so easily discarded. Let’s leave what we know has failed us where it belongs: in the dustbin of our state’s history. It’s time to build a stronger future for California.


CCWP will be working on the CURB report calling for the closure of all women’s prisons in California in the next year!

Read and share the report:  Bit.ly/CloseCAPrisonsReport

Social Media Toolkit: Bit.ly/ClosePrisons2021

Announcing the 2021 Docs in Action Film Fund Recipients

The history of the prison industrial complex is rooted in slavery and colonization, with an inherent purpose of reinforcing oppressive social and economic injustices. It’s driven by market forces that use surveillance, policing, violence and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems. It is exacted by police officers, guards, ICE officers, and others that enforce state violence. Brutality and racism has always been the norm. The system is working how it was designed, and reform measures will always fall short. 

To illuminate these realities and get to a world free of police and prisons – we need stories. Stories that share the history and harm of these institutions, stories that show people pushing back and taking action, and stories that bring forth irresistible visions of a future with humane and just alternatives to policing and incarceration. This was the intention of the Docs in Action request for proposals, which sought to fund short nonfiction films that can help define and amplify what prison industrial complex abolition means, and that inspire people to imagine and take action toward a world without police and prisons.

We are excited and honored to announce the recipients of the 2021 Docs in Action Film Fund. $125,000 was awarded to five filmmakers to complete short films that embody these narratives. They include: Adamu Chan for What These Walls Won’t Hold, Erika Cohn for Belly of the Beast (short version), Walidah Imarisha for Space to Breathe, Sylvia Ryerson for Restorative Radio, and Khary Septh for Pen Pals

The complexities of abolition are deeply layered. It is both historical and imaginative. This is why narrative is such a crucial component of the abolitionist movement. “Abolition contains multitudes,” Red Schulte, Organizer with Survived & Punished New York, reflects on the ongoing work and struggle. “A central aspect to me, an aspect that keeps me recommitted to these politics and relationship experiments, is the creativity and imagination that abolition demands. Making visual narratives, like films, making our own media is so crucial to shifting social and cultural norms, beliefs and commitments. Resourcing people to make their art, to document our movements, to imagine different worlds — that has to be part of our political agenda.”

Working Films launched the Docs In Action Film Fund in 2018 to support the production of short documentaries that address critical issues of social and environmental justice. This year, we evolved how Docs In Action funding decisions are made. Because we believe that grassroots leaders and directly impacted people should hold the power to determine what stories are told and what films are funded to serve their movements, we ceded our role on the grant panel. The funded films were selected by our partners, which include Center for Political EducationCritical ResistanceMPD150, and Survived & Punished

The intentionality to build power from the ground up is echoed in the words of Aminah Elster, Campaign & Policy Coordinator with the CA Coalition for Women Prisoners and organizer with Survived & Punished CA, “The overall process of the DIA panel allowed for proximate leaders working towards abolition at various intersections, to truly have a hand in selecting the narratives that most accurately reflect and amplify what our communities have long been experiencing.” 


The 2021 Docs In Action Film Fund recipients include:

What These Walls Won’t Hold by Adamu Chan

The COVID-19 crisis inside California prisons has claimed the lives of over 200 incarcerated people and infected tens of thousands more. This film tracks the origins of COVID-19 inside the California state prison system and a newly formed coalition, led by currently and formerly incarcerated people, that brought forward an abolitionist framework to a life or death situation. What These Walls Won’t Hold explores how relationships, built on trust, shared liberatory struggle, and connections across broader abolitionist organizing work, can unfold into sites of resistance and radical change.

Adamu Chan is a filmmaker, writer, and community organizer from the Bay Area who was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison during one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. He produced numerous short films while incarcerated, using his vantage point and experience as an incarcerated person as a lens to focus the viewer’s gaze on issues related to social justice. Adamu draws inspiration and energy from the voices of those directly impacted, and seeks to empower them to reshape the narratives that have been created about them through film.

What These Walls Won’t Hold is produced by Christian Collins and Adamu Chan.


Space to Breathe by Walidah Imarisha, Jordan Flaherty, and Kate Trumbull-LaValle, in collaboration with Calvin Williams of Wakanda Dream Lab

Space to Breathe is an Afrofuturist science fiction hybrid documentary. The film is set in a future where there are no prisons or police, looking back at how today’s movements built that future.

Walidah Imarisha is an educator at Portland State University’s Black Studies Department and a writer. Her work includes Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements and Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison and Redemption. Jordan Flaherty is an award-winning journalist, producer, and author. You can see more of his work at jordanflaherty.org. Kate Trumbull-LaValle is an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker. She directed Ovarian Psycos (2016), Artist and Mother (2018), City Rising: The Informal Economy (2018), and she co-produced two of five episodes for the groundbreaking PBS series, Asian Americans (2020). Over the past 20 years, Calvin Williams has been worldbuilding for liberation as a dynamic cultural strategist & policy futurist, and is Co-founder and Creative Director for Wakanda Dream Lab.

Restorative Radio by Sylvia Ryerson

Every Monday night, Michelle Griffin dials into WMMT-FM community radio’s Calls from Home, to send a message over the airwaves to her husband, imprisoned 400 miles away. For thousands incarcerated in Central Appalachia, the show provides a lifeline to the world outside. Restorative Radio tells the stories of family and friends who call in, and those who listen in from prison. Directed by a former DJ of the show, the film portrays the many forms of distance that rural prison building creates — and the ceaseless search to overcome this regime of family separation and racial apartheid.

Sylvia Ryerson is a multimedia artist, journalist and PhD candidate in American Studies at Yale University. Prior to graduate school she worked at the Appalshop media arts and education center in Whitesburg, KY, where she served as a reporter, producer and WMMT-FM Director of Public Affairs. She co-directed and hosted Appalshop’s Calls from Home radio show, broadcasting music and toll-free phone messages from family members to their loved ones incarcerated, and Making Connections News, a multimedia storytelling project documenting efforts for a Just Appalachian Transition. She currently co-produces Melting the ICE / Derritiendo el Hielo, a bilingual radio show broadcasting testimonios and information to people detained by ICE in New Jersey. Her academic and artistic work has appeared on Kentucky Educational Television (KET), the BBC, NPR’s The Takeaway and Here and Now, the Third Coast International Audio Festival, in American Quarterly, the Boston ReviewThe Marshall Project, and Critical Resistance’s The Abolitionist.

Restorative Radio is produced by Sylvia Ryerson, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Mimi Pickering, and Reuben Atlas. Impact production by Michelle Griffin. Cinematography by Randall Taylor Jr. and Ayesha Gilani Taylor.


Pen Pals by Khary Septh

Pen Pals shares the stories of the Black LGBTQ+ community caught in the web of America’s prison industrial complex. Exploring the story of Dominique Morgan who was formerly incarcerated and now is the Executive Director of Black and Pink where she works tirelessly to advance prison abolition and supports LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS who are affected by that system, we gain not only an analysis of the structural role of the PIC in maintaining white supremacy and capitalism, but also, a call-to-action for our community to engage in cooperative activities to end it. Dominique’s story as a Black transgender woman also adds the complexity of gender identity to the story, and how it relates to the extreme suffering of trans people trapped in the PIC, and also in society beyond the walls. Stories soften the heart so that the mind may rationally consider things like our moral obligation to support our incarcerated population, or the safety of trans identities in the prison industrial complex, and ultimately, our duty to topple the prison industrial complex. Pen Pals is a collection of these stories, all shared in service of ending the suffering of our people.

Khary Septh is a filmmaker and Executive Editor of The Tenth Magazine, a bi-annual publication that engages the world’s most dynamic LGBTQ+ artists and intellectuals of color in presenting content steeped the American tradition of politically engaged journalism that pays attention to long form, ambitious writing and critical queer thought. A graduate of Cornell University, before starting The Tenth, Khary spent many years as the head of Pink Rooster Studio—a Brooklyn-Based creative studio, and these days, spends his time living and working between New York’s Hudson River Valley and New Orleans, focusing on projects such as the Hudson Emergency Artist Response Team (HEART); non-conditional grants of $500 awarded monthly to BIPOC Hudson-based artists to weather the COVID-19 crisis, and The Tenth Academy, which strives to democratize access to quality mentorship and education, specifically for today’s Black and brown queer youth and adult communties through paprtnerships with institutions such as Spelman College and the Amistad Reseach Archives. 

Pen Pals is produced by James Powell and Andre Jones. Cinematography by Drew McCrary. 


Belly of the Beast (short version) by Erika Cohn

When an unlikely duo discovers a pattern of illegal sterilizations in women’s prisons, they wage a near impossible battle against the Department of Corrections. Filmed over seven years with extraordinary access and intimate accounts from currently and formerly incarcerated people, Belly of the Beast exposes modern-day eugenics and reproductive injustice in California prisons.

Erika Cohn is a Peabody, Emmy and DGA Award-winning filmmaker who Variety recognized as one of 2017’s top documentary filmmakers to watch and was featured in DOC NYC’s 2019 “40 Under 40.” Erika directed/produced Belly of the Beast, a NY Times Critic’s Pick, currently playing in virtual cinemas. Erika also directed/produced The Judge (TIFF 2017) and co-directed/produced In Football We Trust (Sundance 2015).

Belly of the Beast is produced by Angela Tucker, Christen Marquez, and Nicole Docta.

What It’s Like to be Trapped in a Women’s Prison During a Pandemic

Incarcerated for 30 years, I’ve never seen my community suffer like this.

elle.com

Michele Scott
March 15, 2021

THE WASHINGTON POST, GETTY IMAGES

Peering through the thick bars cutting a horizontal strata in the window, I watch the streams of fog soften the edges of the housing unit’s silhouettes lined up outside. Towering stadium lights illuminate the prison grounds when it is dark; this morning they beam a soft light through the mist. This is what mass incarceration looks like at 5:00 am.

Turning on the lamp that’s fastened to the metal frame of my prison bunk, I adjust the coarse, orange fabric of the prison-issued face mask I’ve tied over it. Transformed from Covid-19 mitigation, it’s now infusing my bunk area with a calming marmalade glow. I’ve found that it softens the reality of the cold cinder block wall that runs the length of my lumpy mattress. I live in a room that often holds eight women at a time, in a space the size of a one car garage.

That anything related to Covid-19 is calming is ironic; prisons are a nightmare scenario for an out-of-control virus. 1 in 5 incarcerated people in the United States has tested positive for the coronavirus, which is four times higher than the general population. In California, where I’m incarcerated, that rate is one in 4.

beauty salon behind bars
The women at Central California Women’s Facility run a beauty salon, but with COVID-19, gathering there isn’t what it used to be. Barcroft Media, Getty Images

I know that I engineered my current circumstances by breaking the law, but nobody saw this pandemic coming. Being sentenced to years in prison is different than the very the very real possibility of death at the hands of neglectful and uncaring correctional institutions.

I have to go to breakfast to get food. This requires walking between a gauntlet of staff who are clustered on both sides of a narrow sidewalk leading to the chow hall. I note that many of their masks are carelessly dangling off their chin. The institution says we should report any staff not in compliance with COVID mitigation practices but we know that will result in backlash— probably harassment or our room getting searched.

This morning, when I saw that there wouldn’t be six feet between us, I considered quoting public health messaging. Time in prison, however, has taught me to think through these urges and I reconsidered taking on five correctional officers who clearly weren’t concerned about the coronavirus. I held my breath as I walked by, grateful for the mask that hid equal parts frustration and fear.

To us, these Covid quarantine rooms are dungeons.

I’ve been incarcerated for 30 years and I’ve never seen my community suffer like this. Entire rooms of eight women are regularly plucked out of the housing unit and sent to quarantine after a potential exposure. For 14 days, they sit in two-person cells made up of three narrow cinder block walls that feel like they’re closing in on you. They’re so small that you can touch your bunk and the wall at the same time. You wouldn’t want to actually touch the wall though, they’re smeared with pencil led from previous women using them as a pencil sharpener, or they’re encrusted with dried globs of cheap toothpaste that were used as glue to pin up photos of loved ones or a funny comic sent in the mail. There’s no electricity for appliances, there’s no phone calls or laundry access, we can’t power the tablets we rely on for precious contact with family and the outside world. To us, these Covid quarantine rooms are dungeons.

A woman I’ve known for over 20 years recently returned from quarantine. Usually she is spiritual and encouraging and sedate, always ready with a Bible quote from the Christian books she’s constantly reading. When she returned from quarantine with her roommates, we could see the change in their face and in their spirit.

About a week after she returned, we were both in the medical clinic waiting to be seen. She sat across from me on the stainless steel benches, quietly looking at the ground. Over two decades, we’ve worked together and lived in the same housing unit and shared many conversations. When she started to talk this time, I heard something out of character reflected in her voice and on her face: she was outraged. I saw anger skim across her face in a way I’ve never seen before. Uneasily, I imagined what must have happened to her to mark her this way.

We live in four day chunks of dread— the length of time it takes to get our Covid-19 test results. Each time, we fear learning that someone in our room has tested positive; it’s like living a game of Russian Roulette. We’re haunted by the specter of a positive test, of whose room will be relocated to the quarantine unit next.

This virus is a microscopic presence unseen on every surface. Each time a woman tests positive we all think: did I sit on a couch near her? Did I stand next to her while signing up for phone time? Did I use the kiosk or washing machine after her?

We live in four day chunks of dread— the length of time it takes to get our Covid-19 test results. Each time, we fear learning that someone in our room has tested positive; it’s like living a game of Russian Roulette.

Three days ago, my friend who lives in a room across the hall just a few feet away tested positive. Our whole room knows her, she’s someone we regularly talk to and eat lunch with. One of my roommates even works with her. She and I had chatted a week earlier, standing next to each other in the Dayroom and discussing how we were both handling quarantine. It was 7:40 pm and we were sitting on our bunks when the sound of an officer’s footsteps on concrete echoed on the hallway floor. Then, we heard a scraping sound as the staff unlocked the heavy metal door to her room before the officer leaned into the doorway to call her last name and tell her it was time to go.

My roommates and I peered through our room window, watching our friend step out of her room carrying a large plastic garbage bag filled with her belongings. I could see faces at every window in our hall. Soon, voices began to echo through the cracks in the doorways. Multiple voices overlapped, saying we loved her, to stay strong, that we were praying for her and were planning a big meal to celebrate her return in 14 days.

Afterwards, we sat in our room sharing our own version of ‘contact tracing’ information, each of us suddenly realizing what it could mean. Our cell grew very quiet, each of us considering the encroaching inevitability.

That night, after the 9:30 pm security count, I laid on my bunk wondering how my friend was doing. I pictured her in a quarantine room with no electricity, no television, with strangers she didn’t know. I thought about how this could be my future. I struggled with the reality that this virus was at my front door and probably in my room. The stress was a tangible weight, an inescapable reality of the things and decisions outside of our control that were risking our lives.

Overwhelmed by it all, I distracted myself by watching Saturday Night Live— a chuckle finally emerged at a Rudy Guliani skit. Cracking open a box of cheese crackers and a bag of plain potato chips I thought about how there’s nothing like the old fashioned coping strategy of emotional eating. Self-care is not self-indulgent, I thought, it is self-preservative. As I crunched away at my snacks and allowed the comedy to distract my rapid thoughts, I realized I had reached a point of relenting to what I had no control over. I had surrendered to the uncertainty of my circumstances. Really, it was the only choice I had left.

The next day, each room received a list of what we were allowed to take with us if our test came back positive and we were sent to quarantine.

Even while I wondered if there could be virus in her hair, I tucked her head under my chin.

A few weeks ago, my friend came over to my bunk. She perched on its metal edge and asked if she could talk to me. She was fresh from work. At first, when prison workers were designated “essential workers,” many women were grateful because they were so eager to finally get out of their rooms and go somewhere else in the prison. Before Covid-19, it was common to attend self-help groups in the Chapel or the Visiting Room. We had weekly medical appointments, night time college classes and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Now that’s all gone. Having a job assignment to help fill 23 hours of lockdown every day feels like a gift— even if the work only pays 8 cents to 90 cents an hour.

My friend started to cry as she revealed the fear and stress of being forced to report to her job where she’s assigned along with numerous other women in the prison. They had all recently learned that their supervisor had tested positive for Covid-19. She had been worried about his habit of resting his face mask below his mouth for weeks.

Two days later, when the women returned to work after a brief hiatus it wasn’t clear the work site had been disinfected. All day, they talked about where the virus might still be, the fear and uncertainty wearing on them

My friend is generally a bright breath of happy and joyful energy, but the day and the oppressive mood of her coworkers had taken a toll. Once she stepped into the calm and safety of my room, she cracked. Her voice was shaky and strained as she told me she couldn’t take it, she had tried to be strong and support the other women all day but it was too much; her head dropped and the tears came. She was broken.

I looked at my friend, fresh from coming from her job with her dark eyes filled with the weight of working in a place most likely infected with Covid-19 and though I was acutely aware of how close she was in proximity to me. Could it be on her clothes, I wondered? And as I looked at her tears and the angst carved into her face, I pulled her to me and hugged her. Even while I wondered if there could be virus in her hair, I tucked her head under my chin. As my arms went around in an offer of comfort a small thought occurred to me, I wondered if I was now infected? I hugged her anyway.

Michele Scott Michele Scott is currently incarcerated in Central California Women’s Facility.

Outraged by abuse at women’s prison, Democratic senators call for creation of public advocate

NPR WHYY
Colleen O’Dea, NJ Spotlight
February 17, 2021


This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

New Jersey needs a new public advocate to help protect inmates and people in other state-run facilities, three lawmakers said, arguing more oversight is needed after last month’s assault on inmates at the women’s prison and the apparent failure of the state to reach a settlement with federal authorities over problems at the facility.

The state had a public advocate , but the office fell victim to politics and was last active more than a decade ago. The three top Democratic state senators, all critical of the leadership of New Jersey’s prisons, plan to create a new advocate. The position would be more limited in its scope of authority but also independent of the whims of governors who may not like the work the office undertakes.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Sens. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer) and Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) said they plan to introduce legislation soon creating an independent public advocate with investigative and legal powers over incidents in state and county correctional facilities, veterans homes, psychiatric hospitals, developmental centers and community-based programs and under state guardianship. They are also calling for the establishment of community advisory boards to provide oversight of each institution and hold quarterly public meetings with administrators to discuss issues and complaints.

Spurred by lack of DOJ settlement

Last week’s announcement came a day after the senators learned the state Department of Corrections did not reach a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over a scathing report issued last spring about conditions at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, the lawmakers said. Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks told a Senate committee last September that there was a tentative agreement. A DOJ spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter.

Had the sides reached a consent agreement, federal monitors most likely would have been inside Mahan and could potentially have averted the assaults in January  that left one female inmate with a fractured eye socket and another with a concussion, the senators said. Three corrections officers have been charged in connection with the assault that continues to be the subject of investigations by the state attorney general’s office and an outside lawyer brought in by Gov. Phil Murphy.

“The assaults on women inmates on January 11 came nine months after the Justice Department found that abuses by corrections officers violated the civil rights of inmates, and five months after Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks said the administration was reviewing a proposed agreement,” Weinberg said. “If federal monitors were assigned to Edna Mahan, the 32 corrections officers who are now suspended would have had to think hard before deciding to don riot gear, brutally assault women inmates or brazenly try to cover it up.”

She added that a “truly independent public advocate” is needed to provide oversight and advocacy for those in institutions because their administrators often try to prevent the public disclosure of abuse or other problems.

DOJ documents sex abuse, other problems

The DOJ report was the result of an investigation that began in April 2018. It found systemic problems at Mahan that allow sexual abuse to occur undetected and undeterred and that discourage prisoners from reporting abuse. At least eight correctional police officers at the Hunterdon County facility have been charged with sexual assault or misconduct since 2015.

During a September hearing before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Hicks said he expected the settlement agreement with the DOJ to be finalized soon and that federal officials had acknowledged steps the DOC had taken to improve the climate at Mahan, which held about 400 inmates as of last month. Hicks said the department had taken a number of steps to make the facility safer and had changed the “toxic culture” there.

Weinberg called Hicks’ statements about changes at Mahan “fiction” several times during a news conference last week as she, Greenstein and a number of advocates called for reforms, including the replacement of Hicks and a federal takeover of the women’s prison.

The entire Senate Democratic delegation, as well as some Republicans, have called for Hicks to be replaced. One Republican Assemblywoman is preparing legislation calling for his impeachment.

“Commissioner Hicks led us to believe that the Justice Department’s proposed settlement with ‘very specific recommendations’ was being reviewed by counsel and that an agreement was imminent,” Greenstein said. “Six months later, the fact that there is still no agreement makes it clear that protecting vulnerable women locked in prison from physical and sexual abuse is not a priority for this administration.”

Call for DOJ’s details

Pou called on the DOC to immediately release the DOJ’s recommendations to the Legislature and the public, as well as all correspondence between the two agencies related to the proposed settlement.

“The Legislature and the people have a right to know what the Justice Department recommended and why women inmates at Edna Mahan have been allowed to continue to fear for their physical safety for months while this Corrections Department finds excuses not to implement reforms that could protect them,” Pou said. “The coverup has gone on long enough at all levels.”

If an advocate were already in place, it is unlikely that the tentative settlement would still be a secret, Pou said.

The senators are proposing that the independent advocate have broad investigatory powers, the ability to enter institutions at any time and meet with staff, inmates and residents and the ability to file lawsuits if corrective actions are not undertaken. They are working with the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services to determine the best option to provide a bipartisan reporting structure and independence for the new agency, similar to the state auditor or the State Commission of Investigation.

They do not want to create an advocate like the former Department of the Public Advocate, which was created as a cabinet-level agency reporting to the governor in 1974. Gov. Christie Whitman abolished the office in 1994. While he was governor, Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex) signed a law recreating the agency in 2005, only to have Gov. Chris Christie eliminate it again five years later. During its existence, the public advocate worked to improve conditions at the state’s psychiatric hospitals and enforce standards in nursing homes.

Independence deemed essential

“One thing we’ve learned from past experience is that the public advocate cannot report to the governor or another Cabinet official,” Weinberg said. “The new agency must be truly independent to be effective — and to survive.”

A new, independent advocate would watch out for the needs of all those in state institutions, not just in prisons. And having community boards in place, as well, might have helped mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in state facilities last spring.

“We need boards that include advocates, experts, family members, former inmates or residents, union or staff representatives and community leaders who know what is happening in these institutions and would hold regularly scheduled public meetings with administrators to discuss issues and complaints,” said Greenstein. “If we had such a board at the Paramus Veterans Home, we would have known about the pandemic sweeping through the facility much sooner.”

To date, 155 residents of the state’s three veterans homes have died of COVID-19, with more than half those deaths at the Paramus site, according to the state. The facility was so overwhelmed in April that the National Guard was sent in to help quell the outbreak. An investigation into what happened is ongoing.