Just over a year ago, the Justice Department offered a scathing indictment of New Jersey’s only prison for women, describing a culture of sexual violence by guards so entrenched that it violated prisoners’ constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment.
But the string of scandals continued. After a day of mounting tension in January that included prisoners flinging bodily fluids at guards, officers violently removed several women from their cells during a midnight raid. One woman was punched in the face 28 times, the state’s attorney general said.
On Monday, in a stunning declaration that the problems were beyond repair, Gov. Philip D. Murphy announced that the prison, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, would be permanently closed.
The governor’s decision comes as states and cities around the country are reckoning with violence and abuse behind bars, and as officials are beginning to heed calls to rethink incarceration.
In New York City, there are plans to shut down the notorious Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with smaller, community-based lockups. Other states, including California, Connecticut and Missouri, have moved to close facilities amid a decline in the prison population tied to decreased crime rates and an emphasis on drug treatment instead of incarceration for some offenses.
The shutdown is expected to take years, and it is unclear where the 384 women housed at the prison in western New Jersey would go.
Groups that work with prisoners appeared divided on the plan to close Edna Mahan, with some hailing it as an opportunity to further reduce the population of women behind bars, while others worried about the upheaval the move could cause.
Women at Edna Mahan were already reeling from the January attack, and Mr. Murphy’s announcement follows more than a year of extraordinary Covid-19-related restrictions. Visitors were barred, and prisoners lived in fear of contracting the virus, which raced unchecked through many of the country’s large, crowded prison facilities.
New Jersey released thousands of inmates from its jails and prisons to try to slow the spread, yet a New York Times database found that 31 of every 100 prisoners eventually contracted the virus, nearly three times the statewide rate of infection.
Bonnie Kerness, a program director with the American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch, said Mr. Murphy should have allowed lawmakers and advocates time to evaluate recommendations outlined in a state-funded report that was also released on Monday before making the sweeping closure announcement.
“Wouldn’t it be more logical to punish the abusers and continue the work on reform of the organizational culture?” said Ms. Kerness, who is in regular communication with women at the facility.
“The beatings were a condition of confinement having nothing to do with the physical structure,” she added.
Jeanne LoCicero, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the shutdown was an incomplete solution. “Changing a name or location does little to check the systemic and cultural issues plaguing our state’s prison system, and it will not prevent further injustices,” she said.
The number of women housed at Edna Mahan, a sprawling facility in Hunterdon County that first opened in 1913 and can house more than 700 people, has been declining, tracking a nationwide trend. In June, it housed the 384 nonviolent and violent offenders in three compounds.
Edna Mahan would be the third prison to close in New Jersey in several years, and Mr. Murphy, a Democrat who is running for re-election, said the women would be relocated to a new prison or “other facilities.”
William Sullivan, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, Local 105, the union that represents the state’s 6,000 correction officers, said he was blindsided by the announcement. Mr. Sullivan said the decision appeared to be aimed at distracting from the problems laid out in the report, including pay disparity and guard recruitment challenges.
“I think it’s an overreach — more of a feel-good kind of maneuver rather than a fix-the-problem reaction,” Mr. Sullivan said.
Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice reform group based in Washington, said the decision matched the goals of nationwide efforts focused on lowering the number of female prisoners nationwide and relocating those who are sentenced to prison to be closer to their families.
“There should be a priority to keep people close to home,” Ms. Porter said.
Any proposal to build a prison is likely to face fierce opposition, as has happened in Massachusetts and Texas, where proponents of reducing incarceration have fought against the construction of new lockups.
And in New York, several candidates in the upcoming mayoral election have attacked the move to replace Rikers Island, leaving the plan’s future uncertain.
Mr. Murphy has ignored a drumbeat of criticism by legislators who have demanded that he fire his corrections commissioner, Marcus O. Hicks, in response to the Jan. 11 melee. The Justice Department report found pervasive sexual abuse at Edna Mahan and called for sweeping changes to address “systemic failures.”
Women were regularly sexually assaulted by guards and sometimes forced to engage in sex acts with other prisoners while staff members looked on, the report, issued in April 2020, found. Several guards had been convicted in 2018 and 2019 of sexually assaulting women, but the problem persisted.
The report ordered New Jersey to implement reforms that ranged from adding female staff members and cameras to removing defunct, empty facilities where some of the abuse occurred.
In response, state correction officials made some staffing changes and added additional stationary and body-worn cameras. The state hired an advocate for victims of sexual assault, Helena Tomé, as a liaison to the women in the state’s care.
The corrections department also hired a private consultant, the Moss Group, weeks after the January cell extractions, and Mr. Murphy commissioned the state’s former comptroller, Matt Boxer, to conduct a private investigation as the state’s attorney general pursued criminal charges against officers.
The result was the report released on Monday, which documented weeks of tension before the January episode.
“Officers felt that inmates were not being held accountable for their actions and that their supervisors were not protecting them,” the report states.
The officers, Mr. Murphy said, “abused their power to send a message that they were in charge.”
He said he had concluded that “the only path forward is to responsibly close the facility.”
Within hours of Mr. Murphy’s announcement, two state senators said the development offered a welcome opportunity to rethink where and why women are imprisoned.
“As we plan for the future,” said Senator M. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat who represents Essex County, “we should ensure that our women who have suffered abuse and neglect for so long can be transferred to facilities closer to their homes where they can receive support from their families.”
When Ny Nourn entered Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the world, there was every reason to believe she would never walk free on American soil again.
She was just 21, and had been sentenced to “life without parole” for her part in a hauntingly brutal murder – a part she was forced into. Even if, at some distant date, a successful appeal commuted that sentence, her conviction made Nourn deportable – so when she had served her time, she was likely to be transported to another prison and ultimately to Cambodia, the country of her parents’ birth, a country she had never set foot in.
Given all this, seeing her now via Zoom in her San Francisco home, smiling, fast talking, squeezing me into her absolutely packed schedule, is a miracle. Nourn, now 40, is not only free, but a ferocious critic of the US criminal justice system, and a fierce advocate on behalf of female prisoners and immigrants.
Since her 2017 release, she has spoken at universities, on debating panels and talkshows; she has testified at Congress and the California state capitol. She has given a Ted Talk. “When I share my story, people often say that it’s unbelievable; that it seems more like a movie; that it doesn’t sound real,” says Nourn. But in truth, similar versions are being played out across the US on a daily basis, and most people trapped in that trajectory through poverty, violence, prison and deportation will barely be seen and never be known. This is why Nourn keeps talking. “When I came out of prison, I asked: who else would be fighting for the people I left behind if not me?”
Nourn’s story begins in crisis. She was born in a Thai refugee camp. Her Cambodian mother was 18, and had separated from her family and fled the country on foot, to escape the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime responsible for the deaths of 2 million Cambodians. She met Nourn’s father, another Cambodian, at the camp, though he had left before Nourn turned one.
Her memories of those early years are, she says, only “sad ones”. “The camp was huge and we were in a hut. I was always hungry. My mum would leave each day to work in the rice fields, and I just remember always needing her, and her not being there.”
When Nourn was five, they left for the US – a family sponsored them – and settled in San Diego. Here, Nourn’s mother met and married Nourn’s stepfather, a refugee from Vietnam. Her brother and sister were born there.
Nourn clearly recalls the gradual escalation of abuse at home, as her stepfather first romanced her mother, then shouted at her, then smashed furniture, then became physically violent. Many times, Nourn saw him punch her mother, kick her and chase her with a knife. She witnessed him rape her. (“I remember her telling me to shut the door, and I could hear her beg and plead.”)
All these years on, she doesn’t want to demonise him – this effort to understand and forgive is a recurring theme with Nourn. “Thinking back now, I can see he was under a lot of pressure trying to take care of the family,” she says. “He was young, we lived in one-bedroom housing in impoverished communities in a country that didn’t really accept us or offer resources to help. He worked long hours as a mechanic, then came home and drank and smoked, and didn’t take care of himself.”
At the time, though, Nourn only knew that she wasn’t safe, and had nowhere to turn. “I was so lost, so scared,” she says. “I heard my mum talking about it to her friends, trying to get support, but they’d say: ‘He’s a good man. He’s supporting you.’ There was nowhere to go. The lesson we got from the Cambodian community was that the police weren’t there to help – and in my own experience, years later, that turned out to be true.”
So Nourn managed it as best she could. At school, she had few friends because she kept so much hidden. At home, when violence erupted, she would tell her brother to go to his room and put on his headphones. In her mind, her only aim was to get away as soon as she could. “I had no plans,” she says. “I didn’t want to ‘be a doctor’ or ‘go to college’, I just wanted to leave the house as soon as possible and alleviate the pain and trauma.” As a teenager, she had several boyfriends. “I was looking for love, validation, escape, and that’s how at 17 I ended up meeting Ron.”
She wishes she had seen the red flags. “He reminded me so much of my stepfather,” she says, with the briefest, saddest of smiles. She had met Ron Barker in an online chatroom, and he’d told her he was in his 20s. When she snuck out to see him, she found someone much older: 37, Vietnamese, also struggling, with broken English, no real job and – unknown to Nourn – a wife, a child and a baby on the way.
“At first, he put me on a pedestal. He said he loved me, and that one day I’d be his wife,” she says. “It was everything I wanted to hear. Then, over the weeks, he was saying: ‘I don’t want to share you’. ‘If you’re not at school, you’re with me.’ He told me what to wear, how to do my makeup and said he’d always be watching me, that he was part of the mafia – I didn’t even know what the mafia was.”
By December 1998, just four months into the relationship, Barker began seeing less of her. She now knows it was because his baby had been born and he was otherwise occupied. “I sensed he was cheating. I was young, 18, and I hadn’t known him long.” Nourn had an after-school job as a telemarketer for a dating site called Perfect Match. On 23 December, she went on a date with her supervisor, David Stevens.
Nourn now calls Stevens “my victim”. “I didn’t know him. He was 38, even older than Ron, but he seemed like a gentle soul,” she says. “I think he had a good heart, and I was willing to grab on to anyone willing to rescue me.” She met Stevens once, had sex with him and returned home late to find Barker parked outside her house.
He wound down his window and asked where she had been. Nourn told him: “Walmart.” “This late?” “Yes, it’s 24-hour shopping.” ‘What did you buy?’ Silence. Barker instructed Nourn to get into his car, and here, Nourn admitted that she’d had sex with her boss. “He was hitting the steering wheel and calling me names. I was crying, hysterical, apologising.” Barker drove to a secluded area and told her to get into the back seat. “He said: ‘I’m going to treat you like the slut you are,’” says Nourn. “Essentially, he raped me, right? I was begging, [saying] ‘No’, trying to push him off.”
Afterwards, Barker told Nourn to direct him to Stevens’ apartment. When they arrived – Nourn still crying hysterically – Barker told her to “fix herself up” and go inside. She was to tell Stevens that she had got a flat tyre while driving home and ask him to give her a lift to her car and help fix it. She did this, Stevens agreed and as they set out in his Chrysler, Barker flagged them down, pretending to be Nourn’s brother. He sat at the back and directed Stevens to a deserted business area, then told him to stop the car.
Did Nourn have any sense about was going to happen? “I remember my whole body shaking, [I was] just thinking”: ‘This isn’t real,’” she says, “I thought the worst that would happen was a confrontation – that Ron would beat him up, and that would be it. Life would go on.” Instead, Barker pointed a gun to Stevens’ head and asked: ‘How does it feel sleeping with someone else’s girlfriend?’ “I remember David saying: ‘This is not cool, we don’t need to do this …’ then two shots going off.” Nourn sighs. She pauses. “Then I was screaming and screaming. I smelled the gun, the metal. David was slumped, Ron was yelling in my ear and my ears were ringing. I thought he was going to kill me right then.”
Barker told Nourn that he wouldn’t kill her if she did what he told her. If she didn’t – and if she told anyone what had happened that night – he’d kill her and her family. He set fire to the car with Stevens’ body in it. “I did this for you,” he told Nourn at the end of the night. “You’re clean now. You’re mine.”
“I remember getting home, scrubbing myself in the bathtub, wishing it was all a nightmare,” says Nourn. She dreamed about it for years – that she was back in Stevens’ apartment, being chased and stabbed by Barker, or just seeing recurring images of flames and ash. “I really blamed myself,” she says. “The shame that I should have protected my victim, that I should never have gone out with him, that I should have known better or seen the red flags.”
The murder went unsolved, and Nourn lived in total terror of defying Barker. She had always felt isolated, but now she was utterly alone, trapped, silent, surviving from one day to the next. She remained with Barker, even moving in with him and his family when he wanted her to. (He told his wife, who was also completely under his control, that Nourn was the daughter of a friend and needed somewhere to stay.) Barker was now consistently violent.
Twice she became pregnant and twice he forced her to have an abortion. He once drove Nourn to a ravine, made her kneel and held a gun to her head in a mock execution. He broke into her family home, watched her siblings sleep, and told Nourn he was deciding whether to slit their throats. “He used to say: ‘I should have killed you that night I killed him,’ and a part of me wished he had.”
In 2001, at 20, Nourn found her first friends – two colleagues at her job with a mortgage company. They noticed her bruises, offered help – and she told them about the murder. They urged her to call the police, assuring her that she’d be protected. Nourn made the call, and officers arrived at her work to take a statement. Then they took her back to the police station for a more “in-depth” interview … which quickly turned into an interrogation. It lasted about 10 hours.
Both Barker and Nourn were charged with murder. “The prosecutor didn’t care about the background, the violence, my young age,” says Nourn. “Now I see that we were two Asian defendants accused of killing a white man. Looking back, I had no chance.”
New evidence emerged of Barker’s murderous jealousy – before the trial, from prison, her lawyer had to step down after being informed that Barker was attempting to hire someone to kill him, because Barker felt Nourn and her lawyer were becoming too close. However, the judge ruled this evidence inadmissible, saying it had no relevance. Instead, at the trial, Nourn was depicted as a bloodthirsty femme fatale who had “lured” Stevens into a trap. (She would later become the subject of documentaries such as Killer Couples, which ran with the theme.) Barker and Nourn were found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The judge said that Nourn was “more culpable” than Barker “because she let this mad dog off the leash”.
Until this point, Nourn’s life had been a series of horrifying episodes – it was only when she began her sentence that she began to see the bigger picture. In the US (and here in the UK), female inmates are overwhelmingly survivors of trauma and abuse, and from poor backgrounds. Black women in the US are three times more likely to be in prison than white women (in the UK, black women are more than twice as likely), and Latina women 69% more likely. Comparable statistics on Asian Pacific prisoners are scant. A 2016 report by the Vera Institute of Justice found that 77% of women in US prisons were survivors of intimate partner violence, and 86% had experienced sexual violence.
“At first, I didn’t want to make any friends. I just wanted to survive,” says Nourn, “but I ended up befriending people, then went to the battered women support group. I started hearing their stories, learning about their backgrounds.
“So many had lengthy sentences for actions that were a result of the violence they endured – actions where they were protecting their children from their abuser or because they were in life-and-death situations. I realised: ‘Wow. I’m not the only one.’ What we didn’t need was incarceration. We needed support.”
In prison, Nourn accessed therapy. “My counsellor walked me through the night of the murder,” she says. “I didn’t like it, but it helped me accept that it wasn’t my fault. The only way to heal was to forgive myself and forgive Ron, too.
“For years, I wanted him to suffer, to die, but I had to let it go and try to understand his background. I think he’s a sociopath. He had no friends, he was quick to anger. He came to the US as a refugee, and struggled to assimilate. He didn’t graduate from high school. It helps to think about why he is the way he is. He did have to be held accountable for what he did – but I hope he can get the healing he needs.”
In her own case, Nourn appealed on the grounds of “battered woman syndrome” and her sentence was reduced to 15 years. It was only as she neared the end of it that a fellow inmate told her: ‘You know you’ll be deported, right?’ “I didn’t understand,” says Nourn. “I reached out to the civil rights organisation Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), which confirmed that, yes, even though I’d been born in a refugee camp and had permanent residency, my conviction made me deportable.”
The Criminal Alien Programme, which allows for the permanent removal of immigrants convicted of certain crimes, is now responsible for between two-thirds and three-quarters of non-border deportations in the US, according to the American Immigration Council.
Eligibility expanded through the 90s, from immigrants who commit serious or violent crimes to include those who commit minor ones, such as shoplifting, drug possession and turnstile jumping. On the day of Nourn’s “release”, she was collected by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials who shackled her arms, her waist and legs, then transported her to Yuba county jail, in Marysville, California, to await deportation.
This period, says Nourn, was the hardest of all. “At least in prison, my friends were there. I could go to work, go out in the yard,” she says. “In Yuba, you’re lucky if you can go outside every other day. Just seeing other women like me, also survivors … some had been there two years, and there was this hopelessness. Every time you went to a hearing, it was postponed. No one could afford an attorney. Seeing all this suffering … it weighed on me.”
In Nourn’s case, a campaign by a coalition of groups including AAAJ and Survived and Punished, which crowdsourced a $10,000 (£7,000) bond for her, led to her release in November 2017. In June 2020, she was officially pardoned by California’s state governor, Gavin Newsom.
Her first days of freedom – she moved straight to San Francisco – didn’t feel real. “I couldn’t believe it, I was walking on eggshells, I felt so scared,” she says. “Was ICE going to come back and re-arrest me? Was someone from Ron’s family watching me? I was always looking behind me, really paranoid.
“Then I realised, with the community I was building, the friends I was making, I could take life one day at a time and enjoy the simple things. Going out to get a coffee. A walk on the beach. Going to the restroom without fearing a guard is going to walk by and see me. Choosing whether or not to close a door.”
In some ways, unsurprisingly, Nourn was tempted to fade into a “normal life” and disappear from public view. “A part of me did want to do that,” she says. “To remove myself from anything related to trauma, abuse and incarceration. But there are so many others and who else would be in a better position to help advocate for their freedom?” On her release, the AAAJ offered her a job – she now works for them full-time as a community advocate. She also organises for Survived and Punished, a charity that campaigns to free female prisoners who were themselves victims of domestic and sexual violence.
One of her early campaign cases was for Liyah Birru, an Ethiopian facing deportation after being convicted of a felony assault on her husband. Birru had met the former marine Silas D’Aloisio when he was stationed in Addis Ababa. They moved to rural California, where Birru said D’Aloisio quickly became violent and abusive, although he denied the allegations. Birru says that during one such incident, she took D’Aloisio’s gun and fired it at him, believing it wasn’t loaded. D’Aloisio survived, but Birru was convicted, served four years, and was then detained for deportation. The Free Liyah campaign – which gathered more than 35,000 signatures – helped secure her release on bondand there is an ongoing campaign to get her pardoned.
Nourn’s main message is that people can’t be neatly categorised. Their stories aren’t simple, so the solutions can’t be, either. Immigrants can’t be separated into “the good ones” (the honest, hard-working model minority) and “the bad ones” (whom it’s OK to kick out). The same applies to the criminal justice system. “We have a system that says: ‘Protect the victims and survivors, and lock away the perpetrators,’” she says.
“But what happens when the victim and survivor is also classed as a perpetrator?
“We have to challenge ourselves and think about how we hold the person who did harm accountable, but at the same time uplift their humanity,” she says. “How is incarcerating people and deporting them going to make the world a better place? It’s not transformative. It doesn’t look at root causes. There must be better ways.”
When it comes to her future, Nourn isn’t yet sure what she will do. “Maybe one day I’ll have my own nonprofit organisation or domestic violence shelter. I may work towards a PhD – who knows,” she says. (Nourn is also in the final stages of an undergraduate sociology degree from San Francisco State University.) Whatever path she chooses, her 10-, 16- or 21-year-old self would surely be staggered.
“That person was so quiet, so alone, so scared, doing what she could to survive and blaming herself,” says Nourn. “She would never have thought she could go to college, have a career, be an advocate.
“I’ve learned that if you want to see change happen, you have to be part of it. Being vocal is not wrong. I was silent for the majority of my life – but not any more.”
BY CHESA BOUDIN, DIANA BECTON, AND GEORGE GASCÓN SPECIAL TO THE SACRAMENTO BEE MAY 29, 2021 | 6:00 AM
On June 2, the California Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral argument in a case that raises serious questions about the constitutionality of how California’s death penalty has been applied. In the case People v. McDaniel, the court has asked whether a jury must unanimously agree on the aggravating factors and find that a death sentence is appropriate beyond a reasonable doubt.
As elected prosecutors in California, we believe that these bedrock procedural protections — that apply in all criminal trials — must also apply to the most consequential decision that juries are asked to undertake. The stakes for our legal system could not be higher.
California’s decades-long failure to impose adequate limits on who receives a death sentence has contributed to a bloated, racially biased and expensive system as well as the largest death row population in the country. Death penalty cases consume an inordinate amount of staff and financial resources at both the state and local level, expenses that go well beyond the cost of pursuing either a life or life without parole sentence. These are resources we simply can’t afford to waste, now more than ever.
By failing to narrow the number of cases eligible for the death penalty, our state has spent more than $4 billion pursuing executions over the last 43 years. Yet no executions have been carried out since 2006. Given Gov. Newsom’s moratorium on executions, none are likely to be carried out any time in the near future. It is worth noting that the state could immediately save upwards of $184 million per year by ending the death penalty.
We are also deeply troubled by persistent racial bias in the administration of capital punishment at all stages of the process. Black residents are disproportionately sentenced to death in this state (36% of individuals on death row are Black — six times their percentage in California’s population — and 67% of individuals on death row are people of color). Moreover, the race of the victim continues to inappropriately influence who is condemned to die. One recent study of San Diego cases found that prosecutors sought the death penalty far more frequently in cases involving white victims than in cases involving Black or Latino victims, with the most substantial disparities occurring in cases with Black defendants and white victims.
These problems are exacerbated by the failure to require juries to unanimously decide on aggravating factors in capital cases because it is much easier for a minority perspective to be ignored when decisions related to the appropriate penalty do not have to be made unanimously. Studies have shown that Black jurors are more likely to seriously consider mitigating evidence and weigh it against aggravating evidence.
There are many other reasons to harbor concerns about the fairness of the death penalty as it is currently applied, including the very real risk of wrongful conviction. There have been at least five individuals — all men of color — who were wrongly sentenced to death in California and were subsequently released, the most recent just three years ago. Even with the adoption of reforms aimed at reducing this risk and the creation of Conviction Integrity Units in many DA offices, including some of our own, we can never be sure that an innocent person won’t be executed.
A study published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2014 estimated that approximately 4.1% of the men and women currently on death row could be innocent. In California, that would mean approximately 30 people on death row are innocent. A wrongful conviction can be reversed, but an execution cannot.
By failing to ensure that minority viewpoints on juries are scrupulously respected, and by allowing death sentences where some jurors believe an execution to be inappropriate, California has created a glut of death penalty cases that end up being reversed at high rates on appeal. This long, complicated process can have the unintended impact of harming many victims’ families by subjecting them to years of protracted litigation and uncertainty.
In light of the California Supreme Court’s attention to this issue, we feel it is time to raise these concerns together. We hope that the Court takes a long, hard look at these issues and concludes that life-and-death decisions demand the most important protections our criminal jury system provides: unanimity and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Chesa Boudin is the elected District Attorney of San Francisco. Diana Becton is the elected District Attorney of Contra Costa County. George Gascón is the elected District Attorney of Los Angeles.
Check out the artistic collaboration between CCWF incarcerated artists and University of San Francisco performing art students that premiered via zoom on May 13, 2021. Here (and below) is the edited version of the May 13th event. It is the recording of the zoom event and with the videos. DVDs of this recording will be mailed to the inside artists.
You can view additional information about the Performing Arts and Community Exchange website, including bios, additional writing, direct actions to take, resources, and links to the videos here.
Contribute to the Go Fund Me here. Money raised will go directly to the inside artists.
Check out this historic collection of materials from the 1970’s Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project. Through photographs, newsletters, reports, correspondence, poetry chapbooks, and more, this collection documents SCWPP’s prison work at the California Institution for Women (CIW), where the organization launched an educational project that provided UC extension credit for classes such as creative writing, women’s health, and social action. The project marked the first time that college credit was granted to prisoners in the history of the institution. Some current CCWP members actually visited CIW in the 1970’s as part of this groundbreaking project!
The following article is taken directly from Freedom Archives. Please visit their website and follow their important archival work directly.
We [Freedom Archives] recently processed a new collection of materials related to Bay Area women’s’ prison organizing during the 1970s, the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project (SCWPP). Through photographs, newsletters, reports, correspondence, poetry chapbooks, and more, this collection documents SCWPP’s prison work at the California Institution for Women (CIW), where the organization launched an educational project that provided UC extension credit for classes such as creative writing, women’s health, and social action. The project marked the first time that college credit was granted to prisoners in the history of the institution.
Beyond their work at CIW, the SCWPP engaged in numerous forms of mobilizing against prisons and building support for the prisoner movement. In 1977, the group helped organize a women’s prison conference, bringing together over 120 formerly incarcerated women and women of diverse backgrounds from across the western United States.