On Nov. 12, 2021, California Coalition for Women Prisoners hosted a special virtual event celebrating 25+ years of inside organizing and the consistent publication of The Fire Inside newsletter. Around 200 people gathered for a dynamic program that featured Mariame Kaba as the keynote speaker and remarks from Angela Davis, Victoria Law, Hamdiya Cooks-Abdullah and Piper Kerman, as well as musical performances and poetry readings.
Romarilyn Ralston set the stage with beautiful opening remarks about The Fire Inside, now the longest published newsletter by and for people in women’s prisons in the United States. She said that while inside, this publication “allowed us to express ourselves through poetry and art, different essays about the struggles based inside of women’s prisons,” and that because of CCWP and this vehicle, “thousands of people’s lives have been amplified and lifted up.”
Romarilyn shared deep gratitude for CCWP’s community, the many members and volunteers who have fought tirelessly for liberation for the last two and a half decades. “And now, we are here,” she said, “imagining a world without prisons, imagining a community that is free from harm, imagining a space where all of us can live our best lives and be our best selves.”
Mariame Kaba’s keynote brought this theme of collective care and freedom to life, which isn’t surprising given that her latest book, “We Do This Till We Free Us,” inspired the title. Specifically, her father’s quote in the final section, “Show Up and Don’t Travel Alone,” where he says, “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.”
“Thousands of people’s lives have been amplified and lifted up.”
“In the work of CCWP, I see a reciprocal labor of care embodied and engaged,” said Kaba. “The networks and connections you’ve encouraged, fostered and maintained for over 25 years are the foundation for so many people’s survival. You are constantly inventing and reinventing how we be with and for each other.” Kaba framed CCWP’s model as one of accompaniment – to live and walk alongside criminalized and incarcerated people, to “show up repeatedly, listen without judgement, and offer resources and skills without condescension.”
Kaba ended with the importance of spirituality and generational connection – inviting people to drop names in the chat of ancestors who guide them and us. Dozens of names immediately started bubbling up: Erika Rocha, Patty Contreras, Marilyn Buck, Wolfie, Yogi, Beverly “Chopper” Henry, Rose Braz, Fanny Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, Leonard Peltier, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mumia, Charisse Shumate, Theresa Martinez. During the Q&A segment at the end, audience members asked about avoiding the burnout of care work, how to protect survivors while refusing disposability politics, the relationship between policy and abolition, and building community with imprisoned people.
Next, Indigo Mateo came on screen to perform “Afterlife,” an ethereal and futuristic song about her traveling back from an abolitionist future to pick up a loved one coming home from prison.
Angela Davis followed with her remarks about CCWP’s robust support and solidarity for imprisoned people: “As someone who literally was freed by the people, I strongly identify with the theme of this tribute,” she said. Davis congratulated CCWP and its broader coalition and community for recently winning reparations for survivors of forced sterilizations in prison.
Davis used the example of CCWP’s ongoing COVID-19 advocacy to name a crucial aspect of CCWP’s organizing framework: “CCWP knows how to effectively combine attentiveness to the immediate situation with the best possible long-term solution. Therefore, you help to attenuate the isolation required by pandemic-ordered shutdowns through the Writing Warriors program at the same time that you insist on decarceration as the only way to adequately address the impact of the pandemic.” Davis said that this balance “is an important lesson for anyone who wants to ensure that abolition is taken seriously, is strategically approached, and does not distract us from meeting the immediate needs of our people behind bars.”
Testimonies followed from Hamdiya Cooks-Abdullah, Piper Kerman and Victoria Law. Cooks-Abdullah spoke on the people power behind CCWP’s selfless volunteers and staff and encouraged the audience to continue supporting the organization.
Kerman uplifted CCWP’s ability to prioritize conditions and campaigns issues, based on guidance from inside members and networks. Law reflected on the beginnings of her journalism career two decades ago, where she found that CCWP was one of the few groups that not only worked on women’s prison issues but was the only group that was specifically formed to work in solidarity with the organizing that was already happening. She raised a toast to celebrate CCWP’s work, our loved ones who have come home, and our loved ones who will be brought home in the future.
Longtime CCWP members then got on the virtual mic to share various Fire Inside readings from the archives, written by formerly and currently incarcerated members and accompanied by photographs of them and/or of the issue itself. Thao Nguyen gave a heartwarming performance of “We the Common,” a song written for Valerie Bolden (who has since been released) that was performed live at CCWP’s Chowchilla Freedom Rally in 2013. CCWP staff came on screen afterwards to share their own personal histories with CCWP and talk about campaign and program highlights, such as the movement to Drop LWOP (Life Without Parole), CCWP’s Across the Walls visiting program, and racial and gender justice policy work.
Jane Dorotik closed out the program by affirming the importance of inside organizing and two of CCWP’s most generous gifts: the “gift of hope” and the “unparalleled recognition of the expertise inherent in all incarcerated women,” as well as the commitment to working alongside imprisoned people and with their guidance to advance change. “Together, we can build a world without prisons,” she said.
California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) Development and Communications Coordinator Courtney Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America hosted a panel, entitled “Mass Incarceration is a Feminist Struggle: Voices of Formerly Incarcerated Women,” to discuss the intersections of feminism, mass incarceration and prison abolition Thursday. The event launched the Mass Incarceration Lab, an archive led by Associate Professor of Sociology Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve that preserves oral histories and written testimonies of Americans affected by the criminal justice system.
All three panelists were formerly incarcerated women who now organize against mass incarceration and advocate for the rights of incarcerated individuals. Esteem Brumfield GS, a current master’s of public health student at the University, facilitated the discussion. The group focused on issues that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women face, like accessing reproductive healthcare, educational opportunities and facing gender-based violence.
“It’s important to note that 86% of women in jails are survivors of sexual violence and 77 percent are survivors of intimate partner violence,” said Aminah Elster, a campaign and policy coordinator at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. She added that prisons perpetuate this cycle of violence through insufficient medical care, child separation and harsh punishments.
Daniela Medina, a 2021 master’s of social work graduate from the University of California, Berkeley and co-founder and host of the Berkeley Underground Scholars podcast, echoed Elster’s description of the lackluster healthcare provided within prisons. After she was released from Valley State Prison in California, she said, she has had to spend around $10,000 on dental work due to inadequate care during her prison term.
The panelists agreed that solidarity between incarcerated women within prisons is essential to their survival. Medina spoke about the help and care she both received and provided. “I mean, what could we do but support each other?” Medina said.
Cherie Cruz ’09 MA’10, the co-founder of Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, explained how incarcerated women “jump into action” and pass down knowledge to care for each other. “When I was incarcerated, when I was pregnant, I was fortunate to have my mother there, who already knew this system,” she said.
She explained the responsibility that formerly incarcerated women carry in supporting women who are still imprisoned. “It’s reliant on us to stick together and not to forget those women who are left behind and give them the support they need in the community, to never be abused by that system again.”
The panel also explored how the carceral system continues to shape the lives of formerly incarcerated even after their release. Elster discussed how she gave birth to her son while in jail and how her parents raised him until her release.
“I’m still trying to establish a relationship with my son. I’m trying to get to know him as he’s trying to get to know me, because the whole entire 15 years that I was incarcerated, he was kept from me,” she said.
Cruz, who comes from a family with three generations who have experienced incarceration, spoke about the generational trauma perpetuated by the criminal justice system. “It doesn’t end with just the person who’s behind (bars), but their children and their communities,” she said.
The women also shared how they are working to end these mechanisms of injustice and support individuals impacted by the criminal justice system. Elster spoke about her legislative advocacy, Medina highlighted her commitment to expanding higher education opportunities and Cruz noted her work on initiatives like keeping families together and broadening voting rights for the formerly incarcerated.
With the Mass Incarceration Lab archive in mind, Brumfield asked the panelists to think about how they wanted viewers in 150 years to understand prison abolition.
“Abolition is shifting resources and power to community interventions,” Elster said.
“This is where building community comes in,” she added. Abolition “is about creating, it’s not just about dismantling.”
Survivors of California’s forced sterilizations: ‘It’s like my life wasn’t worth anything’
July 19, 2021
It wasn’t until years after Kelli Dillon went into surgery while incarcerated in the California state prison system that she realized her reproductive capacity had been stripped away without her knowledge.
In 2001, at the age of 24, she became one of the most recent victims in a history of forced sterilizations in California that stretches back to 1909 and served as an inspiration for Nazi Germany’s eugenics program.
But now, under new provisions signed into California’s budget this week, the state will offer reparations for the thousands of people who were sterilized in California institutions, without adequate consent, often because they were deemed “criminal”, “feeble-minded” or “deviant”.
The program will be the first in the nation to provide compensation to modern-day survivors of prison system sterilizations, like Dillon, whose attorney obtained medical records to show that, while she was an inmate in the Central California women’s facility in Chowchilla, surgeons had removed her ovaries during what was supposed to be an operation to take a biopsy and remove a cyst.
The investigations sparked by her case, which is featured in the documentary Belly of the Beast, showed hundreds of inmates had been sterilized in prisons without proper consent as late as 2010, even though the practice was by then illegal.
The new California reparations program will also seek to compensate hundreds of living survivors of the state’s earlier eugenics campaign, which was first codified into state law in 1909 and wasn’t repealed until 1979.
That law allowed state authorities to sterilize people in state-run institutions, who were deemed to have “mental disease which may have been inherited” and was “likely to be transmitted to descendants”. The law was later greatly expanded to include “those suffering from perversion or marked departures from normal mentality”. Those targeted were often Black or Latina women, though some men were sterilized as well.
“California established these egregious eugenics laws, that were actually even followed by Hitler himself, in an effort to curb the population of unwanted individuals or people with disabilities,” said the state assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, who introduced the bill to create the compensation program.
Wendy Carrillo introduced the bill to create the compensation program. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP
She said, in all, more than 20,000 people were sterilized in California, including the historic cases prior to 1979 and hundreds of additional cases in the prisons documented until 2010. Many of the historical survivors have since died, but the state believes about 400 are still living, about a quarter of whom are expected to apply for compensation.
“No monetary compensation will ever rectify the injustice of this,” said Carrillo. “But there is a level of dignity that is bestowed on the survivors by the [state’s] acknowledgment that this happened. If we don’t do this now, when will we?”
She hopes that each qualified applicant to the program will get about $25,000 starting in 2022.
‘Saturated with racism, sexism and prejudice’
The state follows North Carolina and Virginia in developing programs to provide compensation for sterilizations that took place in the state-sanctioned eugenics programs of the mid 1900s, but California is the first to recognize and attempt to atone for much more recent cases in the prisons. Three previous attempts to create a reparations program have failed to make it through the California legislature.
From its outset at the turn of the 20th century, the state’s eugenics campaign was steeped in the kind of racist thinking that would eventually lead to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, said Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan historian who first uncovered file cabinets filled with medical records of early California victims in 2007 in the course of researching a book on American eugenics.
“A lot of this came out as ideas of using science for the common good, human improvement, race improvement,” she said. “Of course, all that was saturated with the racism, sexism and disability prejudices of the era.”
One well-documented victim was Andrea Garcia, a 19-year-old born in Mexico, who was sterilized in 1941 under the orders of an asylum near Los Angeles for those “afflicted with feeblemindedness”. Staff there decided she shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce because she was a “mentally deficient, sex delinquent girl” from an “unfit home”, according a dissertation by Natalie Lira, a University of Michigan researcher who reviewed historic medical documents of the sterilizations uncovered by Stern.
Garcia’s mother went to court to challenge the sterilization policy, but lost her case. Both mother and daughter have since died.
Stacy Cordova, whose aunt was a victim of California’s forced sterilization program that began in 1909, holds a framed photo of her aunt Mary Franco, who was sterilised in the 1930s. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP
Lira also outlined the case of 14-year-old Antonio Duran, who was sterilized in 1939, after being charged with burglary and painted as a criminal for entering a house and taking several items. The sterilization requests described him as “high tempered, unreliable, an habitual truant and a bully” and said his parents were “of low-grade Mexican mentality”.
Stern said this kind of egregious thinking wasn’t wiped out when California finally took the eugenics law off its books in 1979, around the time it also began closing the state institutions that for decades had warehoused people with mental illness and those deemed unfit for society.
She said she believes it is no coincidence that this is the same time period when the state’s prison population began to explode in an unforgiving era of mass incarceration, which she said saw many of those same people, often poor people of color, being incarcerated in prisons for long periods. It isn’t a big stretch to see how prison officials could begin abusing their power in a renewed push to prevent their charges from reproducing, Stern said.
“I see a lot of similar ingredients and sets of pre-conditions that allowed for [later] sterilization abuse in the prisons,” she said.
After undergoing sterilization without her consent or knowledge, Kelli Dillon said she began experiencing menopause symptoms when she was only 24.
“They weren’t telling me what they did and my body was going haywire,” said Dillon, who was released from prison in 2009 and now runs her own non-profit domestic violence counseling and violence prevention program and serves on a family services commission for the city of Los Angeles.
At the time, she was serving a 15-year manslaughter term for killing her abusive husband, after, she said, he hit her with an iron and threatened her two young sons.
Dillon said she had authorized the prison doctors to give her a hysterectomy only if cancer was found in the surgery, but no signs of cancer were ever reported.
She said the sterilization shattered her dreams of one day restarting her family and left her struggling with anxiety and depression.
“It was like my life wasn’t worth anything,” she said. “Somebody felt I had nothing to contribute to the point where they had to find this sneaky and diabolical way to take my ability to have children.”
A quest for justice, but concerns remain
While still incarcerated at Central California women’s facility, Dillon began to realize that many of her fellow inmates were getting hysterectomies and sterilization procedures as well. Sometimes it was after giving birth, while others had procedures that they were told were necessary to look for cancers or correcting gynecological issues. And so with her attorney, Cynthia Chandler, she began gathering the stories of other inmates.
One of the prison doctors told CIR that he viewed sterilization as a way to prevent prisoners from procreating and having “unwanted children” that could cost the state money.
Kelli Dillon and her attorney, Cynthia Chandler. Photograph: Courtesy of Belly of the Beast
“He articulated that it was a cost-effective way of preventing people from needing welfare,” said attorney Chandler. “He actually thought he was doing the taxpayers a favor.”
Chandler began working on the case in the early 2000s while with the prisoner rights advocacy group Justice Now, which she co-founded. She eventually helped to get a bill passed to make it clear that prison sterilizations are illegal and has been fighting to get compensation for survivors ever since.
The procedures often left patients unclear what had happened to them.
While an inmate at Valley state prison for women in 2003, Gabriela Solano underwent a surgery in which doctors said they were going to remove her swollen left ovary, but at the end they told her they had removed her right ovary instead, she told the Guardian.
When she questioned her prison doctors about it later, she said he told her “what do you care? You’re a lifer anyway.”
“I just remember him saying that to me,” she told the Guardian in a call from Mexico, where she now lives. “A lot of the girls I knew went through unnecessary hysterectomies.”
But many advocates of the new compensation program worry that the same sentiments that allowed the eugenics abuses of the past to occur still permeate American culture.
Prisoners, people with disabilities and people of color “are still considered to be at the margins of our society and not worth the bother of dignity or respect by many”, said Hafsah Al-Amin, the program coordinator for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which has worked with many of the current and former inmates who may be eligible for the compensation.
California is the first state to recognize and attempt to atone for much more recent cases of forced sterilization in the prisons. Photograph: Ric Francis/AP
“When people hear the term eugenics they often think of something that happened a long time ago,” said Lorena García Zermeño, the policy and communications coordinator for the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, a co-sponsor of the bill. “But the legacy of eugenics continues to this day.”
She pointed to recent reports of women detained in US immigration centers being unnecessarily sterilized. But she also said health disparities, such as the huge numbers of Black people and Latinos who have died of Covid-19, are rooted in the same sense of disregard for the lives of people of color and poor people.
“It’s extremely important for the state to confront the racist, sexist, ableist beliefs that perpetuate health disparities happening now.”
Dillon said the idea that California is finally going to compensate eugenics survivors makes her feel like spinning in the streets like the 1970s television character Mary Tyler Moore, who played a TV journalist.
What finally helped her come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t have children, she said, was getting to know her now-eight-year-old grandson.
“I was given an opportunity, praise God, to have children before I went to prison,” she said. “And, through that, I now have the chance to be a mom or mother figure to my grandchildren.”
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.”
On Sunday, March 21, 2021, a powerful virtual art exhibit featuring art from incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in occupied Palestine and the U.S. was launched. “Art Against Imprisonment – From Palestine to the U.S.” grew out of a history of active solidarity between movements against imprisonment in the U.S. and Palestine. It is a testament to the creativity, imagination and brilliance of the many people who resist the invisibility, isolation and repression of prisons and claim a liberated space through their art.
The exhibit was first proposed by Addameer Prisoner and Human Rights Association as a physical touring art show in fall 2019. With the emergence of the COVID pandemic, which shut down in-person activities across the globe, the coalition of groups that had first committed to working on the in-person show shifted it to a virtual art exhibit.
Milena Ansari, international advocacy officer for Addameer, described Addameer’s goals for the art show: “We wanted the exhibit to inform the public about the international scope of prisoner resistance to oppression and injustice.”
According to Ansari, the virtual platform actually has many advantages: “It allows prisoners a continuing platform to exhibit their artwork and creativity and enables many more people around the world to appreciate their art. It also facilitates sharing updates on issues concerning prisoners in Palestine and the U.S and builds an ongoing connection among all of our solidarity groups.”
To bring the virtual art exhibit to life, five U.S.-based organizations came together to work collaboratively with Addameer: Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), Freedom Archives, Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN).
Our organizations have all been involved in the fight to dismantle the carceral systems that uphold white supremacist, colonial power. We’ve seen how the U.S. and the Israeli apartheid state have closely cooperated in the development of their prisons over the course of the last 60 years.
They have joined forces to devise similar methods of carceral control, such as interrogation, torture, solitary confinement, child imprisonment, family separation, sexual violation and enveloping surveillance techniques. They have also shared their strategies and resources with many other countries, using those incarcerated as proxies for experimentation.
Art by incarcerated people confronts the U.S. and Israeli apartheid state regimes of oppression and injustice. Art breaks down barriers, walls, gender norms, languages and, in many cases, the social and political infrastructures that are used to separate our struggles.
In an essay marking the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party in 2018, Ahmad Sa’adat, Palestinian political prisoner and general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), wrote: “Prisons exist for a reason, for the needs and interests of those with power … where there is occupation and colonization, there will be prisons and all of the laws and legal frameworks erected to legitimize exploitation, oppression and injustice and criminalize resistance and liberation.”
Art by incarcerated people confronts these regimes of oppression and injustice. Art breaks down barriers, walls, gender norms, languages and, in many cases, the social and political infrastructures that are used to separate our struggles. It has inspired solidarity between our movements against imprisonment and toward collective liberation.
To create the exhibit, our groups solicited submissions from incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and their families across Palestine and the U.S. We received art in many formats and mediums, representing the tremendous variety of ways that people in prison devise to express themselves and their politics.
There are distinct sections for paintings, drawings, quilts and embroidery, poetry, pottery, prayer beads and art objects and calligraphy. As visitors to the website, we urge you to explore the work in order to fully appreciate this unique collection of artistry across borders and mediums.
Other sections of the website provide short biographies of the artists, resources on imprisonment and suggested actions that the visitor can take to fight imprisonment in Palestine and the U.S. All pages of the website are presented in both English and Arabic with a Spanish version coming soon.
Our group collectively envisioned the logo for this art exhibit, created by Heba Hamarshi from Addameer. The logo represents a common commitment to break through the prison walls with the fist of (self)-determination and the spirit of sumud – steadfastness.
Handala, the child standing with their hands clasped behind their back, was first created by Palestinian artist Naji Al-Ali in 1969 to represent the forced displacement of Palestinian people from their homeland. Handala has become a Palestinian national symbol of resistance and has grown to have a global significance. Naji Al-Ali wrote that Handala “was the arrow of the compass, pointing steadily towards Palestine. Not just Palestine in the geographical terms, but Palestine in its humanitarian sense – the symbol of a just cause, whether it is located in Egypt, Vietnam or South Africa.”
The “All Power to the People” fist, designed and popularized by Frank Cieciorka in the mid-1960s, has become a symbol not only of the Black Liberation Movement, but for global resistance and liberation.
Hafez Omar, an award-winning Palestinian artist, was imprisoned in 2019 for the “crime” of inspiring people through his art.
The launch event for the website featured moving presentations by some of the website’s artists and their family members. Kevin Cooper, who was wrongly convicted and has spent over 30 years on California’s death row, sent an impassioned statement to the event.
He wrote: “As the oppressed African Americans over here are being shot by the police for any reason and no reason at all, the same is being done to the people of Palestine by the police and military over there … They are forced to live against their will in the world’s largest open-air prison, the Gaza strip, yet they keep their dignity, their will to live and their self-respect intact.” Kevin Cooper has two paintings in the exhibit – one titled “Free Gaza,” spotlighted on the website’s landing page, and a portrait of Bob Marley.
Linda Evans, who served 16 years in U.S. federal prisons for anti-imperialist actions, described the importance of getting art materials in prison: “Being able to access color in the drab and uniform surroundings of prison really made a difference to my mental state.”
She described how mothers were able to communicate with their children by making them a drawing or a toy. “I view solidarity with Palestine as a bottom-line principle of anyone who is striving for international global liberation,” she asserted.
Shukri Abu-Baker is serving 65 years in prison in the U.S. for the crime of giving money to Palestinians as part of the Holy Land Five case.
Anmar Rafeedie, a cultural worker and longtime member of El-Fanoun Palestinian Dance Troupe, explained that growing up, her home was filled with art from her parents, which they had made while they were in prison. “Art resurrects life, which is why when they want to install collective punishment in colonial Israel prisons, they take away artistic tools, such as beads and strings, which prisoners would use to make gifts for their loved ones.”
Naima Shaloub, a U.S.-based Lebanese vocalist, brought the power of music to the event when she performed a song called “Roumieh Prison Blues.” She wrote the song with incarcerated men in Lebanon’s Roumieh prison when she visited.
Nida Abu-Baker spoke emotionally about her father, Shukri Abu-Baker, who is serving 65 years in prison in the U.S. for the crime of giving money to Palestinians as part of the Holy Land Five case. When she was growing up, her father painted murals all over their house. “Now, every time something major in our life happens, he’ll send us something to cheer us up and to cheer himself up. Events like this one today make him so excited and so happy because he knows that his voice is actually going to be heard, even though he’s in a small prison cell.”
Hafez Omar, an award-winning Palestinian artist, was imprisoned in 2019 for the “crime” of inspiring people through his art. Among his many political posters, he had created many in solidarity with prisoners, including his brother. As a prisoner himself, art took on a new dimension. Hafez explained, “To keep drawing inside the prison was my simplest way to say you’re not winning over me. I’m not defeated, I’m still drawing, I’m still doing the thing that you took me to prison for.”
Oscar López-Rivera, a Puerto Rican former political prisoner who served 36 years in U.S. prisons, concluded the event. “As we become creative, we also transcend some of the negative spaces that we have within our minds. We transcend a lot of the insecurities that we have within ourselves as a colonized person.”
Oscar called on everyone to support imprisoned artists and to grow the art exhibit. “I hope that we will be able to come together again just like we have today. And little by little solidarity will grow among all of us. I believe in reciprocal solidarity and we need to maintain a very close connection with Palestine!”
In the coming months, “Art Against Imprisonment” hopes to take up Oscar’s call to expand the art exhibit, reach out to more artists, their loved ones and advocates, and strengthen the reciprocal solidarity between our struggles for freedom and liberation.
Diana Block is a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and Nadya Tannous is a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement. Reach them by email at email@example.com and follow @artagainstimprisonment on social media.