When a Miscarriage Becomes a Jail Sentence

Oct 21, 2021, 10:00am Caroline Reilly

National Advocates for Pregnant Women painted a grim picture of pregnant people increasingly being prosecuted around the country for a miscarriage.

The criminalization of Brittney Poolaw’s pregnancy forewarns of a system where all pregnancies that do not end in a live birth can be deemed suspicious.

In January 2020, then-19-year-old Brittney Poolaw was pregnant and needed urgent medical care. She called 911 and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. She was having a miscarriage at 17 weeks.

Two months later, she was arrested and charged with first-degree manslaughter under Oklahoma law. Earlier this month—after spending 18 months in jail because she could not afford her $20,000 bond—Poolaw, now 21, was sentenced to four years in prison for her pregnancy loss. National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), which represents Poolaw, say this case is not an outlier—it’s one of over 1,000 such cases across the country in recent years.

The criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes—arresting, charging, and incarcerating pregnant people for miscarriages and stillbirths—might seem dystopian, like a plot point from a horror or sci-fi movie. Occasionally, cases like Poolaw’s make national headlines and are rightly judged as ghastly violations of human rights and autonomy. But that laser focus on individual cases can give the impression that these are isolated incidents.

They are not.

NAPW say cases like Poolaw’s have been on the rise in recent years. According to their analysis, from 1973 to 2005 there were at least 413 cases in which a woman’s pregnancy or pregnancy outcome was a determinative factor in her loss of liberty. Since 2005 that number has tripled to over 1,200, indicating a rapid escalation of these types of arrests.

This is despite every major medical organization in the country opposing the use of the legal system to penalize pregnancy loss, and despite studies showing that criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes may actually deter pregnant people from seeking medical care, which in turn puts them and their pregnancies at greater risk.

Speaking to Rewire News Group, Dana Sussman, NAPW’s deputy executive director, and NAPW staff attorney Cassandra Kelly painted a grim picture of pregnant people increasingly being prosecuted for charges involving fetal demise. This is happening across the country, in states like Wisconsin, Alabama, and California; for the latter, they cited the cases of Chelsea Becker, who spent over a year incarcerated after being charged with murder for experiencing a stillbirth, and Adora Perez, who is serving an 11-year sentence for a similar charge.

An even more radical framework for criminalizing miscarriage

Describing Poolaw’s case, Sussman said, “I’m not sure if I have the words to describe frankly how problematic this case has been from start to finish.”

Prosecutors argued that Poolaw’s drug use was to blame for her pregnancy loss. When she sought medical attention for her miscarriage, she told hospital staff that she had used meth and marijuana. The medical examiner’s report listed maternal meth use as a contributing factor to fetal demise, but didn’t determine it was directly responsible. And even an OB-GYN testifying for the prosecution said that while drug use can have an effect on pregnancy, it’s unclear what caused the miscarriage in this case.

Under Oklahoma law, manslaughter and murder laws can be applied to a viable fetus, as can child abuse and neglect laws. But Poolaw’s miscarriage occured when she was 17 weeks pregnant, long before a fetus reaches viability. NAPW advocates say Poolaw’s case is one of the earliest they’ve seen; by prosecuting a pre-viability miscarriage as manslaughter, Oklahoma prosecutors are pushing the law’s bounds, indicating a shift toward an even more radical framework for criminalizing pregnancy loss.

NAPW is a nonprofit organization that does pro bono criminal defense, advocacy, public education, and organizing around the criminalization of pregnancy loss.

The particulars of Poolaw’s case are a web of legal booby traps. “There has to be a causal link when we’re talking about manslaughter,” Sussman said. “In Brittney’s case, it was ‘possession of an illegal substance.’ Of course, possession on its own, even by their framing, wouldn’t cause fetal demise. It’s the consumption, but in Oklahoma, from what we understand, possession has essentially been construed as also covering consumption.”

What we see happening with the criminalization of pregnancy loss is not unlike what we see with the increasingly volatile state of abortion access in the country. Lawmakers and prosecutors start by encroaching on the bodily autonomy of pregnant people in a way they know will be most palatable to society. They target circumstances most fraught with stigma and taboo: later abortion bans, restrictions on young people accessing abortion, criminalization of drug use during pregnancy. But Sussman says they will not stop there.

It comes down to prosecutors claiming the pregnant person put the fetus at “risk of harm,” she said, a measure of liability with drastic potential for expansion.

“We’ve tracked all cases that we can find in which someone has been arrested and/or prosecuted or experienced another deprivation of liberty in relation to their pregnancy, and the vast majority of those cases involve drug use,” Sussman said. “It’s not all though. So, we do see cases where someone fell down a flight of stairs and was charged with some criminal allegation creating a risk of harm to the fetus.”

But NAPW wants to make clear that pushing back against the criminalization of pregnancy loss isn’t about viability or substance use; pointing out these legal intricacies is not to concede that viability or the pregnant person’s behavior should be used to determine whether manslaughter or other criminal charges are appropriate.

Instead, NAPW staff stress that the criminalization of any pregnancy loss is wrong. If lawmakers and prosecutors intended to stop with cases involving post-viability pregnancies, or miscarriages involving allegations of drug use, that would still warrant the abject horror that Poolaw’s case has been greeted with.

“It is a slippery slope. We are on the slope.”

A critical part of this case is Poolaw’s Indigenous background—she is a member of Comanche Nation; the history of the criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes is, unsurprisingly, deeply rooted in racism and classism.

“So much of this has its tentacles in the ‘crack baby’ obsession in the ‘80s and ‘90s targeting poor Black women,” Sussman said. She cites a 1989 policy in which the Medical University of South Carolina entered into an agreement with local law enforcement to surreptitiously drug test and report pregnant women, so that police could arrest them days and sometimes just hours after giving birth. The population that the hospital was serving at the time was predominantly Black and lower income.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which challenged the policy in court:

Some women were taken to jail while still bleeding from giving birth. Others were arrested and jailed while they were pregnant, even though the prison could not provide prenatal care or drug treatment. When the incarcerated women went into labor, they were returned to the hospital in shackles. One woman was handcuffed to her bed throughout her delivery.

The Supreme Court heard the Center’s challenge to the policy and, in 2001, ruled in their favor. But the same type of disparate impact remains the reality of criminalized adverse pregnancy outcomes today. Sussman stresses that cases like Poolaw’s will affect marginalized pregnant people most—Black, trans and nonbinary, disabled, undocumented, and lower income pregnant people are all at an increased risk of having their pregnancy losses criminalized.

“We all know that pregnancy is grossly understudied and there’s so much still unknown,” Sussman says. “Exercising too vigorously, going downhill skiing, a lot of things [involve risk], but because of the war on drugs and because of racism and because of classism and lots of other things, the focus has been disproportionately on drug use. But it is a slippery slope. We are on the slope.”

Criminalization of pregnancy loss is rapidly expanding in scope, in ways that continue to target marginalized people. Sussman said NAPW is now seeing cases where a pregnant person faces allegations of lack of prenatal care as part of a larger charge. This is particularly insidious considering which communities lack access to proper prenatal care, and the fact that for low-income families, accessing prenatal care means interacting with a state system that has the potential to surveil them, which in turn leaves them vulnerable to prosecution if they experience pregnancy loss. NAPW is even starting to see cases where parents of newborns become ensnared in the legal system for allegations of drug use during breastfeeding.

Poolaw’s case forewarns of a system where all pregnancies that do not end in a live birth can be deemed suspicious. As Texas SB 8, which bans nearly all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, dominates headlines, it’s critical to understand how criminalizing abortion and criminalizing pregnancy loss intersect. Conservatives in Texas have been quick to assure voters that pregnant people themselves cannot be charged under the anti-abortion law, but the reality is that pregnant people around the country are already being charged for not carrying a pregnancy to term. And while medication abortion is safe and effective, an increased demand for it presents unique challenges to populations of pregnant people who are more likely to have their pregnancy losses criminalized.

The increasing criminalization of adverse pregnancy outcomes also speaks to a deep-seated stigma and taboo surrounding miscarriage and infertility.

“It’s premised on this false notion that everyone can guarantee a healthy pregnancy and that it is somehow your failure, your incapacity, your fault, something you did or something you didn’t do, that caused the pregnancy loss,” Sussman said.

“We of course know how common pregnancy loss is and how it’s been really sort of understudied, as so many sort of health issues that predominantly affect women are, and thinking about sort of all of the economic, social, structural reasons why people might experience pregnancy loss … And yet here we are holding women criminally liable when they can’t guarantee a healthy pregnancy.”

Sussman said Poolaw now has a short window of time to decide whether to appeal. Four years is the minimum sentence for manslaughter in Oklahoma, and she could have gotten life in prison, Sussman said.

“I think she has been through a deeply, deeply traumatic experience,” Sussman said. “It’s trauma layered upon trauma. And so we’re going to be driven by what she wants. But regardless of what decision she makes, it’s not the end of our fight in Oklahoma because more cases are coming.”

DV and LWOP Survivor Marisela Andrade handed over to ICE!!

DV and LWOP Survivor Marisela Andrade handed over to ICE!!

Early in the morning on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, the California Dept. Corrections and rehabilitation (CDCr) transferred CCWP member Marisela Andrade over to ICE agents instead of releasing her on parole.

Marisela, a survivor of domestic violence and a LWOP sentence, was expected to be released on Sunday, Dec. 5th, from the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla after more than 14 years in prison. Friends and supporters were ready to pick her up and help her get to the Fresno Reentry program she was assigned to. Instead, CDCr cruelly handed her over to ICE. She was held overnight in a temporary ICE detention center in Fresno that had no beds or decent sanitation facilities.

Marisela is now in Aurora, CO, where our compañeras Patti Waller Medina and Gabi Solano were also held. Her immigration attorney will be filing a Release Order in the hope we can bring her home to CA to continue fighting for legal status in the US.

We must pass the Vision Act (AB 937)! This would prevent the cruel double punishment of all people who have completed their sentence or are released on parole from facing detention and deportation.

#STOP ICE   #Pass The Vision Act!


     Marisela Andrade De Zarate                                                             A#074-816-783
     Aurora ICE Processing Center
     3130 North Oakland Street, Aurora, CO 80010
     (303) 361-6612



Caring Collectively for People
in Women’s Prisons

We monitor and challenge the abusive conditions inside California women’s prisons.

We fight for the release of women and trans prisoners.

We support women and trans people in their process of re-entering the community.


And… thank you to everyone who joined our special virtual event honoring founding CCWP member, Charisse Shumate!
Watch the event recording here.
Learn more about Charisse and her life’s work here.


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


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.