Recently I participated in the Free Her Conference: Gender Responsive Criminal Justice Reform in Boston, Massachusetts at Harvard University Law School. It was a mindboggling experience, organized by Families for Justice as Healing. Women from all over the U.S. came out to share information about gender specific criminal justice reform.
As a formerly incarcerated woman who spent 13 years in the federal system and five years in the local correctional institution here in the District of Columbia, I was surprised and enlightened by the stories of the challenges women face in the criminal justice system.
I learned about advocates for reproductive justice for the first time. Their work involves advocacy around a female prisoner’s right to appropriate medical treatment, access to abortions and the oversight of the practice of performing hysterectomies on women in prison.
I learned about women who are convicted of prostitution in Louisiana being deemed sex offenders. What’s worse, these women have to walk around with “Sex Offender” blazoned across their Identification Card that they carry and use daily.
We had in depth conversations about women who are handcuffed during labor and delivery as well as the advocacy to end this horrid practice.
One of the advocates spoke about her work to ban the videotaping of female prisoners during strip searches. Another spoke about her work involving the mental health issues women face as a result of long periods of stay in solitary confinement.
It was all so much to grasp.
Dorothy Gaines was present at the conference. She was released on clemency in 2000 when former President Bill Clinton was still in office. Since Ms. Gaines was released one of her children has become incarcerated. He is serving a lengthy sentence and was recently assaulted. We discussed intergenerational incarceration at length.
For me, the most moving panelists were Mothers in Charge. They are a group of women who have lost their sons to gun violence in inner cities throughout the United States. They are working to help reform the criminal justice system and they facilitate alternative to violence programs for men and boys in prisons. Ms. Dorothy Speight told
me that people often ask her, “How can you go into the prison and talk to those boys when you could possibly be talking to your son?” She replies, “They are all my sons.”
There was a panel discussion facilitated by children with formerly incarcerated mothers regarding the need to use art as positive expression when coping with the traumatic separation caused by incarceration. We watched the film Echoes of Incarceration. I haven’t cried so much in a very long time.
On the day following the conference I was deeply moved as the participants left the hotel, and stepped into the waiting cabs donning their t-shirts that read, #freemichellewest. I watched them from a distance and I sulked in my sadness. Michelle West is one of our friends who we (the formerly incarcerated women at the conference) left behind. She is serving 2 LIFE sentences PLUS 50 years and 5 years of probation for drug conspiracy.
As much as I enjoyed being with my friends I served time with who live in various parts of the U.S., my experience at the Free Her Conference was difficult. I only hope we can all continue to carry our pain as a torch that leads to progress and true criminal justice reform. I only hope.