Women and incarceration is a rising topic that Simmons College SWSG Chapter Directors, Hayley Collins and Jennie Holloway brought to the forefront of today’s women’s issues. In the United States prison systems, “Women are being stripped of their femininity and forced to conform to being a male”, words spoken by panelist Kate Johnson, former SWSG alumna and social worker for formerly incarcerated women at “SHOUT OUT LOUD: Women & Incarceration”, hosted by Boston’s Simmons College SWSG Chapter. Kate, along with Jill Evans, Director of Women and Family Services at the state of Vermont Department of Corrections; Stacey Holliday, a former inmate and advocate for incarcerated women, and Liz Miranda, Roxbury-native, entrepreneur and leading member of Operation L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K. (Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killing) served as panelist for the first of many speaker series hosted by the Chapter. Charlena Kennedy, recently crowned Ms. Plymouth County 2014, shared her story of being a child of an incarcerated parent and what that meant for her. Her platform, “Not Guilty By(e) Association: Breaking an Unhealthy Cycle”, is to spread awareness and be the voice of people who have struggled with the incarceration of a parent and/or the harmful cycle of domestic violence.
As mentors, they empower the young, elementary school girls that make up our program, yet also wanted to bring to a light a topic that would help them to understand the multifaceted, complex interactions among women and their male counterparts particularly in the criminal justice system. Some of these issues girls of the program may witness and experience with their own loved ones, and with this discussion, provide another perspective on what these girls may endure when dealing with a loved one who becomes imprisoned.
Women are often shuffled into the fold and forgotten about and treated like men, who fairly dominate the United States prison systems. These women are served with longer sentences than their male counterparts in addition to the trivial, non-violent crimes that are committed (n.b. This is not to argue that all crimes women commit are trivial; however, most of the reasons for why women are incarcerated have increase dramatically over the years. For research on this, please read this article). There are a lack of resources that these women receive in prison, as well as when they are released. These women are often faced with the lack of resources needed not only for such things as their monthly menses, but also for their self-dignity and worth.
Memoir and show, Orange is the New Black, written by Piper Kerman, brought to like these conditions along with the interpersonal interactions between women of different race, ethnicity, culture, class, ability and trauma. Women are brought together under tough conditions and small quarters and learn to deal with not only themselves, but each other on a daily and nightly basis. Not an overnight process, by any means, women had to seek refuge with each other and build a sisterhood within the system and learn to lean on each other. They had to empower each other.
Upon re-entry in society, these women are not giving the adequate tools to succeed once outside the structured, institutionalized, concrete walls. Once released and no family support system is available, a mere $50 and a packet on receiving governmental assistance is what is given to these women. There is no direct re-entry program that these women are guided towards unless they have a support system or find it on their own. Those who live outside these walls and have that life of “normalcy” take for granted the basic skills that some of these women never possessed due to their 10+ years of a sentence. When they are released, find themselves surrounded in world of chaos and unbearable because of the structured conditions they were surrounded by; the disempowered confines of cement and barbed wire.
What more can we do for our women who seek “normalcy” and acceptance into a society, of which they were once a part of? Where are the re-entry programs? Where are the resources? How do we continue to spread the word of the “power of choice” for our girls that we serve?