Women’s History Month and Prison

March is Women’s History Month.  I don’t know whether there’s a day set aside this month for incarcerated women, but maybe there should be.  Not to celebrate the institution, but to deal with it.  And to think about the unique challenges incarcerated women face.  Consider that the number of total prisoners in this country has increased roughly 400% since 1980, but the number of women in prison has increased 700%!  Nearly two-thirds of women in prison have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse in their lives.  Many of their crimes flowed from terrible decisions and behavior patterns in response to abusive or neglectful environments.  The same is certainly true for men in prison.  But seeing so many women in prison is just different somehow.  It’s just especially not right.

I sometimes conduct workshops inside prisons.  After a workshop at a women’s prison last week, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it’s just all wrong.  I had just met with about 80 women for two hours discussing some of the challenges of addressing their abusive histories and navigating California’s discretionary parole process.  Almost all of the women were serving life, several of them with no possibility of parole.

As I prepared to leave, I noticed a young woman waiting behind several others for a chance to talk to me after my presentation.  I could see that she wanted to talk, but she clearly didn’t want to seem pushy.  (I guess she reminded me of myself in that way, which is why I wanted to make sure I talked to her.)  Before she made it any closer, the people shepherding me through the prison reminded me that the hour was getting late and that we needed to leave.  I saw the woman turn and walk away.  We had missed our chance to talk.

I was glad to see that she slowed her pace and hung back until I got near the door.  She was determined to talk, even though she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say or how I could help her.

Joanie was just 19 when she shot a rival gang member.  Although she didn’t kill him, she knows she hurt him – and that she did it for all the crazy reasons befitting a gang member pretending to belong to a “neighborhood” that would abandon her as soon as she was arrested. Joanie had already been in prison for 8 years when we met, and our four-minute talk was long enough for me to see her insight into why her actions as a kid were so wrong.  It broke her heart and mine when she said that she’s serving 50 years to life.  She cried when she told me.  Despite the time she’d already served, the enormity of it all still overwhelms her when she allows herself to think about it.  The immense sadness I felt for her is hard to explain.  Maybe it’s because I know the lengthy sentence wasn’t necessary – Not to match the severity of the injury she caused the boy; not to deter any of her homegirls or homeboys from shooting at rivals; and not to reduce her risk of committing a similar crime in the future.  She’s already safe to be released.  Yet, she won’t even go to the parole board until 2032 – just for the statistically slight chance to be released!  And that’s an early parole eligibility date under a new law that requires the state to treat young people differently.  It’s just not enough.

More than a week after this visit (and I’ve done hundreds over the past 18 years), I’m still unable to wrap my mind around seeing hundreds of blue denim-clad women – young and old, fit and feeble, hopeful and hopeless – struggling to sit, crouch or kneel in the dirt around me as a far-off alarm signals some potential emergency on the prison yard.  Prison rules require them to get down during an alarm.  Still, it wasn’t right.  I apologized to them that they had to sit in the dirt.  They looked ahead and smiled in their best dignified silence at the indignity of it all.  I was ashamed.  For them.  For me.  For us.  For having a system that locks up so many for so long beyond the time they present any threat to anyone.  We too often forget these people, intentionally keeping them out of sight so they’ll stay out of mind.  So let’s remember these women during Women’s History Month and beyond.  And let’s keep working to bring them home where they belong – but to a safer, more supportive environment.

Keith Wattley is the Founder and Executive Director of UnCommon Law, a nonprofit organization working to bring fairness and justice to the parole consideration process for California’s 35,000 life prisoners.  He supervises the Post-Conviction Advocacy Project at U.C. Berkeley School of Law and is a Lecturer in Law at UCLA School of Law.