Have something to share? Drop us a line at [email protected].
- “The Fight for Our Rights: Women, Mass Incarceration, and Criminal Justice,” Mariah Lindsay, Ms. Magazine, January 13, 2021.
- “A “Prisoner of War” Story: The Life and Captivity of Lisa Montgomery—The First Woman To Be Executed by the Federal Government in 68 Years,” Nathalie Schreyer, Ms. Magazine, January 11, 2021.
- WATCH: Panel on Race, Sex and Policing in America with our own host Michele Goodwin, former guest Judge Glenda Hatchett, Nusrat Choudhury and Amy Fettig; or read the recap here.
0:00:00 Michele Goodwin:
Welcome to On The Issues With Michele Goodwin at Ms. magazine, a show where we report, rebel and tell it like it is. On this show, we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times. On our show history matters—we examine the past as we pivot to the future. On this episode we turn to Mass Incarceration and urge President Biden and state lawmakers not to forget about girls and women.
The content of today’s show is troubling. We want to warn our listening audience. Mass incarceration affects the lives of women and girls in ways not given sustained attention in news. Mostly, criminal justice is perceived as a male issue. However, just recently, in shocking audio, we hear a nine-year-old girl pleading with Rochester police who pepper spray her. From body cam video, the girl is consistently asking for her father. When officers tell her she is acting like a child, she responds that she is a child. We warn you, the audio and the event are troubling.
0:1:27 Male Officer
Dear, why’d you, just stop for a second and take a deep breath. Hey, just stop.
0:1:33 Female Officer
I will get your dad, alright?
What you gonna do, you gonna pepper spray me. No! Please no, stop! Stop! I gotta–
0:01:41 Male Officer
Just spray her at this point.
0:01:43 Male Officer
Just spray her at this point.
0:01:50 Male Officer
0:01:54 Male Officer
I got her, I got her.
I got peppered. I–please wipe my eyes, wipe my eyes, please!
02:03 Male Officer
0:02:05 Michele Goodwin:
Mass incarceration affects girls and women in the United States. Women make up the fastest growing incarcerated population in the United States. But arrests, incarceration, solitary confinement, shackling during childbirth, sexual assaults by guards, often go ignored. Here is Janie Liggins, a survivor of a sexual assault committed by a convicted Oklahoma police officer, Daniel Holtzclaw. We warn our listeners. It’s disturbing.
0:02:41 Jannie Ligons
First, I’d like to say good morning everybody. And give all the praise to God. I understand God, I could stand here today and talk and say this. I was violated in June by a police officer. He stopped me on 50th and Lincoln for no reason whatsoever, pulled me over, and fondled me, and did certain things to me. I was out there alone and helpless. Didn’t know what to do. And in my mind, all I could think that he was going to shoot me. He was going to kill me. He did things to me that I didn’t think a police officer would do. He made me perform oral, sodomy, sex on him. I didn’t know what to do. I was so afraid. I was afraid for my life. I kept begging him. “Sir, please don’t make me do this. Don’t make me do this, sir. Please, you’re going to shoot me?”
He said, “I’m not going to shoot you.” I said, “So you’re going to shoot me.” Only thing I could see was my life flashed before my eyes and a gun in his holster on his right side. As I tried to look up at his name, I was afraid to, because I said if I know his name, I know he’s going to kill me. So that I didn’t do. So, he did so many things to me, and I was so afraid. And I was out there, like I say, so helpless. God’s will, he led me live, and he let me live to tell this story like a lot of victims are not able to do. And I thank God above for letting me do that. And all I can say is, I was a victim. I was traumatized. I went to therapy. I had a stroke behind this. And, I still live with this day after day. And all I know is, I wasn’t a criminal. I have no record. I didn’t do anything wrong. You said I did something wrong. You said I was flirting which I was not. You just wanted to stop me. So all I could say is, I was innocent, and he just picked the wrong lady to stop that night. Yes.
0:05:04 Michele Goodwin:
In 2013, Eric Holder, the former United States Attorney General, issued an urgent call for drug-law reform, decreasing mass incarceration, and reducing overcrowded conditions in jails and prisons, which can no longer be ignored, even by ardent tough-on-crime proponents, without acknowledging the economic and human costs of such policies. As Holder explained to an audience of lawyers, judges, and academics at the 2013 American Bar Association Annual Meeting, American jails are overcrowded and unsustainable, packed with nonviolent drug offenders who frequently serve disparate sentences based on a strange admixture of race, class, and privilege. With more than 1.5 million people incarcerated in the United States, which accounts for 25 percent of all prisoners in the world, the failure of the U.S. drug war and sentencing policies is apparent, particularly as the United States “has only 5 percent of the world’s population.”
One year later, at the national meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), President Barack Obama made similar claims about the urgency of penal reform.
He urged that it was time to act. Like Mr. Holder, President Obama made a plea for men of color locked behind bars.
0:06:43 Eric Holder:
As a nation, we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts. While the entire U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown at an astonishing rate – by almost 800 percent. It’s still growing – despite the fact that federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity. Even though this country comprises just 5 percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. More than 219,000 federal inmates are currently behind bars. Almost half of them are serving time for drug-related crimes, and many have substance use disorders. Nine to 10 million more people cycle through America’s local jails each year. And roughly 40 percent of former federal prisoners – and more than 60 percent of former state prisoners – are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release, at great cost to American taxpayers and often for technical or minor violations of the terms of their release.
As a society, we pay much too high a price whenever our system fails to deliver outcomes that deter and punish crime, keep us safe, and ensure that those who have paid their debts have the chance to become productive citizens. Right now, unwarranted disparities are far too common. As President Obama said last month, it’s time to ask tough questions about how we can strengthen our communities, support young people, and address the fact that young Black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system.
0:08:34 Michele Goodwin:
Eric Holder and President Obama were well meaning, but they forgot about women in these public addresses.
0:08:43 Eric Holder:
We also must confront the reality that – once they’re in that system – people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers. One deeply troubling report, released in February, indicates that – in recent years – Black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptable – it is shameful. It is.
0:09:16 President Barack Obama:
Because the statistics on who get incarcerated show that by a wide margin, it disproportionately impacts communities of color. African Americans, Latinos make up 30 percent of our population. They make up 60 percent of our inmates. About 1 in every 35 African American men, 1 in every 88 Latino men is serving time right now. Among white men, that number is 1 in 214. The bottom line is that in too many places, Black boys and Black men, Latino boys and Latino men, experience being treated differently under the law.
0:10:13 Michele Goodwin:
The United States incarcerates more women and girls than any other nation in the world. More than Russia, China, India combined.
In this episode, you’ll hear from very special guests about what that means. For example, we’ll be talking to Sue Ellen Allen. She is the founder and executive director of Reinventing Reentry. She is the author of The Slumber Party from Hell, a memoir about prison life, and she is the recipient of the Dawson Prize in Memoir in the 2009 Prison Writing Contest for PEN American Center.
I’m also joined Piper Kerman. She is the author of the memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. The book has been adapted by Jenji Kohan into an Emmy Award-winning original series for Netflix, which ran for seven seasons.
I’m also joined by a very special guest, Kamilah Newton. Kamilah Newton is a writer for Yahoo Lifestyle and an associate producer for MAKERS. And she shares with us today her experiences in the—what some would call not a justice system—our system of criminal justice and mass incarceration. Very recently, she participated in a virtual reality piece directed by Al Jazeera called “Still Here,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
This episode we dedicate to Sue Ellen Allen and her work on prison reform and reentry. Sue Ellen is in hospice care right now and we were able to tape with her late in December, shortly before Christmas. We begin this episode with our conversation. I first met Sue Ellen in 2014. In doing research for me, a resourceful research assistant came across an op-ed that Sue Ellen published. It described her time in a women’s prison in Arizona and the harsh conditions under which she survived breast cancer while incarcerated. Memorable for me was how she described having her breasts “chopped off”—her words—while shackled and chained. I knew then that I wanted to meet her and we became friends.
0:12:29 Sue Ellen Allen
We’ve been lot of places together, haven’t we girlfriend?
0:12:32 Michele Goodwin
We have been a lot of places together. Yes, we have. From Washington DC up at the nation’s capitol,
0:12:41 Sue Ellen Allen
To the Press Club in Washington to the White House.
0:12:46 Michele Goodwin
0:12:47 Sue Ellen Allen
You name it. We’ve been here together.
0:12:48 Michele Goodwin
We have been there together. So, you did travel so much, you became a teacher, you graduated from the University of Texas, many people who would see images of you now they would say that that’s the epitome of, of at a certain point what defined an image of Republican woman: the pearls, the beautifully coiffed hair. From Texas.
0:13:11 Sue Ellen Allen
Yup, that’s right.
0:13:13 Michele Goodwin
But there’s been a journey. And at a certain point, in terms of what led to your incarceration before you were incarcerated, your mother decided that maybe something else should happen. What did your mother decide?
0:13:28 Sue Ellen Allen
Well, my mother, we were we are you talking about when we were indicted?
0:13:26 Michele Goodwin
Yeah, exactly. And your mother said I can do one thing or the other. We can either…
0:13:42 Sue Ellen Allen
Yes, I can. I can pay for lawyer’s fees. Or I can we can go and live quietly in Europe somewhere. But we can’t do both. And David and I had been indicted for securities fraud. And I thought, you know, … I couldn’t stop shaking. Michele, your lawyer, you know how that is. I couldn’t stop shaking. And I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t eat. And I’d lost about 25 pounds or 20 pounds, maybe. Every woman’s dream, but not that way. And I just thought, if I could just sleep for just a little bit, maybe four or five months, we could come back and we could fight this thing. Mother didn’t want to do that. Mother wanted to leave and be gone. And so we did. We went to Portugal. David, my mother, and I. And you haven’t lived until you have been on the lam with your 85-year-old mother and her 14 pieces of luggage and her little portable sewing machine that she’d had since 1948. No, that’s not true, it was 1950. And we had that little sewing machine that she we she took everywhere because my mother was a beautiful seamstress. She knew how to make anything. And so we decided, at that point in our life, we were going to go live in Portugal and that was in 19–. No, that was 2000. No, it was 199-. Well, it doesn’t matter. Right, but who cares what the time, right… we left the country. And I thought well, if I could just sleep. We would come back and it would be alright. But, it wasn’t all right.
0:15:28 Michele Goodwin
It wasn’t all right. And you and your husband turned yourselves in?
0:15:34 Sue Ellen
Yeah. We did
0:15:35 Michele Goodwin
Yeah, and came back to the United States. And then this is when another phase in your life where your life really changed. What was that experience like, being incarcerated and you had just been diagnosed with breast cancer?
0:15:52 Sue Ellen Allen
The breast cancer was a sort of a shock. I jogged three miles a day for, I don’t know, 10 or 15 years it seemed like a forever, but who knows? I had never smoked. I drank minimally. I was a cheap drunk I always said, because I couldn’t handle it. And I just was very, very surprised to find myself suddenly as a privileged white woman, like it’s back to that in Joe Arpaio’s jail I mean, heavens, I never even thought about something like that.
0:16:22 Michele Goodwin
So what was that experience like? If you could tell us a bit about making that decision going through that surgery while incarcerated? What was that like? And how did the women respond to you to try to help you out?
0:16:37 Sue Ellen Allen
You know, Michele, that… when you lose your when you lose your hair. I don’t know if you know how many billions of dollars it is in in haircare products that we have in America, but it’s billions and billions of dollars in haircare products that we have. And, so, when you think about losing your hair, it is a pretty big, momentous thing. Except I have to just get back here, ladies and gentlemen, if you could see both of us neither one of us has a head full of hair. Michele, because she’s a tall, six-foot Black goddess who can go without hair and looks fabulous. And me because I’m a little, old short white lady who has shaved her head since she lost it for, you know, for breast cancer. But here’s the thing, you lose your hair, and you lose your breast, and who are you? I didn’t know who I was anymore. I thought I’ve lost my hair. I’ve lost my breast. What’s left of me? And most importantly, had lost my freedom. My freedom. And I found out through losing your freedom and losing your breast and losing everything. Your hair. You’re still you. You’re still you?
0:18:03 Michele Goodwin
Did the women that you were incarcerated with, did they help you understand you’re still you? What did they do to try to help you out? Or did you find support? Because you know, again, you came from this Texas background with a mother and father who took you around the world and whatnot. And now here you are in Sheriff Arpaio’s prison in Arizona. What were you expecting of the other incarcerated women? And what was the reality?
0:18:31 Sue Ellen Allen
Oh, Michele, I didn’t have any expectations whatsoever. I didn’t know what to expect. I honestly had no idea what to expect. And what I found was women who had lost everything still managed to be the most generous people I have ever known in my life, ever. They were extraordinary women, and they still are the women that are in prison are extraordinary women. They have been through more violence than I could ever imagine, in my life. They’ve been through more abuse. They’re just extraordinary. And at some point, when because this is gonna be I don’t know if this is going to be on zoom, but I’ll get the pictures for you. Because I do have pictures of how we could you know, show those pictures of the pillow? The pillow story. And because it’s an extraordinary story.
0:19:35 Michele Goodwin
What is the pillow story? So you had the operation and the path to the operation when I first read about it before I even knew you, but had been sent this article by one of my students was stunning to me. We were researching and tracking cases of women who were shackled during their pregnancy and delivery, which was at that point now made illegal in federal prisons and jails, but was still happening. And [it] was happening at the state level. And so, this student who came across–Ally Whelan–who’s wonderful, give a shout out to her–this article she sent to me and said “Professor Goodwin, you ought to see this.” And right after reading that article, I said let’s get her contact information I need to talk with Sue Ellen Allen. So, tell us about that, Sue Ellen, the shackling experience and the pillow.
0:20:36 Sue Ellen Allen
I went, I’ve got I wish I could share my screen because I have it on my screen, but I don’t know how to do that.
0:20:44 Michele Goodwin
I’ll get a photo.
0:20:45 Sue Ellen Allen
And I, when I had my mastectomy, I came back from the prison. I mean, back from the, the, the hospital, I came back from the hospital and there was an order at the jail in the medical department saying, “Do not ever cuff or shackle this woman’s right arm because she’s in high risk of lymphedema.” They didn’t know what lymphedema was, but it means I’ve lost 28 lymph nodes and this side on my right arm and I could get lymphedema when your arm swells up like an elephant, and it never goes away. And the pain is pretty extraordinary. And so, I went through that. And they refused to listen, they insisted on shackling.
And I was in the middle of it. I was the middle of [the night] like two or three o’clock in the morning and they were handcuffing me and shackling me to go back to the, to the jail, where was I going? I was going to court. And so they were they were shackling three …you get out in the in the hallway to go onto the bus to go down to the courthouse from the jail. And they line you up three women to a thing, and they shackle and handcuff you. And I gave him my permit, and I said, “Please, this is my permit not to shackle my right arm,” and he’s shoved it back in my face. And he said, “You forged that.” I had the most extraordinary expression on my face. I mean, I’m not speechless very much, but I was pretty speechless. I said, I didn’t even have a pen. How can I forge such a thing? Well, I couldn’t, but he could or anybody could. I didn’t forge it. And it was with a red pen, by the way that they said I had forged it, right? It’s not even possible.
But they refused to listen. And so that as a tear was running down my face, he was grabbing my wrist and really hard. And I said, “you could be gentle.” And he said, “I am being gentle. You’re not lying on the ground bleeding.” And then he didn’t say it in quite that nice a tone. I mean, it was really harsh. And the tears just were coming down my eyes and I just couldn’t believe a human being could think that way. You know, but that’s not. But Michele, that’s an example of systemic racism. Yeah, that’s what it is. He didn’t see me as an old white lady with breast cancer. He saw me as an inmate with a number. And inmates with numbers are historically Black. And that’s what I deserved. And so that’s what he saw in his act like the shackling. And everything was symbolic of the person that was there. You know, being handcuffed in shackled.
0:23:51 Michele Goodwin
And, you wrote about the shackling, while having your breasts cut off? Yeah, what you talked about the breast chopped off while being shackled into as if you could run someplace like that the indignity like kind of extra-legal shaming, stereotyping, stigmatizing, dehumanization, that’s located in doing that, as if a woman whose breasts are being removed, could possibly get up and run away. So, let’s just do this extra to let you know that we think so little of you.
0:24:24 Sue Ellen Allen
I don’t know who thinks of stuff like that. I mean, I really…It’s the same thing with shackling. with women it with when they’re on maternity, when they’re getting ready to have their baby, and they’re, “oh, well, let’s shackle them and because, you know, they might want to” excuse me, I’ve just got to have a little water here. “ We’ve got to, you know, humiliated more, because they’re gonna have a baby here and sure they can run somewhere.”
0:24:50 Michele Goodwin
Exactly. And when you got back then for recovery, there are certain protocols. And this is important because this connects to how you met Gina and co-founded Gina’s Team and even though reentry work that you do now, because when you got back then to the jail to prison, there was a protocol, a health protocol that was supposed to be followed what was supposed to be done in your case?
0:25:18 Sue Ellen Allen
No shackling. And they wanted a pillow to cushion my arm. Yeah, because they had to have it to protect my arm from lymphedema. Well, no pillows allowed. That order was denied to the to the medical department. The sheriff said no, they, were not gonna let me. I couldn’t have a pillow.
0:25:39 Michele Goodwin
After stage three breast cancer.
0:25:41 Sue Ellen Allen
After stage 3B cancer and a mastectomy, radical mastectomy. And the women left my cell and came back about three hours later and they said “close your eyes, Sue Ellen and hold out your hands.” And I did and when I did, I felt the softest most incredible thing. And I opened my eyes and it was a pillow. And I thought what in the world? And I’m looking at this pillow that is it’s if you look at it and you see it you realize it’s made out of maternity Kotex, the Kotex that women are issued in the jail or in maybe a hospital. I don’t know.
0:26:19 Michele Goodwin
Now, at this time in our conversation, we needed to take a little bit of a break because the nurse had come in to provide medication for Sue Ellen. And being as feisty as she is, she was also reaching for her computer because she wanted to make sure that I had an image of the pillow. Now, I had seen the pillow up close and in person as Sue Ellen knew I’d seen it in her apartment. And we had taken it together when we visited juvenile detention centers that house girls and also at the prison where Sue Ellen had been incarcerated. The pillow itself reflected something very special for Sue Ellen. And of course, for the women who had made it. It was a sign of love and respect and care. And for the women who made it, it was a sense of solidarity that even if there is medical neglect behind bars, and women are denied what it is that they need that these women would stick together. So, let’s return to the conversation that I had with Sue Ellen.
0:27:22 Sue Ellen Allen
You see they these women…they gave up their hard-pressed issue–what they were given for periods. And they put them all together and they took one of these pads and they shredded it. And, so they shredded it so they would have these like ribbons. And then they wove the pads together into this woven like a little padded pillow. They took their golf pencil…their utility functional golf pencil that they were allowed to write letters with. I still have a little callus on my finger ten years later from no it’s been 20 years later from writing with a golf pencil. And they wove these little ribbons in and out to keep the pillow sturdy to keep. To keep it from falling apart shredding, if you will. And then they tied the little bows at all the corners so that it would say together. And it’s a very fragile, delicate thing.
0:28:30 Michele Goodwin
It’s delicate, but it’s absolutely lovely. And, one wonders, Sue Ellen, with the way in which they made this so beautifully…
0:28:38 Sue Ellen Allen
Well, I said, at the darkest time, I said at the darkest time of my life that the drug addicts and the murderers and the thieves looked after me. And I will never forget, you know, I’m one of them. I’m a sister in orange. And I can never forget these women. And they fringed it. They fringed it to give it that designer look. But they were not designers, you know, in their own right. I mean, they were, they were designers in their own right, different kind of designer.
0:29:08 Michele Goodwin
But, I also wonder…what’s interesting is the polar opposite. So, on one hand, you had a system that wanted to dehumanize you, I mean, you were already paying the social price. The social price was supposed to be you losing your freedom. But on top of it, the extra-legal was we will shackle you. We will keep you in a holding cell with roaches and mice running through out and you don’t even know when the operation is going to take place. We will not allow anybody to be there to provide support for you. These are all of the extra-legal ways unnecessarily because you’re already locked up, you’re already away from society and everything. But, here’s the extra-legal thing that we’re going to do to you to really stick it to you.
And yet on the other hand, here it is that you have these women who take what for them is a precious resource and they transform it–not just to anything that’s just utilitarian– right? Because they could have just bunched it together, and said, “here’s something for you put your arm on, you know, lady.” But instead, they saw you. You hadn’t been there for years with them; you had just gotten there. And somehow right away these women who, as you say, the murderers, the drug addicts, you know, the sex workers were like we see you we recognize your humanity. And we will make this pretty for you. To help you, right?
0:30:28 Sue Ellen Allen
That’s exactly right. And how extraordinary is that? They at the darkest time of their life as well. They found a way to be loving and generous in ways that often privileged white women don’t even associate with such a thing.
0:30:43 Michele Goodwin
Exactly. And had you had any prior experience with population like this, the women who actually came to your aid? So, they saw you…these Black and Brown women and other women who have various life experiences, even though you were the redhead with pearls kind of background of a woman. They said you know what? We see the humanity in you.
0:31:06 Sue Ellen Allen
She’s one of us. She’s one of us. They welcomed me in and made me part of them and I will never forget that.
0:31:12 Michele Goodwin
So, who is Gina, because you know how we found each other and began working together before working together on Reinventing Reentry, we were working together at Gina’s Team. Who was Gina in your life?
0:31:25 Sue Ellen Allen
Gina was… she was one of my first cellmates. She wasn’t my first but she was one of my firsts. This darling young girl. Twenty-five years old. And she started walking the track with me. And I thought, “why does this 25-year-old want to spend time with me at such an age?” I just didn’t understand it.
0:31:45 Michele Goodwin
So, Gina began walking track with you. And you wonder “why does this 25-year-old trying to hang out with me?” How old were you at that time, Sue Ellen?
0:31:53 Sue Ellen Allen
I was 57. And I thought, “why in the world is she wanting to hang out with me?” I asked her that. And she said, “I could learn a lot from you, Sue Ellen.” And I thought, wow. She said, “do you mind?” I said “no.” I said, “I probably could learn a lot from you too.”
And you grew close together. She became your cellmate.
0:32:19 Sue Ellen Allen
She became my cellmate and my caregiver and when I started going in for chemo, And I went in for chemo and then I went in for radiation. And I was so sick, so sick. And just recently I started radiation again, which is interesting. So, you know, I’ve ended up with the same disease that Gina had that killed Gina in prison.
0:32:47 Michele Goodwin
Well, let’s talk about that. Because in part that also brought us together your story and Gina’s story. What happened to Gina, Sue Ellen?
0:32:56 Sue Ellen Allen
Gina collapsed one day. And, we took her to medical. And at the medical [infirmary] she said, “My head,” she said, “My head feels like it’s going to explode off my body.” And, they said, “Yeah, yeah, you’ve got migraines come back in two weeks and if you’re still sick, we’ll believe you.” And they wouldn’t give her a blood test. They wouldn’t do anything for her. Two weeks later, we took her back because she couldn’t walk, she could hardly walk. And she said, “My ears and my gums are bleeding.” And they said “Well, you have gingivitis brush your teeth, and drink more water.” And, but no blood test. And then finally in another two weeks…she’d now lost about 25 pounds, but maybe not 25–15 pounds. And they she said “I can’t swallow jello; my throat feels like I was swallowing ground glass.” And so they said, “Oh, well you have strep throat, then here’s some antibiotics.” But, they wouldn’t give her any blood test. And her parents called and asked for a blood test and they wouldn’t give it to her either. And so she was she was really, really sick. I’ve never seen anybody in so much pain before. She was in excruciating pain.
0:34:12 Michele Goodwin
And it seems if I recall correctly, that in the advocacy on her behalf, it wasn’t well received, you know, what was the atmosphere when you tried to advocate for her? Wasn’t it kind of threats to you and other women just in trying to advocate for Gina?
0:34:28 Sue Ellen Allen
Yeah, it was it was insulting that we were trying to help her and they weren’t allowing it in any way. So yeah, it was the same. Same what was same song different verse.
0:34:41 Michele Goodwin
Right. Right. Right. And, and what happened on the day in which she finally got some care happened?
0:34:47 Sue Ellen Allen
Well, they finally took her to the hospital. And her parents, they, the doctors were furious at her parents. And they said, “What is wrong with your daughter? Why hasn’t she gotten a blood test?” They did it blood tests, and her white blood count was 300,000. And her red blood count was zero. She had myeloid leukemia.
0:35:16 Michele Goodwin
Look at that. That had been undiagnosed.
0:35:18 Sue Ellen Allen
Undiagnosed. Her body was shutting down, Michele. Her body was shutting down. This is America. This is a first world country. This is not a third world country.
0:35:28 Michele Goodwin
And so Gina, within just a matter of days, what happened after?
0:35:33 Sue Ellen Allen
She went into a coma, she was dead in 36 hours.
0:35:36 Michele Goodwin
Look at that. So she was dead within 36 hours.
0:35:40 Sue Ellen Allen
This is a 25-year-old girl who shouldn’t, she should be sitting here where I am. Not where I am, actually. But she should be alive. And Gina had every reason to live and every purpose to live. And when they came back and told us that she had died of leukemia. I was speechless. And I painstakingly wrote every single thing that had happened down that I can think of. It was a 10 page, front and back letter that I had handwritten. By then I had a Bic pen, not a little golf pencil. And I was so afraid that they would go through my mail and find it that I had copied it over again. So two, 20 page documents and I hid one of them really carefully and the other one I sent out in the mail hoping that it would get to her parents. And it did get to her parents. And they eventually did sue the state and they won their lawsuit, which was a great blessing. But it didn’t save Gina’s life.
0:36:53 Michele Goodwin
No, it didn’t save her life and it didn’t save her kid’s life because, as I’ll share with the audience, I was giving a talk sometime later. By this point, you and I had already become sisters. We had already become fast, fast friends and working together on Gina’s Team, which you co-founded when you were released. You co-founded this organization to help lift up girls and women who were incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. And I was giving a talk at Northeastern Law School, in fact. I was scheduled to give a talk and I got a call from you at about two in the morning. And Sue Ellen, and do you remember what you were calling to tell me?
0:37:35 Sue Ellen Allen
I had just found out that Gina’s oldest daughter had killed herself. Had shot herself. And that’s very unusual for a woman to kill herself with a gun. Number one. Number two, that she actually had possession of a gun. But in Arizona, you can have a gun, which is a whole other story. And that she was only 19.
0:38:00 Michele Goodwin
Only 19. And the part of that that wasn’t unusual, though, was the stress and the horror of what incarceration does to the children of incarcerated parents.
0:38:15 Sue Ellen Allen
That’s exactly right. It was, I mean, she was the oldest. There was the brothers, there was a brother whose older. And then the daughter, the younger sibling. And then another daughter, and then another son, the other three are still alive. And so I won’t mention any names, out of respect for them. But what an awful thing for them to go through and listening to their stories is quite; they’re heroic young people.
0:38:42 Michele Goodwin
Tell us about Reinventing Reentry and why you founded this organization.
0:38:47 Sue Ellen Allen
Well, some of us are a little slower on the uptake than others and I realized that changing the, trying to go into the prisons and bringing education into prisons is a worthwhile and worthy cause. But, it’s like trying to empty the ocean with a slotted spoon. Because it’s one human being at a time which is not, which is priceless. Every human being is priceless. But, we need to make the change at the cellular level in our policies and in our heart, and dare I say, changing hearts and minds. But yes, it’s changing the hearts and minds of the ordinary person who doesn’t understand, like me, the privileged white lady who didn’t understand what it’s like to be inside. And who are these people? And why do they deserve anything? Why did they deserve education? Why did they deserve medical care? Why did Gina deserve it? Why did any of these things? I had to go there to find out the answers.
You can’t get licensed. You can’t. Oh, they’re 40… If you look at the National, I’ll send you this information Michele because there are 40, over 42,000, legal collateral consequences if you want to job in United States of America, there are 42,000 collateral consequences. So in other words, 42,000 laws that prevent you from; I can’t have a business that has gumball machines in it. Because . . .
0:40:18 Michele Goodwin
0:40:19 Sue Ellen Allen
0:40:20 Michele Goodwin 55:51
So, let’s repeat that for an audience that has no [concept of this]. So how old are you Sue Ellen? I’m sorry.
0:40:26 Sue Ellen Allen
Ok. No, I’m happy to tell my age.
0:40:28 Michele Goodwin
Alright, so Sue Ellen, how old are you?
0:40:30 Sue Ellen Allen
0:40:32 Michele Goodwin
75. And Sue Ellen, if you wanted to open up a business, you could not have what as your business?
0:40:39 Sue Ellen Allen
I couldn’t have a gumball machine.
0:40:40 Michele Goodwin
You can’t even make that up.
0:40:42 Sue Ellen Allen
No, I can’t make that up. Who makes that stuff up? As our mutual friend, Sandra Bernard says, “You can’t make this shit up.”
0:40:56 Michele Goodwin
Exactly. Loved having her on the show. She was fabulous. So, I’m glad that you’re on the show. So those kinds of things that keep people back. What’s the hope that we see coming forward, though, Sue Ellen? And is there some form of a silver lining or things that are changing? What are we doing with…?
0:41:13 Sue Ellen Allen
Well there’s some organizations out there that I think are pretty fabulous. One is actually started by a whole bunch of men, and some of them went to prison and some of them own Football Association leagues. So the poor ones are getting together with the ones that aren’t so poor, to have…Reform Alliance, for example, Reform Alliance is all about reforming and the incredible penalties that are these collateral consequences. All these jobs that you can’t get. They’re trying to get the $500 bail reduced so we won’t have any more bail for, I mean, that poor kid [Kalief Browder], at Rikers Island was there for three years. Three years. And because he couldn’t afford a $500 bond.
0:42:03 Michele Goodwin
And beaten up, by inmates, by guards. Caught on video, the horrors that he experienced.
0:42:25 Ellen Allen
Yeah. So they’re doing a lot about it. That’s Meek Mill and Van Jones’ group that really have put their life and soul behind it. Jessica Jackson from #cut50. I have the utmost respect for them. Shaka Senghor, who, did I get his name right? He knows that, he teases me because I always get his name wrong. But Shaka Senghor. He wrote an incredible book about what, Writing My Wrongs, I think his book is. About writing his way out of prison, really. And there’s some amazing people that have served time inside that are outside now and really making a difference.
And that’s, you know, Michele, that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? It’s about what happens to you, when you when you go inside, and you hit the wall. And the wall breaks you down and crumbles you? Do you put the pieces back together? And do you keep going? Or do you? Or do you lose? Do you win? Or do you lose? And I don’t think it’s saying you win, because you go back inside to help other people. It’s people like Shak and people like Meek and people like you and me. I mean, you never committed a crime. But anyway, people like us who have a way to get back inside. That gives you gives hope to those that we left behind, and I’m putting you in that category.
0:43:57 Michele Goodwin
To emphasize what many politicians, scholars, policymakers, and media pundits overlook, consider the stunning data collected by the Women’s Prison Association, one of the leading national policy centers quantitatively and qualitatively researching women in prison. The population of women in prison grew by 832 percent in the period from 1977 to 2007—twice the rate as that of men during that same period. More conservative estimates suggest that the rate of incarceration of women grew by over 750 percent during the past three decades. This staggering increase now results in more than one million women incarcerated in prison, jail, or tethered to the criminal justice system as a parolee or probationer in the United States.
Marginalized and invisible then are women of color, despite their experiences with mass incarceration, police brutality, sexual violence within their communities, shackling while pregnant (if in the penal system); birthing behind bars, restrictions on housing access, and other pernicious encroachments on their daily lives.
Male accounts about mass incarceration,while troubling and certainly not inaccurate, fail to problematize and offer a detailed reading of U.S. policing, prisons and penal systems. More importantly, these depictions fall short of informing the American public about women and children as the casualties of the nation’s overpriced and unsuccessful drug war, neglect to account for children raised in prison alongside their mothers, ignore how and why states target women, particularly during their pregnancies, and fail to notice racial disparities in women’s mass incarceration. For Black women, 1 in 18 will experience incarceration in her lifetime.
Let’s take a listen of Shardayreon Hill, another of the known 13 survivors of officer Daniel Holtzclaw.
0:46:29 Shardayreon Hill
On the night that I was stopped, I didn’t expect for none of that to happen. And, well he approached the car. I mean, I didn’t know what was, I didn’t know what was gonna happen next. Because me and some others was just sitting in the car and they just came and approached the car and it went from there. And once he did the arrest, I was taken to a hospital on the whole opposite side of town, which I didn’t think nothing of it at the time. And once I got there, they gave me, took off my clothes, and handcuffed me to the bed and took me to a room and. . . . No nurses, nobody came to check on me. And, surely he just was . . . started to manipulate me. And. . . .
0:47:40 Benjamin Crump
Take your time.
0:47:46 Shardayreon Hill
Me being in a room with the police, not expecting to get violated the way I did. The way I was done. I just couldn’t even believe it. I just, I couldn’t…I was speechless. I was scared. I didn’t. . . . When everything was going down, I just, I felt . . . . I was, I mean I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was in survival mode. So I had to do what he was making me do. So.
0:48:28 Michele Goodwin
And despite comprising roughly 6 percent of the U.S. population, Black women make up 22 percent of the prisoner population in the U.S; and Latinas are 17 percent of that population. At every phase within their life span, Black and Latina women’s incarceration dramatically outpaces that of white women.
Black women caught in the last gasps of teenage life are five times more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts:
Despite the power of these statistics to highlight women’s incarceration, missing are narratives that help us to understand who these women are, why they are behind bars, who benefits from their incarceration, and who is harmed. Missing is an account that informs scholars, policymakers, and an interested lay public about why women’s incarceration rate outpaces that of men—even if the raw numbers are much lower.
My interview with Piper Kerman and Kamilah Newton provide further context.
I’m really grateful to have you as my guests with me in studio, in our virtual studio, Piper and Kamilah. And of course, we’ve been hearing from the indefatigable Sue Ellen Allen, who has just been a pioneer in so much of this work. So, let’s talk about how women make up the fastest growing incarcerated population in the United States. According to the prison policy initiative, the ACLU, and many other organizations, the rate of women’s incarceration is just absolutely astonishing. And so, I want to start first with you, Kamilah. I’d love for you to tell us and the listeners about your experience with the criminal justice system. What was it like for you?
0:50:41 Kamilah Newton
So up until I was about 21, I had never had any serious police interactions. Maybe at school, because at school you had to walk through metal detectors. So, you know, they had like the officers in school, but nothing else. And so, I mean, I don’t even know where to start with that. I guess what I realized now, right, because, you know, hindsight is twenty-twenty. I guess what I realized now is that my interactions with the system, even though I was already an adult, had happened much because of the things that I experienced during my childhood. So, when I talk about my arrest, it’s hard to start from my arrest, because it feels like it started a lot earlier.
0:51:40 Michele Goodwin
Well, let’s talk about that “a lot earlier,” if you don’t mind, because I’m even struck by the school to prison pipeline, the fact that you had to go through metal detectors when going to school, but I know that’s not all of what you were talking about. So let’s go there and center that conversation, because so many people are not aware of what happens to girls and women in terms of policing and mass incarceration. And because of that, they’re not aware of the patterns of abuse—physical, sexual, emotional—that also tie into who happens to be policed, who happens to be arrested, who happens to be incarcerated.
0:52:23 Kamilah Newton
Right. I mean, growing up, I was raped by a family member at 13. That’s how I lost my virginity. And even though at the time I wasn’t calling it rape, I think that it really had a profound effect on my decision-making after. It had a profound effect on who I thought would be fit partners for me later on in life. It had an effect potentially on how I presented and instead of being met with like, you know, concern, right, if a child is like, suddenly acting different or acting, I don’t know, like, just acting out of what is in the norm for them. Because I am a firm believer, and like, children come like prepackaged, right? They come who they are. My son’s personality as an infant is exactly who he is right now. So, my daughter, she has a completely different personality. She’s only nine months. So, you know, if you see a child acting really drastically different from what you’re used to, you would expect that to be, or you would hope for that to be, met with care and concern.
But like, I think that growing up in a West Indian household, the response was often like, “You’re grown,” right? Nobody ever asked, like, “What happened to you, like something is different about you these days.” And so, I was tempted to, I used to gravitate to people who I felt like would protect me from things, right? But sometimes that person who protects you from other things is a person who hurts you themselves, right? And so that really became the dynamic between myself and my son’s father, where I would seek refuge in him and his family. But at the same time, I was hurt by them in different ways, but ways that I was willing to take over the lack of physical protection that I experienced in my own household, right? And so we really created like a trauma bond when we were really young and like filling the voids for one another.
0:54:40 Michele Goodwin 05:00
How old were you?
0:54:42 Kamilah Newton
I was 14, and he was about 16, I think. We went to the same elementary school, so we’d seen enough of each other. But in our teenage years, when I think we really both experienced, like, you know that those teenage years are rough, right? I think that when we grow up, we don’t give them enough credit when teenagers are really going through things. Because it seems small to us now that we have like bills.
0:55:07 Michele Goodwin
I know, but it’s enormously challenging, right? You know, 13, and being raped and not having the language for that, because that is so traumatic in and of itself. Just that alone. And then that also, frames and shapes who you feel comfortable speaking to. And as you say, the behaviors, sometimes the behaviors are a result of that shock and that trauma, which we look to and respond to in others, but we don’t necessarily look to and respond to it in healthy ways with regard to girls. And certainly not with girls of color and Black girls, right? The response to it is often more surveillance, but not surveillance in love and care surveillance, but the kind of surveillance that gets you in trouble.
0:55:58 Kamilah Newton
Right. Right. And so then that continues, right, that pattern continues. I remember going through things in high school, and I ended up dropping out in the 11th grade. But I was always an A student the whole time I was there. So, like, everybody was really like, you know, like, “You have potential. Why aren’t you living to your potential?” And you know, like, “Come on, like, please come back to school, come more consistently.” And I mean, I didn’t really talk about it at school, but I was fighting so many things in my personal life that school became like, I mean, for a child, their biggest concern should be school, right? But I was already handling so many other things like adult problems, that school just became like, this is a waste of time, y’all. They ain’t teaching anything new, I already know these things. And so, I was done with school. But I was suicidal around that time. It was a lot going on.
0:56:58 Michele Goodwin
And this is the pattern just up to what ends up becoming an interaction and involvement in the criminal justice system.
0:57:09 Kamilah Newton
I remember having a dean. And I remember just after, like, the suicidal stuff ended up being an ACS [Administration for Children’s Services] case with my grandmother, right? So, the pattern is, it just doesn’t end. They don’t seek like a therapist. They put you in ACS. And I ended up moving back to my mother’s house in Jersey. But I was still trying to get to my school in the Bronx, because I think that the child in me was still longing to be in school. I wanted to be with my friends. I wanted to learn. And so, I remember going one time, just visiting. And we had this dean, and he was like, a really big white guy. And he had like, the reputation of like, he was like the sergeant in there. And I remember he screamed at me when I got there, and he was like, “Don’t you live in Jersey? Why do you keep coming back here?” And that was the real end of school for me. And so, from there, I ended up getting my GED. And I strived to be better, but it was hard because I still had attachments to people that I chose when I was in a more broken place.
0:58:15 Michele Goodwin
So Kamilah, what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna come back to your story, because we’re just scratching the surface now, really, because there’s the next parts. But laying that foundation is so critically important, just so that people situate what the entry point is like. Piper, you also have an entry point story, as well, many people understand you from your memoir, from shows, and from speaking, and so forth. But can you situate us with your story a bit too? I wasn’t going to start there, but since Kamilah has been so generous, I’m hoping that you might be willing to tell us a little bit about, you know, what led to then your story that people come to know from TV and other places.
0:59:10 Piper Kerman
Sure. So, you know, like Kamilah, my contact—not my contact with the criminal justice system—but my offense, the crime that I committed which eventually put me into the system, was right about the same age, 22. And we know that between the ages of 15 and 25, developmentally, you know, children then growing up into young adults are basically engaged in a sort of a decade of risk and that’s very normal developmentally. Kids are going to take, young people are going to take, the risk that’s in front of them.
So that’s where we start to get into questions around disparity and privilege. You know, there are positive risks that people can take during that decade, and there are negative risks. And access to opportunity, in comparison with sometimes being trapped in situations where, you know, violence and other problems are really prevalent, are going to be reflected in what young people do. So, you know, when I was 22 years old, I got involved with someone who is involved with narcotics in a personal relationship, which is so prevalent when we look at criminal justice-involved girls and women. You know, often the way that they become involved in any kind of crime is via a relationship that was true for me. And, so you know, I committed a crime. I carried a bag of drug money from Chicago to Brussels as anyone who has read my book or watched the show knows, because things are very different in the show, but that’s one of the fundamental things that they took from the book. And I was incredibly fortunate, because I was able to leave that relationship safely. That is not true for many women and girls.
1:01:05 Michele Goodwin
Some people might say, “Oh, my gosh, that was a mistake that you should not have made,” and they don’t understand what it, you know, they’re looking at it from a distance. Not even perhaps their own children have been involved in such things, but perhaps not caught? What was that kind of emotional connection for you to carry that bag? What were you thinking in doing that?
1:01:28 Piper Kerman
You know, that was a moment in time for me where, you know, I mean, again, sort of, during that period of life, 15 to 25, people are trying to establish their own identity as a separate identity from, you know, the family of origin that they grew up and sometimes a broader community. That was definitely true for me. People are trying to establish their independence, and that was definitely true for me. You know, I had become involved in a relationship, which was not a healthy relationship, and a group of people that I was, you know, at that point, sort of, that was the kind of sort of intimate relationships that I was involved in. I was very separated from my family. You know, I’m old enough that my crime predates, you know, cell phones and email, pretty much. So, I was separated from, you know, my family and friends from most of my childhood, in ways that are perhaps unimaginable to most folks now. But no email, no cell phones. So, I think for many people, it is hard to understand how immersive a social group can be. So that moment where I was asked to break the law, was not a moment of safety for me, and it wasn’t a moment where I felt like I had a lot of options. And I think that is true for a huge percentage of people across the board who may commit crimes.
1:03:11 Michele Goodwin
Like girls and women, right, that not feeling as if they’re heard, they’re seen. And what are the options? I mean, we see that even beyond this space, but absolutely. Is that normal?
1:03:24 Piper Kerman
Yeah. And I’ll also say, stepping back, you know, my 52-year-old self can look back at that and say, if I had gotten to a phone and made a call to my parents, to, you know, certain family members or friends, I would have gotten the help I need. But I didn’t feel like I could make that call at that time when I was making those terrible decisions, bad decisions. But, I was really lucky because I was able to essentially escape that relationship and sever those ties. And I really did—I severed those ties. And I was additionally fortunate because I could make my way back to the United States, reconnect with friends, close, dear friends who I had made in college—I was fortunate enough to have gone to college—and essentially have the opportunity to independently reboot my life and restart my life on a better path, which is exactly what happened. And then, you know, literally 10 years or a little bit more than 10 years after committing that crime was when I found myself walking into a federal prison to serve a sentence.
1:04:35 Michele Goodwin
How did that happen? 10 years after? I mean, you severed that relationship, you get on the right track, there are people you’re able to turn to and help you. And then, out of nowhere, here this is. How did that happen?
1:04:49 Piper Kerman
Well, I mean, it’s an unusual moment. One of the reasons it happened is because of my racial and social privilege in terms of being policed, you know, so blonde, blue-eyed college persons are not likely to be policed in the first place. So, you know, it was, you know, in a lot of ways, just a lot of bad luck. Some of my former, you know, contacts and associates ended up being caught. And then once, you know, when we talk specifically about women and girls, conspiracy law has a great deal to do with how those women or girls are policed or prosecuted. Because, particularly you’re talking about the federal system as you’re talking about a drug case, and a very substantial number of women in the system are there for drug offenses.
What typically happens is that, you know, people at the top of a hierarchy, which is a criminal enterprise, are able to give the most valuable information to law enforcement. And the people at the bottom of that hierarchy—much more likely to be women—have the least to trade on to reduce sentences. So, you’ll see people who are, you know, masterminds of enterprises of drug enterprises get relatively light sentences, because they’re able to give lots of information to the authorities, and you’ll see people at the sort of bottom of the food chain, getting sometimes shocking sentences. So, there were women who were incarcerated in the same federal prison where I was serving time, who had remarkably similar offenses, right? In other words, relatively low level, drug crimes, often first-time offenses, much like myself or Kamilah, a first-time offense. But, you know, some of those women had gotten unbelievably lengthy sentences.
1:06:49 Michele Goodwin
And we’re going to get back to that because, you know, medical neglect, I want to hear about and introduce our listeners to what you experienced what you saw behind bars. And of course, you know, as you say, the conspiracy laws that were meant to take down, you know, the gangsters of the last century, have been used to take down girls and women who have little to trade on. Right? Whereas their partners who were the people running big stashes and whatnot [get lesser time]. But, you have cases where a girlfriend takes a bag over into a McDonald’s and she gets a sentence more than everybody else, all up the chain because she doesn’t know anybody. She can’t flip on anybody. She gets 20 or 30 years [incarcerated] because she walked a bag that she never opened into a McDonald’s or a Burger King. And meanwhile, her boyfriend, husband, all of their associates, are out, maybe do no time, or maybe do six months. And that’s it. She’s behind bars for 20 or 30 years. Kamilah, I want to turn back to you and your story.
1:07:56 Kamilah Newton
Yeah. I wanted to jump in. Piper, like, I mean, you just given me the courage, because I really don’t think I ever got into detail with anybody ever before. I mean, I’ve spoken about my arrest a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever shared exactly what happened. But, I think it really is integral to the way like it all unfolds. So, ultimately, I was arrested for bringing contraband into Rikers. And it’s interesting, right? Because Jason’s father, Jason is my son, that’s my oldest child, he’s seven. His father ends up in jail from a long pattern of his own police interactions as well. Right? But his start is as a child too, because his father was killed by police. So, the story is very complicated, right? There’s a lot of layers, he has a mistrust with them, I have a mistrust for them from what I’ve experienced in school already, and what I know of them, right, just being Black in this country. And the things that I’ve seen growing up, you know, I’m from the Bronx. And we just live a few blocks off of where they killed Amadou Diallo. So this is something I was very, very aware of.
And so, ultimately, I felt like my trust in enforcement had been diminished beforehand and going through the process with him in jail, we, together decided that he could not trust correctional officers to do their job well enough and keep him safe. Because he, like you said, is maybe one of those people who are more entangled in other things. But with that said, for somebody who I felt like had protected me, right, even if he hurt me on his own accord, I knew he would never let anyone else hurt me. And that was enough for me to say, like, okay, well, I can put my freedom on a line for me to bring you these things to help you. You know, because there was a weapon, some tobacco, some weed and some other small stuff. But what really got me in trouble was the weapon. Right? But in that moment, you know, Piper, you were saying, like, you felt unsafe, and for me, it was a matter of protection. It was like you or them. I’m not gonna trade my son’s father for… you know, I’m saying because I can’t… we can’t trust these COs [correction officers] to do anything. I mean, we’ve been yelled at by COs. I mean, COs have exposed my breasts in public spaces. I mean, the list or like the relationship and all the different ways that it had been whittled at. Right, because we talked about police mistrust. But that starts from so young. And it comes from so many different angles, that we felt like we had no choice but to protect one another, even when he was in a system that is being paid to protect him, right, even if he is being held.
1:10:54 Michele Goodwin
Because that system isn’t protecting him.
1:10:56 Kamilah Newton
1:10:59 Michele Goodwin
You know, I reminds me of an image that and I won’t forget, and I was 16 at the time, and working with the New York Urban League that started a youth chapter and I was chair of this youth chapter. And we were holding an event that was near the winter holiday time. We were giving toys away to kids and I never forget this girl. She couldn’t have been more than three-years old. And she came to me clinging to my skirt. Because she was so fearful because police had come. Now these police were bearing gifts. They had toys. That’s why they were there. But she began clinging to my skirt and crying and crying and saying, “the police are here. The police are here.” And it was out of a fear of what could happen to her own safety, the safety of other people. That’s how at three years old, this little girl from a Puerto Rican family — how she understood policing in New York at that time at three years old. So, these are layered stories and I so appreciate both of you sharing in these ways because otherwise this is just simply not how people come to it. It’s not how people understand it. Kamilah, just as you were saying having to expose your breast and that’s just a piece of it. That’s not all of what you had to go through. And that’s just what visiting, right? That wasn’t after you were charged, right? So what happened after you were charged?
1:12:34 Kamilah Newton
So, essentially, like it took me a while to handover anything. Well, so I think is interesting not interesting, but I think it is worth saying that there’s like a weird psyching you out kind of thing they do to you while you are in their possession. Or like even this idea of like, I had my son with me when I got arrested. And I remember that he was put outside the cell. So, even in that moment, and I mean, I’m somebody who was a very suffering from anxiety and depression for the greater part of my life. And like, I remember, they had to, like, take him to the bathroom. And I remember being like, terrified of what could happen to him in that bathroom. So, and because of things like that him and I have already had those conversations. So, it really does start young. But, after I was charged, well, essentially my charge, it was a felony going in. I was in nursing school. I was like, this is gonna ruin my career. This is it for me.
I mean, I just groveled my way out. You know, like Piper said, like separating myself from my family. Because I was 21 at the time, I had just gotten out of the shelter. I was just now finding an apartment. And, it just seemed like everything was crashing down suddenly. And, I thought this nursing thing is gonna be like that my career like my ticket out of this mess. And I ultimately did get kicked out of nursing school. After they, they decided that they were going to start doing background checks, and they kicked out anybody who had any record at all. They didn’t even ask about the charges. And, it’s interesting, because in New York, I don’t even really think that’s legal. Like, when you do like the nursing boards, they do that on a case by case basis, they really need to know what happened, how long ago was it? Does this have anything to do with the work we’re expecting you to do now? And the school went through none of those measures. So ultimately, I did get connected with WPA [Women’s Prison Association]. Thank goodness, because I didn’t have to serve any jail time.
I had somebody to advocate for me. And, you know, Jason’s father was already in jail. So, you know, also, luckily, I had a really, really good judge. And I feel like that is rare. Also, I think he’s retired now. So that’s a sad, but I hope that somebody good fills his place because he argued on my behalf, I remember him being in court, while he’s arguing with the [district attorney]. The DA wants to give me a like a year-long probation or something like that. And he was like, “No…this is her first offense. She’s in college. She has a son and the son already has no father. So why would we think jail or anything that could potentially separate them would be the answer?” And that I think that is so key that somebody was able to intercept that that normal pattern.
1:15:42 Michele Goodwin
Well, and on that note, Kristen Turney who is a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, through her lengthy research, what’s been revealed, and it’s quite impactful, which is that the children of incarcerated parents fare worse than children who’ve experienced the death of a parent or a divorce. So, coming from that perspective, had your son then not had access to you, just what does that mean? And the research is really quite profound. So much so that some of our listeners will know that Sesame Street because there’s been so much mass incarceration in the United States, and Sesame Street has incorporated, Muppet–a puppet that is a child of incarcerated parent, Alex, because there’s such a taste and hunger in the United States for mass incarceration.
You know, and we’ve seen, just the rate soar, the U.S. not only incarcerates more men than any other country in the world, it incarcerates more women than any other place in the world. We’ve seen, you know, more than an 800 percent increase just in recent decades. And that’s on women. That’s a figure that includes men and so we need to address these issues. So, Piper, when we left off, you were talking about being incarcerated, being the sort of the white woman who comes into this space and seeing perhaps what you had not seen before, in terms of who are the people that are in this system and how they are treated? Can you tell us a little bit about what that eye opening experience was like for you?
1:17:22 Piper Kerman
Yeah, of course, you know, listening to you just give that you know, 30,000 foot picture of, you know, the importance of, of the incarceration of women and girls reminded me of something that was said, during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing by a researcher from the Prison Policy Institute, which was so on point and it was that women’s experiences in the system tend to highlight the flaws in the system overall for everyone.
1:17:55 Michele Goodwin
So, in some ways, you’ve addressed part of the question that I have, which is, why is there the stomach and tolerance for the treatment in regard of girls and women in these ways? Is it a matter that the public, and this is for both of you, Kamilah and Piper, is this a matter that the public is just simply unaware? Or is this a matter that the public just simply doesn’t care? And if you could go through those in a quick way, because I have a couple of follow-ups before we get to the end of our show, which is where we ask about a silver lining. So what accounts for this? What do you think, Kamilah?
1:18:35 Kamilah Newton
I mean, in my opinion, I think that most times they find a way to rationalize that girls deserve it. Right? Somehow, some way, it’s because of what she said or what she wore, or how she. . . Whereas, it’s more reasonable for a man to want to stand his ground than it is for a woman to. If a woman talks back or objects to certain things, now we calling her everything but a child of God. Whereas a man is, he’s strong and he’s powerful. And people listen to him and he’s commanding. And I really think that that attitude is so pervasive that, it’s like sometimes when things happen to women, somebody will say: “Oh, that’s somebody’s daughter.” It’s never: “She’s somebody herself.” She belongs to someone else. And I think that that attitude about women and girls just it I think that it just has its hands in so many different things. And we see it play out when we see police officers body slam girls, right? Isn’t there something going on right now in Rochester?
1:19:48 Michele Goodwin
1:19:49 Kamilah Newton
1:19:49 Michele Goodwin
Yes. A little nine year old girl who was pepper sprayed. Like six squad cars.
1:19:55 Kamilah Newton
He says to her, “You’re acting like a child,” and she says, “I am a child.” Like I can’t even fathom that, that you aren’t looking at this girl. And I mean, it is everywhere. I mean, it’s in the schools, it’s in the streets. I mean, Meg Thee Stallion when she got shot, she was too tall. Somehow there’s always a rationale when girls are harmed, especially when Black girls are harmed.
1:20:22 Michele Goodwin
It seems to me that we haven’t even fully scratched the surface. I mean, I think that we have to do five or six, maybe a whole series of shows to just grapple with this. Yeah, I was speaking at an event of trial lawyers a couple years ago, and they had invited in some chiefs of police and others, and one of the chiefs was saying, well, the way in which they had figured out for now, how to deal with girls who came from troubling family backgrounds and who were in the street was to incarcerate them in juvenile detention. And I said, “Well, I don’t know how one could come to that conclusion.” That that’s a form of protection, that that’s where they need to be. Such cruel environments. And as you were mentioning Piper, these are, despite what some of the public may believe, these are not luxury facilities. That girls and women are exposed to some of the harshest, cruelest spaces. For my research, there are women who have given birth on concrete floors and in prison toilets. Awful condition, where rats and roaches and things like that just happen to be the norm. And that’s not every space. But that’s an awful lot of spaces in which women may find themselves incarcerated.
1:21:48 Piper Kerman
I mean, women and girls tend to be between six and seven percent of the people who are held in correctional systems. And it’s my opinion, but I think it’s a pretty well-informed opinion, not only from my own experience, but since being incarcerated, that women and girls tend to be the most neglected, or among the most neglected, of people who are incarcerated, and that there’s a compounding factor because of things like pregnancy, because of the fact that most incarcerated mothers of children under 18 were the primary head of household. There’s a whole host of factors, which ensure that the fact of gender makes the experience of prison actually even more punitive. In other words, you know, if you are a pregnant woman who finds herself in jail or in prison, you’re much more likely to experience something horrific, during that period of your pregnancy, a period where you should be protected above all else, both for your own health and the health of your child if you’re choosing to bring a child into the world.
Yeah, and I mean, I’m so glad that you brought up sort of status offenses is the jargon attached to the practice of incarcerating girls who have not committed any crime, but who might be homeless, or might be experiencing abuse, are not in any way engaged in criminal behavior, but are so unprotected that our only social response is to incarcerate them. And I remember, I sort of feel like I’m hard to shock at this point, but not so long ago around the demographics of incarcerated children, the incarcerated youth, and Native American girls actually have the highest incarceration rates among the children that we put into juvenile prison. And I remember looking at that, and if anyone imagines that Native American girls are causing a crime wave, they need to, I don’t know, go soak their head.
1:24:12 Michele Goodwin
So much of this happens to be racialized, and we actually have been involved at the center that I direct at the University of California, Irvine, in a multi-year study looking at the incarceration rates of girls, and it’s absolutely stunning. It is so deeply racialized. It’s dramatic. The American Bar Association in an article took up some of our data, but it is a shocking as you say, Piper.
Well, we have actually come to this part of our show where it seems almost strange to get to because we like to think about silver linings. We like to think about what hope springs next. And coming from a space where there continues to be so much trauma, it may be difficult to surface what that is. But you both do such incredible, amazing work where you have impacted the lives of so many at local scale and grand scale, so that even though we’ve just come through, literally, I believe, only scratching the surface of what this all means, I would like to hear from you about what’s the silver lining. What can we look to in terms of what is hopeful in this space? And I promised that we will come back to this and I hope that you both will agree to be on the show again, because we have more to cover. So silver linings, Kamilah and then Piper.
1:25:38 Kamilah Newton
Yeah, I mean, and I absolutely hope to be back. Silver linings. For me, my silver lining ended up being WPA, right, I mentioned it briefly earlier, they were able to argue against putting me in jail. They were able to find me a therapist. The were really able to address the issues, right, because the story started when I was a child. They were able to address those issues. And, in the same way, it was like a snowball effect in the wrong direction before, it ended up being a snowball effect in the right direction. And I’ve been to a bunch of like media training classes with them. They know my son very intimately; they continue to be a part of my family until this day. And they really did help to provide some of that support and protection that I felt like was lacking through so much of my life.
1:26:32 Michele Goodwin
So, just for our listeners, that’s the Women’s Prison Association that you’re talking about with the WPA. So if folks want to look them up, and become a follower, become a donor, then take a look at their website, Piper silver lining for you.
1:26:50 Piper Kerman
Flash forward, here we are 2021, and I am happy that debate about mass incarceration and opposition to mass incarceration is much more central…that the rhetoric and the rhetoric about, you know, using prisons and jails and the rhetoric about policing now even is starting to change. And that is really a reflection of the fact that people’s understanding of these issues is starting to change.
1:27:31 Michele Goodwin
Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of On the Issues with Michele Goodwin. I want to thank my guests—Sue Ellen Allen, Piper Kerman, and Kamilah Newton—for joining us and being a part of this critical and insightful conversation.
And to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope you join us again for our next episode where we will be reporting, rebelling, and telling like it is with special guests tackling issues related to How do we dismantle a culture of sexual violence?. It will be an episode you won’t want to miss.
For more information on what we discussed today head to msmagazine.com. If you believe as we do that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed, and that rebuilding America, being unbought and unbossed, and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to visit us at Apple Podcast. Look for us at Ms.magazine.com for new content and special episode updates. Rate and subscribe to On The Issues with Michele Goodwin in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Google Podcast,and Sticher. Let us know what you think about our show. Please support independent feminist media.
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This has been your host, Michele Goodwin reporting, rebelling, and telling it like it is. On the Issues with Michele Goodwin is a Ms. Magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Maddy Pontz, Roxy Szal, and Mariah Lindsay. We thank Oliver Haug for research and digital assistance. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps; editing by Will Alverez and Marsh Allen; and music by Chris J. Lee. We also want to thank the Women’s Prison Association for their special work on this episode. Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.