(Another wonderful guest posting by Gloria Killian.)
My views on the death penalty have a dual basis; one philosophical and one experiential. As a child, I was raised to believe that no one has the right to take another human life regardless of the circumstances, provocation, or reasoning. As I grew older, I came to realize that the ultimate premeditated murder was the state sanctioned execution of a convicted felon. The very idea that anyone could calmly, deliberately, and ritualistically take someone’s life repulsed me. The idea that the state kills people to demonstrate that killing is wrong just baffled me. I knew where I stood on this issue, and so I continued living my life, morally opposed to the death penalty, but completely unaware of the real horror that state sanctioned murder entails.
My life as I knew it came to an end on December 16, 1981, when I was arrested for murder and accused of planning a home invasion robbery in which someone was killed. It was designated as a capital case and I was charged with the death penalty. I had not committed this crime so I was in a complete state of shock after my arrest, and the fact that I was facing the death penalty did not really penetrate the fog that surrounded me. I was living a surrealistic nightmare that I couldn’t understand, and the fact that they were going to kill me was just one more factor in the insanity. I rarely thought about the fact that I was facing death but when I did my thoughts about my own execution ricocheted wildly from, “this will never happen, I didn’t do anything wrong” to “they set me up, I know I’ll be convicted, and I’ll just volunteer to be executed.”
After 4 ½ months, the case against me was dismissed for lack of evidence and I was released from jail, but a year later I was rearrested. The District Attorney’s office had resolved their “lack of evidence” problem by helping one of the perpetrator’s phony up a story about my so-called participation in the crime. Once I was convicted, he would be rewarded with a substantial reduction in sentence. Again, I was charged with the death penalty despite the fact that the DA had colluded with his witness to create the false testimony that would convict me. Fortunately, for me the California Supreme Court issued a decision that took my case out from under the death penalty and I was released on bail.
Following my wrongful conviction, I was assigned to work in the Prison Law Library and one day I discovered that the CDC had mistakenly sent us the entire “Death Procedure” to be used in executions. The 73 page procedure set forth in dry, emotionless language the exact manner in which “the condemned” inmate was to be treated commencing 5 days prior to his execution. The complete lack of compassion or minimal human kindness merely emphasized the barbaric horror about to be inflicted by the state on a hapless human being. It truly made me ill in a way that my own brush with the death penalty had never done.
(This is the first of what will hopefully be many guest postings by Razor Wire Women contributors and allies. Here, Gloria Killian, the Executive Director of Action Committee for Women in Prison, briefly reflects on the nearly two decades she spent imprisoned for a crime she did not commit.)
I spent 17 ½ years in prison for a crime that I did not commit, and I faced the death penalty twice for that crime. Following my conviction I was sentenced to 32 years to life. I fought this case for a total of 22 years before my conviction was reversed and I was finally released. Despite the devastation that my wrongful conviction wreaked upon my life and my family, my most important experiences really have nothing to do with my case.
I learned that women in prison are just people like you and me. Their experiences may have been very different from ours and they have clearly made some bad choices, but these women are not monsters. Instead they are our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and cousins. They have the same wants, needs and desires that we all do, and they very much want to do better. It is criminal for society to turn their backs on the incarcerated and treat them as if they are irredeemable, for they are not. They just need some help from others, as we all do at some time in our lives.
Razor Wire Women‘s powerful cover image, “3X Denied,” comes to us from Michigan’s Lessie (Dawna) Brown. Lessie is a veteran participant in PCAP, the legendary Prison Creative Arts Project based at University of Michigan, and has recently joined the PCAP National Advisory Board. In 2010 she was one of two Keynote Speakers at the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Paths to Recovery conference.
As she writes of her experience (in the “Artist’s Statement” printed in Razor Wire Women), “All my pain and longing was there on paper.”
You can see her drawing King of the Hills here. Her Flowers Butterflies can be seen (if you scroll down a minute) here.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting sheds some light on lousy health care in some Massachusetts jails and prisons; at least Massachusetts hasn’t started charging inmate co-pays like a few prisons in nearby Pennsylvania. The BBC reports that seven in ten foreign prisoners in US prisons are Mexicans. Fluvanna (VA) Correctional Center for Women has one of the nation’s highest rates of in-prison sexual assault. Republican governors just love privatizing prisons, with Florida, Maine, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Ohio considering selling off their correctional institutions, though Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal is thinking twice. Maybe someone told him that private prisons don’t necessarily save states money, though they do create a racketeer’s paradise. Inside the “Communication Management Units,” the new and deeply problematic kind of prison unit authorized by the Bush Administration in 2006, where communication with the outside world is even more deeply circumscribed than in other units. Inside Norway’s eco-prison, where inmates roam free, live in cabins, and keep chickens. (It’s not liberalism, just good resource management, says the Norwegian government, and considering the medical costs associated with long-term inactivity and sunlight deprivation, they may be right.) A review of a new book by Marshall “Eddie” Conway, a former Black Panther locked up since the ’70s, who claims to be yet another victim of the era’s war on activists’ civil liberties.
New York state prisons are allowing same-sex conjugal visitations, so that’s something, at least.
Note: One of the things we hope to do with this blog is to bring more attention to the accomplishments of Razor Wire Women‘s contributors–especially its imprisoned contributors. Co-editor Ashley Lucas will be contacting all of the writers appearing in the book to ask them for special posts and reflections; in addition, I will be writing a series of off-the-cuff bios about each of them. This is the first.
Of all the pieces appearing in Razor Wire Women, none is funnier, more expressive or more vibrant than the Connie Convicta comics of Ana Lucia Gelabert. Tart, sarcastic, and information-rich, Connie Convicta takes part in the best traditions of political and alternative cartooning. You can see quite a bit more of her work here. Her professional bio runs as follows:
Ana Lucia Gelabert is a U.S. citizen of Cuban national origin. Born in 1938 in Central Cuba, she came to the U.S. for the last time in 1961 and has been in a Texas prison since 1984, serving 2 life sentences, concurrent and “non-aggravated” after an incident with Houston police in which only she was injured. TDCJ estimated her parole release date in 1992—yes, that was 16 years ago. Root cause of her offense was the State of Texas trying, and succeeding, to strip her of parental rights to her own 3 children. To this day, Gelabert vows that if it happened all over again today, still she would fight her children regardless of cost of consequences. She tries to answer all mail sent to her to the address below. Also, the comics posted here she does entirely for free and not charging a cent, she does accept, appreciates and very much needs cash donations. Send money order to Inmate Trust Fund, Ana Lucia Gelabert 384484, P.O. Box 60, Huntsville, TX 77349. Thanks.
Ana Lucia Gelabert
Lane Murray Unit TDCJ
1916 N. Hwy. 36 Bypass
Gatesville, TX 76596
Beyondmedia Education has a fantastic website/zine/online installation/ongoing Warholesque happening up here called Women and Prison: A Site for Resistance. With high-quality journalism plus life-writing and essays by women in prison, this is a resource any prisoners’ rights activist will want to bookmark.
Recent topics covered include “Pregnant, in Prison and Denied Care“; “Giving Birth in Chains: The Shackling of Incarcerated Women During Labor and Delivery“; “Illegal Strip Searches at the Cook County Jail“; and “Children Do Hard Time for Their Parents’ Crime.”
Razor Wire Women co-editor Jodie Lawston used to be on the site’s board of directors back when she lived in the freezing Midwest. That’s not all the overlap this site has with Razor Wire Women, either–I was delighted to see several of Ana Lucia Gelabert’s whip-smart “Connie Convicta” comics, which feature prominently in RRW.
At this blog, we’re hoping to gather together a decent-sized list of resources for those hoping to understand the scope of the US prison system and resist, and those who would like to “do” the arts in women’s prisons. (Each of these will go up to the right here under “Links” after its blog posting is displaced!)
Resistance Behind Bars is an amazing website, and (like this blog) seemingly inspired by a book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. There is also a related zine, Tenacious, full of writing by imprisoned women; an interview with the outside publisher of Tenacious, the ironically-surnamed Vikki Law, and the site offers a useful newswire with links to prison news items, analysis, and upcoming prison-activist events (most of the latter seem concentrated in the bay area). We especially appreciate the site’s specific focus on woman prisoners. As Vikki Law writes:
In 1974, women imprisoned at New York’s maximum-security prison at Bedford Hills staged what is known as the August Rebellion. Protesting the brutal beating of a fellow prisoner, the women fought off guards, holding seven of them hostage, and took over sections of the prison. Why do activists know about Attica but not the August Rebellion?
This is a site that is asking the right questions. Anyone interested in the conversations Razor Wire Women contributes to will want to check it out.
Essential read from the New York Review of Books, a once-tired magazine that has been revitalized by this awful past decade. There is much to admire about the piece, starting with its willingness to buck stereotypes about prison rape by beginning with the story of a female prisoner:
Back in 1998, Jan Lastocy was serving time for attempted embezzlement in a Michigan prison. Her job was working at a warehouse for a nearby men’s prison. She got along well with two of the corrections officers who supervised her, but she thought the third was creepy. “He was always talking about how much power he had,” she said, “how he liked being able to write someone a ticket just for looking at him funny.” Then, one day, he raped her.
Jan wanted to tell someone, but the warden had made it clear that she would always believe an officer’s word over an inmate’s, and didn’t like “troublemakers.” If Jan had gone to the officers she trusted, they would have had to repeat her story to the same warden. Jan was only a few months away from release to a halfway house. She was desperate to get out of prison, to return to her husband and children. So she kept quiet—and the officer raped her again, and again. There were plenty of secluded places in the huge warehouse, behind piles of crates or in the freezer. Three or four times a week he would assault her, from June all the way through December, and the whole time she was too terrified to report the attacks. Later, she would be tormented by guilt for not speaking out, because the same officer went on to rape other women at the prison. In a poem, Jan wrote:
These are a few of the reasons why prisoners fear reporting rape.
Fear of being written up and possibly losing good time.
Fear of retaliation.
Fear of feeling that no one will believe them.
Fear of feeling that no one really cares.
For all these reasons, a large majority of inmates who have been sexually abused by staff or by other inmates never report it.
An excellent piece from Slate analyzing a recent Supreme Court decision which basically immunizes states against liability when prosecutors shirk their responsibility to share exculpatory evidence with defense attorneys.
I don’t know what to say. It’s as if the Supreme Court majority in this case wants innocent people to languish in jail, as John Thompson did, when similar prosecutorial misconduct got him sent up for eighteen years for a crime he didn’t do.
More here. And you can read the decision, if you’ve got the stomach.
This is the blog for Razor Wire Women: Prisoners, Activists, Scholars, and Artists, edited by Ashley Lucas and Jodie Michelle Lawston, just out from SUNY Press. This important collection illustrates how the arts and the social sciences not only can, but must, work together to illuminate the lives of imprisoned women.
To quote from the blurb: “Jodie Michelle Lawston and Ashley E. Lucas have created a powerful call to action, a reminder that resistance is not futile. With powerful images, testimony, intersectional theorizing, and examples of educational and visual organizing, Razor Wire Women offers essential readings for organizers and scholars—both inside and outside of women’s prisons and detention centers. This is a central read for courses in women’s and gender studies, justice, and sociology, and for all invested in interrupting our nation’s expanding carceral nation.” — Erica R. Meiners, author of Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies
Here on this blog, we’ll attempt to further the conversation this book begins, linking to reviews and also to news and analysis relevant to the issues it raises. Hopefully, in a small way, this site will help make visible what women prisoners experience–and the hope and resilience of which they are still capable.