Category: Women in Prison

Apr 15 2014

Nearly 12,000 Petition Signatures To Be Delivered Today!

by Antonia Clifford

by Antonia Clifford

On Tuesday April 15, 2014 at 2 p.m. local Arizonians will deliver a petition signed by nearly 12,000 people from across the U.S. asking that County Attorney Bill Montgomery drop the charges against Shanesha Taylor.

People across the country ask that Maricopa County & Bill Montgomery use common-sense & compassion to provide support for Ms. Taylor and her children rather than punishment.

Phoenix resident Kelsie Dunmire is coordinating the petition delivery. She explained her involvement this way:

I became involved in delivering the petition signatures because Shanesha Taylor’s story is the story of so many other people. She was doing what she had to do to try to support her children and herself with the limited resources that she had available to her; she shouldn’t be jailed for thatI hope that County Attorney will drop the charges against her.”

Kelsie will be joined by Rev. Jarrett Maupin and other community members at County Attorney Montgomery’s office at 2 p.m.:

Maricopa County Attorney’s Office
301 West Jefferson Street, Suite 800
Phoenix, AZ 85003  

If you are in the Phoenix area, you are invited to join in the petition delivery event.

In solidarity with this event, a virtual petition delivery will happen on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr) at 10 am (Arizona time). Over 260,000 people will hear the message that Bill Montgomery should drop the charges against Shanesha Taylor.

Apr 14 2014

“Stealing Chickens” & “Manifesting Prostitution:” Lizzy Williams, Monica Jones & Criminalizing Black Women

On Friday, Monica Jones was found guilty of “manifestation of prostitution.” I was unsurprised and upset. Unsurprised because the criminal punishment system is inherently racist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, classist, ableist, & so on. Upset because I hate injustice. Jones is part of a long line of black women who have been unjustly targeted by the state. She vows to fight on and so should we all.

Black women in the U.S. have been excluded from definitions of ‘respectable’ and/or ‘proper’ womanhood, sexuality, & beauty. This matters when one considers how we’re treated within society as a result. Black women have also been constructed as always ‘publicly available.’ Think of how this played out for Monica Jones as a trans black woman (though repeatedly misgendered by authorities) and for other black women. If we are always ‘publicly available,’ then charging us with manifestation of prostitution is more likely. These ideological constructs have their roots in justifying slavery and our general subjugation. They are doing particular work and we see this work clearly ‘manifested’ in the historical criminalization of black women. Unfortunately, there have been few studies about the history of black women’s punishment and criminalization. Notable exceptions include work by Kali Gross and Ann Butler. So when I come across interesting stories about crime and punishment in Black women’s history, I try to document them.

In 1951, a black woman named Elizabeth (Lizzy) Williams escaped from an Alabama prison farm. She had served nine long years of a 218 year prison sentence. What could Ms. Williams have done to deserve 218 years behind bars? She was convicted by three all-white juries of lying to protect her boyfriend from a robbery charge for stealing chickens. Officially, she was convicted of one count each of unarmed robbery by three different Alabama juries (even though there was no evidence that she had participated in any robberies).

In 1942, Lizzy, the mother of a young daughter, was dating a man named Turner Washington. He came home one night and told her that he had stolen some chickens. As Lizzy recalled: “He said if you don’t tell them I was with you, they’re gonna burn me.” So she lied for him to law enforcement.

When asked about her trials, Lizzy, who quit school in the third grade, couldn’t recall them. She explained: “They was the judge and two or three men on the right of me…They talked between themselves and then they told me how much time they was giving me (Atlanta Daily World, 4/16/78).” No attorney represented her. Lizzy Williams didn’t stand a chance of a ‘fair trial’ in 1940s Alabama where black people were routinely sentenced to long prison terms for minor crimes.

After being forbidden from holding prayer services in prison, Lizzy fled to Detroit where she lived with family for the next 27 years. As a fugitive, she made a living as a maid, a seamstress, and by leading church revivals. She lived in poverty afraid to apply for any benefits in case she would be discovered. She recounted having to eat bug-infested food while incarcerated.

At 60 years old, Williams was arrested by local police after her sister informed them of her whereabouts. Lizzy and her sister Annie had argued so Annie alerted law enforcement of her outstanding warrant. Lizzy was jailed for eight days in January 1978. In March, officials in Alabama asked that she be extradited to serve the remaining 209 years of her sentence.

After an outpouring of community outrage, Michigan governor William Milliken refused to extradite Lizzy Williams stating that: “The ends of justice would not be served” by sending her back to Alabama.

It’s inconceivable to me that a white woman in Alabama would have been subjected to such racist treatment in the criminal legal system. Lizzy Williams, however, would not have had access to ‘proper’ womanhood as a buffer from harsh treatment. This, in part, explains how she could be sentenced to 218 years in prison for lying about some chickens.

I’ll be part of a discussion about the contemporary criminalization of black women and girls sponsored by the Black Youth Project this Wednesday at 6 p.m. Details are here and all are welcome.

Apr 02 2014

No Selves To Defend #2: Some Upcoming Projects…

Whew, it’s been an incredibly busy few days and it hasn’t slowed down yet for me!! For those who want ongoing updates about Shanesha Taylor’s case, I put together a blog titled “Justice For Shanesha.” As I learn information, I’ll post there. So if you are on Tumblr, do follow the blog. The latest updated information that I have is posted there today.

I am swamped with tons of other work (believe it or not, I run an organization too) so I will be taking a blogging break for the rest of the week. I hope to be back to regular blogging soon. In the meantime, I am excited about two projects that I am currently working on, both relate to the Marissa Alexander case.

First, I am blessed to be working with a group of writers and artists to create a publication featuring stories of women of color who have been criminalized for self-defense over the years. The publication will feature portraits and short narratives. We will print a limited number and use the proceeds to support Marissa’s legal defense. I am in debt to my friends and co-strugglers who have come together on short notice to make this project a reality. Stay tuned for more information soon. And as a preview, I am excited to share one piece of art from the project; it’s a portrait of Lena Baker drawn by my extraordinarily talented friend Bianca Diaz.

Lena Baker by Bianca Diaz (2014)

Lena Baker by Bianca Diaz (2014)

Secondly, I am excited that I will be co-curating a new exhibition titled “No Selves to Defend: Criminalizing Women for Self-Defense.” The exhibition will run here in Chicago in July and August at Art in these Times. My thanks to my comrade Daniel Tucker for facilitating this opportunity. The exhibition will feature various artifacts from my collection as well as art from the project mentioned earlier. The Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander is planning a series of events leading up to Marissa’s trial at the end of July. I’ll share more about the exhibition as it comes together.

Have a peaceful next few days!

Mar 31 2014

Shanesha Taylor’s Been Released From Jail…

Update from Shanesha:
Anyone interested in contacting me directly can contact me at shataylor049@gmail.com. Please do not ask the details of my case I will not provide that info. I am happy to accept your prayers, well wishes or general inquiries.

Thank you again
Shanesha Taylor

Shanesha Taylor

Shanesha Taylor

And so it was, just before midnight, I learned Shanesha Taylor would be released from jail in just a couple of hours. I don’t know her personally but still feel as though I’ve been living with her over the past few days. So I stayed up in anticipation of getting an email or Facebook message announcing that she was safely at home with family. Like a child who is desperate to stay awake on Christmas eve to catch a glimpse of Santa, I fell asleep at some point with the lights still on. I was jolted into consciousness a couple of hours later and immediately checked for the news: Shanesha was released from Estrella Jail early this morning. She’s with family. It’s a wonderful way to kick off the week and I am really grateful to every single person who has donated money, signed the petition, called the County Attorney to have charges against her dropped and more. Special thanks to Amanda Bishop who started the online fundraiser for Shanesha and has been working tirelessly for days. Thank you all.

Shanesha and her family have a long road ahead of them in the criminal punishment system. She’ll have to secure good legal representation, she’ll have to figure out how to reunite with her children, she’ll have to stabilize her financial and housing situation. There’s a lot to do.

In the meantime, supporters and those who want to help can do the following:

1. Send letters, cards, checks etc… directly to Shanesha Taylor at:
PO Box 5988
Glendale, AZ 85312

2. Sign the following petition to Bill Montgomery who is the County Attorney for Maricopa County. Share the petition with everyone you know. Can we gather 10,000 signatures by Friday? Let’s try.

3. After you have signed the petition, directly EMAIL Bill Montgomery to ask that he DROP THE CHARGES against Ms. Taylor.

4. It’s always great when Prosecutors also receive phone calls. Please call the Maricopa County Attorney’s office to ask them to drop the charges against Shanesha Taylor. Be polite about it but suggest that resources would be better spent providing Ms. Taylor and her children with help over punishment. They have already suffered enough.

Maricopa County Attorney’s Office
Phone: (602) 506-3411
Hours: 8am – 5pm Mon-Fri

5. Are you on Facebook? Post a message on Bill Montgomery’s Facebook Page explaining why he should DROP THE CHARGES against Ms. Taylor.

6. Are you on Twitter? Tweet Bill Montgomery directly @marcoattorney and ask him to #DropTheCharges against #ShaneshaTaylor.

7. If you are on Twitter? Contribute your thoughts to the #ISUPPORTSHANESHA because… conversation. Yesterday evening, the conversation trended on Twitter thanks in large part to support from Suey Park.

Below you can see a visual representation of the activity on Twitter:
shaneshatwitter

8. Most importantly, Ms.Taylor and her family need funds. You can continue to donate to her Fundraiser and ask others to join you.

Mar 29 2014

“I Love Being A Mommy!!!” On Shanesha Taylor & Black Motherhood in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Every day in this country some women are coerced or forced by circumstances into doing things they don’t want to do. For many women, it is the only static condition of their ever changing lives: to regularly feel required to make hard choices among, at times, very poor options.” – Beth Richie, Compelled to Crime (1996).

You people are Ridiculous for supporting this woman!! What she did was almost kill her two babies!! How many other times has she done this. Ot is not okay to leave ur kids in a car regardless even in winter in Arizona. I can tell from ur post EXACTLY what kind of mothers u are…” – Tamara Carlstrom, Commenter on this blog (2014).

By now, you’ve likely seen the ubiquitous mug shot photo. Shanesha Taylor with tears streaming down her face and a look of fear & devastation in her eyes. This photograph introduced me to Shanesha’s case and galvanized me into action on Tuesday. I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. I know that I am not alone. Friends have expressed their feelings using similar words. One friend, however, confessed that she felt ‘uneasy’ when she saw the photo. As we talked, she admitted that she was ‘embarrassed’ and she wondered if it was exploitative for a stranger’s mug shot, in particular a black woman’s, to be plastered on various media platforms across the country and maybe the world. After all, there is ‘no country’ for black women anywhere.

After the initial wave of sympathy that I felt for Shanesha, I got angry. A homeless mother was so desperate that she left her young children in a car while interviewing for a job. She was then arrested and incarcerated. How could jail be the solution for what was obviously (to my mind) a consequence of poverty and a lack of resources? Of course, I worried about the children’s safety but most of the time removing a child’s primary caregiver doesn’t improve their future outcomes. So I wanted to know more and to find a way to support Shanesha and her children.

I took to social media to find people local to the Scottsdale area who might be able to help her. I reached out to the young woman, Amanda Bishop, who had established an online fundraiser to benefit Shanesha and her family. I was interested in verifying the authenticity of the effort so that I could help to boost it. When I first started sharing the link to the fundraiser, people had contributed $2,200. Since that time, the case has garnered much more attention. The last time I checked, nearly $39,000 had been donated to help cover Shanesha’s bail, legal fees, and perhaps other expenses. Eventually, through Twitter, I connected with two people (one of whom lives in Arizona) who helped me gather more information about Shanesha. I heard from a member of her family a couple of days ago who provided a short update and thanked everyone for their outpouring of concern for Shanesha and her children. He was truly overwhelmed by the support. It was unexpected…

I mentioned earlier that there is ‘no country’ for black women anywhere. I have written about this in many different ways over the past few years. Because most black women expect to be maligned and demonized when we are not being erased, I immediately understood my friend’s trepidation. What would the mass media and all of us do to a homeless black mother who seemingly ‘neglected’ her children? What pernicious tropes would circulate within the public sphere and be internalized like lashes from a whip by all of us as black women? Because rest assured that only delusional black women maintain that we are seen as individuals rather than as members of a morally suspect and undesirable group in the U.S. We’ve always been treated as less than human.

Throughout history and still today, we exist as caricatures in the minds of too many. The popular representations of black women are reflected and shaped by our ideas about race, gender, sexuality, class, and more. We exist in the culture as hypersexual, unfeminine, angry, potentially criminal, depraved things. We are preternaturally ‘strong’ and feel no pain so the image of a black woman in tears in public must be jarring indeed. Society is generally inoculated against black women’s tears. We have been excluded from ideologies of domesticity and our families are pathologized. And for some of us, when these reductive lies about who we are seem to be reflected back to us (maybe through a mug shot photo), we become embarrassed and ashamed. Then we hate ourselves for it.

Read more »

Mar 28 2014

Image of the Day: Women Prisoners, 1860s

Female Convicts, Sing Sing Prison.- Pach, G. W. (Gustavus W.), 1845-1904 -- Photographer

Female Convicts, Sing Sing Prison, 1860s.- Pach, G. W. (Gustavus W.), 1845-1904 — Photographer

Mar 27 2014

Action Needed: How YOU Can Support Shanesha Taylor

Update (5:15 p.m. central time): I heard from Shanesha’s family that she might be released from jail either late tonight or tomorrow. I’ll let folks know once she is out. Please keep supporting her in the ways outlined below.

Update #2 (3/28/14 -2:30 p.m. central): Shanesha’s family has posted bail. However I am informed that she will not be released from jail until Monday (3/31). I have no idea why this is the case.

Shanesha Taylor

Shanesha Taylor

As I mentioned in a previous post, Shanesha Taylor is still in jail. She was arrested on March 20th so it’s been quite a few days.

From what I have gathered, she has a status hearing scheduled for March 27 at 8:30 am (TODAY). She seems to have been assigned a public defender. She has a preliminary hearing in Superior Court on Monday March 31st at 8:30 am. She has been charged with two felony counts of child abuse [ARS Code: 13-3623A2 (F3)].

I don’t have any direct connections to her family. All of the information that I have gathered, I’ve been able to access through online investigations by acquaintances and myself.

Many people have emailed me to ask what else they might do to support Shanesha. It always helps in such cases to increase public support and to gather our voices so that we are more powerful collectively. To that end, here are some suggestions for how we might proceed in support of Shanesha.

1. Sign the following petition to Bill Montgomery who is the County Attorney for Maricopa County. Share the petition with everyone you know. Can we gather 10,000 signatures by Saturday? Let’s try.

2. After you have signed the petition, directly EMAIL Bill Montgomery to ask that he DROP THE CHARGES against Ms. Taylor.

3. It’s always great when Prosecutors also receive phone calls. Please call the Maricopa County Attorney’s office to ask them to drop the charges against Shanesha Taylor. Be polite about it but suggest that resources would be better spent providing Ms. Taylor and her children with help over punishment. They have already suffered enough.

Maricopa County Attorney’s Office
Phone: (602) 506-3411
Hours: 8am – 5pm Mon-Fri

4. Are you on Facebook? Post a message on Bill Montgomery’s Facebook Page explaining why he should DROP THE CHARGES against Ms. Taylor.

5. Most importantly, Ms.Taylor and her family need funds. I was able to learn that her bond is $9,000. She’ll need that amount and MORE to get back on her feet. Donate to her Fundraiser and ask others to join you.

Mar 12 2014

Poem of the Day: No Lady by Anonymous

Political Prisoner (1976) by Rupert García.    Smithsonian American Art Museum

Political Prisoner (1976) by Rupert García. Smithsonian American Art Museum

No Lady
Prison didn’t improve me none.
There was ten of us girls in the county jail
five white, five black awaitin’ trial for sellin shit.
The white girls, they all on probation.
Us black girls, we all go to Dwight. Me, three months gone.
An I ask myself sittin on them concrete benches in the county.
How come? How come me an my sisters goin to jail
An the white girls goin back to college?
Their mothers come in here an weep — they get probation.
My mama come in here – nose spread all over her face — she weepin too
But I goin to Dwight
An I think about that — But I don’t come up with no answers.
Ain’t got no money for a lawyer.
Hell, I couldn’t even make bail.
Met the defender five minutes before my trial
An I done what he said. Didn’t seem like no trial to me, not like T.V.
I didn’t understand none of it.
Six months to a year they give me…
They ride us out there in a bus.
See my playin’ the game — goin to charm class an the body
dynamics, (to learn my Feminine Role)
An I take keypunchin, an I do real well.
My boyfriend, he come to see me twice, and then he stop comin’
An when I have the baby, I give it up.
Weren’t nothin else for me to do.
They give me twenty-five dollar when I get outta there
An I wearin my winter clothes in July, an everyone knows where I comin from
Six month I try to find a job, make it straight.
But the man who give the job, he say I flunk that test
Sheeit man, I didn’t flunk that test.
You think I’m a criminal. I done my time, but you ain’t reclassified me.
I always be a criminal to you…
One of the counselors say I “mentally ill,” I needs treatment.
Two hours a week they give me group therapy.
The other hundred and fifteen, they lock me up — like an animal.
An I ain’t got no neurosis noways.
Sheeit, it’s this place make you ill…
Other night, I took sick with the cramps;
There weren’t no doctor ’til mornin.
He poke me in the sore spot an say,
“Girl — You jus wanna go to the hospital. Get you some tea an toast.”
Tea an toast!
My girlfriend — she die of diabetes, before they do anythin for her.
She come outta here in a box. Looks like it won’t be no different for me.
That’s how it is, Lady.
No. Prison didn’t improve me none.

– anonymous, reprinted from The Chicago Seed (1981).

Mar 09 2014

Jasiri X (Video): Dear Marissa (plus a few words from me)

It’s no secret to regular readers that my emotions have alternated between despondency and hope with respect to black men’s participation in the campaign to Free Marissa Alexander. Today, I am feeling hopeful. Jasiri X who is a talented artist and dedicated activist posted a video message in support of Marissa. This is in addition to a couple of black men who have specifically reached out to me to ask how they can help. If you are reading this and you are not a black woman, you won’t appreciate why this solidarity means so much to me. Thank you brothers for SEEING US & turning toward us instead of away. Below are Jasiri’s video and his words.

Reposted from the Black Youth Project

“Dear Marissa” is my apology to Marissa Alexander, a black woman who was sentenced in Florida to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband. Her retrial starts in July, and incredibly, she is now facing 60 years in prison. Prosecutor Angela Corey announced she is seeking the maximum sentence of 20 years for 3 counts of assault with a deadly weapon. Please contribute to Marissa Alexander’s legal defense fund by going to Marissa Alexander Freedom Fundraiser. The lyrics to “Dear Marissa” are below.

Dear Marissa can you please forgive us
For not hearing your cries or the cries of your sisters
We ignored you for months after your verdict was delivered
Your burden wasn’t considered but your courage never withered
Left deserted in a prison given 20 live years
And a orange jumpsuit that’s faded from dry tears
A hard bed in a cell our innocence lies here
A mother ripped from her children’s the only crime that’s clear
Why are we so quiet why are we so silent
Why did we wash our hands of it why are Pontius Pilate
Why are we so slow to respond to domestic violence
When women are abused we’re always given an excuse
But tell me what would you do if you felt you children were threatened
And the man who beat you violated order of protection
And you had access to a legal and licensed weapon
And you feared for your life and the lives if your adolescents
Dear Marrissa I’m sorry i feel responsible partly
my voice was hardly a whisper how could we just forget ya
can you please forgive us for not hearing your cries or the cries of your sisters
signed Mr. Jasiri X

Mar 05 2014

Prison IS Violence…

Warning: This post includes descriptions of extreme violence and brutality.

There have been a couple of stories in the recent news exposing the brutality of prisons in the United States. First, the on-going travesty at Tutwiler women’s prison in Alabama was revisited by the New York Times over the weekend:

For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation. More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.

But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation.

I’ve highlighted the situation at Tutwiler here a couple of years ago. Are sexual violence and brutality new for women prisoners? Of course not! In fact, in the mid-19th century after visiting Auburn State Prison in New York, the prison chaplain, Reverend B.C. Smith, remarked on conditions there: “To be a male convict would be quite tolerable; but to be a female convict, for any protracted period, would be worse than death” (Rathbone, 2005).

Randall G. Shelden (2010) wrote about how women prisoners were treated in the 19th century:

“The conditions of the confinement of women were horrible — filthy, overcrowded, and at risk of sexual abuse from male guards. Rachel Welch became pregnant at Auburn while serving a punishment in a solitary cell; she died after childbirth as the result of a flogging by a prison official earlier in her pregnancy. Her death prompted New York officials to build the Mount Pleasant Prison Annex for women on the grounds of Sing Sing in Mount Pleasant, New York in 1839. The governor of New York had recommended separate facilities in 1828, but the legislature did not approve the measure because the washing, ironing, and sewing performed by the women saved the Auburn prison system money. A corrupt administration at the Indiana State Prison used the forced labor of female inmates to provide a prostitution service for male guards (p.134).”

The guard who beat Rachel Welch so brutally was named Ebenezer Cobb. He was convicted of assault and battery and fined $25. He was allowed to keep his job.

The second development in the past few days involves the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Law School which brought a class action lawsuit against Cook County Jail alleging a “sadistic culture.” Conditions are described as “hellish.” As someone who has had to visit the Jail pretty regularly, I concur with this assessment. I have written about the fruitless struggle to reform Cook County Jail dating back to the 1870s. Still, today, detainees continue to be abused and harmed even after countless lawsuits and federal intervention.

Read more »