This week the Crunk Feminist Collective is honored to bring you two pieces from women incarcerated in California prisons and jails. Their stories are here for us to read because of the incredible advocacy work of Justice NOW, an organization that works with incarcerated women by providing legal services, supporting prisoner organizing efforts, working with prisoners and their families on political education and mobilization campaigns, training the next generation of activists and lawyers who want to help, and building coalitions to create safety for women without relying on the punishment system. Justice NOW interns and staff travel regularly to prisons to meet and work with women inside, and it is their effort that makes these posts possible for us to read.
In fact, it was Justice NOW’s research that broke open a story last year, which I covered here at the CFC, to shed light on hundreds of documented cases of sterilization abuse in California’s prisons and jails. Since 2003, Justice Now has documented conditions related to the reproductive and pregnancy care of people in California’s women’s prisons. After completing collaborative research with people inside California’s women’s prisons, Justice Now found evidence of a eugenic pattern of policy and practice with devastating impacts on the reproductive health of communities of color in California. This work led directly to the discovery that between 2006 and 2010 there were upwards of 100 illegal sterilizations of pregnant people imprisoned at Valley State Prison for Women and California Institution for Women.
On Sept.25th Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1135, the Prison Anti-Sterilization bill, into law. The bill was authored by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, sponsored by Justice Now, and included bi-partisan co-authorship. It came before the Governor after passing unanimously out of both the Senate and Assembly floors with support from the organizations like ACLU Northern California, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and Black Women for Wellness. The bill requires safeguards and transparency for procedures which result in sterilization, such as hysterectomies, and requires that these resulting surgeries are done in accordance with evidence based treatment of the patient’s diagnosed condition.
This victory is only the beginning. The fight to respect the human rights of black and brown incarcerated bodies is a long one. This week, we hope that you all will learn about the work of organizations like Justice NOW and listen to the voices of women on the inside. They give us a strong, clarion call to action – to first bear witness, to listen, to know their stories. And, of course, to act.
Locked Away for a Lifetime: Barred from Becoming a Parent
by Christy Phillips
Christy Phillips is a human rights activist and has been working with Justice Now for the past year on their Let Our Families Have a Future Campaign. Christy has achieved much while inside. She has gotten her GED, enrolled in college, and joined groups that focus on personal wellness and self help in order to overcome the oppressive environment of prison.
I was convicted as a juvenile and have been imprisoned for 13 years. I was 15 years old the first time law enforcement violated by rights. I was arrested and detained two months after I had turned 15. During my 48-hour detention, the police denied me contact with my mother, a lawyer, food, and water. I did not sleep during that time. Through this misconduct, law enforcement, the people meant to protect my rights, violated mine and coerced me to produce a confession to secure a conviction. At the age of 16, I was tried in an adult court, and sentenced to two life sentences for a crime I did not commit.
According to the Innocence Project, approximately 30% of the cases exonerated by DNA evidence involved defendants who provided confessions even though they were innocent. Additionally, the confessions provided by juveniles are often unreliable because children are easy to manipulate and not always fully aware of their situation. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruling in J.D.B. v. North Carolina ruled that the age of the child being questioned is relevant when determining whether the confession was coerced or not. Justice Sotomayor reasoned that, “there is ‘no reason for police officers or courts to blind themselves to [the] commonsense reality’ that ‘children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances’ would not.” Too many juveniles have been convicted as a result of coerced confessions, losing not only their right to freedom but also their right to decide when, where and how to have a family.
International, Federal, and state law recognizes that institutions such as prisons and jails are coercive environments, where the freedom to fully control your reproductive life is restricted. Research done by an Oakland, California legal services and human rights organization, Justice Now, in collaboration with people in women’s prisons, revealed that between 2006 and 2010, at least 116 people in California women’s prisons were illegally sterilized for the purposes of birth control during labor and delivery. While I have not been surgically sterilized, the coercive tactics used to obtain a confession led to my sentencing of 2 life terms – leaving me effectively sterilized, as I am unable to begin a family from within this institution.
Reproduction & Family
I have spent almost half of my life in prison. According to my current sentence, I will spend all of my reproductive years in prison, unable to start a family and at the same time, breaking my immediate family apart.
People in prison at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), and at many other prisons and jails, are cut off from key ways many people choose to create family because we do not have overnight family visiting. We cannot start a family “out there” because we are locked up. I think about it a lot – having a family – because I do want to have kids. In my future, I envision myself independent, educated, financially stable. Even at the young age of 15, I knew that one day I wanted to get married and have children. These restrictions on creating a family also affect any partners we may have, as they may want children but cannot have them because their partner is inside. Your children are a younger extension of you. When you are on your deathbed, your children and grandchildren take care of you, help you. I see the elders in here–it is their children that come to visit.
My nieces and nephews do not even know me. They were born after I got locked up and we have never met. I am afraid and nervous because I do not want imprisonment to change me to the point where I am unable to interact with kids. I am nervous that I will not know how to parent. I would like to learn from my nieces and nephews how to be a good parent. I have the hope that something will change during my reproductive years so I will be able to have a family. I carry that hope with me everyday.
Due to the injustice I have experienced, my advocates are working with me and campaigning on my behalf to raise awareness of the interrogation tactics commonly used by police to coerce a confession from children who have been arrested. You can learn more about me, and my story, as well as how you can help here.
Justice Now’s Let Our Families Have a Future Campaign, is focused on shedding light on and ending the many ways that people’s human right to form a family is interrupted and destroyed by the prison system. This includes, but is not limited to: being imprisoned during reproductive and family formation years, sterilization during the birthing process, sterilization during other operations for birth control purposes, and very low quality or abusive reproductive health care.
Justice Now worked with people inside California prisons to write and sponsor SB 1135 [passed in September 2014] The intent of this legislation was to prevent sterilization abuse of vulnerable populations, to ensure safeguards against sterilization abuse within coercive environment of prison and jail, and to positively affirm all people’s right to fully self-determine their reproductive lives free from coercion, violence or threat of force. There is still more work to be done. To learn more about Justice Now and get involved, follow them on Facebook and Twitter @justicenoworg.