ATLANTA, GA— Once a caged bird is set free, most people would think it would immediately fly away. But what if that bird had been caged their whole life and had never learned to fly? If that flightless bird is set free, it might die trying to fly or choose to return to the safety of the same cage it grew up in. Though it may seem like there’s no way to successfully reintroduce this bird back into nature, there are ways to help it relearn the skills it needs to survive. What the bird needs is a world full of patience that will help it learn how to feed itself, find shelter, and pick it up when it falls instead of putting it right back in its cage. There are thousands of women in the United States, at least 219,000, held in the cages of the American prison system. Each year, the number of women incarcerated in America continues to increase at an alarming rate, even faster than the rate for men. These women need to learn how to spread their wings once they’ve been released. And with more women being put in prison yearly, more will need this help once their cage doors are opened.
Once you are inside the prison system, the standards of living drastically decrease in terms of healthcare, housing, and treatment from others, among other things. The standards resemble those seen in rescue animal shelters rather than those assumed for institutions housing human beings. Adopting this perspective of criminals as being comparable to animals allows prison operators to justify the cages prisoners are kept in and the abuse they inflict on them. Sometimes officers abuse prisoners sexually or physically and other times they allow prisoners to abuse each other. The reality of prisons is not much different than what we see in movies: high rates of chronic medical conditions, substance abuse problems, and mental illness are common among prisoners, especially for women, and yet there are limited resources to help them. At best, women behind bars can expect to receive healthcare services akin to a low-income healthcare plan in the U.S. But in prison, women have to wait days until they can see a doctor because of issues with overcrowding. It is too often the case that prisoners are unable to see a doctor at all and that no health services are offered. For women, this is complicated by issues related to menstruation and pregnancy. One extreme case surfaced over the summer where Diana Sanchez, an inmate at a Denver jail, was left alone in her jail cell with no medical assistance while giving birth to a baby boy. She was in labor for five hours and was given nothing but a period pad to use to soak up the blood, 45 minutes before she gave birth. Sanchez’s lawyer told CBS, “To characterize it as healthcare is a joke.”
Though prison healthcare policies vary from state to state, their overall inadequacy is widespread. Here in Atlanta, many previously incarcerated persons can attest to the horrible conditions found in prisons in the southeast. Brittney and Cathy, women who were recently released from prison, both attested to this firsthand.
Cathy was born into a family with 10 brothers and sisters. Her family was always struggling with money and when her father passed away at age 16, she was forced to sell drugs to keep herself and her family afloat. Selling drugs ultimately landed her behind bars. Though she had imagined that one day she would be caught, nothing could prepare her for the horrors she would experience behind bars. Regarding the treatment she received for bipolar disorder, Cathy recounts how “I don’t even wanna say it’s help…they can just pump you full of all kinds of medications and make it seem like they’re doing their job but that’s not the case.” Cathy even recounts having witnessed something similar to Sanchez’s case and says, “I watched a girl have a baby. They didn’t even know she was pregnant. They just gave her Mcmendisa and Tylenol and just told her to lie down. That was something.”
Compared to Cathy, Brittney had a completely different start to life. Before ending up in prison, Brittney graduated from Rutgers University School of Business from the Honors College. Putting her skills to use, Brittney owned a company called All Dimensions Incorporated. Brittney dreamed of having a fortune 100 company and opening up a homeless shelter in her spare time. All of those dreams were crushed after she had gotten involved with the wrong boyfriend. One night, her boyfriend, who had previously sold her the moon and the stars when talking about a future together, committed an armed robbery. Though Brittney was not directly involved in this crime, she had to go on trial and have a court hearing because she used a credit card that was associated with her boyfriend. Initially, Brittney was given an ankle monitor and was fairly sure she would not be going to prison. Unfortunately, midway through her trial, her judge got sick and was forced to step down. Her case was transferred to a new judge, who wanted to clear the line of cases left over by the previous judge as quickly as possible. Brittney was forced to take a plea deal. The options were to accept 10 years of prison time or have her case presented to a jury and likely face even more time. At that moment, fearful of having to serve more time, the best thing was to agree to 10 years in prison. As Brittney recalls, “I had her on Monday and by the end of the week, I had to plea. By the following Monday, I was going to prison.”
Coming from a middle-class background, Brittney attests to not being prepared for prison life. Brittney was always afraid of what was going to happen to her at any moment. She says, “You might wake up today there’s no telling what might happen, there’s so many unwritten rules, so many ways for them to punish you. You already know that you’re in a bad place, so you don’t expect anything.” Like a neglected animal, many women are forced to spend much of their time in isolation with little to no human interaction. Cathy adds how “I’ve seen people hang themselves while being in isolation. I spent like a year or so in isolation. A lot of people can’t handle it. Being in isolation, girls feel like the only way they are going to be free is to take their life…” Nobody allowed these women to open their cages and test their wings; they were stripped of them before they got the chance.
Even when women are released from prison, they carry the weight of their sentences for the rest of their lives. Though no longer contained in a physical cell, numerous obstacles keep women from being truly “free” once the doors of their cages are opened. Upon release, previously incarcerated women find it hard just to survive from one day to the next. Anyone with a record is often required to tell their potential employers about their criminal history. As a result, previously incarcerated individuals have a harder time securing a job and thus a stable income. According to The Prison Policy Initiative, the unemployment rate is 27% among previously incarcerated women. This is higher than the unemployment rate of the entire United States at any point in history. For comparison, the U.S. unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 24.9%.
Once Brittney was released from prison, she felt that any work was good work. Despite her degree in business from Rutgers, she worked 13-hour shifts at a chicken plant. Her daily commute was over an hour and a half because no one from the Atlanta area would employ her in light of her armed robbery charge. Eventually, once she got acquainted with other recently-released prisoners, she was introduced to a non-profit organization called Women on the Rise that wanted to offer her a position with them. Brittney says that “when I came for a job interview it was either I was coming here, or I was gonna go commit suicide. It was that bad for me.” Carla had a similar experience when trying to find work outside of prison that was not associated with selling drugs. She talks about how, “I might’ve applied for every bit of 200 jobs, ain’t nobody ever call me back… I got a job at Kroger, where I worked for four days, and when they found out about my record, they fired me.”
Besides being unable to find steady work, women with a criminal record struggle to secure viable housing options. Cathy and Brittney were both fortunate enough to have family ready and willing to support them once they were released. Even though it may have been a couch or a shared bedroom, they were given a place to stay. Many women aren’t so lucky. If these women have a record, many landlords will not do business with them and again, they are forced to live with the chains of their past, and as a result, many end up homeless. Formerly incarcerated individuals are nearly 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public, with female ex-convicts being even more likely to be without housing in comparison to their male counterparts. These numbers continue to increase for people of color, and more so for those who have been incarcerated more than once.
Because of how hard it can be to get back on your feet after release, many women end up committing “quality of life crimes” or public order offenses such as stealing or selling drugs to be able to afford necessities like food and shelter. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics cites that about 58% of individuals who were arrested after their release from prison were arrested for public order offenses, a category including drunkenness, prostitution, drug use, and gambling. Cathy says she “fell into a depression, you know, just trying to survive. For a little while, I started back selling drugs again and I was like you can’t do that, but this is what happens when you don’t have the backing that you need. I wanna do the right thing, but what am I supposed to do, if I don’t have those things offered to me?” Despite the desperation that often brings incarcerated women to steal or sell illegal substances, the criminal justice system doesn’t consider motive or personal circumstances when making convictions. In a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice, 35% of women were arrested during their first year out of prison. Nine years after release, 77% of previously incarcerated women had been arrested. Homelessness can even be a precursor to arrest, as many previously incarcerated individuals can be taken in for “loitering” or sleeping in public areas.
For both Cathy and Brittney, Women on the Rise was the only opportunity that helped them stay afloat after trying to navigate life after prison. The organization offered them a place where they could be around people who shared their experiences while providing an employment opportunity that helped them become financially self-sufficient.
Women on the Rise is a non-profit organization based in Atlanta that works to end mass incarceration in the state of Georgia, attacking it from a policy level. The organization also provides group counseling sessions where previously incarcerated women can support each other through the trials and tribulations of life after prison. As a previously incarcerated woman herself, Ms. Marilynn Winn started Women on the Rise after experiencing the hardships of life after prison and seeing many of her friends returning to prison after being released. During her time spent in and out of the system, Winn found that she had to claim to be a drug addict to receive any resources that would help her get housing or a job after her release. She wondered why there were no such resources available to all prisoners who just as equally needed help getting back on their feet. Winn realized that this lack of services to empower previously incarcerated women was a gap that no one else was willing to fill. Winn began her non-profit career working for an organization that helped low-income women who were facing employment discrimination. Eventually, she worked her way up to become co-chair of the board of directors of the organization, where she advocated for helping previously incarcerated individuals. She pushed for the “ban the box” movement, suggesting that job applications should not require applicants to indicate whether or not they have been arrested or served time. Winn says she had always found it difficult to get a job with her records, but eventually she realized, “I needed to fight for others who were just like me, afraid to speak up, afraid to tell the truth, so I started saying, I’m gonna make my record an asset instead of a liability because I’m not that record. That’s on paper and in real life, I’m a different person.” Atlanta eventually became the first city in a southern state to remove the box regarding one’s criminal history from job applications. This was a big win for Winn and inspired her to start thinking about other ways to help those with similar circumstances. She started thinking about how to close jails and keep people from going back to prison, but these were matters that were outside the realm of the organization she worked for. It was time to start Women on the Rise. Winn wanted women like her to realize that “to have housing, to have a job, to have all the things that a person who has not been arrested has, is a human right,” she says. Together, Winn and her partner Socha created Women on the Rise and The Racial Justice Action Center.
On an individual level, Women on the Rise helped Brittney get her footing in society after having been absent from it for 10 years. She “felt like a child coming out of the womb. I was very impressionable, and it was very important to be at a place where I can thrive and learn how to properly be a member of society again. It was very important for me to be here … to just get a voice.” For Cathy, Women on the Rise gave her life meaning and allowed her to fight for the other inmates she knows who are still behind bars. Cathy says that “as long as we’re not all free, none of us are free. It don’t matter that I’m out here. I still got a bunch of sisters that are still there. So I’m still fighting a fight.”
In addition to helping women individually, Women on the Rise has made many strides to create change at the policy level. Winn takes pride in the fact that Women on the Rise, in partnership with the Racial Justice Action Center, has changed five laws, helped ban the box in Atlanta, had 41 of 81 ordinances removed from the city of Atlanta’s books, and created a program whereby police officers could refer people they have arrested multiple times to Women on the Rise if they feel that they would benefit from their services more than jail time. On top of this, Women on the Rise worked with an organization called SNaPCO to reclassify marijuana offenses in the city of Atlanta. Initially, those caught with an ounce or more of marijuana in city limits would receive jail time, or probation, and upwards of a $1,000 fine. Now, thanks to the work of Women on the Rise, perpetrators don’t have to face jail time and only incur a 75 dollar fine. The biggest change that Winn is proud of is that “Five and a half years ago, at any given night there were around 700-800 people in the city jail, there are only 67 people in that jail now with all the legislation and ordinances that we have changed. By diverting people away from prison, we have been “starving the beast” as we call it.”
If Women on the Rise continues on this path, there may be nothing left for “the beast” to eat. But there is still more work to be done. As Brittney says, “If we don’t fight for liberation, then we are just as bad as folks that are being oppressors.” Maybe this time around we can learn to open the cage and set the bird free, but support it through its journey of learning to fly again.
Isabel Slingerland is an Anthropology and Human Biology student from Emory University.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion. The cover photo above is courtesy of the Close the Jail Atlanta website, an organization that works closely with Women on the Rise.