For Women’s History Month, we shine the spotlight on four
powerhouse women who have changed the face of the justice system
Women worldwide are currently engaged in some form of freedom struggle against their patriarchal societies. For incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women as well as women with incarcerated loved ones, there are added stigmas and barriers to overcome in the struggle for freedom.
March is Women’s History Month, the annual celebration of women’s achievements and contributions to American history.
However, even during Women’s History Month, most incarcerated women and women who support incarcerated family members are unsung heroes. Be it our mothers, wives or in some cases our daughters, these women lead the family unit. They bear the financial burden of household bills, legal fees and providing for incarcerated loved ones through visits, commissary and phone calls.
These strong women have also been propelled to become powerful social and political leaders who advocate for changing the laws and policies that affect them and their incarcerated loved ones.
“As we position ourselves in the world attempting to resolve social justice ills, we must not forget our own needs,” wrote Hamdiya Cooks, California Coalition for Women Prisoners advocate in the organization’s Fire Inside newsletter. “Let us continue to remind ourselves that we are worthy of being loved and nurtured as we work to nurture and protect those we love.”
At least one in four women in the nation has an incarcerated loved one. For Black women, one in two has a family member in prison, according to the Essie Justice Group, the nation’s leading organization of women with incarcerated loved ones. For this reason, mass incarceration is a direct cause of extreme psychological distress and trauma for women even if they never go to prison themselves.
Mass incarceration can be a serious obstacle to the financial health of women with incarcerated loved ones, according to a report by the Essie Justice Group called Because She’s Powerful: The Political Isolation and Resistance of Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones (2020).
The resilience of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women deserve to be recognized and celebrated as well. These women have organized and led movements such as the “#MeToo Behind Bars” and “Survived and Punished” campaigns, which bring awareness to the sexual violence women suffer prior to and during incarceration. This includes coerced sterilization, and handcuffing pregnant women to the bed during childbirth.
Organizations such as California Coalition for Women Prisoners, the Young Women’s Freedom Center (YWFC), Initiate Justice and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children have been on the frontlines of reforming policies and challenging archaic laws.
“These young women have been criminalized since birth by these systems and ideologies,” the YWFC mission statement reads. “We believe that cis and trans women and girls of color who have been pushed to the margins are the ones best equipped to develop and guide solutions for the freedom and liberation of all women and girls.
“We are building a movement of formerly incarcerated and system involved young women throughout the state to lead local campaigns, statewide policy initiatives, and to advocate for the rights and liberation of all women and girls,” the statement added.
These organizations have worked with incarcerated women to develop curriculums and support networks to challenge the effects of domestic violence, sex trafficking and inequality from the point of view of those who are directly impacted.
“There were no self-help groups when I first got here [to a California women’s prison], so some of us got together once a week on the main yard and started our own battered women’s support group,” wrote the late Charisse Shumate, CCWP founding member, in her article The Community of Women Inside. “For the first time in five years I could open up and talk about the pain. I met other prisoners who shared the very same pain and we learned to heal together.”
Shumate’s advocacy did not stop there. She was a part of the first class action lawsuit filed to reform the state’s medical treatment of incarcerated women. Shumate’s activism is one of the reasons CDCR implemented changes to its health care system and added self-help programs throughout its institutions.
Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project at UnCommon Law in Oakland, CA is also a woman of note. Both earned pardons from California’s governors and have blazed a pathway for other system-impacted women. Burton started a successful reentry program for women returning home who need services. Kruzan used the experience of her traumatizing parole board hearing to help others going through the hearing process find a support network.
These women used their “second chance” to become leaders in criminal justice reform, and promote healing and care in a justice system that can be harsh.
“I wish California’s parole board procedures were rooted in a therapeutic model with values rooted in healing, restoration, dignity and safety for all,” Kruzan wrote in the Women’s Issue of Wall City magazine, a quarterly publication of San Quentin News.
“The parole process for me, as a survivor of violent crimes, as an offender who committed an act of violence, as a woman of color sentenced to life without parole, held a belief through re-humanizing what one may be afraid of, healing happens on many levels and we can redesign our institutions to reflect dignity, safety and compassion as we aim for community wellness,” she wrote.
All these women’s voices and activities have served not just women, but society at large. We as a nation need to celebrate all these system-impacted women as the “champions” and “game changers” they are, and honor them throughout this month alongside all the other great American women.
“We work on cultivating ‘Change-Makers’ for the next seven generations by improving the health and well-being of the communities we come from,” said Tina Curiel-Allen, a formerly incarcerated individual and Communications Specialist for Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement. “Our timeline and trajectory is much different than other traditional students, activists, etc., but that only makes us more valuable.
“We know the meaning of struggle on a survival level; beyond the page and into our lives. That kind of knowledge cannot be taught. While it is tiring work, it is absolutely necessary. We are who will help create new futures for the next generations. That is why we fight, why we must persevere.”