“Twenty States by 2020” is a campaign to help pass the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act” across the nation. The campaign is being led by the #Cut50 organization and its campaign director, Topeka Sam, who was formerly incarcerated. Sam served time in federal facilities on the East Coast. The campaign has been successful in passing the legislation in seven states, including California, Sam said.
“Women have to prove they had used the sanitary pads that they were issued before they can receive new ones,” Sam said. “This is so degrading — you have women taking bags of used sanitary napkins to a guard for verification.”
“The choice of buying toothpaste or tampons shouldn’t have to be a choice,” Sam said. “And the women lack supportive rehabilitative programs. I see men’s visiting rooms packed and that’s not the case for the women.”
The campaign asks states to mandate that correctional officers receive trauma identification training. The majority of women in prison are sexual assault survivors, but in many states male guards can strip search women and supervise them in showers and bathrooms, according to the campaign pamphlet.
“We want male officers to announce themselves in areas where women are unclothed,” said Sam. “We prefer them not to be there, period.”
Sam partnered with the California coalition that included Amika Mota from the Young Women’s Freedom Center and Miana McKnight, Cirese LaBerge, Norma and Shonique from the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) to get the legislation passed in the state.
“We support the organizations around the country that are already doing the work,” Sam said. “We provide them with resources like grant funds, media support and training.
“We have an ambassador in every state to draft bills, because each state has different needs,” she added.
She entered San Quentin’s newsroom jet-lagged after just arriving from New York, but her spirits ran high for the work she is doing.
“In Trinidad some women sit in prison 10 to 15 years without being convicted,” Sam said. “There are three women to a cell and there is no bathroom, just a bucket in the corner. There are also no phones.”
Sam also tackles women’s reentry needs. She founded HOPE HOUSE NYC and The Ladies of Hope Ministries to provide safe housing for women and girls recently released from prison. She has expanded HOPE HOUSE to Trinidad.
“We ask the women what they want to do with their life and we help them with that. It’s very rewarding to know you are impacting someone’s life.”
Sam noted there are still 13 states to go to reach the “20 States by 2020” to bring a sense of dignity to the mothers, sisters and daughters that languish behind bars.
“We have to not only address systemic issues to incarceration, such as poverty, but the mental state where the women dare to dream again,” Sam said. “I’m proud to be a part of #Cut50 and work with Van Jones and Jessica Jackson- Sloan. We share the same ‘by any means necessary’ approach.”