We need criminal justice reform today.

We need criminal justice reform today.

Real Women, Real Voices provides female prisoners and their affected families with a forum to humanize incarcerated people and the issues they face. Yesterday, an event was held at the Columbia Law School where several women spoke on their experiences.

When grouped with clouds, rain, and chilling temperatures, midterms can easily rob students of the importance they place on family. I am a victim of this, as I too frequently prioritize my assignments and reading over a quick phone call home. But the words the women spoke at the Real Women, Real Voices reminded me of how fortunate I am to even have this choice. The panel was comprised of both currently incarcerated women (via Skype) and the children of people who grew up with a parent in prison. Having these two perspectives created both an interesting view and an intense reality check.

Michelle Miles is serving 30 years for conspiring to sell drugs. Sentenced at 27 years old, Michelle has spent “19 birthdays, 19 Christmases, and 19 New Years” away from the familiarity of her home and family. She used to support herself with employment at the best paying job in the prison. However, after being laid off, her income was reduced to $6 dollars a month. Being that basic commodities, such as soap, deodorant, and phone calls home are not provided for prisoners, Michelle frequently found herself having to choose between hearing her mother’s voice and being able to clean her body. Before she received help from Topeka (founder of Ladies of Hope Ministries), Michelle hadn’t spoken to her mother for extended periods of time.

Ebony Underwood shared her story as a child who grew up with her father in prison, describing the experience as an “ambiguous loss.” She told the audience “[her] father was present in that he gave [her] guidance and parented as well as he could from the inside, but missed pivotal milestones in [her] life, such as passing [her] driver’s license exam, [her] graduation, and the birth of [her] child.” This time has been frustrating because although her father is not dead, he is not accessible and actually present, creating a weird type of loss. She struggled with this for a while, and shared the first time she and her sister visited him. The amount of time it took them to overcome the emotions of seeing their father in orange and shackles consumed the duration of their visit.

Miquelle West (daughter of Michelle Miles) used a phrase that many others borrowed throughout the forum: individuals don’t go to prisons, families do. Often times, the criminal justice system overlooks the impact of incarcerated people on their partners and children, and because of the lack of sympathy Americans have for prisoners, the demand for reform comes from a small population of people. The Ladies of Hope Ministries does great work to implement change on the system through events and communication with The President. For more information, visit their website.

Real Women via Real Women, Real Voices flyer.