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Advocates take to the street, raise their voices in support of incarcerated women

26th December 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Isaac Stein
Contributing Writer

Dolfinette Martin is a prison reform activist with an unwavering focus on women’s rights. She has the poised, steady voice of a grassroots organizer, but it softens when she tells the story of Pamela Winn.

Winn was six weeks pregnant when she began her five-year sentence in a Georgia federal prison for bank fraud. Early into her time, she tripped and fell while climbing aboard a bus in her ankle bracelets. Days later she found spots of blood.

As a nurse, she knew it could be serious and over the next 14 weeks made multiple requests for medical care. She never received the attention she needed, and at 20 weeks pregnant she miscarried while shackled to her bed in solitary confinement, lying in a pool of blood.

“It’s barbaric,” says Martin. “No male will ever understand the impact of that. And there are so many Pamelas.”

The incarceration rate for men in Louisiana is roughly 14 times larger than that for women. But the number of women in jail and prison has grown at a rate far greater than that of men during the past four decades, especially for women of color. In Louisiana, the number of men in prison decreased by 4.5 percent from 2014 to 2015, while the number of women in prison only fell by 1.4 percent.

Yet issues specific to women have been routinely pushed to the margins of the prison reform and abolition movements. Martin, the Lead Organizer for Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), is trying to change that.

Martin, the Lead Organizer for Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), is trying to change that. “Whatever room I’m in, women and girls will be talked about when it comes to mass incarceration,” she says.

Last Friday, VOTE, a New Orleans non-profit that advocates for the rights of people with convictions, hosted the first annual Formerly and Currently Incarcerated Women and Girls Day.

The day included a march on City Hall, where once-incarcerated women from California to Illinois to Florida shared their stories, demanded reform, and declared solidarity with the 200,000 women who remain behind bars today. The march began at The First 72+, which provides transitional housing for recently incarcerated men. “Don’t we need to see more of this type of housing for women?” Martin asked at the rally.

The march was combined with a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to bail out women awaiting trial before Christmas. One of the women VOTE was able to help had been in jail since September 20, unable to pay her $250 bond, Martin says.

The day also served as the kickoff event for VOTE’s 2018 campaign “to fight for the dignity of women and girls in the criminal justice system.”

Martin’s a compelling speaker, in part because she communicates with an authority that comes from personal experience within the criminal justice system.

She spent 12 years in and out of prison on various shoplifting charges. Her most recent charge landed her a seven-year sentence. By then, she was already a mother of five, and trying to remain an active parent was a constant struggle. All three of her sons were shot (non-fatally) while she was in prison, which she said was especially heart wrenching.

Two out of three incarcerated women are the mothers of minor children, and most of them are their child’s primary caregiver. One of the legislative items that VOTE will focus on next year would provide alternatives to incarceration for the primary caregivers of minor children.

Martin got out of prison in 2012, and like most released prisoners, she had no clue what to do next. The reentry training provided by the prison “was a joke.” She had no clothes, no basic toiletries, nothing at all to her name. She was constantly stressed about being a burden to family members who had already done so much for her while she was in prison.

Today, she prepares bags of toiletries and used clothes for women reentering society. “So they can have something of their own,” she explains.

Finding work was another struggle. Businesses are rarely enthusiastic about formerly incarcerated candidates and the State made almost no effort to help her become an active and constructive member of society. “It felt like they were saying ‘Just live until you die,’” she says.

Her entry into grassroots organizing began in 2016 at a reentry conference. “After sitting there for two hours, I heard the word ‘woman’ mentioned one time. And I lost it.” She expressed her frustration to Norris Henderson, the executive director of VOTE.

“Who’s talking for the women? Who’s taking for us?” she asked.

“Why don’t you do it?” Henderson returned.

Later that year, VOTE hired her and she immediately started working on an advocacy campaign for currently and formerly incarcerated women. She wanted to bring attention to the indignity forced upon women in prisons – being raped, enduring beatings and living under the constant gaze of male guards.

But she also wanted to shine a light on the trauma that women face prior to incarceration. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, 86 percent of incarcerated women are the survivors of sexual violence. Martin says that even that staggering statistic doesn’t capture the entire picture.

“Every woman that has been incarcerate has faced some kind of trauma way back when that she’s carried most of her life that’s ultimately led her to use substances so she wouldn’t feel that deep-rooted sense of pain and distrust and betrayal,” she says.

She also laments over the thousands of women who are incarcerated for defending themselves against abusive partners.

Ultimately, she is trying to illuminate the gauntlet of obstacles that face convicted women, a struggle that remains largely invisible to men and those outside the auspices of the criminal justice system.

“You just don’t think about all those things, and that’s alright,” she said at the rally. “You just don’t know. But I work every day to ensure women and girls are not forgotten.”

This article originally published in the December 25, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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