The path into and out of incarceration is filled with hurdles, sometimes seemingly insurmountable, to women and the larger community that must be addressed, a panel of experts concluded during the 16th Annual Lois Zaas Memorial Advocacy Lecture last week. The panel included a former judge, a formerly incarcerated woman who is now pursuing her master’s degree and several civil rights and criminal defense advocates.
“When we started to think about how this event should be put together, it became clear that we really needed to cover all the pieces of incarceration – every step and every phase of the path through the criminal system,” said Jacqueline Greene who moderated the Nov. 21 panel at the National Council of Jewish Women event held at Temple Emanu El in Orange Village.
“That way we can all understand how this system functions and the effect that’s felt by families and children,” the civil rights and criminal defense attorney said.
Pretrial detention, bail reform
Retired Judge Ronald B. Adrine spoke on the effects of pretrial detention and said that he discovered near the end of his career that he had been perpetuating the harm of costly bails. He explained that bails had originally been created as a promise of return by an individual without any money involved, but that costly bails had led to higher pretrial detention.
“I became concerned not only that I’ve been doing it all wrong, but that everybody I knew that was doing my job had done it all wrong and that we had been ruining lives,” Judge Adrine said of being part of the system that put high prices on bails rather than trusting people to come back. “Not because we wanted to or because we were mean, evil or malicious people, but because of the fact that we were just doing what we did without really thinking about the consequences.”
Judge Adrine added that people detained pretrial are four times more likely to be given a prison sentence, and that 2.9 million women are incarcerated across the U.S. making them the fastest growing population behind bars.
As for the harm that pretrial detention can do, Judge Adrine said that if a woman is incarcerated and does not have support, her children may become wards of the county. Damage can be done within only three days of detention as a woman is absent from her job and may lose it. This damage may snowball into further problems, Judge Adrine explained.
“It’s a cascade of bad things that happen for short periods of incarceration for a whole lot of people who haven’t been convicted of anything,” he said. “And we end up making them criminals when we could have given them an opportunity to show that they had not even done anything wrong.”
As part of a 30-member task force, Judge Adrine has recommended to the Ohio Supreme Court that bail reforms be made along with pretrial risk assessments and other resources for judges to utilize on a case-by-case basis so that fewer people are detained pretrial.
A personal journey
Robyn Turner, who leads the Ohio Organizing Collaborative to organize groups focused on the liberation of black, brown and poor people, spoke from personal experience as a woman who had spent time in jail.
She and other incarcerated women were only able to interact with their children over the phone and through occasional visits where they weren’t allowed to touch or hug their children. Ms. Turner said one woman who was her friend had six children, all of whom were in the foster care system.
“It was just another area for her, in regard to having to get her children back, to kind of start her life again,” she said.
Several other panel members mentioned that Ohio law mandates that women remain shackled during childbirth. Between 5 percent and 10 percent of women are pregnant when they enter prison, according to panel members.
Ms. Turner said that though her experience was challenging, she was not pregnant when she entered prison and had the rare support of her mother to take care of her children and provide her with resources.
“When you have someone on the outside to support you, that’s half the fight,” Ms. Turner explained. “When you don’t have anyone on the outside fighting for you, you’re on your own.”
Upon her release, Ms. Turner said the difficulties weren’t over, as she had to reintegrate into her community. As a strong woman, she felt that she had to confine her strengths while incarcerated in order to protect herself, and had to learn to embrace her strength again when released.
Challenges of reentry
Crystal Bryant, director of the Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry, emphasized the need for her office to participate in creating permanent solutions rather than temporary ones. She said that Northeast Ohio offers help to those re-entering communities after incarceration, but those resources are not always used wisely.
“I made a decision three years ago that the investments we make as an office would be to divest in programs and invest in strategy,” she said. “We like to call ourselves the holder of the asset map.”
Because of structural racism based in capitalism, Ms. Bryant said, her office has tried to figure out ways around issues of finding jobs for people reentering the workforce. The Office of Reentry is now able to provide grants for people who wish to start their own business instead, providing an opportunity for long-term stability as they reenter their communities.
Speaking out about the system
Nikki Trautman, who is legal counsel at the Justice Collaborative, added that the justice system is deeply flawed. The justice system was conceived to keep people accountable for crimes through punishment so that they wouldn’t be inclined to repeat that misconduct, but the system presumes that people who engage in actions that are considered crimes do so in a rational way, she said.
“People do not engage in these behaviors out of rational decisions,” Ms. Trautman explained. “It is often rooted in poverty, substance use disorder, mental illness, trauma, abuse or desperation. You do not deter people from engaging in these in these behaviors that are rooted in those states of mind and conditions through mandatory minimums or long incarcerated sentences or the idea that they’re going to go to jail.”
Ms. Trautman emphasized that the system is not just broken, but also is functioning in a way that people in power have wanted it to so that they could stay in power. The idea of completely reinventing the justice system is a very large topic that requires a lot of contemplation, she said, but is an idea that should inform the solutions that citizens vote to adopt and pursue.
“The mindset [should be] that it is not going to be lawyers who fix this problem,” Ms. Trautman said. “It’s going to be people gathering together, joining their voices together and calling out some of these things that are not okay.”
Event co-chairwomen Janice Bilchik and Ellen Worthington suggested contacting local elected officials about Ohio Senate Bill 18, which would prohibit a pregnant woman in the criminal justice system from being shackled or otherwise restrained or confined during the third trimester, during labor or postpartum recovery.