On Tuesday, March 29, 2019 Friends of Guest House hosted “Women’s Perspectives on Criminal Justice” a panel discussion on issues related to women’s involvement in the criminal justice system. Four Friends of Guest House alumnae shared their personal experiences in some of Virginia’s jails and Prisons.
The panel was moderated by Catherine Read of Read. Think. Act. and more than 60 community members attended to learn more about what it’s actually like for women to be incarcerated.
Virginia House Delegate Kaye Kory spoke at the panel. Delegate Kory encouraged the audience to get involved in the legislative process by visiting Delegates in Richmond when in session.
Heidi, who graduated from Friends of Guest House in 2018, described her experience of detoxing in a Virginia jail. She said, “they put you in a room with people who are mentally ill, people who are suicidal, all together. You get a turtle shell—it looks kind of like an umpire’s vest. That’s it, no clothes, that’s all you get, you’re pretty much naked. You stay in this room with a one-way mirror, and the guards watch you in there, essentially naked. There’s vomit and urine on the floor. You sleep on a boat (inflatable mattress) on the floor. They don’t feed you with utensils. It’s so dehumanizing.”
Catherine encouraged those in the audience interested in learning more about the opioid crisis to read Dopesick.
Sydney was pregnant while she was incarcerated in a Virginia jail. Shackled when she gave birth, Sydney only had a few hours with her newborn before she was returned to the jail. She described her experience with post-partum depression, and what she felt was over-medication in response to her symptoms.
Helenia shared her struggle to access adequate healthcare while she was incarcerated in a Virginia prison. While incarcerated, Helenia learned she had Hepatitis C. She was told by the prison staff that the treatment was too expensive and she would never be granted access to it. Helenia said, “I wrote everybody I could think of to tell them what was going on. I wrote the ACLU, the Governor, the President, I even wrote Homeland Security.” Helenia’s advocacy paid off, and she was the first woman to her knowledge to receive the treatment for Hepatitis C while incarcerated in a Virginia prison. Helenia graduated from Friends of Guest House in 2017, and this spring she will graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree from Marymount University.
Helenia also described what it’s like to be transported as a prisoner. Helenia needed to visit the hospital while she was incarcerated. She was shackled at her wrists, ankles and waist and locked in a small cage inside the back of a locked van. Each trip in the van was terrifying and made her feel claustrophobic. Helenia referenced the two women who drowned in their prison transport van in Septmeber 2018. Helenia acknowledged that could easily happen to anyone in a prison transport vehicle. She said, “If something happens to this van, there’s nothing anyone can do for me. I would die here.”
The fourth panelists, Mick, was incarcerated in a local jail. She painted a vivid picture of what it really feels like to lose your freedom. Mick longed for sunlight, and the entire time she was incarcerated she never saw the grass. The only times she ever went outside she was surrounded by concrete—concrete on the ground, concrete walls up higher than you can see over.
Catherine Read acknowledged, “We have no idea what’s going on here, how women are being treated while incarcerated.” She encouraged the audience to read Becoming Ms. Burton to learn more.
We are so proud of the four panelists for sharing their personal experiences in order to educate the community and improve the circumstances of women who are still incarcerated. We hope you understand the intense need for criminal justice reform in Virginia and programs like Friends of Guest House. You can support Friends of Guest House by making a donation here.