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Organizing for Change

Women's Anti-prison Activism

When Joanne Archibald was a pregnant college student, she was arrested on drug charges. She remained out on bail until her son was seven months old, and was then sent to federal prison for a year. Even though she was one of the lucky few allowed brief visits with her children while incarcerated, the separation was devastating.

Today, nineteen years later, Joanne Archibald directs the Advocacy Project at Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers. One program of the Advocacy Project is Visible Voices, a support and empowerment group run by and for formerly incarcerated women. In support groups, women tell their stories, learn from one another, and shed the invisibility of former and current women prisoners.

The Advocacy Project believes that incarcerating women is an inappropriate and ineffective response to profound social problems such as poverty, racism, childhood sexual abuse, and mental illness. The project works to change laws and policies regarding family preservation and reproductive rights, and it advocates for alternatives to incarceration. In 2000, it convinced the Illinois legislature to prohibit the shackling of women prisoners while in labor.

The Advocacy Project recently collaborated with Beyondmedia Education to produce two videos on the experiences of women in prison. "What We Leave Behind," which was created entirely by formerly incarcerated women, and "Voices in Time" are available from Beyondmedia Education

The Advocacy Project is one organization working to address the problems faced by women prisoners. Below is a list of several other such organizations, as well as resources for learning more about the conditions and realities of women in prison.

  • Power Inside  Power Inside is a program in Baltimore, Maryland that works with women who are currently, or were previously, incarcerated. The project offers group counseling, literacy tutoring, stress management, pen-pal support, and other programs designed to teach leadership skills and empower women to take control of their lives.

    The program director and founder of the group, Jacqueline Roberge, is a young woman whose own life has been affected by  childhood trauma and drugs. In 2001 she and several volunteers began running groups inside the local jail. The women in the groups talked about their experiences with drugs and prostitution.

    Power Inside is now a non-profit, grant funded organization that has two full-time workers and a host of volunteers. In addition to the support groups, Power Inside operates a speaker’s bureau and works with families of incarcerated women and other individuals and organizations to promote change within the prison system.

  • Justice Now  Based in Oakland, California, Justice Now‘s mission is to end violence against women and stop the imprisonment of women. The organization provides legal services to women in prison, and serves as the first teaching law clinic in the country focused exclusively on the needs of incarcerated women.

    Justice Now advocates decreasing the United State’s reliance on mass  incarceration to address deep social problems. The organization is involved in community organizing,  education, and exploring and supporting alternatives to incarceration.

  • Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York   Created in 1991, the Correctional Association’s Women in Prison Project is dedicated to addressing the effects of New York State’s criminal justice policies on women and their families.  The Project advocates to reduce society’s reliance on prison as a solution to the social and economic problems that drive crime and to expand alternative to incarceration programs where a woman can stay connected to her family, take responsibility for her actions, address underlying issues, and become a productive member of society. 

    Under the Correctional Association’s legislative mandate, the Project has the unique authority to monitor conditions inside women’s correctional facilities in New York State.  Additionally, the Project performs research and policy analysis; writes reports and policy papers; manages a leadership training program; conducts public education and legislative advocacy; and coordinates the Coalition for Women Prisoners, a statewide alliance of more than 900 individuals from over 100 organizations dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system as it affects women. The Coalition and its four sub-committees – Conditions of Confinement, Incarcerated Mothers, Re-entry, and Violence Against Women – meet monthly in New York City.

  • The Real Cost of Prisons Project This project brings together prison/justice policy activists with political economists to create popular education workshops and materials which explore both the immediate and long-term costs of incarceration on the individual, her/his family, community and the nation.

  • National Advocates For Pregnant Women  This advocacy organization works to secure the human and civil rights, health, and welfare of pregnant and parenting women while protecting children from punitive and misguided state policies. They examine how "fetal rights" are being used to undermine the legal status of pregnant women.

  • Women’s Prison Association  A service and advocacy organization committed to helping women with criminal justice histories

  • Families Against Mandatory Minimums  Federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws set minimum sentences that a judge must impose, and prevent judges from considering other relevant factors, such as the defendant’s role in the offense or likelihood of committing a future offense. FAMM is a national organization working against mandatory minimums and for fair and proportionate sentencing laws.

  • Legal Services for Prisoners with Children  An advocacy organization that fights for the civil rights and empowerment of incarcerated parents, children, family members and people at risk for incarceration. Their focus is on women prisoners and their families.

  • WORTH (Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH )  An advocacy/consultant group comprised of formerly and incarcerated women, WORTH brings the voices of these women to public conversations and policy debates.

  • A New Way of Life   A Los Angeles non-profit with a core that helps women and girls break the cycle of entrapment in the criminal justice system by providing housing and reentry support and advocating for the rights of prisoner.

Written by: Ellen Miller-Mack and Lois Ahrens
Last revised: October 2010

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