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Prisoners’ Families Organize to Resist Incarceration and Its Costs

Increasingly, women relatives of prisoners are organizing to challenge high costs and fight the laws that fuel mass incarceration.

For the past 27 years, Patricia Vickers has felt the cost of her son’s life sentence. He spent six years incarcerated in Greene County, Pennsylvania, nearly 330 miles from Philadelphia where Vickers lives. She visited him every other month. Each visit cost her several hundred dollars.

“It was $20 or $25 for gas each way,” she told Truthout. She often received speeding tickets as she raced to get to the prison before it began its 11:30 am count, in which staff members count every prisoner to ensure that no one is missing. If she arrived even two minutes late, she was forced to wait until 1 pm for her visit. So Vickers sped down the highways, reducing the 7.5-hour drive to six hours. Nearly every time, she was pulled over and issued a $110 speeding ticket.

Now, her son is in a prison three hours away. Vickers visits three times a year, spending $100 on gas. She also spends approximately $30 buying snacks from the prison vending machine. Visitors are not allowed to bring cash; instead, they purchase a card for $2.50 and add money to it. The card is reusable but if a visitor loses it, they also lose any money placed on the card. In addition to the cost of visiting, there are other expenses.

“The phone bill used to be crazy,” Vickers said, recounting that accepting collect calls from the prison would add $80 to each month’s bill. “I had to get the phone turned off a couple of times, so I could just catch up on the costs.” Vickers also sends her son money each month. In the early years, she would send $10 or $20, whatever she could scrape out of her budget. “I tried to help him, but I had another child, two older sons and grandkids,” she said. “Sometimes I’d say, ‘I’m sorry son.'” Now that her youngest child is an adult and out of the house, Vickers sends her son $50 each month, a practice known as “putting money on his books,” paying a surcharge of $5.95 per month to the prison services corporation JPay each time she does so.

One in three families reported going into debt to pay for phone calls or visitation.

Across the United States, family members have similar stories of the financial costs of their loved ones’ incarceration. In September 2015, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together and Research Action Design released “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families.” The report, which includes interviews, surveys and focus groups with formerly incarcerated people and family members in 14 states, examines the financial and emotional costs of incarceration. Not surprisingly, it found that women bear the brunt of these costs. In other words, Vickers’ experience is more the rule than the exception.

Vickers has never gone into debt, but other families have not been as fortunate. The report found that the average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees alone was $13,607. Given that more than half of those caught in the criminal legal system live at or below the poverty line (defined as $11,770 or less per year) and over two-thirds of those in jail report incomes of less than $12,000 per year before their incarceration, these fines and fees place a huge burden on their family members.

Families also take on the costs associated with incarceration, such as sending money, paying often exorbitant costs for phone calls and traveling long distances to visit. One in three families reported going into debt to pay for phone calls or visitation.

“Who Pays?” also explores the emotional tolls of having a loved one behind bars. Diana Zuñiga has been visiting her uncle and father in prison since she was 5 years old. As a child, she recalled visits as big family events, full of joy at seeing her loved ones. But, while they did their best to hide negative emotions from her, she also remembers the sadness, hopelessness and guilt under the surface in her family. When she was in fourth grade, Zuñiga began to realize that incarceration wasn’t the norm for everyone. “I began making up professions for my father because I felt the shame of having an incarcerated parent,” she told Truthout. “It wasn’t until after high school that I really started coming to terms with their imprisonment and that it was okay that I loved them. I started understanding them as human beings who made mistakes and their mistakes look like this.”

The report also explains how criminalization, and the ensuing costs, impact trans and gender-nonconforming women. As a Black trans teenager in Louisiana, Milan Nicole Sherry had been arrested several times for sex work. “Queer and trans youth don’t have a lot of job options or resources, so we turn to sex work as survival,” she told Truthout. Sherry was one of 10 siblings; her mother’s sole income was from disability benefits. Although Sherry’s bond was set between $150 and $200, she explained that “to bond me out of jail would mean taking away from my siblings’ food, clothes, needs, and I wasn’t going to do that.” Instead, each time she was arrested, Sherry spent two to three weeks in jail before she was released with credit for time served. But, she noted, many queer and trans youth no longer have family connections at all, having been kicked out. Instead, she explained, “We build families within our communities.”

These families and these communities are fighting back. They’re not only challenging the high costs associated with incarceration, but also organizing to change the laws that send their loved ones to prison and keep them locked away.

In 2001, Patricia Vickers received a call from poet and activist Walidah Imarisha, who was reaching out to family members to create the Human Rights Coalition to organize families to fight against abuses within the prison system while advocating for policies that reduce incarceration. At first, Vickers was reluctant to attend a meeting. “I didn’t really understand what was going on,” she explained. “I was ashamed.” After several missed meetings and follow-up calls, she showed up at a meeting. There, family members talked openly about having loved ones in prison and answered letters from people inside.

“I realized I had somebody to talk to,” Vickers recalled. “I didn’t have to be ashamed of loving my son in prison. I didn’t have to defend him to anyone.”

“We try to create legislation by looking at how our loved ones are impacted.”

She kept returning, helping to answer letters first from the men whose families were involved in the Human Rights Coalition and, as word spread, from many others incarcerated across Pennsylvania. In 2010, after a call-in campaign succeeded in getting Vickers’ son transferred from Greene to a different prison, the Human Rights Coalition formed an emergency response network in which members and supporters were mobilized to call the prison whenever abuse was reported. “We found that when we called the prison about any one individual, the abuse would stop,” Vickers explained.

Now, Vickers and other family members are fighting to end Pennsylvania’s practice of life without parole, a policy they call “death by incarceration.” In June 2015, the Human Rights Coalition helped launch the Campaign to End Death by Incarceration. Currently, Pennsylvania has 5,100 people sentenced to life; nearly 500 were juveniles when sentenced. The campaign hopes to change that, first by raising public awareness and then by pushing for legislation that allows people to apply for parole.

In New Orleans, Milan Nicole Sherry and members of the grassroots group BreakOUT! are fighting practices and policies that funnel queer and trans youth of color into jails and prisons. In 2011, Sherry was one of five trans youth who, recognizing the need for a space of their own in New Orleans, founded BreakOUT! The group’s first campaign, called “We Deserve Better,” challenged police interactions with queer and trans youth. “We were seeing illegal stop-and-frisks, particularly for trans women who were targeted and arrested as sex workers for being in a ‘known prostitution area,'” Sherry said, adding that police frequently misgendered youth, groped them to determine their genitalia and propositioned them for sex. BreakOUT! members developed a policy prohibiting this harassment, groping and abuse. After nearly a year of advocacy and organizing, BreakOUT! succeeded: The New Orleans Police Department adopted the policy.

To ensure that the voices and stories of queer and trans youth were included in “Who Pays?” Sherry also facilitated having BreakOUT! members share their experiences. “Incarceration isn’t just an LGBT experience. It’s not just a heterosexual experience. We wanted to bridge those gaps,” she said. By sharing their stories, BreakOUT! members intend to bring more visibility and awareness of their issues to the larger society. And, instead of waiting for social justice gains to trickle down to their members, BreakOUT! centers the experiences of trans women of color. “If things get better for trans women, then things will be better for the rest of society,” Sherry said. Of course, improvement is an uphill battle. As of October 2015, 20 trans women have been murdered in the United States, a number that doubled since May 2015 when BreakOUT! erected a bulletin board over New Orleans’ Broad Street Bridge.

“For family members, organizing is a way to do something and not just sit back and wait.”

Diana Zuñiga is also organizing to end the laws that rip families like hers apart. She is now the statewide organizer for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a coalition of over 70 organizations that aims to reduce the number of people in prison as well as the number of prisons and jails throughout the state. Her work with CURB brings her in contact with people who have been directly impacted, whether through their own incarceration or through a family member. “We try to create legislation by looking at how our loved ones are impacted and how to broaden it to affect others,” she explained.

On October 11, 2015, Zuñiga, CURB members and family members of incarcerated people throughout the state were able to celebrate a legislative victory. That Sunday morning, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law SB219, expanding access to the state’s Alternative Custody Program, which allows people in prison to complete their sentences under home confinement in order to care for their families. As reported earlier in Truthout, three years after the program was implemented, fewer than 200 people had been approved for early release. Co-sponsored by CURB and advocacy organization Justice Now, SB219 specifies that a person’s medical or psychiatric condition can no longer be the sole basis for exclusion, requires that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation assist Alternative Custody Program participants with medical coverage enrollment and allows applicants to appeal a denial.

“This is a major victory for people in prison with dependent family members. It supports family reunification,” Zuñiga declared in a celebratory press release later that day. “We want to use this momentum to push for people to be able to participate in the program regardless of conviction offense, and to push counties to implement family reunification strategies as well. Now is the time to continue working for incarcerated people and their children.” To do so, she told Truthout, “We need to listen to family members and focus on policies that will bring people home. We need to amplify the voices of those impacted.”

Across the country, Vickers shares that sentiment. “For family members, organizing is a way to do something and not just sit back and wait. But as long as we don’t say anything, it’s going to keep on. From the cradle to the prison, then back to the community, then back to the prison.”