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“To Be Free Is to Free Others”: Formerly Incarcerated Women Urge Decarceration

The fight to free women and end mass incarceration is long and ongoing, but these activists aren’t giving up.

Avis Lee holds a banner for Let's Get Free, the Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee which helped with her fight for freedom and with which she now organizes to free others.

Part of the Series

“We have a long way to go to bring justice to all the individuals who were harmed by the ‘tough on crime,’ zero-tolerance legislation passed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” says Amy Povah, founder and director of CAN-DO Justice through Clemency, which advocates for people imprisoned on federal drug sentences.

“Many people we are advocating for have served over 25 years and many are elderly and need a second chance,” Povah told Truthout.

In 1991, Povah was sentenced to 24 years and four months for conspiracy related to her then-husband’s ecstasy dealing. (He fully cooperated and named his wife as part of the conspiracy in exchange for six years in a German prison.) Povah was granted clemency in 2000 by then-President Bill Clinton and vowed to continue fighting to free the many women still imprisoned under the same drug war policies.

The fight promises to be a long one: The United States currently incarcerates 190,600 women and girls (not including trans women or girls in male facilities). Approximately 16,000 women are in federal jails and prisons; of those, nearly half (or 7,200 women) are incarcerated for drug convictions. Another 77,000 have been sentenced to state prison while 84,000 languish in local jails.

But both behind bars — and after release — incarcerated women have been fighting to free themselves and each other.

On April 24, Povah was one of an estimated 2,000 formerly incarcerated people, family members and advocates from across the U.S. who converged on Washington, D.C. under the demand “Free Her.”

Amy Povah of CAN-Do Clemency holding a sign for Michelle West, currently serving two life sentences in federal prison for drug conspiracy. West was recently transferred from FCI Dublin, which officials abruptly closed in mid-April, to FCI Waseca in Minnesota.
Amy Povah of CAN-Do Clemency holding a sign for Michelle West, currently serving two life sentences in federal prison for drug conspiracy. West was recently transferred from FCI Dublin, which officials abruptly closed in mid-April, to FCI Waseca in Minnesota.

Ten years earlier, the United States incarcerated over 222,000 women and girls. That same year, Andrea James and approximately 300 other formerly incarcerated women, family members and advocates rallied in D.C. to make the same demand of then-President Barack Obama. That rally was the genesis of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women, which grew into a nationwide network working to end female incarceration.

By the time he left office, Obama had granted 1,715 commutations — or shortening of prison sentences. Of those, 101 were women. And the network of individuals and organizations working to end mass incarceration — and to ensure that the voices of women and girls were heard — continued to grow.

“We Have a Long Way to Go”

The movement calling for clemency for women started small.

“Back in 2004, I started standing outside the White House alone with posters from women I knew from [FCI] Dublin,” Amy Povah told Truthout.

Slowly, however, others joined her in front of the White House. In 2006, she attended a D.C. rally where she was one of 100 people demanding freedom for people serving draconian drug war sentences.

“While I’m sad we are still fighting this monster in 2024 I am so proud of the council for organizing the most significant event I’ve witnessed since I was released in 2000!” she said, reflecting on last month’s march and rally. “I was moved to tears walking together, shoulder to shoulder with women and men — some I’ve known for a long time and some people I just met or knew on Facebook. To see the strollers, the children, the quilts, the unity, the cheering and chanting, I’m tearing up again!”

Minutes before advocates began the mile-long march from the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church to Freedom Plaza on April 24, the White House released a list of 11 pardons and five commutations granted that day by President Biden. Two of those commutations reduced the sentences of women convicted of drug conspiracy.

Children and caregivers leading the FreeHer march.
Children and caregivers leading the FreeHer march.

Showing What Else Is Possible

While many of the groups continue to prioritize pushing clemency on the state and federal levels, they are also strategizing to shrink prisons in other ways, including mounting campaigns to stop new jails and prisons and increasing resources to reduce poverty and violence in the neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by policing and prisons.

“If I didn’t have people advocating for me, I wouldn’t be out.”

Andrea James, director and co-founder of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, told Truthout that, in the coming months, her group will continue to prioritize clemencies — both on the federal and state level. Another priority is their Reimagining Communities initiative, a community organizing model in several neighborhoods hit hardest by incarceration and violence to identify how to stop incarceration and increase resources that allow these communities to thrive.

At the same time, organizers in Massachusetts have been fighting the construction of a new women’s prison. Those organizers include women inside MCI-Framingham, the state’s sole women’s prison. Opened in 1877, the nation’s oldest functioning women’s prison has long been physically falling apart, prompting the state to plan for a new women’s prison at the cost of $50 million.

Women currently in MCI-Framingham have also vocally opposed the plan. This past January, women testified virtually at a legislative hearing pressing lawmakers for medical parole, elder parole, and other ways to release women from prison.

Andrea James, co-founder and director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, at the FreeHer march.
Andrea James, co-founder and director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, at the FreeHer march.

“There’s a much less costly option” than building a new $50 million prison, testified Christen Longley from Framingham. “It is getting people into alternative housing programs.” She also pushed for the increased use of medical parole which, in Massachusetts, can be granted to people with terminal illnesses or permanent incapacitation.

That’s how 70-year-old Diane was released after over three decades in prison. (Diane asked that her full name not be published.) Since her release, she has been involved in advocacy against the new women’s prison, for more women to be released under medical parole, and for more programs and reentry resources.

“I have a lot of sisters in there who are very sick,” she told Truthout. Although some are in their 70s and 80s, they continue to be denied medical parole.

At the same time, family members, formerly incarcerated women and advocates have directly appealed to lawmakers. They have rallied outside the governor’s house, pressured potential architecture firms not to bid on the prison contract, and lobbied lawmakers.

“Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women have managed to stop the state’s plan to build a $50 million women’s prisons for four years now,” said Mallory Hanora, executive director of Families for Justice as Healing. “And we will never let it be built.”

Organizers are pushing for a bill that would impose a five-year moratorium on building any new jails or prisons throughout Massachusetts. The legislature passed the bill last session, but then-Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed it. This year, advocates are once again pushing the bill — and pressuring Gov. Maura Healey to sign it.

“We’re in the state with the oldest operating women’s prison in the United States,” Hanora continued. “We should be the first state to have no state prison for women. And our Reimagining Communities work is creating models and showing what else is possible.”

Formerly incarcerated New Yorkers holding a quilt with names of those seeking clemency.
Formerly incarcerated New Yorkers holding a quilt with names of those seeking clemency.

“I Want to Bring Them Home Just Like I Came Home”

Ten years ago, Avis Lee had no idea about the nascent movement calling for mass clemencies, particularly for women. Lee had been incarcerated in Pennsylvania since 1979. At age 18, Lee was the lookout while her brother and his friend robbed, then fatally shot, a man. Although she had not shot the man — and had even flagged down a bus driver to help save him — Lee was convicted of felony murder, or a death that occurs during the commission of a felony. In Pennsylvania, a felony murder conviction triggers an automatic life without parole sentence.

Pennsylvania has 5,100 people serving life without parole, the second-highest in the nation. Over one-fifth have been convicted of felony murder and 70 percent, like Lee, are Black.

In 2014, Lee had no idea that formerly incarcerated women were converging in Washington, D.C. under the rallying cry “Free Her.” But from behind bars, she was pursuing her own path to freedom.

Kelly Savage's life without parole sentence was commuted in 2017. She was paroled in 2018.
Kelly Savage’s life without parole sentence was commuted in 2017. She was paroled in 2018.

Two years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that automatic life without parole sentences for juveniles, or those who had been younger than age 18, were unconstitutional. Lee filed a petition with the Pennsylvania courts arguing that the same impulsivity and lack of maturity should also apply to 18-year-olds, hoping that her own life without parole decision would be struck down. Ultimately, the court dismissed her complaint.

Just as the president can grant clemency to people in federal prisons, governors have the power to commute the sentences of those in state prisons. That’s what happened to Lee — in 2021, then-Gov. Tom Wolf granted her clemency. She was 59 years old.

Since leaving prison, she has thrown herself into advocating to end both extreme sentences and extreme prison conditions. “I’ve been out here advocating in Harrisburg [the Pennsylvania state capitol]; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Maryland; and anywhere I can go,” she told Truthout. “I’m advocating against life without parole and solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is torture. When some of our citizens make mistakes, we have to forgive them and let them come back and be part of this society so we can all heal and be whole together.”

“I get invigorated when I am around all these powerful women who are healing themselves and being of service to others.”

In California, Kelly Savage-Rodriguez had also been sentenced to life without parole after her husband killed her 3-year-old son. She refused to accept that she would die in prison and fought to get out of prison. In 2017, then-Gov. Jerry Brown commuted her sentence, making her eligible for parole. She appeared before the parole board and, after 23 years in prison, was released in November 2018.

Throughout her incarceration, she received support from the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an abolitionist group that works with women incarcerated in California. Volunteers visited regularly, supported her legal appeals and alerted her attorneys to the possibility of commutation. Now, Savage-Rodriguez is the coordinator for the coalition’s Drop LWOP (life without parole) campaign, pushing to end life without parole in the state of California.

She’s advocating not only to end LWOP but also that people sentenced to LWOP no longer be excluded from resentencing relief laws, such as youth offenses and elderly parole. She’s also part of a coalition pushing California’s women’s prisons to stop the rampant sexual abuse.

The call to “Free Her” remains personal. “If I didn’t have people advocating for me, I wouldn’t be out,” she told Truthout.

Stanley Bellamy received clemency from New York Gov. Kathy Hochul. On April 24, 2023, after serving 37.5 years, the 61-year-old was released from prison. On his one-year freedom anniversary, he boarded a pre-dawn bus from New York City to join the Free Her march.

Massachusetts advocates march to Freedom Plaza.
Massachusetts advocates march to Freedom Plaza.

“Throughout my incarceration, women have always been supportive of the men,” he told Truthout. “It’s time for us to reciprocate and be out here and support them. I want to bring them home just like I came home. I want them to have the same opportunity.”

While incarcerated, Bellamy helped advocate for an elder parole bill. If passed, incarcerated people who are 55 years or older and had served at least 15 years would automatically be eligible for parole. For Bellamy, who had initially been sentenced to 85 years to life, the bill would mean the difference between a second chance at life or a certain death behind bars.

Working with Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), he updated others in prison about the bills and encouraged them to urge their loved ones to call lawmakers.

Now an organizer with RAPP, Bellamy continues to advocate for the bill, which has remained in committee since January. As part of a clemency collective of New Yorkers whose sentences were commuted, he and other recipients have pressed the governor to fulfill her promise to grant clemencies on a rolling basis and to grant more commutations to people who have otherwise been sentenced to die in prison.

“To Be Free Is to Free Others”

“It was the National Council [for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls] that taught me that clemency was possible,” said Fox Rich of Louisiana.

In September 1997, Rich, her husband Rob and his nephew Ontario were arrested for an attempted bank robbery. Shortly after giving birth to their twin boys, Rich was sent to prison where she served three and a half years. Her husband Rob was sentenced to 61 years.

In 2016, Fox Rich connected with the National Council and learned about their demands for mass clemency. “It was the National Council that taught me clemency was possible,” she recounted. “If they can free women under President Obama, I know I can restore my family.”

She returned to Louisiana and convinced her husband to apply for clemency. He received it and, on September 20, 2018, returned home to his wife and their six children.

But the Rich family did not stop with their own freedom. “What the National Council taught me is to be free is to free others,” said Fox Rich.

Rob and Fox Rich at Freedom Plaza.
Rob and Fox Rich at Freedom Plaza.

The following year, they launched Participatory Defense NOLA, a community organizing model in which people facing charges and their loved ones learn how to participate in their own legal defense. They also organized to free Louisiana’s longest-serving incarcerated woman, Gloria Williams, who has been sentenced to life without parole in 1971 when her co-defendant accidentally shot a store owner during a robbery. They advocated that then-Gov. John Bel Edwards commute Williams’s sentence and, when he did, organized support for her appearance before the parole board. In 2023, after 51 years in prison, 76-year-old Williams walked out of prison. This past October, their efforts resulted in Ontario’s release.

Still, more than 4,000 people are serving life without parole in Louisiana. And organizers will face an uphill battle in the coming years.

Within weeks of taking office, the state’s current governor, Jeff Landry, signed a spate of bills rolling back the state’s 2017 criminal justice reforms, allowing the state to once again prosecute 17-year-olds in adult court, mete out longer sentences for certain convictions, expand execution measures and curtail parole.

Members of the Rich family weren’t the only advocates in D.C. from a state that proudly espoused tough-on-crime legislation. Michelle Daniel Jones flew into D.C. from Indiana, another state where politicians openly oppose shrinking the prison system. Still, she has not let the state’s conservatism discourage her.

Daniel Jones spent more than 20 years at the Indiana Women’s Prison. There, she and other women dug into the prison’s archives to research the facility’s sordid history, which later became an anthology. She was also part of a group of incarcerated women who wanted to create safe housing for women leaving prison, resulting in the housing program Constructing Our Futures.

Still, pushing for decarceration — or even improved prison conditions — in a conservative evangelical state can be lonely. “I get invigorated when I am around all these powerful women who are healing themselves and being of service to others,” she told Truthout.

“This is my first march,” she continued. While she attended protests after the police killing of George Floyd, she had never before marched. “My grandmother marched on Washington with King. I am living history by being here.”

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