When Topeka Sam entered the prison system, she thought most women on the inside must have broken the law and deserved to be imprisoned. It didn’t take long for her to change her mind. During the 11 months that she was incarcerated before she entered a guilty plea, she witnessed — and experienced — some of the most harrowing moments of her life. Once she got out, she felt she had no choice but to do something about it.
“Even in that space, I had a privilege,” she told Tina Brown at the Women in the World Summit in New York on Friday, in a personal and political conversation about the criminal justice system in the United States. “I had to bring dignity back.”
From “dumpster diving” for a pair of panties to the humiliating and painful process of being transported from one site to another, Sam detailed her experience. She described how shackled women helped each other wipe after using the bathroom. She remembered being groped by shackled men as a field marshal pushed her to the back of a plane to relieve herself. She described standing in the pouring rain with men and women waiting to be moved from a bus to an aircraft. “The transport process was the most devastating part of my whole incarceration,” she said.
Sam has since become the director of the Dignity Campaign for #cut50, a national initiative to reduce the number of incarcerated people. She also co-founded the Hope House NYC, a place that welcomes women who have nowhere to go upon their release from prison. “When men come home from prison, where do they go? Usually to a woman. When a woman comes home, where does she go? Nowhere,” Sam said. She recently opened the first Hope House in the Bronx and plans to open more in every city.
Next to Sam on stage sat Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, another bipartisan organization working to reform the criminal justice system. The child of a doctor and stay-at-home mom in Kentucky, Harris grew up in a family affected by substance abuse, which motivated her to work towards improving conditions in prisons and restoring dignity for the incarcerated. “No one is immune from our broken justice system,” she said.
Harris emphasized the dangerous conditions in for-profit prisons, which are likely to have higher rates of overcrowding, prisoner abuse and violence. “You cannot be for criminal justice reform and also be for for-profit prisons. You can’t,” she said.
She lamented the fact that the #metoo movement hasn’t yet spread to incarcerated women, one of the most vulnerable populations. She thought perhaps it would.
Still, as a result of her work, Kentucky just passed the first dignity bill in the United States, which prohibits incarcerated women in labor from being shackled. As a mother herself, Harris was brought to tears as she imagined giving birth in handcuffs and not having the chance to hold her baby.
Sam and Harris both continue to push for more dignity bills across the country, warning that the explosion of incarcerated women is an epidemic that will ravage the United States. When 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers, they argued, the ripple effects will last for decades.
Brown ended the conversation with a definitive and simple directive: “The dignity bill. Remember it.”
Watch highlights and the full video of the conversation at the top of this story.
Additional reporting by Karen Compton.