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Female Prisoners Could Benefit From Criminal Justice Measure


A bipartisan criminal justice bill is close to becoming law. The Senate passed the measure this week. President Trump has signaled he'll sign it if it passes in the House. This bill, among other things, would support one of the fastest-growing populations in American prisons. That would be women. According to the nonprofit The Sentencing Project, between 1980 and 2016, the number of women in U.S. prisons has gone up by more than 700 percent.

Topeka K. Sam experienced this firsthand. She served more than three years for a nonviolent drug offense. After her release, she founded The Ladies of Hope Ministries, which supports women as they re-enter society after prison. She was one of the activists pushing on Capitol Hill for this new legislation, and she joins us this morning.

Welcome to the program.

TOPEKA K. SAM: Thank you for having me. Good morning.

GREENE: Good morning to you. Can you tell me first what you see as the most important change in this bill that would help women who are incarcerated?

SAM: Of course. Well, first, I would like to just thank you for giving me this platform and allowing me to use my voice on this and on the bill. Ending shackling of women during child labor, I would say, is the No. 1 most important issue that will impact women; also making sure that women have access to proper hygiene products at no cost to them, like sanitary napkins and tampons - it's ridiculous we have to write this into federal legislation, but we do - making sure that children are unified with their families so that there's a 500-driving-mile radius so we're not separating children from their parents thousands of miles away from each other; and also making sure - I mean, I heard you talk about the number of women going inside of prisons. But...


SAM: ...Over 85 percent of women are survivors of sexual violence and abuse that are currently in our prison system in this country. And when we're in our areas in prison and you have the male guards coming in while we're undressed, it, you know, retriggers trauma. And so they no longer can do that without actually announcing themselves or not even coming in our spaces at all. And what's very exciting to me is also allowing formerly incarcerated people to go back into the prisons and give programming to each other because we know firsthand what we need to succeed in re-entry.

GREENE: Do you do that?

SAM: I do.

GREENE: And that didn't happen in the past? I mean, you needed a federal law to allow former prisoners to go in and actually work with current people who are incarcerated?

SAM: Absolutely. And it's - state to state, it differs, but in the federal system, it's been extremely difficult. Myself and Ivy Woolf-Turk with Project Liberation, we were just approved to go into the federal prison in Danbury to do a re-entry program through The Ladies of Hope Ministries. So we're really excited about that. But what's so disheartening is that it is difficult. For some reason, they think that, you know, we cannot offer good or better programming than the things that were offered when I was there, like knitting and crocheting, which is something else that the bill's also going to make sure that people are getting the type of program they need to have transferable skills to transform their lives.

GREENE: So I know you spent, as you mentioned, three years in prison. Can you just tell us what that was for, what you were convicted of?

SAM: Yeah, I was convicted of a drug conspiracy charge.

GREENE: All right. And what - can you tell us a little more? I mean, I just want people to know sort of why you got there.

SAM: No, of course. I mean, what led me through incarceration - prior to me being there, I was division chairperson for Amtrak Onboard Service Workers Union (ph) for New York and D.C. And I owned a business, and I wanted to open another one. And I had been engaged in selling drugs in my past. And I had got a phone call. And it was like, you know, you can make some quick money. So I said, you know, I can connect one person with another and make some money to open this other business. And it was a federal sting operation.

And so I ended up being in federal prison - or I started in the county jail and started really seeing what was happening and how drugs impacted communities and specifically women. And once I talked to the women and heard their testimonies and understood it was sexual violence and abuse; it was trauma; it was mental illness - it was all these things that did not have a treatment and so women were using drugs to cope with the pain and didn't have ways of healing. And I realized what I had done, and I took full responsibility. And I pled and ended up in prison.

GREENE: Well - in prison, what did you experience personally that might have led you to really push hard for this law?

SAM: Well, what I experienced was - for me, as it relates to the sanitary napkins and pads, I had uterine fibroids. And for those of us out there who understand what that is, we have very heavy cycles. And sometimes you can be on your cycle for a month. And so I would ask them for more sanitary napkins. And they told me that I had to quantify my periods, which means I had to take the used pads and put them in a brown paper bag and show them to a male officer so that they would give me more.

And though I had resources and I had family support - friends sent me money. I worked the No. 1 job at UNICOR, so I had a Grade 1 position, which afforded me the opportunity to purchase pads. They still put a limit on how many packages of pads I could buy. And so just me having to go through being dehumanized in that way - and then when I talked about the fact that continuing education courses were only given to women that were knitting, crocheting, plastic canvassing and beading. And I knew that - how could anyone really begin to transform their life? How can you take those skills and transfer them to be marketable in a new country, really, coming out from prison? It's like you're coming into a whole new country, into society.

GREENE: The country changes a lot as time...

SAM: Right?

GREENE: ...Goes on. And yeah, coming out and...

SAM: And knitting and crocheting is not going to help you to do that.

GREENE: That's not the only preparation you need.

SAM: (Laughter) Right.

GREENE: What went through your mind on Tuesday night, watching the Senate vote, I mean, just in overwhelmingly bipartisan numbers in favor of this?

SAM: Well, first, what went through my mind was the fact that, you know, as I was watching it, to see that the people who were voting on this legislation, no one looked like me and that there were not enough formerly incarcerated people or people who have been impacted in public office that would actually allow us to understand how important and why the sense of urgency was now. And then on the other hand, I was so proud to see that people came together from both sides, I guess, understanding that 1 in every 2 families in this country are now impacted by incarceration and this is a problem for everyone. And so because of that, I feel like it's no longer one issue. It's not just their issue. It's our issue. And I feel that's why the bipartisanship has happened, and that's why we're hopeful, on my way to D.C. now, that this bill is going to pass.

GREENE: Topeka K. Sam founded The Ladies of Hope Ministries.

Thank you so much. We really appreciate talking to you.

SAM: Thank you for having me.