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Letters from Pelican Bay

By | Tania Mejia

Last week, Humboldt County joined the Women’s March movement and marched in solidarity for women’s rights and related causes at the largest protest in our nation’s history. Not only was this a historical day for our country, it was also a historical day for the Humboldt County: the march became the largest demonstration in Eureka’s history.

During the Women’s March I held a sign which read, “INCLUDE THE 1.2 MILLION WOMEN BEHIND BARS IN YOUR ACTIVISM,” in bold black letters over an orange painted women’s power symbol. Inspired by Intersectional Feminists Against Fascist Overlord’s Instagram post with a poster reading “INCLUDE DISABLED WOMEN IN YOUR FEMINISM,” I thought the same message could be applied to an often forgotten imprisoned population.

With one in 100 US adults behind bars, it is important to be conscious of those who cannot participate in free speech and currently sit behind bars. As I marched, I saw posters reading, “MY BODY, MY CHOICE” or “A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE RESISTANCE,” and couldn’t help but cringe at the lack of thought about the privilege behind such messages. Just to be clear, women are currently the fastest growing prison population.

Women, especially trans women of color are being arrested, harassed and victimized by our criminal justice system far more than any other incarcerated population. They are being housed in male prisons where they are put in solitary confinement for their so-called protection. Alternatively, if left in general population, they are mistreated and/or become victims of sexual assault both by correctional officers and inmates significantly more than other prison populations.

It’s also important to note that when we talk about “MY BODY, MY CHOICE” this is not true for women behind bars. In her book, “Are Prisons Obsolete,” Angela Davis writes. “Prison and police officers are vested with the power and responsibility to do acts, which if done outside the work hours, would be crimes of sexual assault.”

Let’s think about that. Let’s think about the sterilization of female inmates without consent as a form of birth control, which California recently banned in 2014. Let’s think about the lack of medical and reproductive health care women behind bars face and endure on a daily basis in unsanitary conditions.

Overall, when we proclaim, “WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS,” we must include every self-identified female body behind bars. While I understand not everybody is seeking to reform the criminal justice system, we must connect the dots between other social justices. This is where we have to build the kind of unity and solidarity across very different places – culturally, geographically, and politically– to create a stable foundation to progress as a nation.

How this is put into action is up to us, but as a self-identified prison abolitionist this is my favorite example: In Spring 2001, Critical Resistance, an organization that works to dismantle the prison industrial complex system, filed an environmental lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections (CDC) with the goal of stopping the construction of a 5,160 bed prison in California’s Central Valley that would have cost taxpayers $335 million. Critical Resistance organized a group of coalitions that had previously never worked together, including anti-prison activists, environmentalists, farm worker’s unions and immigrant advocates.

So, when I say, “INCLUDE THE 1.2 MILLION WOMEN BEHIND BARS IN YOUR ACTIVISM,” I don’t mean, ‘don’t forget them.’ I am calling for us to unite, organize and combine strategies to address our societal problems. I am calling for grassroots organizing and legislative work with diverse individuals, organizations and state agencies. I am calling all of the civil rights activists, environmental protectors and social justice warriors who want to live in a better world. As we continue on, we must move into new and formerly unlikely alliances which allow for participation from all of us.

Note: When stating there is 1.2 million women behind bars, this includes those in prison, jail, probation and parole. According to the Sentencing Project, “The rate of growth for female imprisonment has outpaced men by more than 50% between 1980 and 2014.”

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