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Female Ex-Cons Recall Experiences

Panel of women describe culture-shock faced upon leaving prison

By Christina G. Vangelakos, Contributing Writer

Formerly incarcerated women shared their experiences transitioning to life after prison at Ticknor Lounge last night.

The Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) Prison Education Groups and the Harvard Progressive Advocacy Group co-hosted the panel, “Women and The Prison Crisis: Issues Facing Incarcerated Women in Massachusetts.” “The purpose of the panel was to reach out to the broader Harvard community,” said Connie E. Chen ’08, co-director of the Harvard Suffolk Prison Education Program. “The prison crisis is a huge problem in Massachussetts, and we want to spread awareness of it.”

The speakers at the panel included Jamie L. Bissonette, coordinator of the Criminal Justice Program for the American Friends Service Committee in New England, and two formerly incarcerated women, Tina Williams and Gail Hall.

Williams, who got a life-sentence for murder at the age of 19, said that jail was inadequate preparation for the real world.

“Locking people up is the new slavery,” she said. “Incarceration fosters dependence on the system because you don’t have a choice of what to wear and what to eat. Jail doesn’t prepare you for dealing with society.”

Hall, like Williams, said she too faced extreme culture-shock.

“I didn’t know where to live and how to get a job,” Hall said. “I didn’t know how to iron, how to use a microwave, how to pay bills, and how to budget.”

The women also shared their experiences in prison.

“I was a criminal, and I used to be proud of it,” Williams said of her past. “I thought I was a hustler. I was like the people they talk about in rap songs, except I was really doing it all.”

Williams said she spent 17 years in prison, during which she escaped four times and had five children.

According to Williams, incarceration has had devastating effects on her life. At 55, she is still on parole, four of her six children have been incarcerated, and she described herself as “only a paycheck away from homelessness.”

In addition to culture-shock, Williams condemned the “lack of equality in justice in this country.”

“Not one rich person is in jail,” she said. “I bet you Donald Trump’s kids won’t go to jail.”

“Money talks, and bullshit walks,” she added, referring to what she said was a common prison slogan.

Williams now works for On the Rise, a Cambridge organization that helps women in crisis.

Hall said she was convicted of second degree murder in September 1994 after killing her “batterer” of seven years.

“The issue of unemployement seems to be one of the major barriers facing those right out of prison,” audience member Aaron K. Tanaka ’05 said, commenting on the difficulties of formerly incarcerated women. Tanaka is a member of the Boston Workers Alliance, which is an organization of unemployed workers.

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