Time Saved v. Time Served
On June 14, the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) flooded with guests eager to hear stories from women directly impacted by the criminal justice system. The event, called Time Saved v. Time Served, was created and curated by Tyra Patterson and Tamaya Dennard in efforts to inspire empathy and deepen the understanding of the disparities in the justice system
During the cocktail hour, event-goers walked the perimeter of the floor observing the art-filled walls. Acrylic, pencil, paint and charcoal drawings hung beside one another—each depicting the artists’ perceptions of trauma, injustice, self-worth, reentry and more.
The performance portion of the evening was led by Donna Harati, Director of Legal Services at Homeboy Industries, who works to lessen the harms of the legal system on individuals and systemic practice.
Harati referenced a 2018 PBS News Hour headline, “American prisons are hell. For women, they’re even worse.” She says while prisons are often known for low quality healthcare, overuse of solitary confinement, lack of family access, and high rates of sexual violence—women face even more barriers than their male counterparts. In many states, women don’t have access to feminine hygiene products and they are shackled during childbirth.
Many states also criminalize women’s survival efforts, Harati says, which leads to their incarceration. Harati noted three common state policies, including mandatory dual arrest for resisting domestic violence, the criminalization of school-aged girls’ misbehavior (like running away) and the criminalization of women who support themselves through sex work.
To end her presentation, Harati urged the crowd to consider a woman’s entire story. Many women in prison have experienced varying forms of physical and sexual abuse during childhood and as adults, leading to complex traumas which are often amplified while incarcerated.
“Prison isn’t feminist,” she said. “If we want to identify as feminists, we must think about the realities that all women face and that prison is a harmful response.”
Following Harati, eight women shared their experiences with the criminal justice system. Their names are Aimee Wissman, Belinda Coutler, Stephanie Miku, Jamie Ochs, Sheila Donaldson Johnson, Jamie Wagner, Jacquelyn Marzette and Kim Jordan.
Some of the women described the harsh realities of prison, detailing the lack of humanity and freedom inside. Here is an excerpt from Aimee Wissman’s reading:
“It’s like forgetting every phone number you’ve ever memorized and having no one to call.
It’s like your present character doesn’t matter because you’re being defined by a single day.
It’s like you are the mistake that you made.”
Stephanie Miku used her platform to discuss the lessons she learned while in solitary confinement. While Miku performed her spoken word piece, titled “The Thing She Carries,” the audience’s eyes and ears fixated on the stage. Listen to Miku’s full piece:
Others told stories about the events leading up to their incarceration, including childhood trauma, pregnancy and substance use. Belinda Coutler described herself as being “locked up” before ever entering prison doors.
“Prison was the place that set me free,” she said.
While incarcerated, many of the women used their time to educate themselves. If programs weren’t in place, they created them. Upon release, some went back to school, receiving Associates, Bachelors and Masters degrees. A few of the women are now employed with re-entry programs, providing support to others who were released from prison.
Jacquelyn Marzette, on the other hand, had more difficulty finding employment after incarceration. She attended programs designed to help those with felony charges find jobs. She filled out applications and went to several interviews, but she was never called.
“The stigma of being a felon with a criminal record seems to follow you around like a dark cloud regardless of how long ago it’s been,” MARzette said.
Marzette emphasized the importance of re-entry programming—whether it’s employment, education, healthcare or housing—to help give people a second chance at success.
When returning to the community after many years behind bars, people must adjust to everyday choices, behaviors and activities. Sheila Donaldson Johnson recalled a few key moments that she says made her feel like a productive member of society. One instance was when she received her first paycheck. The other was when she voted in the polls.
“When I checked those little boxes, I felt important,” she said.
Although each woman faced different experiences leading up to their incarceration, during and after, they shared one thing in common—a support system. Jamie Wagner describe the other women as sisters, and Jamie Ochs calls them her angels.
“The women around me became my family. Even two weeks ago when I got married, my family didn’t come, but my girls did,” WAGNER SAID.
These women are part of the 636,000 people released from prison each year, who are returning to our communities with hopes for a warm welcome and a fresh start.
“Whatever you want to call us—returning citizens or ex-offenders—we do change and I did change,” Donaldson Johson said.
Kim Jordan echoes the statement.