I recently visited two prisons in Louisiana, where I had an opportunity to shift the conversation around victimhood. At these prisons, Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, my presentation to the women was rolled into a National Crime Victims’ Rights Week event called “Expand the Circle, Reach All Victims.” I had mixed feelings about this event.
Before I went on stage, two victim advocates from the DA’s office gave a presentation encouraging more victims to come forward. It’s true that the voices of victims need to be heard. It’s important for them to get the help they need to move beyond their trauma. However, I questioned the motivation behind this call from the DA’s office for more victims to speak up. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and it has always been known for its harsh sentencing. (One of the women I met there has been in prison since 1988 and has received her divinity degree behind bars. How long does Louisiana think it takes to rehabilitate someone?) Because of its financial reliance on civil forfeiture and prison labor, Louisiana has an incentive to arrest and incarcerate people. Are they saying “bring more victims forward” when what they really mean is “prosecute more people”?
As I listened to the victim advocates and waited to give my own talk, I began to think about what I was going to tell the women incarcerated in that facility. I believe that we absolutely need to “expand the circle” of victims. But there is one group of victims that is rarely heard, and that’s incarcerated women. It’s been estimated that 80 to 90 percent of women behind bars have been physically or sexually abused during their lives.
When I took the stage to speak to the women, I asked, “What about us? What about those of us who’ve been in the ‘abuse to prison pipeline’?” I reminded the women that they are victims too. It’s important that they remember that. When I asked the women in these facilities to raise their hands if they’d ever suffered abuse, more than half of them did. Where was their help? When did anyone advocate on their behalf? The answer is that most of them never got anything. Instead, they were punished for their responses to coping with trauma. We’re all humans who make mistakes, but some of us can’t afford to make mistakes. I told the women that we have to be the ones to take care of ourselves.
After I finished my talk, I signed books for 45 minutes to make sure that every woman there got an autographed copy of “Becoming Ms. Burton.” The warden got a hold of my book right before I arrived; he told me it was so compelling that he stayed up and read half the book in the middle of the night. When I wrote “Becoming Ms. Burton,” I wrote it for people in prison. I never dreamed it would have the effect it’s been having on wardens, corrections officers, prosecutors and judges. It still amazes me how many people the book has touched.
I want to thank Norris Henderson and Dolfinette Martin of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) for accompanying me into both facilities. VOTE is a great Louisiana organization run by formerly incarcerated people. I encourage you to learn more about the work they are doing to fight mass incarceration and restore the rights of the formerly incarcerated. https://www.vote-nola.org/