Each week Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC) Executive Director David Singleton visits the Dayton Correctional Institute (DCI). He feels his presence is making a difference — hearing voices that would have otherwise remained silent. He speaks candidly about one of his clients, a woman serving 17 years after shooting her former police officer husband to death.
“He beat her on a regular basis and raped her at Taser-point and when he started to beat the kids, she’d had enough,” he says. “It’s not right that she’s serving 17 years in prison. So trying to find ways to get women released when they’ve basically been battered spouses, it’s an aim of our organization.”
The Women’s City Club, a longtime local organization advocating for social justice, will host Singleton at a lecture April 22 to speak about the topic of “Women in Prison.” The OJPC executive director plans to address the growing problem of female incarceration, along with solutions to break the cycle.
Injustice behind bars
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) more than 200,000 women are currently behind bars with an additional million either on parole or probation. Many of these women struggle with substance abuse, mental illness or have a history of physical or sexual abuse. They are, in Singleton’s opinion, a forgotten population, denied inalienable human rights based on their incarceration. He says victims of abuse often fall silent. It took multiple visits to the correctional facility for him to finally establish a sense of trust.
“For years, I’ve gotten very few letters from women complaining about issues — they serve their time and they take it,” he says. “I’m up there at least once a week and word spread, so more women are coming forward with requests for assistance because they know that there’s a voice for them.”
OJPC founding member and local civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein believes mandatory sentencing from “tough on crime” laws passed during the 1980s play a large part in Ohio’s ever-growing prison population. He points to laws for nonviolent offenders also known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws as a main culprit. While New York repealed the laws years ago, they still exist in the “me too” states, which continue to impose mandatory sentencing for nonviolent crimes.
When Gerhardstein started his practice in the late ’70s, 12,000 prisoners occupied seven prisons in Ohio.
Today that number has jumped to 50,000 prisoners, 14,000 guards in 32 prisons, he says, even though the state today has a lower crime rate. The total correction budget in Ohio comes in at $1.6 billion per year.
“Clearly we chose without any indication that we’re less safe, to lock more people up,” Gerhardstein says. “And this is not a static number. We release 19,000 prisoners a year. So think about the turnover and how many people are getting that label of felon. They’re our neighbors and we need to do better by them.”
Gerhardstein shares a letter from one of his clients currently serving time at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville for a drug-related offense. He says she was recently brutally beaten in a gang-related incident at the prison. Even though she warned guards in advance that she felt threatened, they did nothing to prevent the attack, he says.
“So you have the tragedy of getting sent to prison, you have vulnerabilities like the one I just described and then you have the fact that the rest of society has left them when they get out,” Gerhardstein says. “They have this felony record, they have trouble reestablishing connections with their kids and family, and we can do better as a society. There’s very little need to incarcerate the percent of women who we are locking up.”
Singleton argues even violent offenders spend too much time behind bars, often leading to sub-human treatment. After 20 years, people rarely resemble the violent offender who committed the crime and should be continually re-evaluated regarding release. He says one of his female clients serving a life sentence for aggravated murder was recently sexually assaulted during her therapy session.
“She did not deserve to be treated less human and as a sex object because she’s serving time for a violent offense,” he says. “I agree, in (Al Gerhardstein’s) case his client shouldn’t even be behind bars, but even folks who should be behind bars, this is no way to treat people.”
The voice of hope
OJPC senior paralegal Sheila Donaldson often helps counsel returning citizens. Donaldson understands all too well the challenges women face when first released. For her, the experience is personal.
“There are so many people that come in and are feeling hopeless — that’s when I share my story with them,” she says. “They cry hard and it’s really touching. Once people realize I’ve been in, they dry their tears and they feel like they can get their hope back.”
During her early twenties, Donaldson was convicted of trafficking and drug sales. She says she participated in illegal behavior in order to support her heroin addiction. On her first offense, Donaldson says the judge sentenced her hard time in lieu of probation or drug treatment. She spent the next several years in and out of prison until she became clean and sober in 1993.
“I finally just surrendered,” she says. “It’s really frustrating, and if it wasn’t for my sister and all my support I would have slipped up because of all the doors that close after you’re a felon.”
After obtaining her GED, Donaldson went on to to earn a bachelor’s degree in pre-law from the University of Cincinnati. She says she owes so much to both Gerhardstein and Children’s Law Center Executive Director Kim Tandy for giving her a chance.
“They actually asked me to come on because they believed in me and wanted to take that risk,” she says. “And that’s what people need to do is say, ‘OK we’re going to take a chance. After that, it’s all up to you.’”
One of the greatest challenges returning citizens face is finding employment, Singleton says. An official Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE) provides incentive to hire by offering the employer immunity from lawsuits, as the returning citizen has been assessed as employable by the state.
Singleton says OJPC is always in need of volunteers to help returning citizens complete the application process as it involves a great deal of paperwork. He also always needs volunteers to go with him to visit inmates in the DCI. But the greatest contribution people can make is to vote for elected officials who aren’t about being tough on crime, but instead are smart on crime.
“We’re locking up way too many women and men who don’t need to be behind bars,” Singleton says. “We’re destroying families and we’re making it difficult for them to be productive when they come home. That hurts us when it fuels the cycle of incarceration, which happens all too often.” ©