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Fighting for Dignity: Stories of Empathy Network Leaders in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin

March 17, 2023

Advocating for Dignity for Incarcerated Women

March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate the contributions and achievements of women throughout history. However, it is also a time to recognize the ongoing struggles faced by women today, including those who are incarcerated. Dream.Org Empathy Network Leaders Tonie Willis in Pennsylvania and Peggy West-Schroder and Brittany Lee in Wisconsin are fighting to pass legislation that would bring dignity and respect to incarcerated women.

Tonie Willis is a Pennsylvania Empathy Network Leader who understands firsthand the struggles faced by women after release from prison. Over 30 years ago, she was incarcerated on drug charges, an experience that taught her the importance of support systems to get one’s life back on track post-incarceration.

Since her release, Tonie has dedicated her life to helping women impacted by the justice system. She is tirelessly advocating for the passage of the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act in Pennsylvania, a bill that seeks to end the shackling of pregnant women, provide adequate access to feminine hygiene products, and support keeping families together.

The Pennsylvania legislation would ban solitary confinement, shackling during childbirth, and the withholding of basic supplies. It would also limit strip searches and harmful interactions with male staff, ensure proper nutrition and hygiene products, and allow children under 18 to visit at least twice a week. Additionally, it would limit the use of restraints and restrictive housing throughout pregnancy and allow newborns to stay with their mothers for 72 hours post-delivery.

To mark International Women's Day, Dream.Org and FREE launched the Dignity Campaign to advocate for the rights of women and girls impacted by the Wisconsin criminal legal system. Brittany Lee, our Empathy Network Manager, teamed up with Peggy West-Schroder, Executive Director of FREE and a graduate of the Dream.Org Empathy Network Advocacy Cohort, to address the policies that fail to provide incarcerated women with the dignity they deserve.

Peggy's own experience of being born in prison, taken away from her mother within 24 hours, and spending six weeks in the NICU made her passionate about fighting for the rights of incarcerated women. She used her painful experiences to fuel her activism and volunteered to help others in similar situations.

Brittany also had firsthand experience with the inadequate conditions for women in jail. When she was taken into custody in a local jail, she was left in bloodied pants for more than 24 hours before finally receiving relief. This experience made her realize that women should not be punished for being women.

Together, Peggy and Brittany are using their experiences and advocacy skills to bring dignity to incarcerated women and girls. Through the partnership between Dream.Org and FREE, they are working to change policies that disproportionately affect women in the criminal legal system. They are determined to bring about change and improve the lives of incarcerated women, starting with Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin legislation would eliminate the shackling of pregnant women from 6 months until 6 weeks postpartum and create a Prison Doula Program within the Wisconsin Department of Adult Institutions-Women’s Institutions. It would also ensure dignity for incarcerated women and girls in pregnancy, physical and mental health, trauma-informed care, housing, and treatment of substance use and other mental health issues while incarcerated.

The Importance of Dignity for Incarcerated Women

Incarcerated women face unique challenges, including limited access to healthcare, inadequate nutrition and hygiene products, and limited opportunities to maintain connections with their families. These challenges are compounded for pregnant women, who often face the additional burden of being shackled during childbirth and being separated from their newborns shortly after delivery.

Research shows that these conditions harm not just the mothers, but also their babies. Children born to incarcerated mothers are more likely to experience developmental delays, emotional and behavioral problems, and physical health issues.

It is essential that we prioritize the dignity and well-being of incarcerated women, not only for their own sake but also for the sake of their families and communities. When women are released from prison, they need support systems to help them successfully reenter society. By treating incarcerated women with dignity and respect, we are not only upholding their human rights but also helping to break the cycle of poverty, trauma, and incarceration.

How You Can Help

As advocates for the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, Tonie Willis, Peggy West-Schroder and Brittany Lee are leading the fight for reform in their respective states. However, they cannot do it alone. It is up to all of us to support their efforts and help bring about change.

Together, we can make a difference in the lives of incarcerated women and help create a more just and equitable society. Let us honor Women's History Month by supporting the ongoing fight for dignity and respect for all women, including those behind bars.

The future starts with a dream.
The future starts with us.
Black woman standing in front of protestors.