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Surviving a Daily Storm

A formerly incarcerated writer reflects on her time behind bars and the gender disparities in the criminal justice system.

  • Asia Johnson Asia Johnson
September 13, 2021
View the entire Punitive Excess series

Moth­ers, daugh­ters, sisters, wives: over 2,000 women hold­ing these titles resided with me at Michigan’s only prison for women: the Women’s Huron Valley Correc­tional Facil­ity. There, we were packed into cells — some hold­ing as many as 16 women at a time.

In the Midw­est, severe storms are a regu­lar occur­rence. Have you ever exper­i­enced a Wi-Fi inter­rup­tion or cell service outage? Do you remem­ber how frus­trat­ing it was not being able to connect to the outside world? Could you imagine if your only source of inform­a­tion, even under the best of circum­stances, was cable news? That’s the diffi­cult situ­ation that I and so many others exper­i­enced in prison. Prison is like a town that has been hit by a massive storm, only the damage is perman­ent.

And it does­n’t stop there. The place I lived in for nine years, the place that some women were sentenced to die in, was not designed with our gender in mind. Basic neces­sit­ies such as some femin­ine hygiene products, had to be purchased. Moth­ers visit­ing with their chil­dren some­times had to endure the termin­a­tion of their bond­ing time because the visit­ing room was over­crowded. Expect­ing moth­ers had to walk to the chow hall in rain, sleet, snow, or hellish heat along with the rest of us. Imprisoned men do not have to endure our partic­u­lar female misery.

One morn­ing, while chat­ting with a dear friend who was incar­cer­ated on a murder charge in the death of her abus­ive husband, the subject of senten­cing dispar­it­ies between men and women came up. My friend said, “If I had been a man who’d killed his wife, I’d have an out date.” (An “out date” is essen­tially the day you are able to leave prison.) My friend is serving life without parole. Others joined our conver­sa­tion, and, before I knew it, we all had come to the conclu­sion that women are sentenced more harshly than men.

Now, I recog­nize that as true as it may have felt to us, data does not support my friend’s asser­tion. An oft-cited study from the National Coali­tion Against Domestic Viol­ence showed that while the aver­age prison sentence of men who kill their female part­ners is between 2 and 6 years, women who kill their part­ners, on aver­age, are sentenced to 15 years. But that study was published more than 30 years ago, and more recent stud­ies have not been able to replic­ate these results. In fact, after the imple­ment­a­tion of stand­ard­ized guidelines in 1992, senten­cing dispar­it­ies between men and women began to erode. There is little evid­ence to show that women who kill their intim­ate part­ners are sentenced more harshly than men who commit the same crime.

I went back to my own cell to dwell on our morn­ing talk. I had stayed mostly mum during our earlier conver­sa­tion. I didn’t feel like I had been harshly sentenced. I knew that with my viol­ent crime I could have — and some would argue, should have — been sentenced to die in prison. In the midst of a mental health crisis, I had turned viol­ent, and took the life of a loved one. As a result, I was sentenced to 9 to 30 years of incar­cer­a­tion. The ques­tion I asked myself was, “Had I been treated more harshly than a man would have been in similar circum­stances?”

But was that really a mater­ial ques­tion? While in prison, I spent count­less hours listen­ing to the stor­ies of women who had killed, stolen, struggled with addic­tion, and suffered from mental health issues. They all — we all — had been thrown away. We were all losing time we’d never get back. The men, we thought, got to do their short time and get back to life as they knew it. Now I see that this was not the case: we were all suffer­ing equally under the same excess­ive system of punish­ment.

I was released from prison on Octo­ber 9, 2018. Because I had tried to do everything right ­­—­ to become a “model pris­oner” and to do a great deal of self-work — I was able to walk out of prison exactly nine years after I went in. I was stronger, health­ier, and ready for the world. However, my personal growth was not the result of the insti­tu­tion but of the time I spent in ther­apy and self-reflec­tion. I wish I could say that I came out an expert on incar­cer­a­tion, rehab­il­it­a­tion, and remedi­ation, but that know­ledge didn’t come until later. When I left, I was still grap­pling with the exper­i­ence and the issues that had affected me so deeply. One in partic­u­lar nagged at me: there are women who did not commit a crime nearly as viol­ent as mine who are serving more time than I did. I still struggle with this surviv­or’s guilt. Why and how did I get so lucky as to not be spend­ing the rest of my life locked away in a cage?

Shortly after my return home, I began work­ing for The Bail Project, a nonprofit organ­iz­a­tion whose mission to end cash bail is succinctly captured in its motto: "Free­dom should be free.” I also spent time work­ing closely with the Detroit Justice Center, learn­ing about how to create the world I wanted to live in — one that is more just and equit­able and where free­dom can truly be attained by every­one. I real­ized that the ques­tion of who has it worse in prison — men or women — has been beside the point all along. What is more import­ant is the sad truth that too many are more will­ing to build pris­ons than to dismantle the condi­tions which fill them.

Angela Davis said, “Pris­ons do not disap­pear social prob­lems, they disap­pear human beings. Home­less­ness, unem­ploy­ment, drug addic­tion, mental illness, and illit­er­acy are only a few of the prob­lems that disap­pear from public view when the human beings contend­ing with them are releg­ated to cages.” As one of those people who was releg­ated to a cage, I know firsthand that pris­ons do not work. Amer­ica has a tragic obses­sion with vengeance and punish­ment. This infatu­ation contin­ues to ruin the lives of both men and women all over the coun­try.

Every incar­cer­ated indi­vidual, no matter their gender iden­tity, is surviv­ing a daily storm. So, I ask the ques­tion, when will the rain cease?

Asia John­son, a Bren­nan Center fellow, is a formerly incar­cer­ated writer and film­maker based in Los Angeles.