Like most University students, we had no idea what prison was like. We registered for “Women, Prison & Human Rights,” taught by Carol Jacobsen, an Art and Design and Women’s Studies professor. It has been one of the most eye-opening classes we have ever taken. As the course immediately delved into the subjects of murder related to domestic violence and self-defense, human rights violations and other issues relevant to women prisoners throughout Michigan’s correctional system, it was clear we were in for an education beyond what we had anticipated.

Jacobsen is the director of the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project at the University. The goal of the project is to convince Gov. Jennifer Granholm to grant clemency or commutation, and the parole board grant paroles to women who have been convicted of murder for killing their abusers in self-defense. It also addresses human rights abuses of women in Michigan prisons. The course draws attention to this mission, educating and encouraging University students to give these women a voice.

The class has discussed at length the conditions for women in Michigan prisons, especially the various kinds of abuse and neglect occurring at Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth and Huron Valley Women’s Prison in Ypsilanti. There are roughly 100 women suing the Michigan Department of Corrections for sexual abuse and rapes committed against them by guards and other corrections staff. Because of the lengthy list of victims, the class action case is being tried with approximately 10 women at a time by the Washtenaw County Circuit Court.

To gain a firsthand understanding of the issue, we had the opportunity to sit in on the questioning of the former director of corrections for the State of Michigan in October. Earlier in the semester, we did a class performance on the Diag to raise awareness of the plight of women prisoners in the state, the Clemency Project and its goals. We also participated in a large rally at the State Capitol in Lansing. Lined up on the steps of the Capitol building, the women in the class wore T-shirts with words like “mother” or “waitress” on the front, representing the prisoners in the project. On the backs of our shirts were stenciled the unfair prison sentences the women received. Many times the sentence for women who kill their abusers is life. In Michigan this truly does mean these women are in prison until they die. Some classmates also created bold posters and installations highlighting the argument that many of these women were imprisoned in their own homes by abusers long before they are imprisoned by the state.

During the semester, we’ve worked on other publicly visible projects and have had several guest speakers, including a former prisoner, Clemency Project founder Susan Fair and Jane Atwood, who has photographed women’s prisons around the world. Finally, last week our class was granted access to the Robert Scott Correctional Facility. The warden’s assistant led us on a tour around the educational center, cafeteria and a low-security housing unit. Unfortunately, it seemed that much of what the official told us did not match up with thousands of abuse testimonies, Amnesty International reports and other critical accounts of conditions in Michigan’s women’s prisons. We came into contact with some of the prisoners during our visit, many of whom made sure we heard them say, “NEVER come to prison, ladies!” One even screamed this from her cell window as we left.

From all of these experiences, we both have come to a new understanding of the criminal justice and prison systems and how unjust they can be. We were both raised to support the prison system, always thinking that people in prison deserved to be there. It is rare to see anything opposing that perspective in the media, and the general public also wholeheartedly believes in, or at least doesn’t think about, the prison system, making it difficult to find people who are willing to stand up against the state. We have read about so many women who have been sexually and physically abused by their partners or were somehow involuntarily involved in a crime that their partner committed and now serve life sentences because of it. Some of these stories are more believable than others, but the bottom line is that the sentences are unjustly long and the conditions of the prisons inhumane.

One of the most disturbing parts of many of these stories is the neglect on the part of the police. Many of the women repeatedly called the police for protection, only to be ignored. Domestic situations are often brushed aside because they are “too messy.” Now these abused women sit in prison for taking justice into their own hands when the law was not there to support them.

This article is one of many projects that our class is working on to raise awareness on campus and beyond about women in prison and the unjust details of their convictions, sentences and incarceration. A candlelight vigil for freedom for women wrongly convicted and human rights for all women in Michigan prisons will be held today at 5 p.m. at the corner of South University and East University. Please visit http://umich.edu/~clemency/ for more information and to get involved.

Claire Harold and Kate Muelle are Art and Design juniors.

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