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Articles by Victoria Law

Imagine Pleading Guilty Because You Can’t Afford to Call Your Lawyer

By Victoria Law, Truthout

Imagine paying $20.12 for a 15-minute phone call. That’s how much a call from the Jennings Adult Correctional Facility in Missouri costs.

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set price caps on interstate calls from jails, prisons and detention facilities. Now, interstate calls can cost no more than 21 cents per minute (or $3.15 for a 15-minute phone call). Two years later, in 2015, it did the same for intrastate (or in-state) calls, which make up 92 percent of all calls from incarcerated people. Prison phone providers filed lawsuits challenging these restrictions and, in June 2017, a federal court ruled in the phone companies’ favor. The ruling means that intrastate calls are not subject to FCC regulation and rates fluctuate wildly depending on each facility’s contract with the phone provider.

Jennings isn’t the only local jail with outrageous phone prices. The Arkansas County Jail charges $24.82 for a 15-minute call; in contrast, the same call from the state’s prisons costs $4.80. In Michigan, a call from the Benzie County Sheriff’s jail costs $22.56, but $2.40 from the state prison.

Even when phone costs aren’t as exorbitant, they still add ...

Double Punishment: After Prison, Moms Face Legal Battles to Reunite With Kids

by Victoria LawTruthout | Report

This story is the first in a new Truthout series, Severed Ties: The Human Toll of Prisons. This series will dive deeply into the impact of incarceration on families, loved ones and communities, demonstrating how the United States' incarceration of more than 2 million people also harms many millions more -- including 2.7 million children.

Since becoming a mother, Vanetta Richardson had never spent a day apart from any of her six children. But, on December 1, 2013, the 34-year-old was arrested at her home in Renton, just outside Seattle, and spent the first night away from her children, who ranged in age from six to 16. A friend took her children in that night, but shortly after, her mother-in-law went to family court and became the children's caregiver, bringing the state's child welfare system into the picture.  

Richardson spent over two years battling second-degree murder charges in the death of her abusive husband. Ultimately, she pled guilty to first-degree manslaughter. She and her attorney argued for a shorter sentence, noting both the history of domestic violence at the hands of her husband and the fact that, the longer she spent ...

Trans People in Prison Fight Barriers to Changing Their Legal Names and Gender Markers

by Victoria Law, Truthout

During her 30 years in California's prison system, Cookie Bivens has seen numerous trans women attempt to change their name and gender marker while incarcerated. Not a single woman ever succeeded.

In California, people seeking to legally change their name or gender marker must file an application with the county court and pay a filing fee of nearly $500. (A person earning less than $2,127 per month can file for a fee waiver.) Once the paperwork is filed, the court sets a hearing date within six to 12 weeks. If the court receives no objections to the proposed name and gender marker change, the petition is granted.

Incarcerated trans people face an extra hurdle: obtaining approval from the prison's superintendent and other administrators. Without that approval, they cannot begin the court process. Watching other trans women have their requests denied again and again, Bivens decided to not even try, and to focus instead on getting parole.

Bivens has been out of prison for six months and is only now beginning the process of legally changing her name and gender marker. At the same time, she wants to be sure that other trans people ...

"The System Abuses Us by Locking Us Up Forever": Aging Survivors Behind Bars

By Victoria Law, Truthout

On October 6, 2016, 15-year-old Bresha Meadows will appear in an Ohio family court for the death of her abusive father. Meadows had spent a lifetime watching her father hit, kick, shove and control her mother. If her mother tried to leave, her father often threatened that he would kill her and their three children.

Meadows had run away twice; each time, police returned her to her parents. On July 28, 2016, using the gun her father often used to threaten his family, the 14-year-old shot him as he slept. She was arrested and is now facing charges of aggravated murder. She spent her 15th birthday in detention. That may not be her only birthday behind bars: The Trumbull County prosecutor has not yet said whether he will charge her in juvenile court or attempt to move her case to adult criminal court. If she is tried and convicted in adult court, she faces life in prison.

Bresha Meadows is only 15 years old. Her family and supporters around the country are fervently hoping that charges against her will be dropped, allowing her to rejoin her family rather than spend the rest of her life in ...

Aging, Sick and Incarcerated: The Need for Compassionate Release

By Victoria Law,

Mary Ziman already had debilitating fibromyalgia and, unable to work, was on permanent disability. Then she was arrested and sentenced to 27 years in federal prison for conspiracy to distribute marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine, charges she says stemmed from fabrications by a woman with mental illness caught with drugs and a gun. That was 17 years ago.

Now 67 years old, Ziman has three cancerous spots on her left lung, requires the use of three inhalers and has only 51 percent lung capacity. She is also blind in one eye and has a cataract in the other. In March 2016, after repeatedly complaining to medical staff at the federal prison in Victorville, California, she was hospitalized for a kidney infection stemming from an untreated urinary tract infection. She spent 10 days in the hospital where tests found that she suffered from anemia, arthritis, a hernia and problematic potassium levels affecting her heart. Additionally, Ziman now requires hip and knee surgery.

In April, not long after her release from the hospital, Ziman suffered another devastating blow. The Office of the Pardon Attorney denied her request for clemency, or a commutation lessening the length of her ...

Formerly Incarcerated Moms Fight for Reforms to Save Families

By Victoria Law, Yes! Magazine

Diana waited at the bus stop for her children to arrive from school one afternoon 20 years ago. She had planned a party to celebrate her daughter’s sixth birthday.

The party, however, never happened. Diana’s four kids never came home.

After calling the school, Diana, who asked not to be fully named because her record is now sealed, learned that child welfare officials had taken her children to foster care. The reason? Her daughter, after seeing a neighbor with a blunt, had said, “Oh, my mom used to smoke that.” Diana says this innocuous comment, combined with her arrest record, led to a 10-year battle with the state in family court, which she ultimately lost.

For years, Diana had struggled with addiction. She had given birth to her oldest daughter during the two years she had spent in prison. By the time she was standing at the bus stop, she had been sober for several years. But losing her children undid all the progress and stability she’d built over the years, spiraling Diana back into addiction, arrests, and incarceration.

“It was the worst I ever relapsed,” she says.

Eighteen years later, a ...

Reproductive Health Care in Women’s Prisons “Painful” and “Traumatic”

By Victoria Law, Truthout

It was Kim Dadou’s second day at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. As part of the prison’s intake process, she was brought to the prison’s medical unit for a gynecological exam and pap smear.

“We were brought down three or five at a time,” she told Truthout. “It’s like an assembly line. They rush you in and rush you out. That in itself is degrading.”

To add to that feeling, the gynecologist did not explain what he was doing or why. “He didn’t talk to you except ‘Open your legs’ or ‘Scoot down,’” she recalled. As he examined her, however, he commented, “You have a very nice aroma.”

“I wanted to die,” Dadou said nearly 24 years later. “I was like, ‘This is prison? This is what I have to look forward to?’”

Nearly 5 percent of people who enter women’s jails and prisons are pregnant. While incarcerated, they face a host of challenges to safe and healthy pregnancies, including inadequate prenatal care, lack of food and vitamins, and, in many states, the threat of being shackled during childbirth, sometimes despite protective legislation.

But what about the 95 ...

Pregnant Behind Bars

Pregnant Behind Bars

The shameful lack of prenatal care in U.S. prisons and jails 

by Victoria Law

Reprinted with permission from In These Times magazine

At 5 a.m. on June 12, 2012, lying on a mat in a locked jail cell, without a doctor, Nicole Guerrero gave birth.

Guerrero was eight-and-a half months pregnant when she arrived 10 days earlier at Texas’ Wichita County Jail. The medical malpractice lawsuit Guerrero has filed—against the county, the jail’s healthcare contractor, Correctional Healthcare Management, and one of the jail’s nurses, LaDonna Anderson—claims she began experiencing lower back pain, cramps, heavy vaginal discharge and bleeding on June 11. The nurse on duty told her there was no cause for concern until she had bled through two sanitary napkins. Several painful hours later, Guerrero pushed the medical emergency button in her cell.

At 3:30 a.m., more than four hours later, Guerrero was finally taken to the nurse’s station. Guerrero says she showed Anderson her used sanitary pads filled with blood and fluids, but was not examined. Instead, she was taken to a one-person holding cell with no toilet, sink or emergency call button ...

A Mother Who Just Wanted to Know When Her Son Would Eat

by Victoria Law, Waging Nonviolence 

The temperature in Corona, Calif., can soar above 100 degrees in the summer, sometimes climbing as high as 110. For Dolores Canales and others locked into their cells 22 hours a day in the Administrative Segregation Unit at the California Institution for Women, the extreme heat was aggravated by the extreme lack of privacy.

“The cells get extremely hot in the summer, so you have to take your clothes off [to stay cool],” she recounted.

But the unit was circular, and the guard stationed in the center was able to see into any cell with the turn of his head. “You can’t cover the window on the door, so you’re always exposed to the guards, who are mostly men.”

Canales spent nine months in segregation at the California Institute for Women in 1999. “There, I had a window. The guards would take me out to the yard every day. I’d get to go out to the yard with other people,” she told me in 2013, while I was working on an article for The Nation.

Still, being in isolation took its toll. “There’s an anxiety that overcomes you in the middle of ...

“Ban the Box” Campaigns Seek to End Discrimination Against Formerly Incarcerated College Applicants

“Ban the Box” Campaigns Seek to End Discrimination Against Formerly Incarcerated College Applicants

by Victoria Law

"Selene” had been out of prison for one month when she applied to Dutchess Community College and Ulster Community College, both part of the State University of New York system. SUNY requires applicants to check a box if they had ever been convicted of a felony. Selene checked the box.

Both schools asked Selene to come in and take placement tests. Selene had to ask her parole officer for permission to leave Kingston and travel to Poughkeepsie, where the college is located. If she’d had a car, the trip would have taken her 30 to 45 minutes. But Selene did not. Instead, she got up at 5 a.m. to take the one and only bus from Kingston to Poughkeepsie, which left at 6 a.m. From the bus depot, she then took a cab to the college. “I had no money; I had no income,” she told Truthout. “So it was a massive undertaking to do this, but this is my future.”

At the college, she filled out financial aid forms and took her placement tests. She then attempted to hand ...


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