Kyndia Riley was just 2 years old when both her mother and father were arrested and sentenced to life in federal prison. She never got to touch her mother, Santra Rucker, again until she was a legal adult and her mom was moved to a less restrictive federal prison camp.
“The only thing I remembered was the smell of her hair,” Riley, now a 19-year-old University of Virginia sophomore, told more than 100 people inside the Yale Law School auditorium. “It was like looking at a complete stranger.”
Riley was one of several women who spoke during the “Real Women, Real Voices” symposium held Friday night at the law school to discuss the unique problems of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, and the families and children, like her, who are left in limbo. The more than three-hour event covered the impact on children and families, the challenges of re-entry, the need for reform of federal drug laws, and the closing window for clemency in the waning days of the Obama administration. (Videos of the panel can be found here.)
The event was organized by the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, also called The Council. It was sponsored by the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School.
Formerly incarcerated New Haveners Tirzah Kemp, Babz Rawls Ivy and Beatrice Codianni shared their experiences, along with longtime community activist Barbara Fair, who talked about not only the impact of mass incarceration on her family, but also what she sees as the dehumanizing practice of strip searches in prisons.
The speakers didn’t spend a whole lot of time delving into what James called the “messy parts of our lives that landed us on a prison bunk.” They were there to talk about the bedeviling laws that led to their incarceration, the seemingly disproportionate sentencing that many of the women received, the devastating impacts on their families, and the barriers to regaining a place in a society insistent upon punishing them after prison.
Andrea James, the founder of Families for Justice as Healing, told the audience that the law students at Yale needed to hear from the real policy experts — currently and formerly incarcerated women and their children — about how to fix a system that only seeks to punish and not to rehabilitate or to address the underlying issues that land women in prison.
“You are going to rule the world,” James, a former real estate lawyer who served 24 months at the Federal Correctional Institution of Danbury, told the students. “You have privilege far above what any of us have. Speak up. Stand up for us. Help us to create some change.”
Kyndia Riley’s mother has always maintained that she never sold any drugs. Riley’s father, Darryl, was the actual top target of the federal government, for drug dealing. But when the feds arrested them both, Santra Rucker was ultimately charged with conspiracy. She refused a plea deal and went to trial. Because she lost at trial, she received 13 life sentences. Riley’s father was sentenced to five life sentences after he also refused to take a deal in favor of going to trial.
The audience would learn that it is common for the wives and girlfriends of men involved in the illegal drug trade to receive harsher sentences than the men actually selling drugs because of the expanded conspiracy charges under which they are usually convicted. It doesn’t matter if you had no role or a very small role in the drug operation.
Amy Povah, a Clinton-era clemency recipient who founded the CAN DO Foundation, which advocates for clemency, said she had no role in her husband drug ring. Her husband, whom she separated from a year before the feds moved to take him down, had apparently been manufacturing ecstasy in the U.S. and Germany.
Though she didn’t know about her husband’s illegal activities, and he would swear that she did not, she would be prosecuted after she refused to cooperate with the feds’ investigation. Her husband, a Stanford-trained attorney, cut a deal. He served four years in prison in Germany and three years probation in the U.S. She was sentenced to 24 years in prison based on the amount of drugs and raising bail money for her husband at his request. She served nine years and three months before she received clemency.
Organizations like The Council and the CAN DO Foundation are not only working on just prison and sentencing reform and re-entry, but are actively trying to get women out of prison. Because so many of the women. like Riley’s mother, are serving long sentences for crimes committed by relatives or romantic partners.
The audience heard from Alice Johnson, who is serving a life sentence in a federal facility in Aliceville, Alabama, through a video conference. Johnson is 61 years old and has spent a third of her life in prison. (They also heard from women currently incarcerated in Indiana.)
Johnson is a mother and now a grandmother of grandchildren she’s never seen. She never sold any drugs, never held them for anyone, never acted as a drug mule or manufactured any drugs. But she passed messages to people involved in selling drugs for money. When the feds swept in to take down an operation that she technically was part of, her life was swept away, too.
She said what she did was wrong, but so is sentencing a non-violent, first-time offender like her to life in prison. She has been in prison for 20 years. Unless she is granted clemency, she will die there.
“I’m speaking to future leaders of America,” she said. “Judges, prosecutors and maybe a future president. Yale has a history of producing presidents. Mass incarceration has failed. It’s a drain on society.”
Locked Down For Life
Santra Rucker’s sentence has been reduced to 25 years after an appeal. She’s served 19 years already. Her daughter and many of the advocates in the room said they want her and so many other women — many of them first-time offenders harshly punished for the crimes of others, treated inhumanely in prison and continuously punished with no access to jobs, housing or other services — to come home because she’s done more than enough time.
They want her father, who is still serving life sentences, to come home, too. And they’re looking to President Obama to make it happen.
Two of the women who spoke Friday night, Ramona Brandt and Michelle Miles, have received clemency under Obama. They are among the 562 commutations the president has granted to date, according to the administration’s website. Obama has granted more commutations than the previous nine presidents combined and more than any individual president in almost a century, according to an August press release.
Donna Hylton, founder of From Life to Life, a national organization fighting to dismantle the prison industrial complex, pointed out that in most cases it’s a woman’s circumstances —poverty, domestic violence, sexual assault— that land her in prison, not any inherent criminality. Women don’t re-offend at the rates that men do, and in her mind there are too many women “sitting in prison rotting” for no good reason.
She highlighted the case of Bresha Meadows. The 14-year-old girl shot and killed her allegedly abusive father. She has been charged with aggravated assault. Hylton, who served 27 years in federal prison, said she identifies strongly with Bresha because she too was similarly abused and none of the adults in her life did anything to stop it.
“She should never have had to pull a gun on her father,” Hylton said of Bresha. “And she should not have to spend her life in prison because no one would help her.”
Riley said before that in-person meeting a year ago, her mother was a voice on the other end of expensive phone calls.
The college student scrapes together money to pay for the calls in the absence of the grandparents who had become her legal guardians after her parents were incarcerated. Her grandparents not only raised her and her sister; they also sent money to her mother so she could call home, unbeknownst to Riley.
Those grandparents died by the time Riley turned 18. So had her sister. She’d wondered why her mother never called when her mother and father had died.
When she saved up $25 to send her mother, she learned why: Calls from prison cost $1 for three minutes, and $3 for 15 minutes. The only way to get that money is to have family send it to you, or to make it through a prison work system that pays only pennies on the dollar.
Prisoners get 300 minutes a month.
Seeing her father was an even bigger challenge. He’s allowed to have only five visitors a month. Policies like these, she argued, keep families broken.
“That’s 60 visits a year,” she said. “Three hundred and five days a year he is sitting in a cell restricted,” from seeing loved ones.
Riley is working to see that both of her parents will be released one day soon. And the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women who’ve rallied to her cause have vowed to help her keep pushing for their release, and the reformation of a justice system that they say perpetuates a culture of punishment.
“Nothing about is, without us,” they chanted.