America is Still Locking People Up for Their Activism, Including Black Women

America is Still Locking People Up for Their Activism, Including Black Women
Courtesy of Joyce Powell

For decades, the children’s center at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, a maximum security prison in Westchester, New York, featured a wall with the words “Joy is Unbreakable” etched in large orange lettering. In 2017, Joyce Powell, a 59-year-old woman who has been incarcerated at Bedford for the past 14 years, was interviewed at the facility for a documentary about political prisoners. During the interview, where guards were present and listening in, Powell spoke of how the message served as a hopeful, personal reminder to her. A week after the interview, she says, the words were covered by a fresh coat of white paint. 

Powell laughs when recounting the story now in all of its absurdity, but it is just one example of what she describes as constant retaliation for speaking out against conditions at Bedford. That pattern— speaking up and then being shut down— is what Powell also attributes to her incarceration. 

As a community activist in Rochester, New York throughout the late 90s and early aughts, Powell quickly garnered attention from the city’s police department. The two cases for which she is currently incarcerated— with sentences of 16 years and 25 years-to-life, respectively— were for offenses of which she says she was falsely convicted. The scope and impact of her past organizing— and her insistence that she is innocent— has won Powell some support from allies who advocate for political prisoners. Those supporters, along with Powell herself, argue that her identity as a woman has earned her less public attention, exemplifying the ongoing erasure of Black women not just from broader society but also within the movements they often fuel. 

An instant target 

“There was a time in my life when I was a part of the problem,” Powell wrote in an open letter to the public. In the early 90s, Powell was arrested and sentenced to three years for drug dealing. Upon her release in 1995 she began organizing and became an ordained reverend, in an effort to “give back to the community that I felt I had at one point helped destroy as a drug dealer.”

Powell’s early organizing focused on ending gun violence, an issue that was close to her heart following the murder of her 18-year-old son. Powell ran a safe haven for youth out of her hair salon where she taught young people how to use writing and the arts to express their emotions, offered training on violence de-escalation, and took them on tours to nearby colleges. As an ordained reverend, Powell also made routine visits to hospitals to offer spiritual guidance to patients. 

It was after the police murder of Lawrence Rogers, a Black man who was suffering a mental health crisis in a local Wegmans, that she began fervently advocating against police brutality. Powell launched an organization, Equality and Justice For All, and would lead rallies and protests outside of the Mayor’s office and city police department. Her group believed the police department was tainting evidence in investigations of police shootings, and a central demand following Rogers’ death was to stop the practice. Powell, alongside other local grassroots groups, also called for the development of an emergency team that would be deployed in lieu of police for situations involving mental health crises.

“….the Rochester police department was supportive of her work when her focus was squarely on gun violence… But when she pivoted her bullhorn towards the department, Powell says that Rochester police officers explicitly told her she was becoming a target.”

In 2005, the department established an emergency response team but routinely failed to deploy the team in appropriate situations, resulting in the 2006 police shooting of Patricia Thompson, a 54- year- old woman who died at the scene. Powell continued to organize protests and place pressure on the department after Thompson’s death, inquiring with her bullhorn “Where was the team?” In addition to on the ground actions, Equality and Justice For All also developed a courtwatch program— a local organizing strategy that is increasingly used now, but was relatively new at the time. 

During our interview at Bedford, Powell recalls how the Rochester police department was supportive of her work when her focus was squarely on gun violence. “They’d visit the church and ask when the next rally would be,” she says. 

But when she pivoted her bullhorn towards the department, Powell says that Rochester police officers explicitly told her she was becoming a target.

In 2007, Powell was convicted of burglary and assault, an offense she maintains she did not commit, particularly as she had an alibi and no DNA evidence could corroborate her presence at the scene of the crime. The only evidence she says was presented was an accusers’ statement which was later altered. She also says that the jury was not allowed to know that she was a pastor or involved in community organizing against the city’s police department. Powell received a 16-year sentence. Further, at the time of her arrest in 2006, Powell was in the midst of filing a complaint with the Rochester Police Department’s Office of Internal Affairs about officer misconduct.

In 2007, while serving her first sentence, Powell was charged with murder in a cold case from 1992— another offense for which she maintains her innocence and for which the sole piece of evidence was a cassette tape found in her car which prosecutors say featured Powell rapping a “confession.” Only a transcript of the tape—– not the audio itself—- was provided to the jury. During her incarceration, she’s been studying law and earned her paralegal certificate in the hopes that she can defend herself and overturn her conviction.  

“Do Black women political prisoners matter too?” 

Kerbie Joseph, a New York City-based organizer with the ANSWER Coalition says that it’s incredibly important to name Powell, and others who have been targeted by the carceral state for their activism, as political prisoners. 

“‘Political prisoners’ is a completely leftist term used within the movement to identify these comrades,” said Joseph. “But according to the United States [government] we’re good and we don’t have any political prisoners or prisoners of war.”

Joseph says that naming people like Powell as political prisoners changes the narrative that the government attempts to portray to the world while highlighting how incarceration is often used to quell political dissent.

Powell’s story was particularly compelling to Joseph because of how she infuses her organizing with her spiritual beliefs, embodying what Joseph calls “a revolutionary optimism.” Joseph was also drawn to Powell’s story because of how rarely the public galvanizes around Black women. While activists like Angela Davis and Assata Shakur are heralded, the discussion of Black women as political prisoners often ends and begins with them. 

“While Powell says she receives a steady influx of letters from supporters, she notices the differences between how she’s perceived and uplifted as compared to her male comrades who are also still inside. “I’ve done the work and there’s proof of it,” she said. “But my question is do Black women political prisoners matter too?” 

Even during this past year with a renewed interest in political prisoners, much of that attention has fallen upon men who have faced decades of imprisonment for their membership in the Black Panther Party or the Black Liberation Army. Rarely do the names of women— such as Debbie Africa, Janine Africa, Janet Africa, and Merle Africa of the MOVE 9 have their names evoked too. 

“Black women have always been invisibilized by this system and even though you’re in the movement, it doesn’t exempt you from patriarchy or misogynoir,” said Joseph. “We are all victims of it and we all have our work to do. There are organizations that people look up to within the Black liberation struggle [like] the Panthers and the Young Lords where we had to fight tooth and nail to get to points of unity because even in that movement, women, queer folks and trans folks were looked at as objects.”

While Powell says she receives a steady influx of letters from supporters, she notices the differences between how she’s perceived and uplifted as compared to her male comrades who are also still inside. “I’ve done the work and there’s proof of it,” she said. “But my question is do Black women political prisoners matter too?” 

The key to answering that question in the affirmative is building relationships with women inside. That’s true not just for those who identify as political prisoners but for the over 230,000 other women and girls who are also incarcerated throughout the United States. Letter writing and personal visits can be a powerful tool to make prison walls more permeable. Last summer, Joseph hosted an online letter-writing event for Powell where she shared information about her story and walked guests through how to begin corresponding with her. That small action was something Joseph said anyone can replicate with their friends or family.  

“It can be on different scales, it can be just you writing a letter [saying] ‘Joy, keep your head up, we’re with you’ and that’s it,” said Joseph. “It doesn’t have to be a huge essay, people don’t need dissertations. Just give them some energy, some hope. The smallest thing is enough because at least they know someone is thinking about them.” 

Advocating inside

Organizers who coordinate letter-writing campaigns also say that maintaining steady correspondence can help those outside better advocate for the incarcerated when they’re being mistreated. Otherwise, the physical distance and lack of transparency by facilities and departments of corrections can obscure the public from knowing what’s happening. 

In her years inside, Joyce has advocated for herself and her peers primarily through the power of her own pen. She writes countless letters to oversight agencies, New York-based non-profits and elected officials, such as former Governor Andrew Cuomo to whom she wrote last year after she contracted COVID-19. She’s also encouraged other women at Bedford to take advantage of the five free legal letters that they are allowed to mail out each week, providing them with the names and addresses of different agencies to send their complaints and helping them draft their letters. She says that speaking out is a part of her nature and won’t be quelled regardless of where she finds herself— either by choice or by force.

But advocating inside has come with its costs. Between 2014 and 2017, Powell was placed in solitary confinement. She describes the three years as torturous, filled with time spent “counting the days and counting the bricks on the wall.” Even now, Powell often struggles with intercepted emails, packages, and confiscated items. Earlier this year, she says seven bags filled with legal materials that she was gathering for her case were taken by Bedford staff and have yet to be returned to her. For some of these issues, Powell has filed formal complaints through the facility’s internal grievance process, but all have been denied. 

Little recourse against retaliation

The formal grievance process at prisons throughout New York State is notoriously ineffective. According to a 2019 report from the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), only 61% of survey respondents in Bedford Hills who filed a grievance within the past year received any response and only 24% stated that the grievance was resolved in their favor. Eighty-one percent of these respondents also reported not feeling as if an adequate investigation of their grievances was ever conducted. 

“That really gives this impression that the system is rigged— that grieving something, not only doesn’t resolve the issue but it also opens one up to the possibility of retaliation,” said Jennifer Scaife, Executive Director of CANY, “because as soon as you put it in writing and go on record, then there’s a paper trail and people know about it. But you must file a grievance and exhaust internal remedies if you are going to seek recourse outside of the facility. So it puts people in this kind of double bind by risking the perceived— or in some cases, very real— threat of retaliation.”

Indeed, 51% of Bedford respondents in CANY’s survey reported facing retaliation for filing a grievance. That retaliation can come in the form of bullying or assault or what is known as “burns,” an unsanctioned and informal punishment that often amounts to the loss of some right or privilege, like recreation, shower time, or access to commissary. The informal nature of “burns” means that they can’t be tracked, so the public has little understanding of how often they occur and there is little to no recourse for filing a complaint.

Scaife says facility administrators also operate with such wide discretion that they can swiftly usher in new policies that disrupt the routines of women inside. For instance, last summer Powell filed a formal complaint about a new policy that removed privacy curtains from each cell, leaving women exposed when they exited the shower, used the toilet, or were otherwise in states of undress. Bedford’s incredibly high rate of sexual abuse at the hands of staff made the lack of additional privacy particularly worrisome. In 2020, Bedford unanimously denied Powell’s request to have the curtains restored. When CANY learned about the new policy, they were told by the facility that it was for the women’s own safety. 

“It’s pretty common that prison administrators will cite safety as a reason for changing the rule or reducing a privilege,” said Scaife. “Sometimes I think it’s absolutely true that that’s an excuse and the real reason is more complicated, nuanced, and punitive. In other cases, it’s the discretion of the superintendent or staff and they have their own kind of perspective. So I think it’s complicated and hard to get to the bottom of.”

Ultimately, Scaife says, whether these actions are a result of direct retaliation or not, they can erode the quality of life for women inside and compound the “psychological stress of being incarcerated.” That idea was echoed by Powell who shared that “the only consistency [at Bedford] is inconsistency. I want people to know that the system is not broken, it’s operating exactly the way it is designed.” 

That understanding informs Powell’s work as well as that of anyone who wishes to offer her support. For her, the work was and continues to be about dismantling this system through consistent assertions of our humanity, not simply reforming it. That struggle has taken place both on the streets against violent police departments and inside prison, against threats to her right to privacy. The work for those of us on the outside is to consider the difficulty— and profound loneliness— of that struggle for incarcerated Black women whose stories are shrouded by both prison walls and the patriarchy. And, hopefully, to let that consideration stir us to act.


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