ACD Justice Journal: Stories & Ideas for Liberation

Lessons from Inside Missouri’s Women’s Prisons

Jamitra Fulleord on how human connection informs her work with incarcerated women

By Angelo Vidal

January 11, 2024

“True safety for women of color requires an end to the ‘war on drugs,’ broken windows policing, and the ‘war on terror’; the elimination of gender as a marker of access to public space, public benefits, and protections… and support rather than violence and criminalization for pregnant people and mothers of color.”

—Andrea Ritchie, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color

Only recently has the public conversation around state violence and mass incarceration in the United States begun to pay attention to the experiences of women, and urgently so. Women and girls are the fastest-growing demographic of prisoners, and six times more women sit behind bars today than in 1980. Over half (58%) of women in state prisons have children under the age of 18.

Inside prison walls, women and mothers of color face a myriad of unique challenges compared to their white and or male counterparts. A growing number of scholars, activists, and advocates are working to shed light on these issues and support incarcerated women, including former Equal Justice Works Fellow and current ACD Staff Attorney, Jamitra Fulleord, who joined our staff with a mission to help women imprisoned in Missouri with their civil legal needs.

In October 2023, thanks to StoryCorps, Jamitra and I had the opportunity to sit down in a recording studio and talk about her work with incarcerated women, the ways in which their liberty and wellbeing are compromised, the strategies she uses to support her clients, and ways we can create change.

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. Click play below to listen to the full recording.

What led you to this mission of advocating for women impacted by the carceral system directly after you completed law school?

In all of my legal internships in law school, I worked with incarcerated people, whether that was on class action stuff, helping with medical care for incarcerated people, or helping file petitions to get people who were sentenced as juveniles out of prison early. I just knew that I wanted to work with incarcerated people. It’s an often-overlooked population.

I luckily got to intern with ArchCity Defenders when I was in law school for two semesters, which was great because ACD is such a pillar in the St. Louis region and in Missouri. They were more familiar with the legal landscape than I was as a law student, and they had seen in recent years that Missouri had the fastest growing population of women in the country in prison and that women were being harmed in unique ways by the criminal legal system, so it was like this perfect melding of circumstances where I was able to apply for this fellowship with ACD on this specific project.

Jamitra presenting at the NAACP Legal Forum at the Missouri Department of Corrections – Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, MO

The public conversation around state violence and the impact of the carceral system typically centers Black men, who are killed at the highest rates by these systems. What challenges are you speaking to when you say women are uniquely impacted?

Women face a lot of unique issues in life generally but especially in terms of how they maneuver through the legal system and the carceral system. I’ve seen a lot of them end up in prison because of something that their partner did, and because of the way the laws are set up, they also took a fall for that. A lot of women end up having criminal charges and end up in prison because they were poor. They are maybe overdrawing public benefits because they have to. They have childcare needs that they have to take care of. The social systems and legal systems do not care about that.

Even the people who are in positions of power to help them, in theory, are really doing the exact opposite. In the last couple of years, the Missouri legislature passed a law that will create a prison nursery in the state of Missouri. So what that means is a certain number of women, if they have a child while they’re in custody, their child will be in prison with them. There will be babies in cages in the state of Missouri starting as early as 2025.

What are the strategies you’ve used to support women facing these challenges?

I think just relying less on legal strategies and more on human and empathetic connections with clients so they know that, maybe if the court case doesn’t go the way we wanted to, there’s still someone who believes that they are worthy of a good human experience, of having a relationship with their children or being able to get a job or have access to public benefits. Knowing that even if the Court’s not on their side, there is someone else who is.

Yeah, on the media and policy advocacy side of things, what I hear so often is just how much it means to be heard. Even if we might not reach the legal outcome that we’re going for or we’re not going to pass legislation is really going to make an impact on that on that critical issue throughout the region, it is important to just listen to these experiences that are so real and so important and just acknowledge that they’re happening. That’s the first step.

Yeah, absolutely. One thing that I’ve been able to do as a part of my legal fellowship is facilitate workshops at one of the women’s prisons here. I was able to go to that facility and conduct five workshops for women on various issues like expungements, how to obtain housing, getting an ID or a license, credit issues, and family law. The women who were able to come often had very specific legal questions for their circumstances and I had to make it clear: I’m not your lawyer. I can’t answer specific questions. I can tell you generally how to access the courts or what resources exist for you until you’re able to get an attorney to help you. I bring that up to say that they often understood that I can’t give them specific legal advice but were just grateful that someone was coming into the facility to talk with them, to hear them out, because otherwise they’re just not able to get that information on their own.

I think you spoke to some challenges there, but what, if any, other challenges have you faced in trying to support women impacted by the carceral system?

I recently learned that women at one of the prisons here, they’re not getting their legal mail. So even though I met with them and I sent them an application for services, they can’t get it. And that’s really challenging. At the root of any social support or legal support is communication. Missouri in the last year has changed their mail policy. Families cannot send mail directly to their loved ones anymore. They have to send it to a facility in Florida. It gets scanned into their tablets here in Missouri. So if a child makes a drawing for their parent, they’re getting like a black and white version of that. It’s often cut off. They can’t read it. They can’t feel their loved one’s handwriting, which I know is really meaningful. Even recently, the Missouri Department of Corrections changed their policy about receiving books and other reading materials. Even having basic communication is becoming impossible.

Are there any particular success stories that you want to share from the past two years?

Yeah, I had one client who was an incarcerated trans woman at a men’s facility and I was connected with her from a referral because she wanted to get a divorce. I had never even done a divorce before, but I knew I really wanted to help incarcerated people who don’t have access to those legal resources. Over about a year, we were able to get this divorce accomplished. It wasn’t too difficult of a legal lift, but I like sharing that story because that client has been incarcerated for over a decade now and hasn’t had any visits from family or friends and even though it was a professional relationship, we did really create a positive relationship and I still stay in touch with her even though her case is closed. I keep talking about all the horrible things the Missouri legislature is doing, but they recently passed a law that bans gender affirming care for incarcerated trans folks. And so, one of her big concerns has been, “how am I going to get access to my makeup and the things that make me feel seen as a person?” I’ve been trying to continue helping her with that in the ways that I can, or at least keep her informed.

What advice would you give to those who want to be part of this change and support people most targeted and harmed by the carceral system?

Well, if you’re in the St. Louis area, volunteer with ArchCity Defenders. We have a pretty robust volunteer program and we would love to have your support. Stay informed, be aware of what’s going on in your community. Prisons and jails are purposely kept in the dark, but to the extent you can get information about what’s happening behind those walls, from organizations on the ground, grassroots organizations, legal organizations – I think that’s really important. You can sign up to be a pen pal. That’s really fun and meaningful. Just to have human connection, I think, is at the root of all of this.