Pivoting off the success of Orange Is the New Black, a South by Southwest panel Saturday brought in four women who have served time in prison to discuss reforming—even eliminating—America’s massive incarceration system.
The four women advertised themselves as having served 200 months of prison time between the four of them, all for non-violent, money-focused crimes like laundering or wire fraud.
One of the women, Teresa Hodge, has started an organization called Mission: Launch, Inc., to help people who have been convicted of crimes and released get back on their feet with technological training and entrepreneurship. The panelists took sharp note of the fact that having a criminal record as a felon will shut them out of many jobs, even if their crimes bore no relationship with the work that they did. Panelist Pamela Keye, for example, said she cannot restore certification to work in education, though her conviction was for money laundering. “I served my time, and yet the civic death caused by my incarceration makes me feel like I’m eternally serving a life sentence,” she said.
Panelist Andrea James noted that the conviction also makes it a challenge for women released out of prison to find new affordable housing and regain custody of their children. She knew of women who were still living in shelters two years after release because they couldn’t secure housing or jobs. Evie Litwok, who went to prison for at the age of 60, said she hasn’t been able to secure any work post-release despite her decades of skills developed prior to incarceration. They also levied a healthy amount of criticism of the drug war as a primary cause of female incarceration, James going so far as to call for the legalization of all drugs, period.
It was interesting to see them keep hammering on the issues that so heavily intersect with government regulations overseeing who may be licensed to work in various occupations, because it is a jarring counterpoint to a government panel earlier in the day, “When the Sharing Economy Is Taken Away.” That panel focused on government control and regulation over the sharing economy as a way of making sure the rules reflect the values of the communities they’re serving. It focused on Austin here, which implemented a fingerprinting ordinance for ride-share drivers that prompted Lyft and Uber to exit the market.
This was apparently seen as a good thing as a way to prevent massive corporations like Uber from cutting corners or operating on the cheap to maximize profits. But absolutely nobody expressed any concerns that this regulatory demand, based as much on fear as actual risk, could further make it harder for the likes of the released prisoners the “United State of Incarcerated Women” were focused on to get back on their feet and become self-sufficient again.