The New York Liberty put a spotlight on the mass incarceration of women, a significant issue that often doesn’t get a great deal of attention, during a series of events leading up to its third annual UNITY Day game Sunday, August 11 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Liberty forward Tina Charles, appearing before a panel Thursday featuring three formerly incarcerated women calling for the need for dramatic criminal justice reform, spoke about why she and her teammates are using their platform to raise awareness about critical social issues.
“As New Yorkers, we know the importance of using our voice and advocating for what we believe in in order to see change,” said Charles.
This year’s events follow the dedication of the Liberty team in tackling some of the toughest challenges affecting society. In 2016, the women of the Liberty wore #BlackLivesMatter T-shirts to protest the deaths of black men and women in police-involved shootings; in 2017, they focused on racial equality and gun violence and in 2018, they continued their focus on unity and equality.
“UNITY Day started a few years back when we got tired of seeing black and brown individuals being killed by police at an alarming rate. So, we decided to take matters into our own hands, and we created shirts that said “Black Lives Matter.” Even though we received a lot of great attention from media, community and fans, we were fined by the WNBA,” said Charles.
The league later rescinded the fines and showed a great deal of support for the team’s cause. Liberty guard Tanisha Wright, who appeared alongside Charles at the panel, added, “We are blessed and grateful to have the platform that we have, so we plan on continuing to carry the torch for social injustice for years to come.”
The panel, which took place Thursday at YWCA Brooklyn kicking off the UNITY Day events, was titled “Forgotten Behind Bars: Women’s Health Care, Family and Representation.” The stats are alarming and not very well known: Between 1980 and 2017, there was a more than 700% increase in the number of women in prison and jails, according to The Sentencing Project.
According to the formerly incarcerated women who participated on the panel, many women behind bars have not even been convicted and are awaiting trial.
“There are people sitting in jail because they simply can’t afford bail. There are women in there who were caught stealing pampers for their babies,” said Topeka K. Sam, who has devoted her life since being released from federal prison in 2015 to helping the formerly incarcerated and fighting for the decarceration of women and girls. She is the founder and executive director of The Ladies of Hope Ministries and co-founder of Hope House NYC, a community for formerly incarcerated women.
One of the biggest challenges for formerly incarcerated women is finding housing, said Jamila T. Davis, who served 12 ½ years in prison.
“Every place I have applied to live after I was released did a background check, and it’s their choice to accept you or not. For me, I still can’t get an apartment even though I can afford it,” said Davis, an author, motivational speaker and television personality who is co-founder of Women Over Incarcerated, which works to raise awareness about the lengthy sentences of non-violent female federal offenders and rally for sentencing reform.
Eighty percent of women incarcerated every year are mothers like Davis, who was incarcerated when her children were ages 9 and 11. Steven Montoya, who is part of the Echoes of Incarceration film project focusing on how incarceration of parents affects their children, saw his mother go to prison when he was just 5 years old.
“Through the Echoes of Incarceration film project, we have shed light on an issue that many people don’t even know is a problem,” said Montoya at the panel.
Other panelists included Martha Kamber, chief executive officer and president of the YWCA Brooklyn and Robert Weisberg, professor of law at Stanford University and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
The New York Liberty’s UNITY Day programming also included three pre-game events before the Liberty took on the Seattle Storm:
- Youth Basketball Clinic for children of incarcerated families
- WOWsdom! workshop featuring girls and young women along with women leaders who wrote letters to their younger selves for the book “WOWsdom! The girl’s guide to the Positive and the Possible,” the brainchild of Donna Orender, former president of the WNBA
- BOUNCE performance focusing on the trauma gun violence wreaks on individuals and their families and in communities across the country
During the game against the Seattle Storm in front of 7,715 fans, statistics about the incarceration of women and video excerpts from Thursday’s panel were also showcased to the audience.
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