“Women are the epicenter of the Earth, without us nothing can happen, and our numbers in the prison population are climbing by 19%,” said mother and criminal justice activist, Shawanna Vaughn, in conversation with candidate for Manhattan District attorney, Lucy Lang.
The conversation, which was moderated by broadcaster Soledad O’Brien, took place as part of a Zoom event in support of Lang’s campaign entitled “Women & Justice”. The event, which took place on the 11th of February, 2021, was dedicated to the idea of bringing women into the conversation surrounding criminal justice.
Backgrounds in Criminal Justice
Both Vaughn and Lang are all too familiar with the faults of the criminal justice system. Vaughn was born in prison,—a place she calls “the new plantation”—spent years in the foster care system, and later returned to prison at 17. She has since dedicated her life to righting the many wrongs she encountered in the prison system through the founding of her organization, Silent Cry Inc, which specializes in criminal justice reform and assists with the aftercare of those affected by mass incarceration. Vaughn is also working to pass her bill, Post Traumatic Prison Disorder Shawanna W76337, a comprehensive policy that would help formerly incarcerated people and their families receive adequate rehabilitation.
Meanwhile, Lang, who, if elected will be the first woman to serve as District Attorney for Manhattan, was inspired to get involved in criminal justice because of her grandfather, a socialist laborer and New York City public school teacher. She’s served as assistant District Attorney for Manhattan, and organizes classes for district attorneys and formerly incarcerated students to study criminal justice side-by-side in New York state prisons; the class has since become a gold standard for those serving district attorney positions in New York.
Criminal Justice Reform
Despite their significantly different backgrounds, the two women began the conversation with their united belief in policy that supports criminal justice reform. This begins with what Lang described as “the principle of human dignity: an understanding that harming people or being harmed is rooted in trauma.” She went on to explain the policies she believes would better implement this principle, starting with removing cases from the system that don’t belong there such as drug use and crimes of poverty, and instead referring them to rehabilitation and social services better equipped to deal with those issues.
When asked about crimes that do belong in the system, such as gun violence, Lang described how a similar principle applies.
“Simply plucking someone off the street and sending them to prison upstate for three years at 17 years old often returns them worse off, and doesn’t stop the retaliatory shooting that’s likely to follow,” she explained, relaying several stories where this has been the case, “This is a great example of an area where we need to expand the tools in our toolchest to get to the root causes of gun violence, and that’s a major investment in on the ground community based resources.”
To Lang, this includes not only government programs but also pavement level organizations such as Silent Cry Inc.
Reforming the Conversation on Criminal Justice Reform
However, both women went on to explain that they want more than the idea of criminal justice reform as we know it. While they covered the issue of decriminalizing non-violent crimes—a topic attuned to the traditional conversation surrounding criminal justice reform—both Vaughn and Lang placed special attention on reform in terms of women’s issues that have not been as extensively explored, especially those that disproportionately affect women of color and those in the LGBTQ+ community. In a way, they believe the conversation surrounding criminal justice reform itself needs reform.
As Vaughn put it, “Women have not been counted in the criminal justice system, there’s no conversation for us…we just got the First Step Act, because there were no laws forbidding you from shackling and chaining a pregnant woman.”
Accounting for Trauma in Criminal Justice Reform
One of the first ways to better account for women in criminal justice reform that Vaughn and Lang discussed was a better approach to trauma and sexual assault, for both women in and out of the prison system.
Lang began by explaining the lack of trauma education given to lawyers dealing with traumatized women, as she recounted a story of a sexual assault victim who was asked to meet her lawyers in a hotel room, even though her assault had taken place in a hotel room, thus leading her to a traumatic panic attack.
“The conversation of policy reform is informed by this presumption that lawyers can solve all the problems, but what survivors have stood up and said is, ‘No they can’t, and they definitely can’t do it without me,’” said Lang
Vaughn, on the other hand, touched on the issue of sexual assault in the prison community, as she explained that “50% of the women [she] was in prison with had already been sexually assaulted. Nobody ever addressed their trauma. Then they went to prison where there’s a rape culture, and they were re-traumatized.”
Lang laid out several ways to address the issue of sexual assault and trauma in criminal justice reform, such as a a curriculum to teach lawyers about trauma, as well as reevaluating prostitution and sex trafficking laws to ensure women having consensual sex (even if it’s commercial,) or victims of sexual violence, do not end up in the prison system.
The Role of the Family in Criminal Justice Reform
Another area of interest for the two women that often goes overlooked in conversations about criminal justice reform is the effect an incarcerated mother has on a family.
“When women go to prison their relationship with their children will not be maintained, and that is detrimental,” said Vaughn, “We have to create a system that does not break maternal bonds, even if a person is incarcerated, because you will tear apart generations after that.”
These maternal bonds are especially affected by the location of New York prisons, which has become a focus for Lang, as she explained that the majority of New York’s prisons are very far from the city, even though the most of the prison population is originally from the city. While losing contact with a mother in prison is shown to create a cycle of incarceration in families, corrections officials do not prioritize placing mothers in prisons closer to their families.
“There are 80,000 kids in New York State who have an incarcerated parent. Why we are not doubling down resources on those kids is an absolute mystery to me, because that is an investment in long term public safety, because those kids are among the most at risk kids in our state,” she exclaimed.
An Optimistic Future for Criminal Justice
Despite all the faults of the system, Vaughn and Lang ended their conversation with a message of hope for the future of criminal justice, especially with district attorneys and policies that consider every member of New York’s community.
Vaughn referred back to her personal motto to “walk through [her] battles with an optimistic lens,” before explaining that since she’s been at the bottom, optimism is the only way forward.
“I have to believe that if I stand by the people who believe in the things I believe in, we can holistically turn this around for everybody. If we can turn around New York, we can turn around other states, and we can turn this country into a better place.”
Lang echoed the sentiment as she relayed the story of Valerie Bell, who lost her son to a police shooting. “I draw my inspiration from the moms who are out there doing the work to make the system better, who’ve experienced the most unspeakable losses. If Valerie Bell can get up and try to make the city better everyday, I sure better try,” she explained.
The conversation ended with a reminder that change often begins with who you have in power, something that voters should remember when the Manhattan primary rolls around on June 22nd.