Written by Owen Lyman-Schmidt for Philadelphia City Paper
March 26, 2015
In the last 35 years, Pennsylvania’s state prison population has risen by more than 550 percent, an unprecedented increase now known as mass incarceration. The overwhelming majority of those prisoners are men, but RELEASE, an exhibit at the offices of the Leeway Foundation open through June 30, highlights the often overlooked stories of women caught up in the same juggernaut of prison expansion.
The first half of the exhibit is a series of portraits from local painter Mary DeWitt, who has been working with female prisoners serving life sentences at SCI Muncy since the late 1980s.
Case summaries are scrawled in the margins of each portrait, but it’s the accompanying audio clips that deliver a more powerful blow. These clips are not claims of innocence or legal defenses. Instead, DeWitt has chosen stories of childhood memories, frustrated dreams and resilience — compelling testimony to the humanity and personality of the women depicted in her raw, close-up portraits. Critiques of the state aren’t necessarily explicit, but DeWitt is happy to articulate them in person.
“It’s become a documentation of the United States prison system,” she says. “It’s particularly interesting since Pennsylvania has the most juvenile lifers in the world.”
She’s referring to the fact that Pennsylvania holds a tenth of all the people in the United States serving life without parole, and almost a fifth of those who received that sentence as a juvenile. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court found mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles to be unconstitutional, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court blocked retroactive re-sentencing, leaving women like Sharon Wiggins, featured in two portraits, to die in prison in 2013 after being denied commutation 13 times.
“Each of their stories is like a microcosm of how mass incarceration happened in this country and what a mistake it is,” says DeWitt. “I like the idea of them just telling their stories, so that it isn’t polarizing, it just is.”
If DeWitt hopes to show, Mariame Kaba and Rachel Caidor are happy to tell. They co-curated No Selves to Defend, the second half of the exhibit, which is less a collection of portraits and more a historical survey of women of color who were criminalized for their response to gendered violence.
It begins in 1855 with Celia, a slave in Missouri convicted of murdering the man who owned and raped her from the age of 14. A judge denied her claim to self-defense on the grounds that she was property, and therefore had “no self to defend.” From this point of departure the exhibit follows the stories of 16 women, until it reaches Marissa Alexander.
In 2012, Alexander was convicted in Florida on multiple counts of assault with a deadly weapon for firing a licensed gun when threatened by her estranged husband. Her defense team said it was a warning shot against a longtime abuser. A judge agreed with the prosecution that Alexander seemed angry, not fearful, and a jury found her guilty in 12 minutes.
“This country is still invested in an idea of people who are not fully human. That influences who has ground to stand on,” Caidor says. “A Black person is never going to be the ideal victim.”
For women and transgender people of color, living at that intersection of racial and gendered oppression can mean being a target for both sexual violence and state violence, a fact even their defenders often fail to recognize.
“Either people mobilize along the lines of race and ethnicity, or people mobilize around the lines of gender oppression,” Caidor explains, citing the defense committees of Joan Little and Inez Garcia as notable exceptions. She calls those collaborations a “moment that happened in history,” a moment she notes “is not happening now.”
“While the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining momentum and gaining visibility, it’s still largely focused on the way the criminal legal system comes down on cisgendered black men,” says Caidor. “When Marissa’s case came up, there wasn’t the outcry one would expect from national groups for women who are suffering domestic violence. We need to think through why that cross-issue solidarity has fallen off.”
The portraits in No Selves to Defend, rendered beautifully in distinct but largely compatible styles by nine different artists, are supposed to inspire us to take up the cause.
“We’re living in a time where art is crucial because it gives us a language that our words don’t necessarily cover,” says Caidor. “It gives us a point of entry that’s gentle, but also confrontational enough that it makes us think.”
RELEASE through June 30, by appointment, Leeway Foundation, 1315 Walnut St., Suite 832, 215-545-4078, leeway.org.
Image Credit: Maria Pouchnikova