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Interview with Jacq Williams, Michigan Criminal Justice Program Associate

Jacq Williams, AFSC Michigan Program Associate
Jacq Williams is a program associate with the AFSC Michigan Criminal Justice Program. Photo: AFSC

Jacqueline (Jacq) Williams recently began as Program Associate with the AFSC Michigan Criminal Justice Program. In this interview, she talks about her background, motivations, and excitement for work with AFSC.

Q: Please tell us about your background and how you got involved.

About three years ago, I started to do a lot of work around pregnancy and incarceration, researching what that looks like in Michigan. I connected with AFSC at that time to learn more about the work and the carceral system in Michigan – and I started volunteering here about the same time.

I built a team of women who are really interested in working with pregnant women who are incarcerated in Michigan. Through contact with the women inside and asking them what they would like in a project, addressing some of the pretty substantial current issues, we developed a model for a program that would provide counseling, education and doula support.

A doula is a trained childbirth attendant who provides physical, emotional and educational support during the childbirth process, from pre-natal to post-partum.

We worked really hard on building that project out and writing a proposal. I became executive director as we fell into our roles. The project was approved last year by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) and officially implemented early this year. I was the co-founder and executive director during the building stages while at the same time volunteering at AFSC.

Once the program was off and running, I shifted onto its board; then a position came open at AFSC and I applied.

Q: What drew you to working with pregnant women in prison? Why did you get involved?

I was an environmental justice activist for many years and did a lot of work all around the country. I did some other work around extraordinary rendition, pre-carceral incarceration, that kind of thing.

I participated in a couple land occupations around pipeline building; the largest of those was Standing Rock. There were several pregnant women in the area where I was staying. I spent the whole winter there, working with women and children in a yurt village. It was pretty stark – the effect of governmental control on pregnant women.

And I has also just had my own daughter about a year before, so I had gotten really interested in what that intersection looked like in my own state. In 2016 I started doing a lot of research on that and started to build the project out in 2017.

Q: How many pregnant women are incarcerated in Michigan? How many women in general are in Michigan prisons?

Generally in prison the average is between 20-40 per year. We’re slated to hit the higher end of that number this year. Jail data is often sketchy and unreliable; it’s also much more transient as people move in and out of jails in a way that’s different than prisons, so it’s difficult to get those numbers. We do know there are dozens more who move in and out of the jail system. So it hovers around 50 in Michigan, though it’s more if you count detention centers, youth facilities, etc. Right now there are 2144 women in the one women’s prison in Michigan. They’re licensed for 1800 in the facility.

Q: In Iowa, we had a struggle many years ago around the issue of shackling incarcerated women during childbirth. It’s seems impossibly cruel. Can you talk about that?

In Michigan, there’s no shackling during active labor, but there is shackling in transport and up to active labor and then after active labor. There’s a lot of struggle around ending those shackling policies, but so far the fight has not been won. It’s up to the discretion of the correctional officers and the medical practitioners post-partum. But there are still several states in the country that shackle during active labor. People really don’t think about these kinds of things. And when they hear about it, they say, “That can’t be true.” But it is.

Q: Is there a story of anyone which you’d like to share?

There’s a real pattern of people we see going through this process. Generally they’re young, rural, from under-resourced counties who are mostly substance users and have been convicted of substance abuse crimes. We see judges using incarceration as what they see as a harm-reduction model. We have people who’ve been incarcerated for drugs or small things like tampering with an electronic monitoring device. We can establish patterns from these counties of judges sentencing women to prison because they’re pregnant.

We just had a case in Michigan which you can Google. The person was sentenced to 13 months for tampering with an electronic monitoring device. Her original charge was drugs. After she tampered the device, the judge basically said, “Well, she’s likely going to relapse anyway. So even though she wasn’t using drugs at time, I’m going to sentence her to prison because she’s pregnant, to save the fetus.”

A discrimination case was filed, and a court of appeals overturned the conviction, but the woman still had to give birth while incarcerated. She had two other kids at home, and then faced this really difficult and inhumane circumstance of giving birth inside. She was then released, thankfully, shortly after her conviction was overturned.

Q: Let’s shift to what you’re doing with AFSC, how it’s going, and what your goals are longer-term.

It was a pretty seamless transition because I’d been volunteering here for almost three years and learned a crazy amount in that time – about how the work is done, how the carceral system works, what the front-end and back-end processes look like. [Current AFSC Michigan staff] Natalie and Demetrius have a huge wealth of knowledge, so under their direction I’ve understood the way to approach things and what different sectors control what things. Also the challenges we’re looking at when we try to make systemic changes.

I started working on some special projects with Natalie with young men who’ve been incarcerated way past their earliest release date who are held in segregation in one of the up-north prisons. Addressing them individually, but trying to change a really systemic problem. Talking them through the processes of lowering their security level, reducing their “points,” getting them into different programs, and eventually getting their paroles.

We’ve also started working together on issues of people with gender dysphoria in the MDOC. That was concurrent with the new policy directive that came out in 2017. AFSC Michigan monitored the roll out of that very closely and identified things that were still happening at the ground level.

All of that work, including work around life sentences, that I’d already dipped my toes into – then, when I was hired on, to spend a lot of time and flush out those projects with Natalie and work towards what we’re going to do to address those things.

It definitely overlaps with work with pregnant women and legislative changes for the way we address pregnant women and care takers in the carceral system. So I’ve been diving deep into projects that have already started, and start other new projects that are urgent.

Q: Why should people on the outside care about people in prison?

That’s a question many people ask. We can point to the theoretical ideas like, “You shouldn’t look at a society and judge them by how they treat their most revered citizens, but by how they treat their lowest ones.” We have a tendency to judge people based on the worst thing they’ve ever done instead of working toward restoring people, addressing the harm that was done to the community, restoring victims and people who’ve been impacted by crime.

Instead, our society looks towards a punishment model. The same goes for parenting, too – we’re a very punitive society. We tend to punish people, lock them away and throw them away. As we can see by the massive numbers of people who’ve been incarcerated and affected by this system, it’s clearly not working. It ripples far out into communities in ways we probably don’t even think about.

Not just financially – and it costs $44,000 per person per year to incarcerate people, and there are 39,000 people incarcerated in Michigan – you can do the math on that. But we’ve removed whole generations of people from our communities who would be able to contribute in really meaningful ways. Some of the smartest thinkers and most creative minds have been locked away because of a profoundly racist and classist system that we all agree to participate in.

If we’re going to heal our communities in really substantial and meaningful ways, we’re going to have to start with the people we’ve deemed unredeemable. If you care about humanity at all, you need to care about the folks who also made mistakes. We can all relate to the fact that trauma has been really pervasive in our communities, and those folks who are seen as “perpetrators” are often the people who’ve been the most victimized at the same time.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m really grateful for this opportunity to work here with AFSC. This program is incredible and does a lot of work that other programs don’t do. This program does “in-the-pipeline” prison work. There are a lot of folks focused on re-entry, and some focused on diversion, and it’s easy to blink and look away from the people who are suffering right here, right now.

AFSC’s work is very personal and very individualized, but also we also work on a larger level by establishing patterns, addressing the issues that are happening within the system, with the people experiencing them – and not just coming from an outside perspective and thinking you can fix something without really talking with the people who are experiencing it. So that’s something about this program that always drew me to it, and the legacy carries pretty far.

Q: Thank you for your time and effort. It’s such important work. Please know how much we appreciate it. We’re so grateful you’re with us and for the work you’re doing.

Thank you.