Hi. This is Julia with “Prison: the Hidden Sentence”. And I’m at the International Prisoners Family Conference and I’m sitting here with Dawn, who wants to share a great story with us. Dawn, thank for joining me.
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Dawn: Thank you for asking me. This is my first time at this conference and really talking about my story publicly.
Julia: You were telling me that you’re involved with several agencies and that you’ve done some work in the deaf community?
Dawn: Yes, I’m a sign language interpreter. I was doing a program called “The Alternatives to Violence Project”. And that brought me into Attica Correctional Facility. That was a really wonderful experience. I went in really with the concern of prison abolition, knowing that the incarceration rates in this country are outrageous and I wanted to hear people who were incarcerated and what they would say about transforming the system.
Dawn: So this program brought me into the prison and I worked with many prisoners inside and that was an eye-opening experience. Since then, I met my husband in there. I wouldn’t recommend going into … I mean, it happens. That’s how life and love is. It’s unexpected that I met my current husband in Attica Correctional Facility. Fortunately, he’s no longer in there, but he’s still incarcerated. He’s in a medium facility and he comes up for parole in 2021.
Julia: Bet you’re looking forward to that date.
Dawn: Yeah. Can’t come soon enough. There’s only four states that allow for conjugal visits and New York is one of them. I believe it’s Connecticut, Washington, and California. So you can actually have a few days of privacy. Unfortunately, our request to transfer to a facility with access to that was denied, so I don’t think we’ll have an opportunity to have any privacy. So I have been with him three years. It’s not a guarantee he will get out. I don’t know if we’ll have any private moments together, which is challenging because not only are there no private moments, but it’s just basic human affection, when we display it, like maybe I rub your shoulder. Suddenly, there’s correction officers, telling me that’s inappropriate and we’re getting a warning and it’s just very inhumane of course, among other things.
Julia: A lot of times they just let you have a greeting in the beginning and then a greeting when you leave. When you’re sitting there talking to each other, especially for spouses, or people in a relationship, that it’s difficult to not just reach over and touch them.
Dawn: Right, it’s very hard when you’ve been apart, it’s a part of the human need. Human connection and affection and then it’s in a huge cafeteria style thing. It’s very loud, very distracting, but I’m grateful that there’s the opportunity be together because a lot of people at this conference that I’ve met have a lot less opportunity to talk and to visit than I do. So, I’m not going to have any private time with him. I realized from coming here, how much more dire it is in some of these states. They get two hours once a week or three times a month. And they only get one call. Some only get three calls a week, whereas we can call more fortunately right now, that could change I guess. So that’s why my phone bills are very expensive. Very, very costly at times. But it’s worth it to keep that connection.
Julia: Keeping the prison family together is important. And the more people I talk to and the more we discuss it, the more I really see it. We’ll, stay in touch. I know it’s 2021, but we’ll have to talk about your experience when he’s released.
Dawn: Yes, and he already has plans. I’ve been having him participate in other way for him to stay connected during this. He would call in and he would listen to the beginning of a talk so he got to hear other presenters and I had him talk to a few people on speakerphone. So he got to feel like he was part of it.
Julia: That’s wonderful
Dawn: He’s already had some presentation ideas. He’s like, “Oh we should do something and we should talk about this,” and so, he’s feeling included and got his brain going on how he can contribute to this conference in the future, what they could do to help the prison families. That would be wonderful. They’re thinking about it more too. So I’m glad he could be part of it with me.
Julia: Also raising awareness and teaching people, I think that’ll be important. Have you started planning for his re-entry?
Dawn: Yes, so I’m fortunate to find this group out of New York and they are wonderful. And even if they can’t support everyone out there listening who might benefit from their program, they could give some fabulous ideas how people can prepare for parole. It’s called the “Parole Preparation Project“. I took a training with them, and I became a volunteer myself, working with other applicants who have life sentences with the possibility of parole.
Dawn: So, we help people so they have their re-entry plans in order. They have their letters of assurances that they need for when they get out. They have extra reference from our organization that we’ve met with them. We help them prepare for some of the questioning. We do some mock interviews for parole, some of the hard questions they’re going to be asked. So that was great to contribute back to the community by volunteering with them. They’re have terrific activities and support for people. And then also it’s personal for me. They’re training me along the way and my husband. I think other people could check them out and see what they have to offer no matter where you are.
Dawn: But I know parole varies state to state. And our rates went from 23% release rate for initial appearances, so they were only letting 23% out on their initial appearances as of a year ago and through all the work of the advocates pushing for reform and holding the parole board accountable to let people out, it went up 50% in almost a year increase, they’ve increased 25% or more. So that was good success.
Julia: So people do have a voice.
Julia: And sometimes people out there feel helpless, but as you can see, when we join together, we can make a difference and help our loved ones.
Dawn: Absolutely. They wanted to stop packages in New York and it was another thing. Many agencies got together. They wanted to make it all vendor-only packaging that would come into the prison, and really that’s so hard on families because you have to pay the extra shipping and the food costs through the vendors is sometimes three, four, five times more than it would be on the street, and you can’t use if people are on food stamps or social services. You can’t just go and get the cheapest things at Walmart or use food stamps to buy things, you know? So then they’re not going to have decent food and it was taking away fresh fruits and vegetables. And we fought it. There was so much outrage about it, so we really do organize pretty well in New York. I’m pretty happy about that. But there’s always more to do. Still a big mountain to climb here.
Julia: That’s why it’s so important, too, for the different groups to keep in touch and work together.
Dawn: Yes, and that’s why this conference has been wonderful, to meet people from all over and the inspiration and the creativity and the strength that everyone brings in the various projects they’re working on. It’s given me ideas and hope and it’s been a great experience. Maybe it’s going be in New York next year and I’m really excited about that.
Julia: Yes, we’ll have to see. If not next year, maybe the year after.
Dawn: Okay. Well, one of these days.
Julia: No, I think that would be great.
Dawn: Not that Dallas, Texas hasn’t been wonderful and everyone here, just that cross pollinating. Different communities and meeting different people even more so.
Julia: I think we can get some sponsors, too.
Dawn: Are there sponsors out there? Are you listening? Please help us. And come to New York.
Julia: That would be great to get some sponsors so we can have more people come, especially the people that want to be here, but because of their situations or whatever, can’t make it. That would be awesome.
Julia: When we first started talking earlier at our table, we were talking about ASL and sign language. And that you had done some signing for some inmates?
Dawn: Yes, there was a program at a facility in western New York that has a deaf unit. It’s Wende Correctional Facility. One of the units in the facility tries to put all of the deaf prisoners on that wing. It’s quite a spectrum of deafness. They might be more English signing or American Sign Language, and some, just through the violence that happens in prison or maybe they got beat. They have lost their hearing from head injury and they don’t have any sign language.
Dawn: We were trying to bring a signed program to people who may be absolutely excluded from other programs. So we did two, three-day ABP workshops and it was very successful. Once I got married, once I had a connection with someone inside, I couldn’t be a volunteer anymore, so that changed. But I don’t know if someone else is doing it. It’s a lot of commitment. Those workshops were pretty long, but maybe there’s a way for people to go. There’s clearly a population that’s going to be left out and excluded from a lot of things.
Dawn: Matter of fact, some of the guys I met in there, it was a maximum security, they were really at medium security status, but they were thrown in there because they didn’t where to put them and they thought it might be better for them to be in a maximum.
Dawn: The staff isn’t often trained. So even though they have this unit, the COs don’t necessarily care. And if they bark and order and the guys don’t respond, they think they’re being defiant or intentionally being ignored, and they might smack ’em again. And that’s the last thing they need is another injury but … it was a good program.
Julia: I get it. As I get older, my hearing isn’t what it used to be, so, I could imagine being in there and not hearing somebody.
Dawn: And I get a lot of calls because I’m a sign language interpreter to video phone company and a lot of the calls that we take are from prisoners who only have access to TTY. So they’re calling me because they can only use TTY to call their deaf partner on a video phone. So, I’m interpreting between a deaf couple, but they haven’t caught up in the prison system yet with video phones. Sometimes in the county jails, maybe you see that. I’ve seen some deaf callers on the video phone calling a hearing partner. But they don’t have access int he same way, so that system is behind. So that’s a part of it too.
Julia: I remember way back being at my aunt’s house and she was deaf. And the TTY for people that aren’t familiar with it, it used to be like a typewriter, now it’s probably on a iPhone type thing. And you can type your messages. You dial in, you type your message, and then it goes through to the other person. But if they don’t have that system set up, there’s an in between person that does the interpretation so they can relay it.
Dawn: Well, now, the TTY, I think, is almost extinct except for probably in places like that because with all the technology, it’s so easy for people to do their own various apps, FaceTime, those Skype type things. I’m sure there’s one I can’t think of now that more deaf people are using, sending video clips and video. We chat on text. They do a video clip and someone can watch it later. So there’s a lot of options like that. And the video phone is free. Anyone can get it 24/7. You can have an interpreter through your TV or your iPhone. I get deaf callers driving, signing and Uber drivers or what not. And so they have so much more access than they ever did. So no one wants to type anymore. They just want a quick sign to get their message out. It’s a lot faster and easier.
Julia: I was watching on the news the other day, they were talking about the hurricane that’s out and there was somebody that was signing next to the Governor.
Dawn: They usually have that. I always feel sorry for those interpreters because either they get a lot of publicity for being incompetent and doing a horrible job, and then that has to be humiliating. Or they get a lot of fame and get on Saturday Night Live. Like “Look at this amazing interpreter” and then they get a whole new career, which is great, but it’s too much high publicity for me. I think I like to stay off the radar either way for sure. But it’s necessary when we need a qualified good interpreters when they’re giving such important messages. Most definitely.
Julia: Well, I think it’s good what you do. I mean, that you did have an opportunity to help people in prison using your talent as an interpreter and also that you are supporting your loved one that’s incarcerated and making a difference and we will keep in touch.
Dawn: Yes. Hopefully next time I’m on your show, Jose and I can talk together and we can share our story. We could share his story. And thank you. Thank you for doing this, taking off some of the stigma and giving people a voice. It’s a terrific show. I’m going to listen to it more. I have to be honest. I didn’t know about it before this conference, but this is part of how we unite and connect and start learning about each other. So I will support the show and thank you. Thanks for this opportunity.