November 16, 2021

Four of our women clemency clients between them have started a hospice program, worked in the dog training program, and completed dozens of classes.

They all deserve consideration for release, and we renew our assertion that executive clemency should focus on who people are today rather than who they were. They deserve justice.

A few facts:

  • According to The Sentencing Project, the female incarcerated population remains more than seven times higher than in 1980. More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.1)
  • There are approximately 219,000 incarcerated women in the US according to a November 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, and the rate of incarceration of women in the United States is at a historic and global high, with 133 women in correctional facilities per every 100,000 female citizens.
  • Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense. Twenty-six percent of women in prison have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 13% of men in prison; 24% of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime, compared to 16% among incarcerated men.
  • The proportion of imprisoned women convicted of a drug offense has increased from 12% in 1986 to 26% in 2018.

Starting in May 2020, the ACLU of Kansas began filing clemency applications for early release on behalf of individuals incarcerated in the Kansas Department of Corrections’ overcrowded and ill-equipped facilities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The project evolved over the course of the year and shifted towards reimagining how governors use their executive authority to correct the ongoing injustices in our criminal legal system as broad reform can be so slow.

As we inch closer to 2022, and the two year mark of this pandemic, we are renewing our calls to reexamine our criminal legal system and the our distorted conceptions of “justice.” Today, we’re shining a light on a group of people deeply impacted, yet often forgotten: the women in KDOC custody.

The Women Left Behind

Women’s incarceration rates have grown at twice the pace of men’s incarceration rates in recent decades, and has disproportionately been located in local jails. Though many more men are in prison than women, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980. There are 1.2 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

This system, which has become so proficient at incarceration, locks up women with gusto, intertwining issues of patriarchal control with the racism deeply impeded in criminal procedures and processes.

This intersectional lens is critical to understand the impact of these last two years on women of color incarcerated in our state. In 2019, for example, the imprisonment rate for African American women (83 per 100,000) was over 1.7 times the rate of imprisonment for white women (48 per 100,000). Latinx women were imprisoned at 1.3 times the rate of white women (63 vs. 48 per 100,000).

The vast majority of our clemency clients are men. But four are women: mothers, sisters, wives, friends, whose lives and accomplishments we often ignore or tuck away into quieter corners of discussions. These clients deserve consideration for release, and deserve recognition.

Here are their stories.

Lacey Hutto and Sarah Jaillite

Lacey Hutto and Sarah Jaillite, for example, are serving time in the Topeka Correctional Facility for nonviolent drug and nonviolent property crimes respectively.

For Lacey, her possession and distribution convictions mean she doesn’t qualify for the program credits other incarcerated women accumulate in building a case for release. Still, she has worked consistently for an outside, City of Topeka crew, an indication of the trust the Department of Corrections has in her.

At 39, Lacey suffers from a chronic medical condition for which there is no cure. Lacey looks forward to reconnecting with her family – her mom, her sister and her kids – whom she said has stuck by her tirelessly. Her 24-year-old daughter is deaf, she said, and has had a hard time without her.Her father and brother have since passed away.

Outside the prison, Lacey plans to see a drug counselor, enroll in a 12-step recovery program, and seek more medical vigilance than she currently receives for her illness while in KDOC custody.

“I also want to engage as an advocate for criminal justice reform,”

Sarah has completed a 12-step recovery program as well as Celebrate Recovery (a faith-based treatment program), and an active parenting program with the Urban Ministry of Topeka. She’s also managed to make her child support payments while incarcerated.

Sarah has prepared intently for a successful transition back into the community.

She has taken steps to get her drivers license reinstated, she’s been a part of the Free Running Club and helped organize multiple, charity 5K races.

She’s also found a vocation in coding. She enrolled in a 12-month, software engineering program and has earned a master certification in Microsoft Office. She’s also completed the Introduction to Cognitive Thinking course as the Washburn School of Law.

Like Lacey, Sarah plans to lean on family and settle into substance abuse programs upon release. Sarah believes the regular counselling sessions will steady her life.

But she also wants to push for reform.

“I also want to engage as an advocate for criminal justice reform,” Sarah said in her clemency application. “I really connected with my course at Washburn and would like to advocate for reform in how the judicial system approaches addiction and sentencing guidelines.”

There’s much to advocate for.

Twenty-four percent of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime compared to 16 percent among incarcerated men. The proportion of imprisoned women convicted of a drug offense has increased from 12 percent in 1986 to 26 percent in 2018.

Lacey and Sarah each embody a troubling predicate in our criminal justice system: we tend to harshly punish the people most in need of our help.

Debbie Meyer

Debbie Meyer, 55, always has been small, but she’s now down to 90 pounds and she suffers from a host of medical issues, including Lupus (an autoimmune disease), cystic fibrosis, and COPD. These ailments carry with them persistent fears of the still-morphing COVID-19 virus.

In 1999, while in the Shawnee County Jail, she fell backwards down a 15-foot flight of stairs and has since suffered hearing loss in one ear as well as seizures.

Debbie worries about her health and whether she will get to see her 84-year-old mother in New Mexico who also is in declining health. Her mother and her brother have said she could live with them if she is released.

She resides in the low-medium security unit of the Topeka Correctional Facility, incarcerated for more than 20 years for a manslaughter conviction.

In that time, she’s done remarkable rehabilitative work, completing programs on literacy, interpersonal violence, dialectical behavioral therapy, money management, family transition and introduction to cognitive change and readiness. She’s also done group and aftercare counseling.

Debbie also has worked hard in every job she’s had there, from working on the yard crew as a gardener, working in the kitchen or even in her work training dogs.

Given the fragility of her health and the work she’s put in over the years to rehabilitate herself, she poses no threat to the community. She deserves serious consideration for early release.

Still, she worries about how much time she has left to pursue a new life.

If released, she said she plans to take care of her mother, enroll in continuous mental health and substance abuse counseling and support classes through a nonprofit organization there in New Mexico, and fine tune her skills as a sign language interpreter.

Debbie has numerous nephews, a daughter and son-in-law and six grandchildren in addition to her mother and brother, she said, who all want to see her.

She has deep family support, immediate job prospects and a detailed plan for stability.

All she needs now, is a second chance.

Donise Johnson

Donise Johnson has seen three women die with her at their bedside as a hospice worker at the Topeka Correctional Facility.

“I have learned there is a series of emotions or stages of grief that a person goes through before they die,” Donise said in her clemency application. “That pain is never easy to endure alone – and should not be. Where there is support, that burden is shared and carried, together.”

“I have demonstrated a sincere and deep commitment to my community here.”

Donise, 48, remains incarcerated for crimes she committed in 1993 when she was 20 years old. As she comforts people as their lives ebb, she’s hoping for a life beyond her mistakes as a young woman, a life beyond prison.

“I’m very different from the 20-year-old girl who was first incarcerated,” she said in her application. “I have demonstrated a sincere and deep commitment to my community here.”

She remembers fondly a woman named “T,” a woman with terminal cancer officials asked her and another resident to sit with. Donise remembers T as bubbly, confident and energetic at first, as though she didn’t believe she was dying.

But as T’s condition worsened, confining her to her bed, the other resident stopped visiting T, an abandonment that hurt the dying woman. Donise reassured T she wouldn’t abandon her and was at her side when T died four months later.

Donise has had her own cancer scare.

Doctors diagnosed her with uterine cancer in 2015. While she is post-op, she has not received the care she needs to properly monitor whether and where the cancer might return.

Over the years, Donise has completed numerous courses and programs including Kansas State University’s food nutrition education program, art therapy, parenting, coping skills, growing through loss and grief, Microsoft computer classes, as well as the Kennel Club where she prepared dogs, Saint, Mike, and Harper for their forever homes.

She also learned to crochet and has produced lots of hats and booties for the new babies in her family back in New Jersey, where she hopes to relocate upon her release. There, she’d live with her parents and return to the Jehovah’s Witness community there.

After finding work, she plans in three-month increments to find an apartment, enroll in a community college or technical school, and buy a car.

And most important, find and start a new life.