by Marie Condron
Sue Castagnetto remembers how she somewhat accidentally began crossing over, working with women in prisons in the early 2000s. She was continuing a legacy of prison work among Scripps students and faculty that began more than four decades ago. Castagnetto, director of The Claremont Colleges’ Intercollegiate Feminist Center for Teaching, Research, and Engagement (IFC), earned her PhD in philosophy from Stanford University and joined Scripps in 1999 to direct the center and teach courses in philosophy and gender and women’s studies. She was interested in issues of free will and responsibility. Specifically, she was concerned with the unjust and ineffective ways people are punished, such as when an addiction problem is addressed with a prison sentence. “I had taught courses on crime and punishment, but had not been involved in any community-based projects on criminal justice, nor had I thought much about women in prison,” she says. “Then, I was channel surfing one night, and I stumbled onto a documentary about the sexual abuse of women in prison, highlighting three horrendous cases. I put a tape in the VCR and started recording it. I watched the whole thing.”
The experience inspired Castagnetto to plan Women, Prisons, and Criminal Injustice, a conference hosted on the Scripps campus in 2000 that aimed to shed light on some of the issues women in prison face, including sexual assault, inadequate medical treatment, and separation from their children. Speakers included a judge, a sex-worker activist, criminal justice scholars and advocates, and formerly incarcerated women. Through the conference, Castagnetto got to know Crossroads, a transitional residence for women on parole in Claremont, as well as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Women and Criminal Justice Network (WCJN), a network of women working in advocacy organizations on issues facing women in and formerly in prison. Over the next few years, Castagnetto kept in touch with Crossroads’ executive director, Sister Terry Dodge. Then, a new warden arrived at the California Institution for Women (CIW), a state women’s prison in Chino. Warden Dawn Davison brought with her fresh perspectives on what a prison environment might provide, and she strongly supported rehabilitative programs and relationships with the community.
In 2004, Sister Terry invited Castagnetto to participate in a WCJN-organized delegation of women in education, faith, and leadership held at CIW. Castagnetto joined WCJN, and the network began planning crossovers—opportunities for community members to have in-depth, facilitated conversations with incarcerated women at CIW, with the aim of challenging stereotypes and campaigning for prison reform. A particularly catalytic crossover took place on a Saturday the following year. Sister Suzanne Jabro, director of the WCJN, had learned that young women in the prison were very interested in talking with their peers on the outside. “That was an amazing day, a key moment,” says Castagnetto. “It was electrifying. We had about 15 students, mostly from Scripps, and about 40 or 50 young women inside, and none of us knew what to expect. We sat and talked, had lunch and a tour, and then we talked some more. And the students came away totally fired up, wanting to keep the conversations going.”
Scripps alumna Whitney Tipton ’07 was one of the students in the room that day, and she was inspired to help establish the first college chapter of the WCJN, with the mission of regularly meeting with and providing resources and support to their peers on the inside. “I think we were all surprised by how much we all had in common,” Tipton recalls. “I met a woman who was from my hometown, a tiny suburb of Sacramento no one had ever heard of, and it turned out I’d gone to middle school with her brother. It was one of the first opportunities I had to understand the idea of ‘there but for the grace of God’ go any of us.” After she graduated, Tipton spent a year visiting women’s prisons around the world through a Watson Fellowship, went to law school, and now works for the Habeas Corpus Resource Center in San Francisco, handling death penalty appeals. “The more I learned about our criminal justice system—the high rates of recidivism, how it causes people to cycle in and out dozens of times, and especially what it does to women—it really shocked me that it wasn’t something more people were talking about,” she says. “Once I started to see it, I couldn’t, in good conscience, look away.” Tipton is one of a number of Scripps students and faculty who have participated in meetings and programs at CIW and Crossroads since the early 2000s. Projects have included, with Crossroads, musical and dramatic performances, a social enterprise project, and a cookbook, and, with CIW, regular creative writing workshops and an organic garden. One of the women Tipton met in the prison was Romarilyn Ralston, who was especially moved by those first crossover meetings. “It was beautiful to see the light in people’s eyes,” says Ralston. “We talked about life, relationships and dating, children. There were deep conversations, not just about what classes are you taking at Scripps. We were building community from the inside out and outside in.”
Incarcerated since 1989, Ralston had noticed some troubling trends in the wake of the three strikes policy and other criminal justice legislation in the 1990s—an increase in young women entering prison and a dramatic reduction in educational opportunities and resources available to them. It prompted her to create a tutoring program, and then a peer mentoring group, as a way for young women to connect with and support each other inside. “We asked the warden to contact colleges in the area that might be interested in having conversations with the young adults in the prison,” says Ralston. Ralston also helped launch an organic garden project at CIW, initiated by Scripps alum Hannah Segal ’09 with a Strauss Foundation grant. “We had read about garden projects at other institutions, wrote a proposal for the warden, who was supportive, and then were thrilled that there was also interest at Scripps. Students [in the WCJN campus chapter] came over every week, and we grew an organic garden for many years; we called it ‘cultivating dreams.’ We grew all kinds of vegetables—tomatoes, squash, cucumber, herbs, potatoes—and the harvest was added to the salad bar at the CIW kitchen, so we got to eat it. Working together on that project gave us a sense of meaning and purpose.” Ralston became a Crossroads resident in 2011, after 23 years in the CIW. With the support and encouragement of faculty she’d met through the crossovers, she enrolled as a New Resources student at Pitzer College and obtained a BA with honors in gender and feminist studies, then went on to earn an MA at Washington University in St. Louis. She now works for a program at Cal State Fullerton providing resources to support formerly incarcerated students and help them graduate. Kimberly Drake, associate professor of writing and chair of the Writing Program at Scripps, specializes in how people write about oppressive institutions. In 2008, she sought a way to teach inside CIW but encountered roadblocks, such as the prison administration at the time not allowing pencils and paper inside the prison. Then, an opportunity presented itself through a fortuitous encounter with Castagnetto. “Crossroads residents had begun working on a book about cooking in prison with immersion heaters they called ‘stingers,’” recalls Drake, and they needed help writing their stories. She was immediately intrigued. “Sue asked if I’d be willing to do a regular writing workshop with the women and some Scripps students for a couple of hours every other week, which I started doing in early 2009.” The resulting book of stories and recipes, Stinging for their Suppers: How Women in Prison Nourish Their Bodies and Souls, was published in 2013.
The women explained how to make a contraband stinger: cut off a cord from an appliance, splice it with two spoons and a clothespin between them, tape each section to keep the wires from touching each other, and put a handle on it so it’d hang over the edge of a bucket. The submerged spoons would then heat up and boil the water. The women got creative with food they’d buy at the prison canteen and cook in plastic containers. One crunched up Fritos, added a Slim Jim, and made tamales. Others experimented with ramen noodles and seasoning packets. And Drake remembers one woman who combined a certain kind of cookie they sold at the prison canteen with coffee creamer and lemon juice to create a lemon cream pie she says was “actually very good.” Drake describes the experience as a “mutual discovery” for the Crossroads writers and Scripps students who were involved. “The students may have come to the workshop thinking, ‘I’ll help the Crossroads women with their writing,’ but it was much more that the women helped the students understand their lives,” says Drake. “We had fun, we laughed. We cried regularly. Writing together makes these kinds of bonds that for the women and students are really healing.” “You can’t be fearful of somebody when you see them as a person,” says Sister Terry. “One of the wonderful aspects of working with college students is their readiness and willingness to get to know the women, to interact with them. They are seeing people instead of statistics or hyped-up media. When we can do that, we can see that people change. And if we believe in redemption, that happens in our midst.” As part of her Political Economy of Food class, Mary W. Johnson Professorhip in Teaching and Professor of Politics Nancy Neiman Auerbach established a Meatless Mondays program at Crossroads that used fresh produce from the Crossroads and Scripps gardens as well as local farms to make vegetarian meals for students and Crossroads women to cook and eat together. Dinner was followed by talks, readings, film screenings, and other activities that promoted discussion. Working with Crossroads, Professor Auerbach also established Fallen Fruit from Rising Women, a social enterprise project that harnesses locally grown produce to make preserves, granola, and other sustainable treats for sale. Students from The Claremont Colleges work alongside women from Crossroads in a commercial kitchen in Upland to make the food and run the business, now in its seventh year.
Sister Terry says that the garden project, writing workshops, and Fallen Fruit from Rising Women initiatives have profoundly changed the women inside. “For a moment, it takes you away from where you are; I think that’s the most common response of the women who were involved in these projects,” she says. “To be takenaway from the oppression of prison and just be enthralled with what is growing, what you’re tending, and to see the fruits of that labor: it’s life-giving. To have somebody appreciate what you’ve written and give you accolades, maybe it’s the first time anyone has done that for you. It’s transformational.” Scripps students and alumnae agree that their experiences visiting CIW and meeting women inside as well as those recently released have been life-changing. Those visits shifted how they think about the justice system and, in many cases, their future career paths. Annie Lyn Freitas ’11, a theater and psychology major from Oakland, California, worked with incarcerated youth at a juvenile probation camp to write and produce their own version of Othello. She also participated in a writing workshop at CIW, organized by Castagnetto, in which students and incarcerated women read literature together and wrote responses based on their personal experiences. “I remember the women there who were also from Oakland,” she says. “We had a lot of conversations about our hometown. I saw a lot of situations growing up in which people were doing things that were illegal. People who were poor, whose parents were addicted to drugs and not taking care of them, who committed crimes as teenagers that were often driven by survival.”
“I realized I was in a position to do something, to actually change something,” says Freitas. “Scripps really does give you this amazing feeling that it’s possible to change the world. Being surrounded by such incredible women and professors who really care about you, push you, motivate you, and pay attention to you is incredibly empowering.”
Freitas is now pursuing a PhD in Tulane University’s City, Culture, and Community program, where her research focuses on creating educational opportunities for women in prisons in Louisiana. She’s also the founder of the Louisiana Prison Education Coalition, which works to ensure access to education for those in prison, and she co-wrote the first bill in the U.S. to “ban the box” in college admissions, which prohibits Louisiana colleges from asking about criminal history in admissions applications. Freitas returned to Scripps in 2015 to speak at a criminal justice symposium at Pomona College that Castagnetto helped organize. “That was a fantastic experience, to be able to return and talk about how my work has evolved, reconnect with people who have been so influential in building this passion with me,” she says. “I really do believe that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I went to a different college.” Current student Caitlyn Fick ’19 had a different frame of reference before Scripps. “Growing up in a small town in Oregon, all I really knew about prison was based on TV shows,” she admits. Inspired by reading Angela Davis’s book Are Prisons Obsolete? in her Core I class, and then visiting CIW with her Core II class, Why Punish?, she has continued taking courses related to criminal justice and law, even while studying abroad this semester in Dublin. “TV influences us to think of people in prison as ‘us vs. them,’” she says. “Now I understand that there are so many ways the system is broken. I was shocked to learn about plea deals, how court-appointed lawyers, swamped with cases, will actually encourage innocent people to take a deal, saying they’ll be able to do a shorter sentence and get the case over with. I met someone who was 29 and had taken a plea deal for a crime he did not commit 14 years ago, at 15. I had a hard time wrapping my head around how that’s justice.”
Psychology major and fine arts minor Sophia Lobo ’20, who grew up in Hong Kong, also took the Why Punish? course. The class included participation in Castagnetto’s writing workshop at CIW, and she volunteered to be part of a group of students helping to restart the garden project, which had been discontinued due to the drought and a change in leadership at the prison. Lobo is glad to be part of this new chapter. “I’m pen pals with one of the women from the workshop,” she says. “Her story was similar to a lot of others I’ve heard—characterized by abusive homes or relationships, of having to do awful things to survive. There’s an impulse to vilify criminals and an idea that they’re bad people at their core, and I don’t see it like that anymore, especially now that I understand more about how the system works, and how it needs to be changed.” According to Ralston, “Once that understanding is in your head, you can’t get it out.” She remembers first reading Angela Davis in a workshop on the inside, and then meeting her in 2000, when Davis visited CIW. Ralston recently spoke at a conference where Davis was also a speaker, and had a chance to see her again. “She said, ‘I remember you.’ And she hugged me,” says Ralston. “She is still remembering the marginalized, the disadvantaged, the incarcerated—and now I’m not just reading about it, I’m a part of this movement, too. I’m now a colleague of the people on the outside who embraced me. And I hope, 40 years from now, somebody may be reading something I wrote and remembering me.”
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