Crystal Munoz will spend another Christmas in a cell miles away from her family. She was pregnant at the time of her sentencing, and after hours of painful labor shackled to a bed in a federal facility, she gave birth to her child with whom she was not allowed to spend any time. She has spent years awaiting to be reunited with her daughter, now 11-years-old.
If the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person (FIRST STEP) Act passes Congress and is signed into law, Crystal along with approximately 4,000 currently incarcerated people will have the opportunity to spend the next holiday season with their families. These are people I know and love. These are people I support and people I left behind!
The FIRST STEP Act bans the shackling of pregnant and postpartum incarcerated women and would have allowed Crystal time to bond with her child. This, and other important reforms, is why I support the FIRST STEP Act.
The FIRST STEP Act addresses many grave injustices unique to women’s incarceration. Women are the fastest growing population in U.S. prisons and many report being denied basic needs such as tampons and sanitary napkins.
An estimated 25 percent of incarcerated women are pregnant at the time of their arrest or have given birth during the year prior to incarceration. The conditions in which incarcerated women are forced to live are terrifying.
Eighty percent of women in prison are mothers; yet many are sent hundreds of miles from their families making it, for most, impossible for their children to visit.
In a few weeks, Martha Garnica will spend another Christmas in a cell thousands of miles away from home. Martha’s mother, who died during Martha’s 20-year sentence, was unable to visit her due to the long distance and travel costs. After residing in Texas for most of her life, Martha was sentenced to an out-of-state federal facility without explanation and her requests to be placed closer to home have been ignored. The FIRST STEP Act calls for incarcerated people to carry out their sentences within 500 miles from home.
The bill would also expand research into mental illness and ways to enhance alternatives to prison. It would grant federally incarcerated people the chance to participate in rehabilitation programs that help them acquire skills that assist in reentering society.
Many criminal justice reform advocates have opposed FIRST STEP for its shortcomings and their concerns are valid. The FIRST STEP Act does not address socioeconomic factors that lead to racial disparities in mass incarceration. It does not address mandatory minimum sentencing which greatly contributes to overcrowding prisons. Additionally, the Act’s provisions that allow for early release from prison are not offered to incarcerated undocumented immigrants who meet nearly all other eligibility criteria.
As a formerly incarcerated woman and advocate for criminal justice reform, I understand the need for policy that addresses sentencing and overpopulation of prisons. I also hear the pleas of incarcerated women and men every day, hoping for criminal justice legislation that hasn’t been addressed in this capacity since the Clinton administration. The FIRST STEP Act isn’t perfect, but it’s a first step. And we need a first step. We need this spark of victory to light up the justice reform movement.
Topeka K. Sam is the founder and executive director of The Ladies of Hope Ministries and the director of Dignity for Incarcerated Women Campaign at #cut50. She is followable on all social media platforms @topekasam