In 1992 Barbara Echols was working as a medical biller in Chicago when she walked into a department store, took some clothing, and left without paying. Convicted of shoplifting, she was sentenced to two years and sent downstate to Dwight Correctional Center. Though Echols was in prison for only six months, after her release she attended a meeting of the Prison Action Committee, an advocacy group fighting for prison reform. She joined the group as a volunteer, and this January she became its director.
"The biggest problems are overcrowding, a lack of medical care, and men guarding women," Echols says, adding that the latter problem is the worst. "It's so easy for an inmate to get involved sexually with a guard or for an inmate to be sexually harassed or even raped by a guard.
"If a female gets pregnant in a coed institution, she catches all the problems. Even if they're caught in the act, the man usually gets away. And the punishment for being pregnant is a year in segregation."
Prison Action Committee, with nearly a third of its board members still in jail, receives about 65 letters a week and 20 calls a day from inmates and their families. Currently the group is conducting a study on medical care for women in Dwight. "We know that women are getting very, very poor medical care," she says. "It takes forever to see a doctor, and women are not entitled to second opinions. There are active TB cases, and the gynecological care is very poor."
Women also have less access to activities and education, Echols says, especially at coed institutions like Dixon Correctional Center. "When women were put there [five years ago] they cut down on programs and recreation time. It's overcrowded, and women are treated like second-class citizens. They have less of everything. We had to file suit to gain access to the law library. And women are the last ones to get the higher-paying industry jobs, because the men don't want to give them up.
"We're trying to get at the root cause of the problems that prisoners are experiencing," Echols says. "We're trying to educate the community on what's going on inside the Illinois Department of Corrections."
Echols is not the only one concerned with the fate of women in prison. In 1980 Josefina Rodriguez's two daughters were among 11 arrested in Evanston and accused of being members of the FALN, the underground Puerto Rican liberation group. Faced with separate state and federal trials and charges that included seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government, the two sisters--Ida Luz and Alicia--refused to defend themselves, saying they weren't on trial as individuals but as representatives of their nation and that they didn't recognize U.S. jurisdiction.
"Whatever charges they wanted to throw at them they did," says Josefina. Despite the fact that the sisters were arrested together and faced the same charges, they were tried separately at the state trial. Ida Luz received an 8-year sentence while Alicia got 30, plus an additional year for contempt. At the federal trial, however, Ida Luz received 75 years and Alicia 55, "in order for them to be together when they came out of prison," says Josefina. "It made no sense to me, but that's what the judge said." They were both sent to Dwight.
Josefina says that when Ida Luz finished her state sentence, she was put with women who had been sentenced to the death penalty. Her visitations were restricted, and she was confined to her cell. Then she was transferred to a facility in Florida.
"We said no way," says Josefina, who didn't want to have her daughters so far from each other. "So the lawyers sent letters, people called, and we put enough pressure on them that we were able to change their position."
Ever since the arrests Josefina has been working with the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Prisoners of War and Political Prisoners. One of the group's goals is to obtain amnesty for 16 Puerto Rican prisoners, and an upcoming march of support in Puerto Rico is expected to draw 100,000 people.
Meanwhile, Josefina's daughters are completing their sentences together at FCI Pleasanton in California, where Ida Luz was transferred about eight years ago and Alicia was moved after finishing her state sentence a month and a half ago. Ida Luz is now 46 and Alicia 42; Alicia's son, who was 7 when she was arrested, is now 23.
Echols and Rodriguez will speak at the Women in Prison: Breaking the Silence forum as part of an effort to educate people about prison abuses and determine demands to be presented at the Democratic National Convention. Other speakers include former Black Panther Safiya Saya Bukhari, founder of the Mothers/Men Inside Loving Kids support group, and Peggy Byrne, a Chicago attorney working on behalf of women imprisoned for killing their batterers. The forum is at 6:30 PM this Friday at DePaul University's Schmitt Academic Center, 2320 N. Kenmore, room 161. It's $5 (or whatever you can afford); call 278-6706.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Barbara Echols and photo of Josefina Rodriguez by Jim Alexander Newberry.