Bourbon 'n BrownTown

Ep. 81 - “We Are More” Pt. 1: Redefining False Narratives & Disrupting Trajectories of Women in Prison ft. Sandra Brown

Episode Summary

BrownTown shares virtual space with Sandra Brown, formerly incarcerated survivor and current Senior Advisor and Visiting Scholar with the Women’s Justice Institute (WJI). In Part One of the "We Are More" series, BrownTown and Sandra discuss the four leading criminal legal system trends that have spurred the rise in women's mass incarceration and meet them with five fundamental rights and needs as pathways to justice (WJI). At the intersection of carcerality and patriarchy, the team collectively addresses and assesses root causes and ways to reverse women’s incarceration on the path towards prison abolition. Watch the micro-docs, listen to the series, and take action at and

Episode Notes

BrownTown shares virtual space with Sandra Brown, formerly incarcerated survivor and current Senior Advisor and Visiting Scholar with the Women’s Justice Institute (WJI). In Part One of the "We Are More" series, BrownTown and Sandra discuss the four leading criminal legal system trends that have spurred the rise in women's mass incarceration and meet them with five fundamental rights and needs as pathways to justice (WJI). At the intersection of carcerality and patriarchy, the team collectively addresses and assesses root causes and ways to reverse women’s incarceration on the path towards prison abolition. Watch the micro-docs, listen to the series, and take action at and

Full transcription here!

Sandra Brown is a Chicago native with a love for learning and helping others. When she became an incarcerated survivor, she spent over half of her sentence working as a teaching assistant while striving to earn an education via correspondence courses. She has helped countless women earn their GEDs as well as complete various vocational programs. For almost a decade, she served as president of Toastmasters: A Woman’s Voice, where she developed communication and leadership opportunities for up to 60 women each session. Barriers that Brown experienced during her own educational and empowerment journey while incarcerated undergirds the work that she does now as a Senior Advisor and Visiting Scholar with the Women’s Justice Institute (WJI) in Chicago. Though Brown lives in Los Angeles, she works to promote economic and educational opportunities to other justice-impacted women. Some of her advocacy work entails developing curriculum aimed at understanding decarceration and domestic violence as well as writing policy papers recommending ways to support quality higher education degree programs to women who are incarcerated. Her book Odyssey in Progress is now available and she has a piece featured in the reSentencing Journal, published by Tufts University.


Mentioned in episode:

"Justice for women isn’t only what happens between arrest and prison. It’s what happens before, during, and after it." --Women's Justice Institute


Through advocacy, public education, and direct representation, the Illinois Prison Project brings hope to and fight in community with incarcerated people and their loved ones for a brighter, more humane, more just system for us all. Learn more about the IPP on their site; follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube


CREDITS: Intro music from the Women's Justice Initiative website and outro soundbite from Sandra Brown. Audio engineered by Kiera Battles. This series is sponsored by the Illinois Prison Project.


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Episode Transcription

Ep. 81 - “We Are More” Pt. 1: Redefining False Narratives & Disrupting Trajectories of Women in Prison ft. Sandra Brown

BrownTown shares virtual space with Sandra Brown, formerly incarcerated survivor and current Senior Advisor and Visiting Scholar with the Women’s Justice Institute (WJI). In Part One of the "We Are More" series, BrownTown and Sandra discuss the four leading criminal legal system trends that have spurred the rise in women's mass incarceration and meet them with five fundamental rights and needs as pathways to justice (WJI). At the intersection of carcerality and patriarchy, the team collectively addresses and assesses root causes and ways to reverse women’s incarceration on the path towards prison abolition. Watch the micro-docs, listen to the series, and take action at and


From the Women's Justice Initiative website

[00:00:48] Sandra: When he beat me, I called the police. When he threatened to kill me, they wasn't there protect me. But when I decided to defend myself, they certainly showed up. Just to lock me up in prison and label ME a violent woman. Who do you report to? How can you report to a system? The same system that's harming you.


[00:01:18] David: I wanna welcome everyone to another installment of Bourbon 'n BrownTown. I am your co-host David. Chilling here is sitting, pretty in June with my boy, Caullen. Caullen, bro, how you doing today? 

[00:01:28] Caullen: Sitting real pretty. Long hair don't care, out here. Shaking those locks around. 

[00:01:33] David: I need to cut it or something. 

Just shave the sides, let it fall. 

[00:01:37] Caullen: We're long hair gang at Soapbox lately. We're long hair gang. I'm doing well. I'm doing well. It was a sunny day in Chicago today. The morning wasn't as sunny. I was feeling a little blue and I was also really stressed, but I got outside, get some errands and I was like, you know what? It's gonna be a good day. Things are gonna get done. Everything's gonna be fine. It's gonna be a good week. So feeling more hopeful. Feeling good now, feeling happy to be here as per. How are you? 

[00:02:02] David: We're doing well. We're doing well. Contrary to most days today was pretty- I came into it pretty well. I've been productive for a decent amount of time and I'm gonna probably be for a little bit more time. So, we like that ebbs and flows. Finding routine has been nice. But so has summer, we went to the- by "we" I mean me and Caullen- went to Lake Michigan for the first time for me, I think it was in almost three years? 

But here we are. I thank you guys so much for tuning in. For our first time listeners, a little bit more context here, the "We Are More" campaign centers the experiences of incarcerated and formally incarcerated people, and pushes back against fear-mongering "tough on crime" rhetoric resurging in the 2022 election season. Through advocacy, public education and direct representation, the Illinois Prison Project, or IPP as we'll be calling it, brings hope to and fight in community with incarcerated people and their loved ones for a brighter, more humane, more just system for all.

[00:02:59] Caullen: Woop, woop! I'm excited for this project and to David's point, too, if y'all have not watched the We Are More series, you can skrttt. Take a second. Go back. Watch an episode, You'll see the stories of four formerly incarcerated fellows who tell their stories. And speak to the broader narrative of how our society should be structured and organized around justice and liberation transformation versus punishment and violence, which it currently is organized around.

And so I'm really excited about this episode and this series digging more into the nuances of all of that. And some of the sub-topics and sub-points that we weren't really able to explore in the four, five minute videos. 

[00:03:44] David: And with us for part one of this series is Sandra Brown. 

[00:03:49] Caullen: Sandra Brown is a Chicago native who, in her formative years, attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. Later, while tutoring third-graders on the West side, her passion for teaching was confirmed. Brown's love for learning and helping others did not die when she became an incarcerated survivor. She spent over half of her sentence working as a teaching assistant while striving to earn an education via correspondence courses. She has helped countless women earn their GEDs as well as complete various vocational programs. For almost a decade she served as president of Toastmasters: A Woman's Voice, where she developed communication and leadership opportunities for up to 60 women each session. Barriers that Brown experienced during her own educational and empowerment journey while incarcerated undergirds the work that she does now as a Senior Advisor and Visiting Scholar with the Women's Justice Institute in Chicago. While Brown lives in Los Angeles, she works to promote economic and educational opportunities to other justice-impacted women. Some of her advocacy work entails developing curriculum aimed at understanding decarceration and domestic violence, as well as writing policy papers recommending ways to support quality higher education degree programs to women who are incarcerated. Sandra, what is good? How are you doing? 

[00:05:02] Sandra: I am well. Thank you. Very grateful to be here. Yes. 

[00:05:07] Caullen: That is a packed bio. And I'm super excited to hear more about all of your work and your experience. 

[00:05:13] David: And so, and as we mentioned, the We Are More campaign bringing this to. And so, the center for us, in this conversation, is as we know women have become the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population. Although men's jail populations actually fell 9% from 2008 to 2018. So in that decade, women's jail population grew by 15%. Sometimes I think it's so interesting when we use numbers to talk about human beings- but we'll get to that. Women's incarceration rates are also climbing at double the rate of men's in state prisons across the country. Especially Black women.

It's clear that decarceration efforts are leaving women behind. And so that's where we'll be and what we'll center. As we look at the intersection of prisons and patriarchies, how do we collectively assess and address root causes of this trend and reverse women's incarceration on the path towards prison abolition as one thought. But there is a lot there for us. And before we dive in, though, I did want to center us and our listeners, about just checking in a little bit with ourselves. And, as we know, it is June. And so one of the things I wanted to hear from y'all is, what's your favorite Pride month memory? If any? Pride's a whole month, but you know. 

[00:06:36] Caullen: Pride's the whole year, David. Your heteronormativity is showing, David. Pride's the whole year, fuck you talking about? 

[00:06:44] David: Tell him, tell him. But go ahead, Caullen. What's your favorite Pride memory? You got one or what? 

[00:06:48] Caullen: Damn, of course I gotta answer first. ####. No, I'm just kidding. I'm sure there's better ones in the past several years, especially, but honestly last year we were shooting for ####- the half hour talk to be made in 2021. And we filmed part of a protest and lots of folks from Brave Space Alliance were at the forefront, including Jae, shoutout LaSaia Wade, shoutout all the homies. And so it was cool because for 1) I was already up north and it was in Boystown, so I just like rolled over and I was already there so it was super convenient. But also, we were shooting for a really dope doc we made. And I, prior to the uprisings in some organizing in the Fall of 2020, I hadn't really been out as much filming, and so it was cool just to document the protest. Some of our other moving media homies were out there recording and filming, and it felt good. It felt like love. And it was cool to see. I always love when months or celebrations that have been co-opted roll around, and people root it into what it was all about, reminding folks that Pride was a riot, reminding folks that queer and trans liberation is- 

[00:08:01] David: cops don't walk with us 

[00:08:03] Caullen: Yeah, cops don't walk with us. Queer and trans liberation is tied to prison and police abolition, that being a reminder, being the forefront of this action we went to. That was also fun. It was a nice day. It was just all around really good. And it made me feel good about the work we do, especially as cis-het dudes being in that space, and feel like we understood the history, understood our place in that as well. Felt good. So that was it for me. What about you or Sandra? Whoever's got something on the top of the dome? 

[00:08:33] Sandra: Well, I regret that I don't have a favorite personal Pride month memory. I've never had the fortune or the opportunity to celebrate Pride month. Although I'm completely supportive of everyone being free to own who they are in the spaces that they choose to move in. I will share however a movement in the Pride movement that I was really excited to witness. And for me that was, when laws allowed unions and marriages for couples who wanted to live as legal partners. And so I was really happy to see that happen because I've always been of the belief that people should be able to live and love whom they want. And so that should happen without respect to what your orientation is, or how someone chooses to identify. So that was a really exciting and memorable moment in the movement for me. 

[00:09:35] David: That's awesome, thank you, Sandra. I'm just hearing that, cause there's just- I love these check-in questions. So for me I would actually be like, so having been born in Chicago, the conversation of Boystown was oftentimes used as a way to insult, as a way to be negative and homophobic, all these other things that we didn't know as we were children. And so growing up I had this idea of the space. And so we ended up- Caullen and I met and some of our BnB listeners know this story, and we lived in Boystown and so I was able to celebrate Pride literally outside my window for the first time. And it was a really interesting moment and coming to. Having heard all these things about the space, and also having these internal changes, and learning to restructure the way you think and view the world and then having it literally in your front doorstep for days at a time, I think, which is super fantastic. That was 2013, so that was some minute ago. We're not aging ourselves, but here we are. And I appreciate y'all for diving into that memory. So thank y'all. 

[00:10:50] Caullen: I'm personally curious about just your- how you came to the Women's Justice Initiative? Cause I've been reading up a lot about it since I found that you worked there. And obviously you have your own experience. And so from being released- or maybe you were working with them beforehand, I'm curious just how you came to the WJI, and what your work is there. 

[00:11:13] Sandra: Okay, so actually the Women's Justice Institute began as the Women's Justice Initiative, which was a task force of women, basically. It started off as maybe 50 to 100 women, but it expanded to over 500 women. Whether they were in corrections, or whether they were re-entry service workers, legislators, directly impacted women who had since been released all came together to try to address the issue about why, at a time when the incarcerated population was decreasing, the women's population was so expansive and skyrocketing.

I'm sure you've reviewed the stats. Since, I would say maybe the '80s, from '80s up until now over 700% was the increase, as far as women being incarcerated. And I do believe that part of what was discovered as a result of that Women's Justice Initiative task force is that in these dialogues about justice reform, prison reform, anything that deals with how to address mass incarceration, women are basically left out of the conversation. We're considered an afterthought because in relation- when we think about in relation to the total number of people populated in this country that are incarcerated, the women seem to represent so small of a number that somehow relief or reform does not necessarily include us in those pictures.

And so that's where the Women's Justice Initiative was born. And through that work I came into the organization while I was incarcerated, pretty much while I was at Decatur Correctional Center. There would be letter writing campaigns about domestic violence and the impact on women, particularly who are justice-impacted. I did a lot of outreach and making my voice known about discrepancies and the false narratives that exist about women who are incarcerated. Some of them being, what constitutes a violent offender? The reasons why women may be convicted of violent crimes. The ratio of convictions based on guilty pleas. Different things that lead women into the carceral system. And so out of that, the department of corrections working hand-in-hand with legislators and activists and advocacy efforts we were able to change some of the things that were happening as a result of women being impacted by the carceral system. 

From there, I became one of the first women who transfered to the adult transition center, or the work release center. As we all know there are only four centers in Illinois, three of them are for men and only one is for women. And so that shines a light on one of the things or pathways that often lead women into prison, it's the limited economic opportunities. A lot of women have committed crimes out of the need to survive. And so to address that they've started opening up the criteria which would allow women such as myself, who have been incarcerated a long time and convicted of a violent offense, to actually go to the work release because it was discovered we were the women who were without the skills and the requirements in order to adjust or reenter society successfully.

And so from Fox Valley the WJI was able to work with the administration there. And I actually- that is how I became the first Visiting Scholar with the Women's Justice Institute. And it was there that I was able to create the policy paper research recommendations that would bring in more educational opportunities for women inside. And as a result of that today I am the Senior Advisor for the economic security and empowerment section of the five rights and needs for the Women's Justice Institute. And in that work, I try to partner with other nonprofits, try to forge partnerships with other nonprofit organizations to bring economic and educational opportunities to women who have come home from prison and really need those resources that, for all intents and purposes, John and Josephine and Q taxpayer may think we're getting behind walls, but we're not getting it all. 

[00:15:58] Caullen: Thank you for that so much. I have so many thoughts, but the one that's the top of mind when you explain all that is, how WJI with the five rights and needs. And I'm looking at the site right now reading them; health and wellbeing, safe and stable housing, economic security and empowerment, supporting families, relationship safety are all things that obviously someone in prison is not getting. When you're coming out, that being something that you really need. But also we should have those things before the carceral state is involved in our lives. And that should be fully funded, fully resourced. We all have our lives and the intersections of our identities and marginalization is real, but I think when people think of, especially when it gets to campaign season, things get really finite and very simple. Criminal justice is like this one thing, it's like, prisons and police and how we fund that or not. It's like, no, this is everything. This is holistic. This is how we organize our entire society. So I love that that's a core tenet of what you all do. And I think- and also the holistic nature of everything you all do as well. Cause on the site as well it talks about- it's not just from being arrested to going to prison. It's what happened before that, obviously during, and then after. All I'm trying to say is kudos to the holistic nature. I think it really speaks to getting through what we wanna see and doing it now. 

[00:17:35] Sandra: Absolutely. Yes. That part of the conversation is what's usually left out by the time a woman becomes justice-impacted and say maybe the police is ready to arrest her. Very rarely are the issues that contributed to her circumstances addressed. For example, if we look at the demographic of most women who are incarcerated over 80% of them were- they suffered some type of domestic violence. They suffered some type of abuse, either as a child or in an intimate relationship. 9 times out of 10 the law was nowhere to be found when they were calling for help, when they went to the hospital, when they pressed charges, when they tried to get that order of protection. But the one time they fight back, here comes the police quick to cuff her. Here comes the state, quick to prosecute her. There goes the judge quick to convict her. And there's corrections and other administrative forces in place saying, oh because she's this type of inmate or this type of offender, she doesn't qualify for any of the resources that we give to the typical group of people that we deem worthy of rehabilitation. 

Just to add a little context to that, that's my story. That is my story. I grew up in not the safest of households. There's that safe and stable housing component. As I tried to navigate education, I wanted to earn an education and care for my 8 year old son, there was that balance between trying to find transportation, childcare, all of those things even if I were able to find a job that sustained me economically back then- how does that work when the majority of us have minor children who depend on us? So all of those different factors unique to women were not being addressed at that time. Relationship safety. I had survived abusive relationships, and I'd even had documentation. But none of that factored into the one time that I fought back for my life. And so now, considering the fact that I happened to become justice-impacted during an election year when everyone needed to prove that they were tough on crime. At a time when prosecutorial misconduct was a big deal. Like so many others I was told to either take a plea or exercise your rights and get more time when you're convicted. And so that's usually the case for many impacted women inside. And so thank you for shining the light on the need to address those rights and needs that are in play before a woman even becomes arrested. Because that just gets missed from the dialogue altogether. 

[00:20:36] Caullen: Thank you for sharing that. David, do you have something? I do, but I don't wanna- okay. 

Folks who have listened to this podcast before have heard me go on many-a-rant about tougher crime policies and presidents and different things from the '70s to now. So I will spare them that, but I'm curious for you, you mentioned tough on crime policies and prosecutorial misconduct, could you give us a community definition on what prosecutorial misconduct is? And also, when those election year times come around and you hear the same rhetoric from politicians about crime, and you see policies that are affecting you, can you tell us how that actually impacts you? Cause for me it's not impacting me as much, but I'm seeing the trend of it happening every cycle no matter what's happening in the world. But we're not in the same position, so I'm curious from someone who has been justice-impacted how that actually has a firsthand effect on your material condition, so to speak. 

[00:21:46] Sandra: Well, for me personally, as I was in the pre-trial phase I didn't know until well after my conviction that the reason why I was not able to prove the circumstances of my case was that the witnesses in the case were threatened; not only by the victim's family, but also by the prosecutor at that time. The prosecutor themselves said, in effect, "we don't want all of you. We just want her. But if you don't give us her, we'll charge you all with accountability and you will serve as much time as she does." So when you have behavior like that, maybe burying evidence that would actually prove what the defendant is saying. In my case it happened to be the autopsy report. It would've actually proven what I was saying about what happened the night that that tragedy occurred. But somehow that never came up until well into my sentence when I started trying to appeal my case. And I started discovering like, oh my God, they were just looking for a way to just be done with me rather than actually fight for justice.

Tough on crime policies; I was sentenced in 2001. Truth-in-Sentencing was enacted in 1998, which essentially means that if you did not get convicted of a violent crime until after 1998, and depending on what that charge is, you could serve 100% of your sentence, and then some. As a result of truth-in-sentencing, I have served 100% of my sentence, I have never earned any time off, and I am still required to complete what is called "mandatory supervised release". So even though I agreed, under duress, to serve a certain sentence I'm actually serving more than what I've been sentenced to. So policies like that is one of the reasons that contributes to the skyrocketing numbers of people who are incarcerated. You have a gray wave inside now. People aren't going home as quickly as they were before the truth-in-sentencing policy was enacted in 1998. 

[00:24:05] David: And I just wanted once again to thank you for sharing your story with us and our listeners. Cause I think there's a lot of that is that- there's an intentional lack of information, and a lack of these spaces as opportunities for folks to learn and develop. And so I definitely encourage folks, I know Caullen was reading something from the website, the WJI, and on there is also the four leading criminal justice system trends that have spurred the rise in women's mass incarceration in Illinois. Which is 1) the criminalization of drug use versus treatment. 2) Increased use of prison sentences for low-level offenses among women. 3) increased prison lengths of stay due to punitive policies that disproportionately harm women. And 4) recidivism tied to parole policies that do not address women's unique risks and needs. And these are all things that you have named. And so it's just, I dunno, love and rage. That's definitely what sits and centers with us. And so it's wild, but we're incredibly grateful for you to be here, for doing the work that you're doing as well, and pushing back against that narrative.

Because as we're seeing- and Caullen, I feel this where you were going with your question on we've been seeing this shit, and it's coming back specifically. It's like, how- sometimes I wish we could talk to, like, why do you think this is? And I personally don't know why, and maybe you've heard some more of those, what can we call them, fascist ideologies? No- 

[00:25:41] Caullen: That, also, yes.

[00:25:44] David: I'm just curious Sandra, as you're working through this, and it is election season, what is some of the things that you're hearing on the other side? Is that what I wanna say? As opposition too? Cause most of the time, in my experience, none of it is based on facts. And so I'm just curious- and you have a more intimate relationship with these systems than we do. Is there any example or anything that you think of in regards to what is holding that conversation together? Is that question even make any sense?

[00:26:20] Sandra: I think that the thing that's driving this, I think you phrased it correctly- fear-mongering rhetoric. In this age where we're trying to continue- where some are trying to push more tough on crime policies. It comes from fear of change. Comes from historical roots. I mean, cause let's face it, it's pretty obvious that a lot of the roots that we have in this mass incarceration is rooted all the way back to the principles that were instituted that allowed slavery to go on for economic reasons. Someone is benefiting from this. We just don't know who. And I don't know if those who push the agenda are doing so because they are in solidarity with the people who benefit, or if their actual benefactors themselves. But someone is benefiting this. And my guess is that it's mostly people who are capitalizing from the prison industrial complex. I do believe that as long as we continue to allow them to scare the public with this rhetoric, it's going to stay alive. These are institutions, systemic institutions, so of course we can't we can't solve it all in a day. We can't solve it all in a year. But I do believe that change can come, and that there are more people who have been impacted by the system than the people who wish to continue it to go on. And so it's going to take some solidarity. It's going to take some collaboration. We're going to have to stop working in silos, and actually bring that power together. Because synergy together is more dynamic and effective than any individual energy. 

[00:28:17] David: We have music here now, just enjoying it. That's a wrap on Bourbon 'n BrownTown. That was awesome. Go ahead, Caullen. 

[00:28:27] Caullen: No, it's big facts. I'm thinking about this conversation in general and what attracted me to WJI's work was this, you talk about narrative, narrative, narrative. And I think part of what we do at Soapbox is take stories, take narratives and have audiences get to know people. Like Ronaldo. Like Michael. Like Kinsley. Like Anthony. And now like you. But also be like, Hey y'all, you love these people, you get to know them, that's that's great. Guess what? They're, unfortunately, they're the norm and they're not- it's not just in a silo. This is actually pretty normal, and we've normalized all these systems. We normalize all these policy. We normalize how we think about "crime". How we think about what violence actually is. We normalized all of that to be okay. And, it's, as to your point, it's been created that way for a reason. It's been intentional on who we're locking up, how we're locking them up. And it's always been that way. It just reifies itself every generation to look differently. 

When I think about policing, this goes with prison as well as, folks who were catching people to put it in prison, started with slave catchers. As they evolve, people immigrated to America, didn't want them to have rights, put them in jail or police them. Poor white people as well are in the same boat. So as our generations change, and as marginalized folks populations change and mutate policing exists to oppress those folks, and thus, as do prisons. For me, it was to be expected, but hard to see last year the rhetoric change so harshly from 2020 uprisings folks being like, okay policing actually is a problem and it's working how it's supposed to, but the system in general should be abolished, and seeing the #### of anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and all the things. And then moving very quickly into, oh, the crime rates really- again, looking at numbers and people, but crime rates really didn't raise that much, but we were shouting in the void of mainstream media, as far as how crime rates were skyrocketing, there was a big crime wave, and people going and stealing jewelry was seen as the worst thing that could ever happen.

[00:30:47] David: It's a felony now. 

[00:30:49] Caullen: But nothing is tied to like, maybe we're having a pandemic and y'all ain't doing shit to help anybody so people are doing what they can. There's no tie to any root causes or anything like that. And we're also, on the other end, not supporting people during the once in a generation global pandemic. And with that you see the same policy being supposed and the same narratives being thrown out. But I think with what Trump brought and what is now mainstream Republican party- and I don't wanna just blame Republicans cause most Democrats are shitty too- but with what he brought, it was like, oh it's okay to be this obviously racist and wrong and horrible. But I think- I've said this plenty of times on this podcast before- where it's like, I'm concerned with them and we should do something to stop them but it's folks in the middle politically or just everyday people being like, oh this is actually, I have no other response to if a harm happens other than to call the police or rely to on these systems, I don't know any other way so I guess I just must do this. 

So that's that narrative thing. I think is super important to me, how do we get those folks to understand that this thing we've normalized is inherently violent, and it keeps redefining the same injuries and the same harms we've always seen. And Illinois, the Safety Act got passed, we have good legislation that's happening to get passed and coming. We have to codify that. Do that, institute it and then keep pushing, cause that's not it! That's great, but we need to keep pushing. So I was really happy to do this project for all those reasons. But it's exhausting and tiring for me, I can only imagine what it's like for you as far as the work you're doing. 

So that was just my kind spiel on narrative and stuff. And I think one of things I saw in 2020 when people started caring about Black people in June, especially, but the show COPS was canceled. And I was like, that means something, this show's been on for like decades, forever, and it's just this horrible, horrible show. All things you hate about reality TV and police in the same show. But people would watch that and be entertained by it, it was fun, it was funny to folks. Someone who works for a dope organization, Chicago Votes in Chicago, she put on her Instagram story of someone dressing up as an inmate for Halloween. And she's yelling out of her window, "that's not funny. It's 2022. That's not, it's not a joke anymore. What are you doing?" And it's like 10 years ago I don't think we would've seen that from like, from other- it would be a normal thing to critique for folks who aren't in this conversation.

So that is to say, outside of folks who do this work like yourself, like us, who do the media around why these systems are trash and what we can actually create as an alternative, I think we need to try to find a way to hang our hat on- in short- transform propaganda that's actually fighting for peace and liberation and love versus the things that have been normalized to be violent.

[00:33:47] Sandra: Absolutely, to all of your points. I find ironic that our former president was able to so freely express and garner support for the ideologies that he has. And when we think about what happened January the 6th, I'm just wondering, does the same rhetoric apply to this group? I mean, because, for all intents and purposes, organizations such as like Black Lives Matter was deemed terrorists in this man's eyes. But now we have the group of people who support you storming the white house and threatening lives, and people actually did wind up dying as a result of it. And so now I'm wondering if that same- what people are thinking about that same type of behavior? So I find it ironic that in light of that, somehow that got labeled and packaged as something different; as opposed to many of us who have engaged in peaceful protests over the killing of unarmed Black people. I'm just gonna leave that right there. 

But what you have said also about these policies and what it takes to- why people are continuing to push this policy, I would just like to pose a question to those who are in favor of it: hindsight is 2020. Hindsight is 2020. We know that history forgotten is history repeated. And so we have a whole slew of history from the inception of this country, to the reconstruction, to the great migration, to the Harlem Renaissance, to Jim Crow, to the tough-on-crime policies, and even up until now the same practices have been implemented that they're trying to push now, and what has it done to so-called deter crime? If anything, it has done- what they have instituted has not only not deterred crime, but it has caused more harm. It has caused more harm to society overall. Even when we think about the person least impacted, okay, maybe they're completely removed from this situation and no one in their family has ever experienced mass incarceration. I mean, even from an egoist or selfish perspective, it's a cost in your pocket because John and Josephine, and Q taxpayer is investing billions and billions of dollars into an industry that is not returning corrected individuals to the communities near them. 

Let's just keep it real, 95% or more people who are incarcerated, have an out date. So the question becomes, how do you choose to invest that money? Are we gonna invest in more carceral policies and programming that cause more harm than good? And then they become your next door neighbor? Or do we start investing in solutions that have been proven to impact society and the individual in better ways?

Let's take education for example. We know that anyone incarcerated who earns an associate degree, their chances of recidivism is 14%. If they earn a bachelor's degree, it's 5.6% chance. Those with a master's degree have a 0% chance of returning. And yet when we start talking budget, that's the first thing that leaves in those situations like that. The reason go all the way back to slavery when it was illegal to teach slaves to read. Go all the way back to the women's suffrage movement when education consisted of cooking, cleaning, planting, and sewing. If we look in some of the carceral settings, and at the educational programs that are available now, I know during my journey inside that's all that was offered to women- cooking, cleaning, sewing, and planting. And so in 2022, I look at the data and I look at the evidence, and my own experience has demonstrated that there's nothing new. It's the same strategy, it's just being boxed up differently. And we keep people oppressed by keeping them illiterate.

[00:38:20] Caullen: The education piece was huge. I mean, I think it was a throughline with the folks we talked to with the video part, it's a throughline with what we know from your experience. And I feel like you just nailed it on the head as far as how important education is in general. And I've had the same thought as far as put all- control for our experiences, control for our politics. We tried what you have been suggesting over and over again and it doesn't work. It never works. Let's just try something new. Let's just try it. Let's just try it! Let's fund it, and try it one time, let's just see what happens. We'll see what happens! So yeah, that part always gets me the most sometimes. Like you're just not paying attention. 

[00:39:05] Sandra: And we're even grooming children for it. I don't know if you've noticed how in the Chicago public school system. I used to shudder when I would see those blue and white uniforms, because those are the same uniforms we wore inside the women's prisons. We wore a white shirt, navy pants. If that doesn't tie in with that school-to-prison pipeline, I'm not sure what it is. Zero tolerance policies in the law has been implemented through zero tolerance policies in schools, particularly in underserved communities. If you go to the affluent community and let's say little Johnny is acting out they're going to try to get him counseling and get to the bottom of why he's acting out the way he is. But if Jaquavion is acting out he's going to be suspended, zero tolerance policy, we're not dealing with it, and we're not addressing the root to what's going on with him. And all that does is reinforce the negative behavior because now mom is upset, or whoever the caregiver is is upset. I do know that in my time that I was in CPS classrooms, a lot of children in underserved communities were being raised either by grandma, auntie, or foster parents. So that itself was a life- an indicator of problems that needed to be addressed long before people become impacted. But it also goes to show- and that's just in education, we're not talking about the other 5 rights and needs about how people are targeted, I would say. Not only groomed, but targeted and conditioned to come into the system. 

[00:40:45] Caullen: Big facts. One thing that always sticks out to me, is about the third grade test scores being the Rahm to judge how many jails to make. 

[00:40:56] David: Whew. Be on the notes. 

[00:41:02] Caullen: That's just, that's what it is. That's always right now. That's just facts. 

[00:41:06] David: In your experience, things leading to: Women Justice Initiative, and so you mentioned that you found them when you were inside and were able to go through that work program. Could you give folks a little bit more of context or an insight of what that was for you finding a group like that after they told you all you could do is cook, clean, and plant? Low key, I like to plant, but if that's all I get to do I'd be like- oh my goodness gracious. But alas, go ahead, Sandra. 

[00:41:39] Sandra: Well, let's just back up for a minute and let me- full transparency- I actually acquired my education by navigating outside of the system. I remained on waitlists for more than six years for programming because of my sentence. There's a policy- I'm hoping that it will change- that allow people placement in educational programming based on their out date. So coming into the system, I had 22 years. The consensus at that time was, "Hey, you're not going home tomorrow, so you can wait a little longer." And so- yes! I was allowed to work as a teaching assistant in some of these programs, but never allowed to enroll as a student because of when I went home. As a result, I wanna say maybe five years into my sentence, of course funding dried up for educational programs- I mean, funding dried up period, but of course the cut is in education. And so there by the, there was no programming by the time I was five years in and waiting for these programs. And so, I got discouraged, I got angry, and then I got some advice from one of my fellow sisters behind the walls who said, "Hey, you know what, school doesn't have to close for you just because it closed here. Have you considered correspondence courses?" And that's what set me on the path of earning my degrees through the mail. And so through that, it took getting approved by administration, and finding a proctor. And so I was able, while incarcerated, to earn my bachelor's degree, to earn my master's degree, and get accepted into a doctoral program before I transferred to the work release center. But that work, that education, that opportunity- thank goodness for Ohio University, Cal State University Dominguez Hills, and now Cal Coast University. Everything that I've learned there has been an integral part in the work that I do now. It is equipped me with the things that I need in order to work with the WJI in order to address these five rights and needs. I understand public policy a little bit better. 

Caullen, you mentioned public policy, it's not enough. You're right, it's not enough just to get something passed. Adoption is just the tip of the iceberg. Implementation is what we need. And we all know that just because a policy gets adopted doesn't mean that it's implemented. People who are against the policy may try to sabotage ways to implement it, or not implement it at all. And that is one of the things that we saw in the, for example, the domestic violence bill that was up in Illinois. It was supposed to provide a chance for women who had domestic violence in their cases be reconsidered by the judge. Not necessarily to overturn their cases, but be reconsidered. But because there were people who did not want it adopted, would fail to implement it. And so as a result, the law got passed I think in 2015, 2016, and since then only four women have gotten relief. And so the work that I do now, we're using that education and that knowledge to try to promote, maybe modifying, that gender-based violence bill so that more women can get in front of a judge and say, "Hey, consider this part of my situation, consider how this played a role in how I became justice-impacted." And the judge still gets to decide whether or not that woman gets that relief or not. However, like we've mentioned, fear-mongering rhetoric has pushed the idea "that oh, we're letting all these murderers and violent offenders out". When that is certainly not the case. And this is just one of the many challenges, as well as rewards, that I get to experience while working with the WJI. 

I do believe I mentioned I started with them in Decatur. Followed through all the way to Fox Valley work release center. And even once my sentence was completed and I was able to transfer here to Los Angeles- an amazing organization, they're like, "we still, we want you, we need you to continue to work here". So I am fortunate and blessed enough to be able to continue that work remotely and just fly in occasionally for in-person work.

[00:46:24] Caullen: I'm curious about place and space. And last year we were fortunate enough to talk to some organizers in California, on the state level with- not only criminal justice reform aspects- but also integration and the intersections of integration, so to speak. But I'm curious, do you know much about the LA area, the LA organizing inter-criminal justice system scene? I don't know how to describe it. But do you know much about the LA area and do you compare that to Chicago much? Or do you- you live there, but most of your work and your knowledge is about the Chicago and Illinois policy and what's happening there?

[00:47:03] Sandra: I've kinda got a foot in both places. I'm more well-versed in the organizing that happens in Chicago. However, I have started connecting with the Prison Education Project out this way. Actually there is a chance that I could be teaching a virtual class in the fall to incarcerated students. And I've been in connection with also Susan Burton's A New Way of Life organization. And so she- I don't know if the audience is familiar with who Susan Burton is- she's also a justice-impacted woman who had been in-and-out of the California system. And of course she had been heavily impacted by these five rights and needs that the WJI is trying to address. And so she was able to turn her life around. Work to empower herself. Cause we know the system doesn't really work to empower you. If it's trying to keep you disempowered, then why would it ever bring anything in that would truly empower you and transform you? So she worked to empower herself. She found a few people who believed in her and helped her. And as a result of that, that resulted in the culmination of a New Way of Life. And she's working to expand nationwide, to open up safe houses, and work directly with justice-impacted women and help them get on their feet as well.

So I'm familiar with that work. But I have been exploring, trying to see what other organizations out this way is into this work. Because I truly love the work that I'm doing in Chicago and will continue to do that, but I also believe that there's a need to make a difference where I am, too. I mean, because this is a- I would say this is a global issue, but since we lock more people up in this country than we do the whole world, I'm thinking that maybe the more appropriate term right now is this is a national issue. Yes. 

[00:49:02] David: Yeah. Woo. And it's election season, baby! Literally what I'm thinking about. And so, I don't know, it's just, it's been really interesting to be able to understand politics from a large scope, going into what you're referring to as understanding how it works. While we're seeing a lot of this "tough on crime", I feel like there's also a lot of voices and a lot of sound happening- such as the We Are More project, or the We Are More campaign. Spearheaded by IPP and a plethora of other organizations. I guess the question that I'm trying to find is- other than voting, because that's like- I just wanted to nip that- what are ways that we can continue to combat this narrative? Or, Sandra, in your opinion, what are- if someone was listening to this podcast and was like, "damn, this is fucked up. What should I do? How can I get involved?" what would you tell them? 

[00:50:06] Sandra: Wow. I would say start in your own community. Because 9 times out of 10, we're living next to someone who has been impacted- if we're not related to someone who has been impacted. What's happening in this space right now is one of the most critical things that we can do to take a step in the right direction. Because we have a million narratives that have been told about us. We have a million suggestions from people who have- who control the narrative about what to do about it. But like I said, this type of space was unheard of where people who were impacted, are impacted, get to actually voice that and express what it is really like. So listening to the narratives of people who have experienced incarceration is where it all begins. 

Particularly for those of us who have spent like maybe 10, 15, 20- I know women who, oh my God, my friend- a friend of mine just got released earlier this year who had served 34 years inside. She was finally granted clemency. And I just think, what is the point in incarcerating someone for that long? But listening to the stories of people who have been affected is where it begins. Support. Support the people who are advocating for change. Because this is tireless work, and there's strength in numbers. So the more support advocates have, the more resources. Again, pooling resources together is the next step. A listener may want to reach out to organizations that work with directly-impacted people. Well you mentioned it most, voting, definitely. That goes without saying. No voice, no vote. No vote, no vision. We can't see differently if we aren't making that what we want known. 

But I would take it a step further- I've wondered oftentimes if maybe policies should change so that those who are impacted can be in those decision making positions. Because let's just face it, those who are not impacted- I'm not sure whether or not it's about an ideology that they don't agree with, or if they are just working to keep the peace with those who disagree with them. So there are a whole lot of different moving nuances as we speak of that can negatively impact efforts at change. So for listeners out there, I think it's get involved. Your presence is invaluable. It sends messages to those who may be afraid to vote the right way, or to advocate the right way, or to implement fair policy by saying, "Hey, this is what I'm hearing from the people that I represent." So yeah, all of, to me, all of those steps are definitely needed. Not one or the other, but they are all needed in order to affect real change. 

[00:53:27] Caullen: We do this work as far as media, and film, and narrative, and stuff; and I feel like with media literacy something we've been talking about for a while now and had a couple workshops on, David and I, which we don't talk about as much on the pod, but how we conceptualize and watch and take-in media and normalize that I think means so much. There's a Twitter thread about when the crime wave headlines were really at the forefront, and someone broke it down like, "look everyone, look at these different articles, and different newspapers, and different places in America; they're using the exact same language, and exact same words as far as how they're talking about petty crime, and petty theft, and putting it into this crime wave narrative". And it's like, who are their sources to these journalists: cops, the lobby of the Jewel store organization, all these other people who have stakes in this fight to say certain things, are only talking to these people. Trevor Noah had a funny thing on the white house correspondence dinner where he's talking about- 

(audio clip of Trevor Noah: "I love the New York Times. I really do. You guys are the best. You do some of the most accurate, precise reporting and news. You never fail to write down exactly whatever the police have given you to say. Really powerful. Is it just me, or does the New York Times keep blaming bail reform on crimes that had nothing to do with bail reform? Like I'm half expecting to open your newspaper and see a headline 'Mets blow 4-run lead due to changes in state bail laws.'")

[00:54:47] Caullen: My thing's always like, for everyday people- get involved in really tangible ways like you've mention. But also, don't buy into this bullshit when you're watching a news clip, or you're watching- even just a movie. Why is this news? How do they get their sources? What are they trying to get me to feel? LIke when there's new cop shows, I'm like, why? Why? We have enough. They're making the cops look in this light that they're not. And also with cop shows and shows that show prisons and stuff, it's like, they're lying to you. They're not even accurate for what you're seeing. And so not only is it putting the system and upholding the -isms of the system it's built upon, but also they're just lying to you as far as what they do. 

And that was something funny in 2020, when folks were learning all these things about policing, and learning all these things about carceral logics and institutions; and they hear the stats on clearance rate in Chicago for murder, they hear the stats on how much money the carceral system gets, and they're like, "whoa, this is crazy". I'm like, it's not, I've been telling you this. But also, they've been lying to in all these shows and movies that you think 90% of what cops do is violent crime- it's not, it's 7. And they're the 17th most dangerous job. But that was baffling to folks who don't do this work, or aren't in this because they've been lied to all the time through media: from news and journalism, but also to movies and stuff. And, we are a big- Bourbon 'n BrownTown- big proponent of not taking pop culture lightly, and really digging into the weeds, probably more than we should, about things we ingest. So I think we're at the point where we can challenge these systems both with the work and organizing work that you're doing, but also with the films we make. They can be entertaining, and fun, and they make us think, and they can also have us imagine and find ways to practically build structures of care and community that are response to the systems that are literally meant to kill us.

[00:56:58] Sandra: Absolutely. Listening to what you said, I think about this one line from John Mayer. It's a song of his called "Waiting on the World to Change". And the line goes, "when you trust your television// what you get is what you've got// cause when they own the information// they can mend it all they want", you know?

[00:57:19] Caullen: Oh, that's good. 

[00:57:20] Sandra: And it is so true. Even though that song was released like some years ago, nothing new under the sun. It's the same thing going on. We have people spinning stories about us the way they want to, because they own the information. They own the outlets. They own the po- they own the ways to get that stereotype out there and to keep perpetuating it.

My goodness. But I also feel like- let me put this out there, full transparency- I do believe that part of what keeps these stereotypes going come from the internal. It comes from us too. Because we'll support watching things like that. We'll support, like you said for a prime example, COPS. I can't begin to imagine- you know I used to get so annoyed, even walking through the hallways where I was locked up, various institutions, and I would be- I would have roommates who would binge watch shows like that. You know, COPS, FBI: Most Wanted, all these different shows, and it's like, don't you remember how you felt when you were being judged like that and falsely? And so sometimes we support things that hurt us. And I don't know if it's due to lack of awareness, or apathy; because so many of us feel like, "okay, well it's been going on forever, it hasn't changed in all this time. What's my decision to choose not to watch it going to do?" But strength in numbers. Again, with that synergy imagine what would happen if we all decided not to support things like that anymore. 

Every year there are 10 million people impacted by the carceral system: whether they were just detained in a county jail, or given probation, or they're at some detention center, diversion center, or prison- 10 million annually are impacted. 1 in 3 men have a history of- have a criminal record. We're not counting the women. We're not counting the juveniles. But what would happen if 10% of us, if just 10% of us, actually mobilized and took action against this? 10% of that population could make a difference. I shudder to think of how rapidly and radically change could happen if we mobilized collectively. Everyone who's impacted, everyone who supports the move to decarcerate and look at community-based resources. Address those needs instead of investing in these prisons; invest in systems and organizations that prevent people from going to prison. Housing programming, education, diversion programming, counseling, real economic training and empowerment. All of these things, my goodness, would decarcerate prisons faster than any policy to cut it down in the first place. I do believe that internally we need to be socially responsible with what we watch, and what we support. And collectively understanding how valuable each one of us is in the need to mobilize and collaborate is key to actually turning this thing around.

[01:01:00] David: Yeah, and getting that rolling. Thank you Sandra, for everything you're saying. I think sometimes it also takes hearing it. I'm thinking like, if you hear the same thing from the same person, it starts to lose meaning. But when you hear it from someone different in a different way- you're literally- people are asking, well, how do I help incarcerated people? Here's an incarcerated person- previously incarcerated person, survivor, who's telling you what to do. This is like, I don't know, they're presenting you with solutions. So I think that's always incredibly powerful. And so thank you so much for sharing that. 

[01:01:31] Sandra: I was just thinking about my own experience inside, and how sometimes I would even give up. We have this one part of the day that we call "mail call", and people would go out and we get mail. The officers would call for mail. And there's always that group of men and women who never go out because they don't expect to hear from anyone. They are forgotten. They are lost behind the walls. And that might not be the case in the outside community. We know that life goes on. Life happens. People intend to stay connected, but they lose touch. 

So one thing that the WJI does is their letter writing campaigns. For that person who doesn't know where to begin, something as simple as maybe writing a letter to someone inside could make all the difference in the world. At the WJI they have meetings where we get together and we'll have a generated list of women, particularly, who want to hear from people outside. And so there are volunteers who come together and say, Hey, I'm gonna write a letter. And that just makes the difference. That makes all the difference in the world. When someone at mail call who has never had mail in years, finally hears their name called and it's from someone on the outside who took a few minutes out to say, Hey, you know what, I'm thinking about you. So something that is seemingly insignificant or small is huge to that man or woman inside. So that, myself, I would definitely encourage that; if say maybe that person doesn't know how to roll my sleeves up, and maybe I don't wanna get on the picket lines and do this or that, but I just want to make one small contribution. It's not small to those who are inside. 

[01:03:26] Caullen: Shout out to Black and Pink. It's an organization that has a pen pal program, specifically with LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive folks who are inside. So that's one of many, I'm sure groups, that's one that comes to mind for me. We have some homies that do that work. Also Liberation Library in Chicago who sends books to young folks. Shout out to Tina, B'nB alum. To Sandra's point there's groups doing the work, and get in where you fit in. There's something for everybody. 

[01:03:53] Sandra: Shout out Black and Pink, as well. I did get mail from Black and Pink

[01:03:57] Caullen: Dang! That's dope!

[01:03:58] Sandra: Oh my God, yes, yes, yes! 

[01:04:01] David: Well, and on that note, I think our listeners are incredibly excited. We're excited to continue to bring more to this series. Thank you so much, Sandra, for being with us. Are there anyone you want to give a shout out to, orgs, people, campaigns? Plug people. What's good? 

[01:04:18] Sandra: Oh my goodness. Other than the WJI, yes, shout out to Love and Protect. Shout out to Lifespan. Shout out to Sharon Fitzer. Love her. She was my proctor during my educational journey. Shout out to Sharon Fitzer. Oh my goodness. Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration. Shout out to the Network. Oh my God. Shout out to every organization that is working to bring people home. We love you. We need you. Know that I am eternally grateful for the work you all do. Thank you.

[01:04:50] Caullen: You prepared for that. You were ready to go. You had the scroll ready to go. 

[01:04:55] David: I got my list.

[01:04:56] Sandra: Yes!

[01:04:56] David: That's so cool. So that, and all information, as always, available on the episode notes. So definitely check that out. And from Bourbon 'n BrownTown, as always stay Black, stay Brown, stay queer, 

[01:05:09] Caullen: stay tuned, stay turnt. 

[01:05:11] David: We'll see at the next one.



[01:05:20] Sandra: What does "We Are More" mean to me? 

"That's a loaded question. But I can tell you from personal experience that we are more than our ID numbers. We are more than our convictions. We are more than our sentences. Outside of the carceral community we are more than our ethnicities. We are more than our gender identifications. We are more than where we came from. We're even more than where we are going- in this flawed, yet beautiful experience that is called humanity- we are so much more than what others tend to limit us to. We are more than who we are at our best. And in the words of Bryan Stevenson, "we are so much more than the worst thing that we've ever done".

I truly hope that as a society we can come together and get rid of all of the things that causes us to diminish and devalue one another, and work collectively to actualize more for ourselves and for each other. That is what "We Are More" means to me."


[01:06:57] David: Bourbon 'n BrownTown is engineered by Kiera Battles. For more credits, information on episode guests, related media and topics check out the episode notes. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram at Bourbon 'n BrownTown, Twitter @BourbonnBrwnTwn. Or visit 

[01:07:16] Caullen: For any and all things Soapbox Productions and Organizing, follow us @soapboxpo on all social media and visit