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Criminal Justice

Gendered Injustice on Rikers Island

Gendered Injustice on Rikers Island

Think about this, you enter the island and you hear a correctional captain or lieutenant say: ‘next victim.

At our New York City June 2016 event, which focused on the notorious Rikers Island, storyteller Xena Grandichelli, opened her story with this harrowing line.

At Mass Story:Rikers Island June 26, 2016

At Mass Story:Rikers Island June 26, 2016

Grandichelli, a trans-intersex woman and trans activist, was brutalized while she was detained at Rikers. Seven correctional officers and an incarcerated person beat and raped her while she was in their custody during the duration of December 30th, 2014 to January 3rd, 2015.

The police officers who had escorted Grandichelli to Rikers had proclaimed her a “troublemaker."

The frequency at which transgender individuals experience sexual violence is deeply alarming. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey report, 64% of respondents reported being sexually assaulted. More so, though, many trans people experience violence, like Grandichelli, while being detained in state and federal prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that of their surveyed sample of transgender respondents (surveyed in 2011-12), 33.2% had reported another detainee had assaulted them and that 15.2% had been assaulted by a staff member while detained.

When officers returned to the island on January 3rd, Grandichelli had experienced significant injuries from the violence inflicted upon her. Despite needing medical attention, the officers waited and then transferred her to another section of the facility. Upon arrival, someone luckily acknowledged the extent of Grandichelli’s injuries and questioned her condition. She was then escorted to a hospital where a rape kit was conducted. She was sent back to Rikers Island and denied time to heal.

I still wasn’t healed because there was no such thing as talking to a rape counselor.

Sexual assault is not the only atrocity that transgender and/or gender non-conforming people must face while detained or incarcerated. While the Department of Justice now strongly suggests that a detainee’s gender identity is taken into account when placing them in a facility, detention centers are not required to do so. Thus, people like Grandichelli, who is a woman, can be placed in a men’s quarter or facility based on legal documents (i.e., birth certificates) or anatomical organs. Doing this could increase the likelihood that these marginalized people will experience sexual violence and/or physical violence by staff or other incarcerated people while they are detained or incarcerated.

In recent years,  the mistreatment of trans people have become more known to the public. Notably, Chelsea Manning, who had released classified government documents to WikiLeaks, was denied access to hormone therapy by military prison officials for over a year. The details of her incarceration, which she and her attorneys have disclose, have helped reveal systematic problems in the way that transgender and gender non-conforming people are treated while being detained in prisons.

After a court case was opened, Grandichelli was released from Rikers. Yet, due to the violence inflicted upon her, she could not go home and was, instead, sent to the hospital.

She now works with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project which provides legal aid to those who have faced discrimination due to their gender identity.

 A Mother Uses What She's Got to Reduce Recidivism Rates

A Mother Uses What She's Got to Reduce Recidivism Rates

Cecelia Whitfield, is a mother, a respected community leader, and the founder of “Use What You've Got Prison Ministry, Keeping Families Connected, Inc”. When her son was arrested and convicted of a robbery, she turned her personal heartbreak into a community solution. She founded a weekly shuttle bus service to transport families to visit their loved ones in eight Indiana prisons.

We were honored to have Cecilia Whitfield agree to be one of our storytellers at a Mass Story Lab event in Indianapolis this past spring. For a packed house, she described how when her son, James, returned home from prison, she was unaware of how best to support him. Impressed with her passionate commitment to supporting families impacted by incarceration, after the lab, we interviewed Cecelia by phone. She spoke of driving her son James to meetings with his probation officer and attempting to find work for him, but she was unaware of his hidden struggle with drugs. After her experience with her son, Whitfield began to do her research and discovered that her family was not alone.

“80% of people in prisons have a drug or alcohol problem” and, due to insufficient resources in prison systems, many of these individuals do not receive adequate treatment. Consequently, there is a “75% recidivism rate when no treatment is received while incarcerated.”

When Whitfield’s son came home, it became apparent he struggled to feel like he belonged anywhere. She noted,

“Over time, I came to learn that my son was afraid of the outside world, the shame of the crime he had committed, and the stigma of knowing those friends he once had in high school no longer wanted to be around him.”

In response to her son’s incarceration, Whitfield founded the “Use What You've Got Prison Ministry” to eliminate one important barrier to successful reentry, a strong and sustained connection to family while serving time. Whitfield’s organization, which has existed for 28 years, offers a plethora of services including a shuttle bus service to Indiana State prisons, women’s retreats, Christmas programs for the children, and information about available services.

Article: parents of prisoner find a way to serve community

 Whitfield expressed her belief that by educating others about drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, and HIV testing, one can significantly help those who may not have been able to receive information and guidance through difficult times.

Finally, Whitfield conveyed that her personal goal is to provide “a more cohesive program that educates, supports and prepares everyone for the homecoming that will be difficult at best.” By doing so, she hopes that, in response, rates of recidivism will decrease.She proposed, “Something as simple as directories to services or an app to help find assistance would be a good start and I cannot help but believe that all the providers in the process would be encouraged with a reduction in recidivism which would come from better preparing all those who touch this returning individual.”

Prison Bus Shuttle Photo

Whitfield has dedicated her life to helping families impacted by incarceration. In Indiana, her work is bridging the divide between incarcerated people and their families. To learn more about her organization, visit their website and help support their mission.



Mass Story Lab is a storytelling platform amplifying the voices of people directly impacted by incarceration. Through our story lab events in communities around the country, we are leveraging the power of storytelling to inspire healing, dialogue, and more a restorative justice system.


Written by Lara Fayyaz, MSL Summer 2017 Intern

Who Really Profits From Parole?

Who Really Profits From Parole?

To put it lightly, President Donald Trump’s approach to crime is problematic at best. It has become apparent that his law enforcement priorities include conviction as a default response to essentially every broken law, no matter how small the crime. His plans will not only put undeserving people in prison, but it will also make it much harder for those on parole to stay out of prison. Successful reentry is already a challenge, and Trump vows to make it worse.

In November, we held a Mass Story Lab in Greensboro, North Carolina. Storyteller Anita Bennett spoke about her negative experience on parole. "[Parole] is not designed for productivity,” she stated. “It is designed for failure." Parole refers to the supervision that those convicted receive once they are conditionally released back into society after serving time in prison. If the rules are violated in any way, those on parole risk returning to prison. Two-thirds of them will be back in prison within three years, and many of them for minor, non-violent offenses. Anita urged the audience to understand that parole is essentially incarceration after incarceration. After being unable to supply her probation fee of $15,500, she was threatened with more time and even taken to court. She recounts,

"The court decided I needed an additional three years of probation. Each time I went to court I was advised that I could once again be sent back to prison. But what's important to note here is that each time it was abundantly clear that it was the intention of my probation officer was to do just that: incarcerate me again. Really? For a non-violent crime?" –Anita Bennett

The goal of probation should be to provide a smooth transition, but in truth, the system is corrupt. There are countless reasons why people on parole may be sent back to prison, often for monetary reasons. This can affect many consequences for people. Employment is very difficult to come by for people who have been incarcerated, though required by parole. Many returning citizens are responsible for child support and required behavioral programs for things such as chemical dependency and mental health therapies. Anita, who pursued her degree while on parole, shares with us how much of her life was overtaken by this restrictive and harmful system:

"In total, one hundred and two months or two and a half years of incarceration, six years of probation and a total of seven court dates of time spent dealing with the judicial system. Not to mention the monetary part of it." –Anita Bennett

These excessive court dates restricted Anita’s ability to travel, preventing her from supporting her daughter, a traveling athlete, and being the mother that she wanted to be. Along with the probation fees, this was devastating for her.

People who are unable to pay their probation fees should not be sent to prison. The same goes for substance dependent, physically disabled, or mentally ill folks who are unable to attend required treatment programs, those who cannot find employment due to lack of education or skills, those who are illiterate and unable to fill out required forms, and the many who are left homeless. It is unacceptable that such struggles are considered violations of parole and often lead to additional prison time. Rather than a parole system that continues patterns of punishment and entrapment in the criminal justice system, we need a system of support, care, and empathy for people who are coming out of prison. 

Visit to find out how you can help us bring Mass Story Labs to 10 communities in 2017.

By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab intern.




Refuge to Rubble: The American Dream & Immigrant Detention

Refuge to Rubble: The American Dream & Immigrant Detention

The relevance of immigrant detention all throughout America right now is, unfortunately, evident everywhere we turn. On the news, social media, and through simple word of mouth, updates on Trump’s new immigration ban and his plans to build a wall are unavoidable. In addition to the effect of immigrant detention on the families of detained immigrants, as discussed on Tuesday, many victims of Trump’s legislation are forced to live in unacceptable and inhumane conditions within the walls of detention facilities. Immigrants seeking refuge from danger in their countries are shown no mercy. It’s imperative that we continue to speak up.

During our trip to Austin, six storytellers shared with us their intersecting experiences within the twin systems of incarceration and immigrant detention. Detention facilities are meant to be a holding center, but have proven to resemble a prison environment despite housing non-violent immigrants who pose no threat. It is said that they’re detained for national security reasons, but considering Hispanics are actively sought out near the border, it is essentially legalized racial profiling. In Spanish, storyteller Sulma Franco recounted her personal experience with immigration detention, which began on only her second day in the United States:

“I fled my country to escape persecution for my sexual preference only to come to America and be arrested by immigration for crossing the border, and then humiliated for having been arrested, not having a social security number, not having a driver’s license, not speaking English. 

Many immigrants, such as Sulma, attempt to escape from danger, hoping that in America they will find a better life. Survivors of torture, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups including children, pregnant women and those with serious illnesses are in detention. The better life that they expected to find in the United States has been taken from them. Instead, they are subjected to harsh conditions. Sulma continues,

"We were held in a small room, many of us, all from different countries, huddled together on the cold cement ground. There was one bathroom for all of us with no door. Not even a shower curtain to protect our female bodies. If you wanted to do anything in the bathroom, you had to do it in front of everyone.”

 Immigrants are given shocking conditions in which to live and are treated inhumanely in the detention centers. The motives behind immigration detention are largely financial, which explains the cruelty and neglect. Sexual assault is prevalent within the detention centers, but justice is very rarely served. Immigrants are often denied health care. Additionally, detainees with lawyers are a minority. The right to an attorney is only a guarantee if you’re in criminal court. Due to the neglect and mistreatment of detained immigrants, a reported 115 people have died in immigration custody since 2003. There are countless heartbreaking stories. Sulma’s is just one of them.

In light of the recent inauguration of Donald Trump, action is more important now than ever. We urge you to donate to our Texas partners, Grassroots Leadership and other causes that will work to change, such as The National Immigration Law Center, and Americans for Immigrant Justice . Protest and speak out for people like Sulma.

On Saturday, Feb 4th, Mass Story Lab traveled to Miami, Florida to continue amplifying the stories of people surviving the intersections of incarceration and immigrant detention. Visit to find out how you can bring a lab to your city in 2017.

By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab Intern


Mass Story Lab @ Facing Race 2016

by Marissa Johnson, Mass Story Coordinator

Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to present on behalf of Mass Story Lab at the Facing Race conference in Atlanta, GA. Facing Race is a national conference on racial justice put on by Race Forward that brings together academics, advocates, community organizers, artists, policy-makers, and more, for the cause of working together to end racism and work towards equality and justice. The honesty and vision from speakers such as Michelle Alexander, Roxane Gay, and Jose Antonio Vargas was impactful and centering. With well over 2,000 people in attendance from all over the U.S., the power in every room was palpable and undeniable, though the tone was heavy and full of uncertainty, sorrow, and fear in reaction to the recent election results. Attendees and speakers alike shared in their emotions and collective imagination of a United States free of oppression.

Despite the differences we share, be it of race, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, religion, citizenship status, ability, age, class, etc., the message emanating through and through Facing Race was that through a newfound, serious commitment to solidarity, we shall all overcome. It could be seen in the sharing of ideas, strategies, and resources, the intentional community spaces and forums for all voices, the deep listening, curiosity, and learning that happened, and more, in the countless sessions and presentations at the conference.

In our own session for Mass Story Lab, our goal was to spread the vision of the project, as well as to garner interest in potential partnerships with like-minded organizations to bring MSL to communities around the country. Co-facilitated by myself and Sharda Sekaran, Mass Story Advisor, the session moved beyond an informational presentation about the problem of mass incarceration, to a focused conversation on organizing and action. All participants shared in discussion groups about how incarceration has impacted their lives. We also brainstormed ways in which the power of storytelling could be harnessed in our respective roles and organizations to help end the prison industrial complex in our own communities. It was invigorating and rewarding to see the connections that were made and the genuine interest in partnership to bring MSL to more cities in the coming years.

All throughout the weekend, between plenaries, meals, speakers, and breakout sessions, one woman on stage repeatedly sang three simple lines over and over again:

What is your dream today?

What is my dream today?

Joy, for the suffering people.

As I return and adjust back to reality with renewed urgency and commitment, these lines keep repeating in my head, over and over.