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Formerly incarcerated women share experiences at Beyond the Bars Conference panel

Attendees of Women Beyond Bars Initiative panel gather outside at the Westwood United Methodist Church. (Courtesy of Rafik Wahbi)

By Loan-Anh Pham

Jan. 25, 2022 1:57 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 26 at 7:00 p.m.

UCLA community members and formerly incarcerated individuals gathered for an event to discuss incarceration’s impact on women.

The Beyond the Bars Conference seeks to open discussion on alternatives to current carceral systems, including transformative justice, said Robin Kello, a Beyond the Bars fellow who helped organize the conference over a nine-month period.

The conference’s theme was “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Abolition” and included various workshops that tackled the carceral system through policy, community healing and the arts.

More than 60 participants attended the Women Beyond Bars Initiative panel, held both in person at the Westwood United Methodist Church and over Zoom on Jan.16. The event was part of the larger Beyond the Bars Los Angeles Conference, hosted in collaboration with UCLA’s Prison Education Program.

WBBI takes a community-driven approach to supporting both incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated women – a population that receives less attention than incarcerated men, said Wendy Staggs, the initiative’s founder and a formerly incarcerated individual.

“When somebody’s been in there for 40 years, they don’t know how to use a computer or a phone, they don’t know how to speak to a legislator,” Staggs said. “We are going to build out a program where we have resources that people can get. I want to have a mentor program … I want to teach them how to tell their own story.”


(Courtesy of Rafik Wahbi)
Panelists from the Women Beyond Bars Initiative discussed how incarceration impacts women. (Courtesy of Rafik Wahbi)

The panelists, all formerly incarcerated at the California Institution for Women, discussed their experiences with the carceral system, from their last year in prison to their first year out and transitioning back to society.

Adjusting to life in society is a difficult process, as the formerly incarcerated contend with problems such as financial instability and stigmatization, said Diane Campos, a panelist at the event.

“You know, you don’t just sit in a cell when you’re in prison – you get up at six in the morning, you go to breakfast, you start your job at seven, you work eight hours, you go to an early dinner, then you go to class for four hours at night,” Campos said. “The girls coming out of CIW are worthy to take a look at as employees and tenants in your homes.”

Incarceration also leaves long-term mental health impacts, said April Adkins, a panelist.

“My biggest, biggest struggle and I’m struggling with it still … is the psychological trauma,” Adkins added. “You have to be perfect in order for them to see that you are worthy. I carried that on to jobs, I carried it on to relationships, I carried it onto myself and I beat myself up.”

WBBI aims to provide concrete support for formerly incarcerated women through financial literacy or transitional housing resources, Campos added.

UCLA has the ability and responsibility to engage in decarceration work, Kello said. Many of the UCLA community are impacted by incarceration, with family members in prison or students who themselves are formerly incarcerated, he added.

“(We) have the economic resources, the knowledge power, the cultural capital, to do that work of envisioning and creating a better future,” Kello said. “I mean, who the hell wants to live in a future where we put people in cages for their whole lives?”

At its core, incarceration is a system that needs to be addressed on multiple fronts, Staggs said.

“As a community, before we judge people that are incarcerated, maybe we should start asking ourselves, ‘How did they get there? What were the traumas that happened to them first, that took them down this road?’” Staggs said. “The best thing that we can do is offer humanity without judgment.”

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Loan-Anh Pham
Pham is a national news and higher education staff writer. She is a second-year transfer student at UCLA majoring in Communication and double minoring in Public Affairs and Gender Studies. Pham previously wrote for San José Spotlight and AsAmNews.
Pham is a national news and higher education staff writer. She is a second-year transfer student at UCLA majoring in Communication and double minoring in Public Affairs and Gender Studies. Pham previously wrote for San José Spotlight and AsAmNews.
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