How shoplifting a garden hose gets you a life sentence in prison.
Rajeshree Roy, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, has spent more than half of her life incarcerated by a system that claims to protect survivors. Trigger warnings for Domestic Violence and Childhood Sexual Abuse.
Rajeshree Roy was born in Fiji. Her mother abandoned her when she was an infant. Her father, like many Fijians, was forced to leave the country as an undocumented immigrant looking for work and left her with extended family. As a half-Indian, half-Fijian child in a country with long standing ethnic tensions, Rajeshree was hated by her Indian family, who started sexually abusing her when she was five.
“When I was eight, my uncle would tie me to a faucet outside and make me perform oral sex on him. He would give me twenty cents and warn me not to tell anyone.”
By the time her father was able to bring her over on a green card eight years later, Rajeshree had experienced an unfathomable amount of trauma. When she tried to tell her family, they refused to listen. Unable to express what she had been through, Rajeshree was filled with anger and sadness. At the age of twelve, Rajeshree attempted to commit suicide for the first of many times in her life. She passed out unconscious in the garage for days without anyone noticing that she was gone.
“After what I’d been through, I hated men. I couldn’t trust any of them. Still, if I wanted to survive, I had to forgive myself and find a way to forgive them too.”
Starved for affection that she was not getting at home, Rajeshree would often run away to live on the streets. In a summer when she was sixteen and homeless, Rajeshree started robbing people to get money. Years of bottled up pain and anger began pouring out as she found herself unable to stop punching, kicking, and beating the men she robbed. She was arrested for multiple counts of robbery and aggravated assault.
1. People incarcerated for violent crimes are invariably also the survivors of violence that prisons claim to protect.
“No one stopped and asked what was going on in this child’s life. They treated me like a wild animal and just threw me in prison.”
Although she was a child, Rajeshree was charged as an adult and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. A quarter million children are charged as adults each year in the United States. At least twelve hundered are serving life without parole sentences. Rajeshree was one of the first people incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), the largest prison for people assigned female at birth in the world.
A perfect storm of flawed advocacy placed Rajeshree at CCWF. For years, advocates had complained about the conditions for women incarcerated in state prisons leading to the creation of “women’s prisons” that allowed for even more women and transgender people to be incarcerated. At the same time, domestic violence advocates pushed for domestic violence legislation that included increased sentences for violent crimes and more funding for incarceration based on a simple narrative of innocent, defenseless victims and violent abusers that ignored the fact that many survivors of domestic violence in prison were incarcerated for violent crimes.
2. Prisons don’t make us safer. Mental health care, education, and addressing trauma do.
“When I got to prison, a psychiatrist told me I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression and gave me a bunch of pills, but that didn’t really help. CCWF had just opened and there weren’t any classes, groups, or programs, but I started talking to the incredible women around me. We started talking about what we had done — murder, child abuse, and selling drugs — and the sexual abuse and domestic violence that we’d all been through. All of a sudden things started to connect for me.”
Being locked up in an inherently violent place did nothing to help Rajeshree deal with her trauma. Mental health care in prisons is meant to keep people under control, not address their trauma. Feeling even more vulnerable and surrounded by violence in prison, Rajeshree found herself getting into fights on a daily basis. Her back still bears scars from where she was repeatedly shot with pellet guns by guards as a teenager.
Rajeshree had never talked to anyone else who had survived sexual abuse, but in prison, it seemed like everyone she talked to was a survivor of sexual abuse or domestic violence. Over seventy-seven percent of girls facing life sentences are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Upwards of ninety percent of incarcerated women are survivors of violence prior to being incarcerated. Advocates had painted a picture of innocent, non-violent victims of abuse and their violent abusers, which left out Rajeshree and the people she was locked up with.
Against all odds, Rajeshree survived and left prison having started the long process of addressing her trauma. However, this is was in spite of prison, not because of it. The things that helped Rajeshree — being able to talk about her trauma and connect with other survivors — could have easily been provided without stealing what was left of her childhood.
3. The barriers formerly incarcerated people face make it nearly impossible for them to survive.
“From the age of five on, the people who were supposed to love and protect me had been the ones who hurt me. I didn’t feel like I could trust anyone. I didn’t feel like anyone cared enough about me to give me a few dollars for rent.”
Rajeshree was granted parole after serving fifteen years in prison. She had gone in as a sixteen-year-old child and left at the age of thirty. She found work at a tire shop, married, had three children, and found community at a church where she felt safe sharing what she had been through. Her marriage turned abusive. When she was seven months pregnant with her youngest child, her husband choked and punched her. Compared to what she had been through, Rajeshree did not consider this to be abuse. Only after a friend saw her injuries did she realize that this was not normal.
In a short period, Rajeshree’s life fell apart. Unable to work and afford childcare, she was struggling to support her children and was ineligible for public assistance. Then her car was stolen and she was facing eviction. Eight years after she was released from prison, Rajeshree was arrested at a Wal-Mart for shoplifting a garden hose that a neighbor offered to pay her for.
Normally shoplifting a hose would be a petty misdemeanor, but due to her prior convictions, the District Attorney charged it as a felony and bail was set at a million dollars. She was offered a sentence of life with a minimum of twenty-five years. Eventually, she accepted a plea deal of seven and a half years and went back to CCWF.
In November 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47 which reduced some felonies including minor petty thefts to misdemeanors. After serving nearly three years, Rajeshree’s conviction was suddenly reduced to a misdemeanor. A life sentence had dropped down to sentence of time served.
4. Deportation and immigration detention are a part of America’s incarceration crisis.
“I told my kids that I’d be coming home in December. I can see that they are hurt and don’t believe me anymore since I’m still locked up. In prison, I used to call them when they got home from school every day. It’s harder in immigration detention. Phone calls are expensive and we don’t get contact visits. I got to see them for Mother’s Day but we had to talk through bars. It was hard not being able to reach out and hug them.”
On her release date, instead of going home, Rajeshree was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and transported to the Yuba County Jail which rents out space to detain immigrants. Even though she had lived in the United States as a permanent resident since she was ten-years-old, a series of “tough on crime” laws for immigrants passed in the 1990s made her subject to mandatory detention and almost mandatory deportation. Contrary to the idea that Asian Pacific Islanders are a “model minority”, Pacific Islanders like Rajeshree have some of the highest incarceration and criminal deportation rates and are among the hardest hit by “tough on crime” laws targeted at Black people.
Earlier this year, President Obama became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison. During his visit at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, he met with incarcerated people and heard their stories. Afterwards, he called for a systemic overhaul of our criminal justice system, noting that incarceration was not making us safer and that many of the people he met deserved a second chance.
However, President Obama and politicians from both sides of the aisle revert back to an outdated “tough on crime” stance when discussing immigration detention, the fastest growing system of incarceration in the country. When talking about people with prior convictions in the context of immigration, the administration has referred to them as “the worst of the worst” and bragged about deporting record numbers of immigrants with criminal convictions.
President Obama insists that deportations improve public safety because they are careful to deport “felons not families.” Advocacy relying on the image of the honest, hardworking immigrant being deported led to policies that divided us into parents or convicted felons and survivors of violence or perpetrators of violence. As all four, Rajeshree defies all of the simple narratives we are given about prisons and deportation.
Exceptionally heartbreaking and exceptionally common, stories like Rajeshree’s can be found in every prison, jail, and detention center in America. Like Marissa Alexander, Nan-Hui Jo, and Tondalo Hall, Rajeshree’s story is part of a pattern of survivors being punished with incarceration and deportation for actions that are a result of the violence they survived. During October, Domestic Violence Awareness month, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated survivors are coming together to talk about creating a movement centered on their experiences. Join the conversation at survivedandpunished.org and #SurvivedandPunished.
Here are 5 things you can do to support Rajeshree and other incarcerated people:
- *UPDATE* Rajeshree was released after 14 months in detention after her community raised bond for her. Help get Rajeshree out of detention — Rajeshree has been given a ten thousand dollar bond to get out of immigration detention. Like most people in jail, she is locked up because she is too poor to afford bond. Donate to help get her out of detention and be reunited with her children.
- Whether or not you can afford to donate, take a moment to think about Rajeshree and fully embrace her in all of her humanity, even the messy parts.
- The next time you hear someone talking about incarceration, think about Rajeshree and the tens of thousands of others like her. Question simple solutions like only releasing non-violent drug offenders, deporting all immigrant felons, or that some people are not worthy of our care. When given a story about someone who committed a terrible act of violence, ask why they did it.
- Support and join organizations led by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and their families:
- California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), @womenprisoners, http://womenprisoners.org/
- Transgender Gender-Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project), @TGIJP, http://www.tgijp.org/
- All of Us or None, @allofusornone, http://www.prisonerswithchildren.org/our-projects/allofus-or-none/
- Justice Now, @justicenoworg, http://www.jnow.org/
- Essie Justice Group, @essie4justice, http://www.essiejusticegroup.org/
- Critical Resistance, @C_Resistance, http://criticalresistance.org/
- Families for Freedom, @familiesfreedom, http://familiesforfreedom.org/
5. Connect with incarcerated people — Prisons, jails, and detention centers are isolating places. Join visitation and penpal programs to offer support to incarcerated people.