Meet Florida’s Dignity Ambassador: Valencia Gunder

By Valencia Gunder for #cut50

Formerly incarcerated woman turned activist and community leader – Valencia Gunder

I’m Valencia Gunder and I’m fighting for incarcerated women in Florida because I’m a formerly incarcerated woman myself.

For most of this year, I have spent time hearing from dozens of currently and formerly incarcerated women across the state of Florida — listening to their stories, their unmet needs during incarceration, and their suggestions for how we can begin to fix the system moving forward.

Working with #cut50, the New Florida Majority and a coalition of partners across the state, we began working on legislation that would substantially improve the lives of incarcerated women. Rep. Shevrin Jones, Rep. Amy Mercado, and Sen. Jason Pizzo introduced and championed the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act in Tallahassee and have supported our efforts to move the legislation through the process.

In December 2018, I traveled to Florida’s State Capitol in Tallahassee to share my story. As a young college student, I forged a $1,700 check to cover my tuition costs and as a result, was incarcerated. Over the course of my incarceration, which lasted 30 days, I was transferred between several different facilities. The experience was disruptive to my family and my life. But I learned that our prisons and jails were completely unresponsive to the unique needs of women and I made a vow to fight to change things for all the women I left behind.

Most people don’t realize that women incarcerated in the Florida Department of Corrections only earn between 20¢ and 50¢ per hour. And it typically takes about 16 hours of work for women to earn enough money to pay for essential feminine hygiene items like tampons and pads.

The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act could change this. It would require the Florida Department of Corrections to supply incarcerated women with these necessary items and other basic hygiene supplies that we take for granted on the outside.

Just because a woman is incarcerated doesn’t mean that they don’t want to feel sanitized, safe and healthy. Tampons and pads aren’t the only basic hygiene products incarcerated women must purchase for themselves — they also have to buy toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap out of pocket.

Sadly, many incarcerated women sacrifice their own basic hygiene just so they can afford expensive phone calls home to loved ones.

Providing these items to incarcerated women will help boost their confidence and take the financial burden off of themselves and their loved ones.

Equipping incarcerated women with the basic hygiene products they need isn’t the only way this legislation would help restore dignity to these resilient women. The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act would also limit invasive pat-down and cavity searches performed by male guards and prevent unnecessary exposure to women in various states of undress — because every woman deserves privacy and to be treated with respect.

More than 80% of incarcerated women are survivors of sexual assault and being monitored and searched by male officers can be triggering. I strongly believe that with this new legislation, women will feel as if they have a little more control over their bodies and safety.

The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act will also help protect women in Florida prisons from abuse by setting new standards for reporting misconduct. This will give incarcerated women the power to speak up and share their experiences.

Just the news of this Bill passing will restore the dignity and hope for women and girls — including juveniles incarcerated in Florida.

I hope you will join me in fighting for my sisters behind bars by spreading awareness of their situation and the need for this legislation.

Florida is in the midst of a historic transformation of prison and criminal justice system. Through the Dignity campaign with #cut50, we are not only tackling some of the most urgent and important issues for women in Florida’s prisons, we are also building a coalition and organizing infrastructure to sustain legislative change over the long-term in Florida.

I look forward to bringing the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act to Governor DeSantis’ desk this year, and we already have bold ideas for how to keep momentum moving forward into 2020.

Valencia Gunder is the Criminal Justice Program Manager for The New Florida Majority, and lead organizer and ambassador for #cut50’s Dignity for Incarcerated Women campaign in Florida. As a community organizer and advocate based in Miami, Valencia is the founder of “The Smile Trust”. Valencia collaborates across sectors to decrease gun violence and fight for criminal justice reform in urban communities. After working to transform herself following her incarceration, she is now fighting to strengthen her community and live her ideals of redemption and change.