“The only thing you can bring to prison is 25 pictures,” Evie Litwok explained. “And when you get there, most people want to see those pictures. So, most people have pictures of their spouses and their babies. But, this is what I brought.”
In the University of Pennsylvania’s Houston Hall, Litwok pressed play on a digital projector and showed the audience 25 pictures of her tiny, lively white Maltese dogs. “You really miss your animals in prison, I’ll tell you.”
Litwok was incarcerated for tax evasion and mail fraud for two years in two different federal prisons. Now, almost three years after her release, she’s traveling the country to speak out against what she describes as the “prison within a prison” of solitary confinement. On April 5, she led “Old, Queer and in Solidarity,” an event organized by University of Pennsylvania’s Criminal Justice Bloc.
“I was already an out lesbian and a committed activist when I went to prison. It turns out I couldn’t check my activism, even at the prison doors,” Litwok said.
While incarcerated, Litwok began collecting interviews with her fellow inmates. She would write up the interviews by hand after long, intimate conversations with the women. After, she’d type up the interviews and mail the transcripts to friends on the outside who would post to her blog.
After a series of appeals, dropped charges and ultimately another conviction, Litwok was sent to a facility in Florida that was much stricter than her former environment.
“When I got there, they told me they knew who I was — prison is a small world — and if they caught me talking to anyone, they’d say I was attempting to incite a riot and put me in solitary,” Litwok said. “So, of course, I came up with a way to talk to the women. I took a job cleaning goose shit off the track, where we exercised. So I walked all day, and they’d walk with me and we’d talk.”
Litwok explained her inspiration for “Witness to Mass Incarceration,” a digital-archive project based on her interviews.
“‘Witness’ is about these women’s lives, before and after prison as well as during. I wanted to know how they got there and how the experience changed them. And honestly, I think when people hear these stories, they won’t understand why these people were imprisoned in the first place.”
She also cited Holocaust testimony and Stephen Spielberg’s “Shoah Project.” Litwok believes the power of seeing these stories, told by those who lived them, could effect powerful change.
Eventually, Litwok was placed in solitary confinement for seven weeks after telling the story of Miriam Hernandez, a woman whose complaints of stomach pain went ignored until her gallbladder burst and she died in prison.
Human Rights Watch estimates that 15 percent of federal prisoners are 51 and older, and the number of elderly prisoners is growing rapidly, between new convictions and an aging prison population.
The U.S. Census has also reported that one in six Americans over 65 years lives in poverty, and LGBT couples are more likely to live below the poverty line. There’s little meaningful research into the effect incarceration has on the elderly or LGBT populations. But Human Rights Watch has found that the number of prisoners who are 65 and older grew 94 times the rate of the overall prison population between 2007-10.
As prisoners age, they have a set of needs that prisons were not designed to deal with, Litwok noted.
“No one comes out of prison better than they went in,” she said. “They come out sicker, without their teeth, and that’s if they come out at all.”
After being released, prisoners often struggle to access safety-net programs like affordable housing and food assistance, adding to the risk of poverty, homelessness and recidivism.
“Returning home was harder for me than prison,” Litwok said. “You leave with nothing — no clothes, nowhere to go — and it’s overwhelming. When you come out, you’re lost. You’re just lost.”
Litwok has a plan, though. She proposed several community-based solutions to help ease former prisoners back into life on the outside. She wants community groups and religious organizations to start an “Adopt-a-Person” program, where volunteers connect with a soon-to-be-released prisoner and help them adapt to life outside of prison. She suggested organizations could put together suitcases for returning prisoners, with clothes, hygiene products and a pre-paid cell phone to help them begin looking for a job and connect with a support network.
“I want neighborhoods to get involved with people; don’t just give them a suitcase and hand them off. I want them to commit to an 18-month relationship. So they know, when they come out, there’s someone to talk to.”
Litwok is also working on fundraising for “Witness to Mass Incarceration,” so she can conduct more interviews. She’s currently working with Manhattan Community Media to broadcast her interviews.
“The kids from Penn gave me some really great letters, after my talk,” she told PGN after last week’s event. “And that’s really helpful, because if my story can reach 10 people in a crowd, then I’ll feel I will have done something that matters. Because we need to rethink who we are punishing, and what we’re punishing people for.”