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Arts & Ideas highlights the plight of incarcerated women

Three women sitting in a row at a table
Alexis Schlesinger / THE GATEPOST

By Jack McLaughlin

Arts & Features Editor

Framingham State welcomed Sashi James and Emek Ergun for a discussion on incarcerated women in the Heineman Ecumenical Center Feb. 20. 

“Solidarity Keeps Us Alive” is part of the Arts & Ideas “Courage + Resilience” series and was co-sponsored by the Sociology & Criminology Department and the Council on Diversity and Inclusion. 

The event began with sociology Professor Zeynep Gönen providing background on the subject, and informing the audience that the U.S. has the largest population of incarcerated people in the world. 

Gönen cited policies developed in the 1970s as the reason for the high incarceration rate in the U.S.

After this, Gönen introduced Sashi James and Emek Ergun to the audience. 

James is the director of Families for Justice and Healing, a non-profit organization led by incarcerated women with the goal of ending incarceration for women and girls. 

Ergun is an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, and a translator for the book “The Purple Color of the Kurdish Politics,” which is a series of stories from incarcerated women in Turkey. 

The discussion started with criminology Professor Beth Whalley, who served as the moderator, inviting both speakers to introduce themselves and their work. 

Ergun began with discussing her work translating the book. She said it originally started between her and another colleague who weren’t confident in taking on such a massive project. 

“We waited and waited for somebody else to volunteer. Nobody did, so eventually one day we said ‘OK, here we go!’” she said. 

She also talked about making sure the book kept the “collective manner” intact that was present in the original writing, a choice made in solidarity with the writers. 

She described the process of translating the book as difficult and said it was done mostly over Zoom. She added that while it was challenging at times, something all of the translators shared was “a political commitment to the struggles that these amazing women have been [enduring] in Turkey.”

Sashi James spoke next, and first talked about her experience being incarcerated in 2010. At the time of James’ sentencing, she had just given birth to her fourth child while raising three others. 

Because of the conditions of James’ sentencing, she had to serve her two-year sentence outside of Massachusetts in a Connecticut prison. 

“I just had to figure out and keep my head together enough to get two years of incarceration over with,” she said. 

She said while incarcerated, she met Virginia Douglas, who would become one of the cofounders of Families for Justice and Healing and leads their office in Harlem, New York. 

Speaking about her incarceration, James said a positive outcome was meeting many women who “are in this fight with us.

“We’ve been able to build this sisterhood across the country to bring an end to the incarceration of women and girls,” she said. 

She also talked about the severe damage that women being imprisoned face, especially if they are a mother. 

“You’ve never been in a prison at 3 o’clock in the morning and heard the stifled sobs of a woman who just cannot, for one more minute, bear the separation from her children, who just wants to touch her children and let them know ‘I’m sorry I’m here, I’m going to try and do everything I can to get back home to you.’” 

While incarcerated, James wrote a memoir. Upon her release, she decided not to edit or add anything to it before publishing.

“I didn’t add anything. I packed my manuscript - when I finally got released - in a box and I walked out of the prison with it. And I refused to change anything because I didn’t want my voice to change because now my circumstances have changed,” she said. 

Ergun spoke about the writing process for “The Purple Color of the Kurdish Politics,” and how the original text was written by women in prison who were serving “bogus claims.

“They are basically there because they were part of a pro-Kurdish party,” Ergun said. 

The incarcerated women in the book were all elected officials who were sentenced to prison over political conflict. Ergun talked about the challenge that these women had in their elected roles, especially against the Turkish government.

“They had to actually stand up, not just to the government and the police and the court, but also to their brothers and fathers and husbands,” she said. 

“They refuse to be silenced in a country that has a lot of power to silence them.”

Elaborating on the oppression women face in the prison system, James mentioned that despite the conditions she was in, she was given the opportunity to meet “some of the most resilient, incredibly brilliant women.”

She brought up an experience she had where someone asked her on a panel what it was like to have a full education and go to prison with women who were “uneducated.

“I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I learned more from the sisters in that prison, in that experience - but also I’m a Black woman who was raised in a Black community in the most incarcerated part of Massachusetts.

“Every Black woman in my community is strong and resilient,” she said.

James talked about how people in Massachusetts have a unique opportunity to lead a model for not only the rest of the country, but the world. 

“Starting with closing [Massachusetts Correctional Institution - Framingham and] shipping that cost into the communities that are most directly affected by prisons,” she said.

Ergun said an important step for people in Turkey to have a better understanding on incarceration is to “stop thinking of Kurdish people as terrorists.

“When you constantly tell people that Kurds want to break up this country, ruin the unity - that they’re terrorists,” she said, “all this language of terrorism - it not only creates this intense fear in people, but then you get a Kurdish person getting killed in the middle of the street because he was speaking in Kurdish.

“You get indoctrinated with this so much, and we’re talking about a massive population,” she added.

She talked about how for the longest time, Kurdish people were not allowed to admit they are Kurdish because of the Turkish constitution using language that she described as “being asked to forgo your ethnic identity.

“These extremely racist ideas prevent people from not only accepting each other with their differences, but living with their differences,” Ergun said. 

Ergun points to prisons as a commonality between countries that openly display colonial and racist ideologies. 

She talked about how she was indoctrinated to think this way about Kurdish people, and said the way she was able to look at the situation differently was to just listen. 

One of her Kurdish friends was sent to prison for attending a protest, and listening to her story gave her a new perspective. 

“Listen and hear them, and do something. It’s not that hard to see people being oppressed all around you,” she said. 

After a short Q&A, James concluded the discussion by reinforcing that if everybody comes together for this cause, change can be made.

“We can’t get this done at all without everybody else - all hands on deck,” James said. 

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