On January 19, 2019, ACLU Smart Justice Connecticut leader Tracie Bernardi stepped up to the podium at the Hartford Women's March. Here is what she told the crowd.
"Hello. My name is Tracie Bernardi, and I am here today as a leader with the ACLU of Connecticut's Smart Justice campaign.
An old women's rights slogan is, "the personal is political." What that slogan really means, is that what women think are personal problems really concern us all.
I'm here today to talk about ending mass incarceration. Some people who have never been affected by the criminal justice system, have never had family members incarcerated or been incarcerated themselves, might say, "how does this affect me? It sounds like a personal problem."
I am here today to say that it affects you. It affects us all.
When I was 15, I was Miss Junior Teen Hartford 1989 and Miss Junior Teen Photogenic 1989. Four years later, when I was 19, I was arrested for felony murder. "Murder? How is she out?" But that's the thing. Most people that go in to prison do come out. Of the 13,500 people incarcerated in Connecticut right now, almost 1,000 of whom are women, 95% are likely to go home. I had a 30 year sentence. I served 23 years, including 7 years in solitary confinement.
I went to jail a child, and came home a middle-aged woman. Today is my 45th birthday. I've been home for three years.
I am an expert on women in prison in the state of Connecticut. There aren't a lot of women who came through York Correctional that I didn't meet or talk to.
What I've learned about myself and other women in prison is, we don't plan to go there. Women don't just go to prison. Almost every one of us has had trauma. Childhood violence, family instability, abuse, poverty, negative messaging, all of these traumas affect a woman's sense of self. As a result of trauma, some people self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, and unhealthy habits. 86 percent of incarcerated women have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. 77 percent were victims of partner violence. Like Carol Hanisch says, "women are messed over, not messed up."
I'm not making excuses for anyone's crime. I am saying that as a society, we will be better if we treat the root causes of crime, instead of increasing trauma through incarceration.
Women who have been involved in the justice system are daughters, mothers, step-mothers, sisters, and aunts. We are neighbors, coworkers, we are the women sitting next to you on the bus.
This is where you come in. I am asking you as a society to let us back in. Help others to remember we are human. Recognize we all make mistakes, whether we have been arrested for them or not. As human beings, we are constantly evolving. I'm not the same teenage child who was arrested in 1993. People can do well when given the opportunity.
My incarceration cost the state of Connecticut's taxpayers over $1.5 million, not including medical expenses or court expenses. Our tax dollars would be better investing in people and not prisons.
People, not prisons! People, not prisons! People, not prisons! Get involved with ACLU Smart Justice, and look us up online!"