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The Journey Of Joyce Dixson

The Journey Of Joyce Dixson image The Journey Of Joyce Dixson image
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Joyce Dixson, a native of Saginaw, Michigan, went to prison in August of 1976 for killing her abusive partner. In May, 1991 Dixson became the first woman to earn a Bachelor 's degree f rom U-M while still in prison. Two years later, after17years of incarceration and years of legal appeals and letter-writing campaigns by her supporters, Joyce Dixson won her freedom. Her conviction was reduced f rom to second-degree murder. Thejudgeconsequentlyruled that she had already served far more time than necessary for this conviction, and released her. Dixson then moved to Ann Arbor to fulfill her dream of attending classes at U-M, on campus. Dixson has just completed her first semester of a Master's program in the U-M School of Social Work. While in prison, Dixson found a system that offered some educational and employment opportunities to men but denied the same rights to women. So, Dixson fought for the right of women prisoners to have the same educational opportunities as male prisoners. As a direct res uit, she wasable to particípate in a pioneering U-M program in which learning materials were brought to the prison, enabling Dixson to complete a Bachelors Degree. While in prison, Dixson also earned a paralegal degree and through her work in prison legal services, helpedcountless incarcerated women. The following text is f rom a talk Joyce gave on November 18, 1993 to a group of U-M students and staff (sponsored by the U-M Women 's Studies Program). Qrison is someplace you really don't want to go. You come out one of three things: either you've really done what you can to better yourself, you've been totally broken, or you come out worse than you went in. I was convicted of murder in the first degree in August 1976. 1 got in trouble in late 1975. During that time there was no such phrase as "domestic violence." There really wasn't "empowerment for women." Women took what they had to take. I had two small children and I got involved with a really bad man - the kind of man who beat up old people, sold dope to children and threatened my family. It wasn't the type of relationship that I could just walk out of. According to popular belief, women who get into these things shouldjustwalkaway. Oftenone can't walk away, I was from a small community where most Blacks lived in one area. It wasn't the kind of place where I could get away and somebody would not be able to flnd me. One day I just got tired. I couldn't take it anymore. What was I going to do? I didn't want this kind of Ufe. If I didn't do something, I would end up bumed out, beat up, probably a dope flend and a whore. I wanted something better for myself and my children. I didn't know how to get out of this thing. This man wouldn't let me go. He wouldn't leave me alone. But 1 Just knew 1 had to get out Then a time carne when my cholee carne down to: "Am 1 golng to stand here and probably be seriously hurt - orworse - oram I golng to get out of thls sltuatlon?" And I shot hlm. I dldn't want to shoot hlm; 1 dldn't want to klll him. When I dld it, I wasn't thinking about if he was going to die. I was thinking about if 1 was going to live. I went to trial at electlon time. I was just a campaign statlstic. The prosecutor bêlieved that: "If I get this convictlon, 1 am sure to be re-elected." Itwasn'tlike somebody was concerned about me. Black women just didn't shoot people. This is the way people think about you in times like that. And I didn't have a lot of communlty support. The people in my nelghborhood really cared about me, but they didn't know how to support somebody . You j ust ge t down on your knees and you pray to the Lord and you hope for the best But sometimes that's just not enough. There was one wltness at my trial, which was me. My attorney didn't do what he could have done for me. I had a bench trial - which was a stupid thing to do - but my attorney advlsed that I do it. My trial lasted one and a half sessions and I was convlcted of murder in the flrst degree. I was sentenced to natural Ufe in prison. For the first four or five years 1 just knew that somebody was going to do the right thing and I was going to get an appeal and I was going to go home. I was going to go to court and the courts were just going to let me go, because that's what they were supposed to do. After about five or six years, I realized that I was probably going to be there for a while. Then 1 starled to get scared. But it was also a good time in my life because I started to look around and see what my optlons were. I stopped feeling bitter and stopped feeling sorry for myself and stopped worrying about how wrongly I had been done or what was going to happen to my mother or what was going to happen to my children. What was I going to do while I was there? Well, I was going to go to school. Butthere was no school to go to. I started in the old DeHo-Co (Detroit House of Corrections) which was the flrst women's corree tlons facillty, run by the city of Detroit then. There was one building where they had a couple of classes in the basement, maybe an art class or some other insignificant class. But there was nothing for women to do. At the time men were getting their GEDs, their Associates degrees, and their Bachelors degrees. Some of the men were even in a Ph.D. program. They had factories (for employment) and they had all these different ways to take care of themselves if they had no family or friends to support them, while women had absolutely nothing. Women were lucky if they had a family who cared enough about them and who had the means to support them - send them clothes, send them money, this kind of thing. But these were the folks who weren't there in the flrst place because they were rich and had all these opportunities and advantages. The women prisoners were there because they found the wrong ways to survlve. We were labeled as unimportant, just women who shouldjustshut up and do our time. So a group of women, including myself, tried to challenge these things. We started asking why men in the prison sy stem were in a better position to help themselves. They were even going home quicker than women. They had community programs and were being processed quicker. There were all these altemative sentencing programs for men- halfway houses all across the state. There was virtually nothing for women. We found out later that it was because if you didn't do these things for men, men would tear up the facilities. It would end up costing the state much more money. So we started questioning these things. I was told: "The needs of men and women are different. Men need more things. Men are more important people. Women in the prison system are not really important. You don't make a whole lot of difference one way or another. Shut up. Do your time. Be quiet." Well, that just wasn't enough because we were totally rating. We were just fading away . It wasn't enough. So progressive lawyers started coming through - law studente and those who had Just gotten out of college. We started talklng to these people. We flled a lawsult agalnst the Michigan Department of Corrections. The case is tltled "Glover v. Johnson," and after a few years the federal court ruled in our favor. The issues were all about parity and the court said it's a shame that men have these advantages while women don't. So we started getting some pretty decent educational opportunitles. It started with the community college. Four orfive years later, after contempt hearings, they tried to implement a fouryear program in the women's prison. But in the interim we were catching heil, because the situation for women in prison is atrocious. There are a number of male guards who still hang on to the attitude that women are there to be used. Particularly so with Black females, because we're often looked at as lowly, ignorant degenerates, incapable of change - thieves and whores for the rest of our lives. We are treated like no good will come of us, because that's just who we are. Perhaps some Black women did things that would allow people to think that way about them. However, they [Black women] were the ones who were targetted by guards, in the earlier part of my incarceration, for men to use. But as time went on and the system got bigger and more women started coming to prison, whether they were Black, White, or other women of color, these women were preyed upon too. It got to a point where it didn't matter what color you were, or how weak or how strong you were. Women were, and are, being raped in the prison system. I was in a facility where one woman complained to us (because I was working for prison legal services at the time). She carne in tears and she said that she woke up in the middle of the night and a guard was fondling her breasts. She screamed. He asked her what was wrong with her. She told him what he was doing and he said he was Just trying to find her ID. But she knew what he was doing. So the next day she came to legal services. We In turn went to the deputy, who was a man. He told me: "Wel]. Joyce. I don't know why you're making such a big thing about this. Itwasn'tlike he was - did he have sex with her? No. It wasn't like he was raping her or anything. He was fondling her breasts. This is just something men do." This woman had to go back to her unit and face the same guard - but this time, with more animosity. At that time the woman was a few months from her flrst out date. The last 1 heard , this woman had been written up on several misconducts. Every time you get a misconduct, they deduct about flve disciplinary credits. The more disciplinary credits you get, the more you're guaranteed your earliest release date. This woman lost like 60 disciplinary points. Her period of incarceration was prolonged. What happened was that when she saw the parole board, the parole board said: "Since you've got all these misconducts , we believe that your prognosis in prison and your rehabilitation is really poor. What we're going to do is defer your parole unül maybe twoyears later." So she ended up doing four more years because she complained to a deputy about a man feeling her breasts. This is the kind of thing that you live with. You try to stay away from it and you hope it doesn't happen to you, but ultimately it could happen to you at any time. You try to putyourself in a position to fight it, but at the same time , you want to get along. You want to do your time and get out of there. Some of you have probably met Susan Fair. I really admire Susan, because when she was in the system, Susan would take on the entire system. She would fight them at every turn. They would write her up and they would lock her up. She'd get out, she'd file another action. They'd write her up. They'd lock her up again. She'd lose more days but then they'd lock her up. She'd get out and do the same thing, over and over again. But I was afraid to do it that way, because I was doing life. I had to walk on eggshells. You must have a clean record if there 's any hope of getting out of that situation. Itwas hard because at the time I was trying to go to school. The University of Michigan tried this pilot program with two or three women from the system. Susan was the flrst one, then later on Mary Glover and myself were fortúnate enough to be a part of the U-M undergraduate program that was created for us. Although it was a great opportunity for me, it got harder at the same time because the guards' and administrators' attitude was, "Why should you have such an opportunity when we weren't able to do such things, or we weren't able to send our children to the University of Michigan? Who the heil do you think you are? You're a prisoner and you don't deserve this." (CONTINUEO NEXT PAGE) "I can' t begin to teil you in such a short time how hard it is to survive in prison... After a while you're either 'bitch' or number 145440. You're aprisoner. You're never aperson. You're never a woman. You're only 'Miss' when somebody's being sarcastic." Then there were prisoners who resented us: "Who do you think you are? You're doing it and we can't, so we're golng to do everything we can to stop you." Whichever way we turned, we were a bunch of dirty bltches who didn't deserve to be where we were. My lecture tapes would end up over at the men's facility. My books would get lost somewhere at the facility and nobody would know where they were. KevlnThornton, Phillis Engelbertand Betsy Esch were my flrst TAs [teaching asslstants]. They would come to the prison at Coldwater. They would use their own gas, spend their own time, subject themselves to being frisked and all the harassment that goes with coming into a prison , just because they were trying to help me. They would get pissed off, but they stayed with me. It was important to have support like that, because you can't make it by yourself. I can't begin to teil you in such a short time how hard it is to survive in prison. People don't care aboutyou. People don't believe that you're going to be anything. They're always telling you that you're nothing. You believe them. You don't know what you're supposed to believe because you don't know who you are. After a while you're either "bitch" or number 145440. You're a prisoner. You're never a person. You're never a woman. You're only "Miss" when somebody's being sarcastlc. I'm Just so thankful for the volunteer groups that come in. I can't teil prisoners enough to be a part of these programs. I want them to know that thls is all they're going to get that's going to teil them they're notwhateverybody else says they are. They'd say: "What do you need an education for? You're going to die here." And then I'd start to wonder: "Well, am I going to die here? Am I ever going to get out of here? Why am I going through all this? What am I doing this for?" Something inside just made me go on. When you lose all hope, you might as well lie down and die. There were several times when Ithought about telling someone to Just bring me a rope, so I could do like Tve seen a couple other people do, who Just couldn't take it. It's a constant struggle to get through the system. Often I made decisions that were unpopular with both prisoners and staff. Although I took a lot of heat for it, being able to make a decisión and stand on it was a good thing, particularly since other people had been telling me what to do for the most part of my life. It's an uphill fight, but you have to form some identity for yourself. You have to figure: "This is who I am, and I'm not going to die In prison. I'm sorry about him, but I'm glad that I lived. So what am I supposed to do now? Am I j ust supposed to lay here and die because everybody else says I don't deserve to live? I just can't do that. If nobody feels this except me, I just have to go on. I have to believe thatsomeUme, somewhere down the road, this situatlon is going to change for me." I have two children. When I left, my children were six and eightyears old. My mother had them, and they grew up in the community I grew up in, with the same people. Except it got progressively worse. It's hard for me to talk about this because if you're a mother, you know how it feels when your children teil you that they hurt. I asked my son when I got home how it was for him, and at first he said he didn't want to talk about it. But he said: "You know, when I went to school, the teachers looked at me funny ; they treated me dlfferently. The klds were talklng about me, and they said all kinds of thlngs about you." And klds are cruel. He sald when they got mad at hlm, they would say thlngs about me. He sald that hls friends' mothers stopped lettlng them play wlth hlm and he didn't know why people were treatlng hlm Uke that. He wasjusta Uttle kld and he wanted to play wlth hls friends and he couldn't. My two sons handled it dlfferently. My baby, Chuckle, says he didn't have any friends, so he would go home and study. He would go In hls room and close hls door. My other son, who was elght when I left, fought all the time. Everybody was hls enemy. He didn't have any regard for anybody else because he didn't feel they had any for hlm. Rlght now, my baby Is graduatlng from Eastern Michigan University this April, the one who was six when I left hlm. But my older son is now In prison. He Is servlng a natural life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder. For me, it was really hard coming home. Here it is after 1 7 years, 120 days. I get to come home and see my chlldren and I come home and I only have one. When I went to see my son in prison, he sald: "Mama, I'm so glad you're home, but now what are you going to do about me?" He said: "Mama, come and get me." And I couldn't and I didn't know how to teil him I can't. I don't know what 1 can do. If there's anythlng I know, lts not to depend on the legal system to do everythlng that they're supposed to do. There are a lot of things that are not nice in our society. But there are a lot of thlngs that are legal. Whenever a brief Is filed, there is somethlng in that brief that wlll allow ajudge to go either way. The Judge wlll find something In that brief to let you go, if he or she wants to, oi they'll find somethlng to keep you there. Most of the time it wlll be a matter of public sentiment - what's the flow of things. How are things golng now. Then there are so many people In the system that people do not have the time to devote to your particular case. They don't have the time to do the initlal background investigatlon. The parole and probatlon offlcers don't have the time to do these thorough investigations to try to find out if lncarceration is the best thing for you. They just don't have time. The dockets are too crowded and the system is too congested. So folks just get pushed through the system. There are a lot of folks there who need to be there, but then there are a lot of people there who shouldn't be there. In March of '93, an attomey named Barbara Klimaszewski was appointed to my case. From that time untll my release in May, she vislted me on numerous occasions. She left no stone unturned and worked the case like a "junkyard dog" in her effort toward my freedom. The whole experience has made me a betterwoman, but I shouldn't have done 17 years and 120 days. I can never get that. back. I can't give that back to my children. My son may be very old by the time he gets out of prison. He may never get out of prison. 1 wlll never get that back. The point I'm trying to make is - it's not fair. It's important to me to stress to people who want to change things that things should not Just be taken at face value. People are important. When you begin to lose that human aspect of things and people all of a sudden are not important, when nobody has time anymore to do the right thing, you lose something. When you don't do the right thing, it just may cost someone 17 years and 120 days of their life. It may cost their children the same thing.


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