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 from U-M while still in prison.
Two years later, after 17 years of incarceration and years of legal appeals and letter-writing campaigns by her supporters, Joyce Dixson won her freedom.
Her conviction was reduced from first to second-degree murder. The judge consequently ruled 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 result, she was able to participate in a pioneering U-M program in which learning materials were brought to the prison, enabling Dixson to complete a Bachelor's Degree.
While in prison, Dixson also earned a paralegal degree and through her work in prison legal services, helped countless incarcerated women.
The following text is from 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).
Prison 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. I 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 should just walk away. Often one 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 find 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 life. If I didn't do something, I would end up burned out, beat up, probably a dope fiend 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 I just knew I had to get out.
Then a time came when my choice came down to: "Am I going to stand here and probably be seriously hurt - or worse - or am I going to get out of this situation?" And I shot him. I didn't want to shoot him; I didn't want to kill him. When I did it, I wasn't thinking about if he was going to die. I was thinking about if I was going to live.
I went to trial at election time. I was just a campaign statistic. The prosecutor believed that: "If I get this conviction, I am sure to be re-elected." It wasn't like 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 community support. The people in my neighborhood really cared about me, but they didn't know how to support somebody . You just get 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 witness 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 advised that I do it. My trial lasted one and a half sessions and I was convicted of murder in the first degree.
I was sentenced to natural life in prison. For the first four or five years I 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 I started to get scared.
But it was also a good time in my life because I started to look around and see what my options 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. But there was no school to go to. I started in the old De-Ho-Co (Detroit House of Corrections) which was the first women's corrections facility, 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 first place because they were rich and had all these opportunities and advantages. The women prisoners were there because they found the wrong ways to survive. We were labeled as unimportant, just women who should just shut 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 system 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 alternative 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 deteriorating. We were just fading away . It wasn't enough.
So progressive lawyers started coming through - law students and those who had just gotten out of college. We started talking to these people. We filed a lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections. The case is titled "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 opportunities. It started with the community college. Four or five years later, after contempt hearings, they tried to implement a four-year program in the women's prison.
But in the interim we were catching hell, 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 came 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: "Well, Joyce, I don't know why you're making such a big thing about this. It wasn't like 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 first out date. The last I heard, this woman had been written up on several misconducts. Every time you get a misconduct, they deduct about five 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 until maybe two years 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 put yourself 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. It was 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 first one, then later on Mary Glover and myself were fortunate 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 hell do you think you are? You're a prisoner and you don't deserve this."
Then there were prisoners who resented us: "Who do you think you are? You're doing it and we can't, so we're going to do everything we can to stop you."
Whichever way we turned, we were a bunch of dirty bitches 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.
Kevin Thornton, Phillis Engelbert and Betsy Esch were my first TAs [teaching assistants]. 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 tell you in such a short time how hard it is to survive in prison. People don't care about you. 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 sarcastic.
I'm just so thankful for the volunteer groups that come in. I can't tell prisoners enough to be a part of these programs. I want them to know that this is all they're going to get that's going to tell them they're not what everybody 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 I thought about telling someone to just bring me a rope, so I could do like I've 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 decision 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 just 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 that sometime, somewhere down the road, this situation is going to change for me."
I have two children. When I left, my children were six and eight years 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 tell 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 differently. The kids were talking about me, and they said all kinds of things about you." And kids are cruel. He said when they got mad at him, they would say things about me. He said that his friends' mothers stopped letting them play with him and he didn't know why people were treating him like that. He was just a little kid and he wanted to play with his friends and he couldn't.
My two sons handled it differently. My baby, Chuckie, says he didn't have any friends, so he would go home and study. He would go in his room and close his door.
My other son, who was eight when I left, fought all the time. Everybody was his enemy. He didn't have any regard for anybody else because he didn't feel they had any for him.
Right now, my baby is graduating from Eastern Michigan University this April, the one who was six when I left him. But my older son is now in prison. He is serving a natural life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder.
For me, it was really hard coming home. Here it is after 17 years, 120 days. I get to come home and see my children and I come home and I only have one. When I went to see my son in prison, he said: "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 tell him I can't. I don't know what I can do.
If there's anything I know, its not to depend on the legal system to do everything 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 things that are legal. Whenever a brief is filed, there is something in that brief that will allow a judge to go either way. The judge will find something in that brief to let you go, if he or she wants to, or they'll find something to keep you there. Most of the time it will be a matter of public sentiment - what's the flow of things. How are things going 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 initial background investigation. The parole and probation officers don't have the time to do these thorough investigations to try to find out if incarceration 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 attorney named Barbara Klimaszewski was appointed to my case. From that time until my release in May, she visited 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 better woman, 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. I will 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.