#FreeBlackWomxn: Irene's Story - Advancement Project - Advancement Project

#FreeBlackWomxn: Irene’s Story

For Mother's Day 2021, Michigan Liberation and the Advancement Project National Office launched #FreeBlackWomxn campaign, a photo and storytelling project that elevates the voices of Black Michigan mothers who have experienced incarceration. Read Irene's story below.

Irene // Photo Credit: Cyndi Elledge

I kind of grew up in a situation where if any of us could think of a way to be cunning or slick or sly, then that was rewarded, versus being a scholar and a student. I kinda latched onto that at an early age. I was always thinking of a plan, a plot, how to out slick, how to outsmart, and that just manifested into being a thief, for a lack of a better term.

Irene // Photo Credit: Cyndi Elledge

So, I'm a college graduate, I have a couple of degrees. That only seemed to magnify my ability to scam, scheme, and steal, and that's what I used it for, honestly. So long story short, I end up going to prison for embezzlement and forgery. I embezzled quite a large sum of money that I can definitely state was not worth everything I lost. May have seemed fun, may have seemed profitable, but I definitely would have rather cooked some fries at McDonald's for 14 years versus being in the prison system.

When I turned myself in, my children were 13, 10, eight and six. They're 26, 23, 21 and 20 now. Yeah, they were still young. I remember telling them, ‘I have to turn myself in, I'm getting ready to go to jail, I'm going to prison. It's gonna be a while, I can't tell you how long but it's gonna be a while.’ I just said it, there was no other way to say it. I had been separated from them before, but not to this degree. So that was very devastating for me, even more so for them. But they definitely understood. Unfortunately, prison is nothing new within my family, so they already knew the deal. it was really nothing that they didn't understand, honestly.

I went through stages in prison. When I first went, I couldn't see past the amount of years that I was sentenced to. I couldn't see past it, so I didn't even try. Honestly. I said, ‘I'mma just have to take this one day at a time.’ Then I went through stages where I was extremely hopeful for the future, ‘Okay, you know what, everything has a beginning and everything has an end.’ Then I went through stages I'd be so down in the dumps, I wouldn't care if I ever got out.

So first and foremost, I had to learn to love Irene. And in order to love Irene, I had to forgive myself for the childish choices that I made in my life. And when I did that, I was able to forgive others who made childish decisions in their life that impacted mine.

Irene // Photo Credit: Cyndi Elledge

Going into the correctional facility, I saw so many women who could barely read, who could barely write. Women that signed their names on the line and didn't know they were signing a plea deal for 20, 25 years. They couldn't use the law library because they can't read. They don't know how to navigate the legal system, the books, the computer system. Some people hadn't even touched a computer, but you can't get any assistance if you have a GED. You can't get any assistance unless you're deemed illiterate, and if you could write your name, they don't wanna deem you illiterate. It was a personal mission of mine to make sure I assist whoever I could in there. I had to earn a paralegal degree, which I did.  

I remember a real sweet lady named Hattie. She was 100% illiterate and they told her to sign a plea. She was given life in prison. I think Hattie did about 15 years before she was exonerated. But when I looked at her case, it's clear witnesses say she wasn't there. Her fingerprints weren't on the weapon. So, it's just ridiculous the way Black women are treated within the justice system. It's an injustice system. It's horrible, and once you get there, you have to claw and pull and scratch your way up out of there. It still pains me to this day to think how many people in there that shouldn't be.

I feel like a lot of times the legal system can see what you are capable of, they can see your potential, the change you can become, and they try to stifle that. There are very, very few minute reasons a 19-year-old should get life in prison. There is no reason why a choice or a decision that you made at 19-years-old should carry the rest of your life.

Irene // Photo Credit: Cyndi Elledge

I feel it is important for people to know is this: the white mother carried her baby for nine months, so did I. The white mother went through the pains of labor, so did I. The white mother loves her child, so do I. The white child needs to be nurtured by his mother, so does the Black child. There is no difference whatsoever.  

And not to go too deep in it, but my hypothesis simply is this: I feel like if we go all the way back and look at the stigmatisms that were placed on Black people, slave masters felt that cutting off a finger wouldn't hurt because we were animals. It hurts. So just as the pains of a slave giving birth to a child and having it snatched away and given to a stranger, it hurts. So just because a woman broke the law does not mean the pain of seeing her child snatched away doesn't hurt. Just as it hurts the white woman, it hurts the Black mother too.

It's a blessing to have a job always, so I am grateful for my 9-5 at General Motors. However, the goal is to definitely work for myself. Being incarcerated, I was around so many talented women who could braid and curl hair, draw, sing, crochet, knit, cook, bake, the list goes on and on. And so, I wanted to just be a pivotal part of a platform that would allow these women an opportunity to showcase their talents and what they have to offer. I have a business called IMB-Entertainment, it is actually a branch of my non-profit where I am able to assist others as well as myself on becoming entrepreneurs and business owners.

If I am being totally honest, I feel like this is the first real opportunity I've had to be seen and to be heard. Getting out of prison happens, but staying out is what's more important. And not just staying out physically, but staying out mentally.   

So with that being said, I am a proud grandmother of two. I have a grandson and a granddaughter. I am definitely a proud mother of four adults. Happily married, I love my husband to death. And I look forward to continuing to work with Michigan Liberation because this is the conversation that we really need to have, and we really need to hear. People need to know that we are just like you. We're no different at all.

Irene // Photo Credit: Cyndi Elledge