#FreeBlackWomxn: Machelle’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 Machelle's story below.
Being a young black child out there that didn't really have family support, you couldn't turn to the system for help, because I was a kid. I wasn't even a juvenile, I was a minor, which they emancipated me. They cut me out of the system. I think just being out there and not really having stable housing, or that mom or dad in the house, I turned to the next best thing, which was a man figure in my life. But he ended up being the wrong man. He contributed a lot to me being in prison. Had there been somewhere I could have gone to be safe, some place that would help me go to school or raise me, I don't think I would have ended up in there.
I had never been in trouble in my life. I didn't even have a J-walking ticket. It was crazy, because I didn't understand what was going on. I was just stuck sitting there with an attorney saying, ‘Shh, be quiet. I'll handle this.’ And come to find out, my attorney was pretty much working with the prosecutor to send me to prison. It was crazy how it all panned out. I ended up having to get another public defender who was rushed in and really didn't know anything about my case. I wasn't told about a plea bargain. I wasn't told about a bench trial. I was just told that I was going to sit in front of a 12-person jury of my peers and they weren't my peers. They arrested me in November of '83. I went to prison on July 13th of '84, and I didn't see America on the other side until August of 2018.
I was a kid forced into the situation. Even though I had paperwork showing that this man had beat me, had put my head through windshields, I lost kids by him beating me, slamming me into walls, hitting me. So many people testified on my behalf about the abuse. Nobody cared. Nobody cares.
I don't have any animosity for him no more. I used to have hatred. It's like I had to forgive him to be able to forgive me. I had to let go of all that to be able to figure out who I was and where I wanted to be. So that's how I found that leader in me because I ended up in prison. And I'll tell everybody, ‘God set me down in the lowest of the lowest to bring me out to be the strong woman that I am. He showed me my potential, my skills and my gifts.’ I always said, ‘Lord, if you give me a chance to be free, wherever you send me, whatever I need to do, I'm gonna do it and I will go.’ And that's what I have been doing, from day one.
I actually have a jury member that befriended me. I call her my guardian angel. Her and her husband lived here in Michigan, but they moved, and have no kids. She wrote me and told me who she was. This lady wrote letters over the years trying to get me out. When I came home, she and the Youth Justice Fund, they put up my security deposit and she paid my first two month’s rent. She still pays my rent to this day. She pays my rent so that I can keep gas in my car, feed my dogs, make sure my phone is on. She helped me get Wi-Fi internet. She made sure I can supply my basic needs, keep hygiene items, have food. She pretty much treats me like I'm her child that she birthed, and that means a lot. My little brother, when he can, he'll look out for me and send me stuff. I have him and my best friend that is in Dearborn. That was my support system. But as far as the system setting me up and getting support from the state – no. You have to fight to get everything, from food stamps, to Supplemental Security Income, to disability, unemployment. All of that, you have to fight for it.
The school-to-prison pipeline is real. You have 14, 15-year-olds dropping out of school, going straight from school to prison. It shouldn't be like that. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Where is that village now? Where are the people that's supposed to be the village? There's no more Big Mommas and Madeas to take these kids. Now it’s, ‘Go out there and sell this bag for me, sell this crack for me.’ I've only been home three years and see kids out there slinging. So yeah, it is a school-to-prison pipeline, but where does this stop? It stops with us. And it stops with us reaching out to these kids saying, ‘You can do what you wanna do, and this is not it.’ You gotta show them their potential. But who's gonna take the time?
In this day and age, seeing these kids since I've been home, they need to have some kind of mental health, some kind of therapist. Even if they just have a 1-800 talk hotline to say, ‘Hey, I'm 15 and I'm out here in the street. My boyfriend is trying to sell me. Can somebody help me or get me to a safe house?’ What I'm trying to do with what I opened up – which is Valley of Dry Bones – is if these kids are out here, if they don't have guidance, parental guidance, financial assistance, my building will enable them to come there and talk to me or whoever I'm staffing. To know that if they're out there on the streets, they have a room where they can lay their head. If they need some form of mental help, I can have someone on my staff that will evaluate this child or this battered woman and say, ‘This is what she's suffering with, we're not gonna give her a psychotic or anti-psychotic, but she needs therapy.’ That's basically what my business would be, Valley of Dry Bones. I want kids, youthful offenders, battered women to be able to reach out and say, ‘I need help,’ and I should be able to have the resources to say, ‘I can get you food here, I can get you clothing, I can get you shelter, I can get you help.’ There's no reason they should be sleeping in abandoned houses and alleys, or being snatched up in these vans and cars, because the community and the government is not willing to fund something to help them.
I know a lot of people say I spread myself thin from our Connecting Families phone campaigns to restoring Michigan’s “Good Time” prison credits to the Michigan Black Mama’s Bail Out. No mom should be in prison. No mom should be in jail. I want every Black mom, every mom period to be bailed out, especially on Mother's Day. I'm all for that.
So, I don't feel like I'm spreading myself thin. I feel like all of these are small labors of love that I get a reward from. I get to see someone that I'm feeding smile and be grateful. I know that that food was probably what is keeping them from one week to the next. Or I get to say, ‘I'm working hard towards getting those that's wrongfully convicted out of prison or getting juvenile lifers resentenced.’ I can see the fruits of my labors in those coming home. I can see them slowly joining and becoming organizers themselves, and really trying to use their voice and their experience that was negative for good, for the greater of the community, and not just for ourselves.
We need to stop incarcerating our Black women for such petty mess and start giving them what they need as far as resources to help with their kids, to help with their housing, to help with their employment. I am a Black woman that came out of the system, and if I had not kept my sanity and had it not been for God, I'd probably be on the streets myself, begging or sleeping on the streets. It's important to me because our people, our Black women are more likely to get thrown in jails and prisons than a white person. We need to focus on that ratio. It's important that they stop stigmatizing black women and say, ‘Oh well, she stole a $50 purse. I think she should get 90 days and a $1000 fine.’ That's not how it goes. 'Cause if a white woman steals a $50 purse she's gonna get a slap on the wrist and maybe a $50 fine, which is the cost of the purse. Call it what you wanna call it. The system is biased and is geared towards tearing us down. And it stops when one of us steps up because if one speaks up, many more will step up and speak up. It's gonna take the village to stop our women from going into them stigmatized, racist jails. I wanna see it stopped.