Chantay Clark was just 15 when she was handed a life sentence on a first-degree murder charge for shooting and killing a woman while trying to steal a car in 1992.
“I’ll never forget how sad, alone and helpless I felt upon entering the system,” Clark recalled Friday. “There were guards screaming at me, humiliating me, telling me to get naked and squat and cough in front of them."
Clark, now 40, was released Nov. 3 after serving 25 years in a Florida prison, the result of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
She spoke Friday morning outside New Orleans City Hall, surrounded by a group of formerly incarcerated women and supporters, recounting the hardships she faced, not only in prison but in readjusting to the outside world almost three decades later.
“The world out here doesn’t come with an instruction manual, nor did the Department of Corrections prepare me for this day," she said.
Friday’s event marked the inaugural Formerly and Currently Incarcerated Women and Girl Day, a rally spearheaded by Voice of the Experienced, an organization started by Norris Henderson in 2004, not long after he was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
The rally, which was attended by about 70 people and included formerly jailed women from all over the country, was an effort to bring awareness to the issues women and girls face during and after incarceration.
The number of jailed women has skyrocketed over the past few decades, increasing by more than 700 percent between 1980 and 2014, according to a report from the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for reform in sentencing and alternatives to incarceration.
According to that report, more than 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18. As primary caregivers, women are not as likely to be considered a flight risk, yet 60 percent of women who are jailed have not been convicted of a crime and are simply unable to pay their bail.
“We are not talking about people who got a $100,000 bond or a $200,000 bond,” Henderson told the group, who carried signs reading "Free Her" and huddled under umbrellas during the midmorning rain.
“We’re talking about people who can’t even afford to pay a $200 preset bond. And so it’s a travesty, if it’s just for two days: They lose their job, they lose their house,” Henderson said.
Louisiana has the seventh highest rate of incarcerated women in the world; 198 out of every 100,000 women in the state are in prisons or jails, according to a 2015 report from Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts nonprofit.
Dolfinette Martin, lead organizer for Voice of the Experienced, was five months pregnant when she was jailed at the Orleans Parish Prison for nearly sixty days in 1994 on a shoplifting charge, unable to make bail. She went on to spend 12 years in Louisiana correctional facilities, the result of minor drug offenses and shoplifting charges, and Louisiana’s strict habitual-offender laws.
On Friday, she recalled having to sometimes wait days to find out from prison guards that all three of her sons had been shot on separate occasions and that her sister had died.
“They don’t see us as human beings, as women,” Martin said. “We’re just convict number so-and-so. You lose your name.”
Since being released from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, Martin has become a leading advocate for ex-offenders attempting to re-enter society, with safe housing a central focus.
“A lot of the time these re-entry experts speak to job training, employment, things of that nature, but those come after I have somewhere safe to lay my head,” she said.
Friday’s speakers shared stories of having to give birth while shackled and of talking with family via video-conferencing, sometimes after waiting months or years for the chance.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative report, over half of all women in U.S. prisons, and 80 percent of women in U.S. jails, are mothers, and most were the primary caretakers of their children.
Makenzie Eggersgluess, now 31, was 20 when she was dealt a five-year sentence on a drug distribution charge, her first offense. She would wait nearly two years before getting to see her son again.
Eggersgluess traveled from Minneapolis to attend Friday’s rally with her friend Ashleigh Carter. They met while incarcerated in an Illinois prison and since their release have started advocating for women who are ex-offenders.
“I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be until I got out,” Eggersgluess said. “It wasn’t until I went into a convenience store and started having a panic attack that it hit me,” she said.
“People often think that it ends with incarceration, and it doesn’t. It’s just the tip of the iceberg," said Carter. "From finding a job and voting rights, being able to volunteer at your children’s school, to finding housing — it’s all something we have to deal with now."