*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #35, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
Earlier this year, administrators at Nottoway Correctional Facility issued a ban on the use of tampons and menstrual cups during prison visitations. Criminal justice activist Carole Leonard, founder of the Prison Reform Movement, broke the story on Twitter — and sparked an immediate backlash, propelling the story into the national spotlight virtually overnight.
The story was picked up by local and national news outlets, and the ACLU of Virginia issued a statement calling for reversal of the ban. In the next 24 hours, the Virginia Department of Corrections suspended the rule indefinitely.
That day was a huge win for Nottoway Correctional Facility prisoners and their families. For Carole Leonard, it was just another day in the fight for criminal justice reform.
Leonard established Prison Reform Movement (PRM) in 2003, as an online group meant to help the families of prisoners with housing and medical issues. Since then, PRM has become a vital source of information for ongoing prison and criminal justice issues.
When did you start Prison Reform Movement?
I started in 2003, I came out to Tennessee from California to look out for my father. I got involved in some Yahoo groups, and I noticed that families of loved ones were on the internet asking for help with various issues. Housing issues, medical issues — medical issues mostly. So I just dove in head first, and created a group called Inmate Advocates.
Yahoo started changing things around, so we moved over to Facebook and it really took off. I was amazed at the people I met on Facebook who were also doing the same thing, trying to draw attention to criminal justice and prison issues. And from there, we went to Twitter.
I’ve got roughly 85,000 followers, and they’re varied. Some will champion one cause more than another. Social media does have a reach, and it’s one of the best tools I’ve found to share with others what’s really going on behind the wall.
Could you tell me a little about why you’re so dedicated to prison reform?
I’m a former felon, and my son is also currently in jail awaiting trial… It’s been over 20 years for me. I didn’t go to prison, but I spent a lot of time in county jail and I did four years felony probation. So it’s a deeply personal cause.
What is the goal of Prison Reform Movement?
We just want to educate people. We want to help the loved ones of prisoners learn how to advocate for those who are doing time. A lot of people don’t know how to advocate for their loved ones, and some of them are very fearful of advocating for them due to retaliation. Unfortunately, that is the reality — sometimes when we speak out on behalf of a prisoner, the prisoner pays the consequences. And sometimes if the prisoner speaks out, they pay the consequences as well.
Are you approaching your work from a particular academic perspective, or a particular political framework?
Oh boy. It’s funny that you say that, because today I got called a political hack on twitter. I’m still kind of licking my wounds at that one. I try to take no clear-cut political stance, although I do tend to side with the left.
I’m a Criminal Justice major currently, and I’m quite pleased to see a lot of the current issues being discussed — but we still have a long way to go. I think we need to address trauma-based reforms and restorative justice, and actually apply these principles. That would really change the system.
The U.S. prison system is a point of intersection for a lot of other issues: Capitalism, racial justice, and environmental justice, to name a few. Does your work address the intersectionality of injustices in the prison industrial complex?
We’re all about intersectionality. There are so many widespread issues that fall under the umbrella of criminal justice and criminal justice reform. You mentioned capitalism: We have these huge corporations that are literally breaking the bank on the backs of our prisoners, and most importantly, the prisoners’ families. We have huge corporations taking advantage of slave labor.
I mean, if you’re behind bars and you’re doing work that you’re being paid a dollar an hour for, that’s still considered slave labor… because you don’t have a choice whether you get to do it or not. If you don’t work, you get punished.
And racism in the system: All one needs to do is walk into a visiting room, and it’s pretty self-explanatory. We incarcerate more blacks than any other race. Black and latino people get harsher sentences versus you and I.
You’re constantly posting current, up-to-date information about prison policies and prison injustices all over the country. It seems like you’re often ahead of the news curve on these stories, and sometimes you’re even the one breaking these stories. How do you get this information? Do you do investigative work?
I do. I’m in constant contact with families of prisoners. I’m also in contact with prisoners themselves. Those are my best sources of information, because they’re in the trenches. And I try to stay abreast of what’s happening, because I have a lot of people following me — and I feel like they rely on me to give the facts, what’s really going on.
Is it difficult to get in contact with prisoners to obtain information about what’s going on inside prisons? Prisons seem like they’ve gone out of their way to make this a difficult process…
They do, and this is why cell phones are such a big issue. We do have email now — a lot of prisons have email. Not just federal, but even county and state prisons have email. It can be a little pricey. I think it’s 47 cents per stamp through JPay, and one stamp equals one email.
Sometimes, it is difficult because the prisons will say “we’re taking away your phone calls, we’re taking away your email, or we’re taking away your visits.” And then we don’t get information in a timely manner. So my position on the cell phones, regardless of whether you want to hear it or not, I see the need for the cell phones in prisons. It keeps us informed and it keeps our loved ones safe, because the DOC is not likely to retaliate as harshly when they know that people are on the outside looking in.
Can you talk a little about getting information from the prisons themselves? What’s that process like?
The process is extremely difficult. We are usually stonewalled. If you can get through to someone directly, it’s pretty much amazing. Most of the time, like if you want to get any medical information on a loved one, you have to have a signed medical release by the prisoner on file. And even then, they’re not very transparent. Sometimes even with a signed medical release, they refuse to give us information. That’s happened numerous times. So trying to get information from any department within the DOC, or within the prison, can be very difficult. We’re kind of looked at as an extension of the prisoner, and oftentimes we’re made to feel like we’re criminals as well.
Can you talk about the difficulties that you’ve had bringing attention to some of these issues and how you’ve been able to do so successfully?
The general public really is still under the impression that people in prison must be the worst of the worst. That’s changing gradually, but it’s taken years for people to realize that the criminal justice system is not what it appears to be — the public’s perception has been our biggest issue. Some people still don’t understand that it’s very easy to go to prison with the laws that we have in the United States. You don’t have to kill someone in order to go to prison, unfortunately.
The more people know, the more likely we will have criminal justice reform. And that’s what the goal is: We want to reform, or even abolish, what we currently have in place. It’s a huge failure, and we need people to know that and be on board with that.
What are some of your biggest achievements with Prison Reform Movement?
The tampon ban was pretty good because it happened in one day. We got an immediate response. It started late Saturday night, because I got the information Saturday night. It started mushrooming on Sunday, but as you know there’s nobody in administrative offices on a Sunday night. Monday it really took off, and by Monday evening, we got a response from Virginia that they were going to look at this closely. But we have to remain vigilant, because they could be sneaky and slip this right back.
Illustration by Amelia Martin