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Women who don’t belong in jail

Jack Amick
Creative Commons

You’ve probably never heard of Melissa Chapman, who has spent the majority of her life in Michigan prisons. When she was 18, her violent and abusive boyfriend shot a man and forced her to help hide the body. She was sentenced to life in prison for that. She’s been there thirty years.

Delores Kapuscinski has been in prison even longer, for shooting her husband after what Carol Jacobsen says was years of severe physical and sexual abuse.

“These women aren’t a threat to society,” Jacobsen told me.

They are two of eight women whose sentences she has been trying to get Governor Rick Snyder to commute before he leaves office. Jacobsen, the director of the Women’s Justice and Clemency Project, has long been one of my heroes. She’s been fighting for more than twenty years on behalf of forgotten women, the victims of horrible lives and domestic violence who got caught up in some crime.

Some killed their abusers to protect their children. Most had no money, inadequate counsel, and society locked them up and forgot about them. Jacobsen wants to see to it that we don’t forget, and has been trying to get justice for women who have known precious little of it.

Jacobsen is a professor, but not of criminal justice. She’s a distinguished and award-winning documentary filmmaker in the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design. Twenty-five years ago she began making a film in a woman’s prison, and was fascinated by the injustice she saw. Since then, doing something about it has been her main focus.

The vast majority of Michigan’s 40,000 inmates are men. There are only a little over 2,000 women, all housed in the Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.

Two years ago, a guard who resigned blasted the prison as being rundown, dirty, overcrowded and dangerous. Jacobsen doesn’t disagree.

She’s not Pollyanna. She knows some women are dangerous to society. But too many are sentenced to far longer than society needs or they deserve. And some shouldn’t be there at all. Over the years, the Women’s Justice and Clemency Project has won release for a dozen women, most of whose stories would make a stone weep.

Now, she’s trying to get the governor to commute the sentences of eight more whose “crime” in most cases, was defending themselves against abusers. Jacobsen told me that Beth Clement, who was Governor Snyder’s chief legal counsel, was keenly interested in these cases, but last November she was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Now, Jacobsen’s been working with Paul Smith, the deputy legal counsel, who also has been helpful. But time is running out. The governor leaves office on New Year’s Day, and if these women are still in prison, that means she’ll have to start all over.

When I asked yesterday where these cases stand, I received a reply from the governor’s press secretary, Anna Heaton, who said only that “all the appeals mentioned are still in process and the parole board is investigating each case.”

They will hold hearings, she said, only if they think there’s a good chance of parole, or clemency. That system hasn’t served these women well in the past, but unless the governor reaches out, they have no choice but to wait. They have, after all, nothing but time.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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