Gabrielle Perry found some of the nicest women she has ever met within the pink-walled holding cells of East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in January 2014.
Then 21, the Louisiana native was arrested for committing payroll fraud during a time when her father’s death left her scavenging for money to pay for bills and medical expenses for her ill mother. Her charges have since been expunged, but the memory of how the women soothed her anxiety attacks with prayers, extra blankets and laughter as they chatted about boyfriends, girlfriends and Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.”
Perry is now a 28–year–old epidemiologist whose first hustle is fighting infectious diseases. Her second hustle is making sure women are not erased from criminal justice reform conversations. In 2019, she created a scholarship for formerly incarcerated in the name of her late father, U.S. Army Master Sergeant Thurman Perry Jr. The inaugural recipients of the Perry Second Chances Scholarship will be announced Friday, Jan. 15.
Perry discussed criminal justice reform in the South and the importance seeing incarceration as a women issue for Reckon’s “Young, Southern and Black” series. She said there’s no better place to fight for this reform than in the South, which may be getting a lot of attention due to two Democratic wins in Georgia’s senate runoffs. But Perry said the South is more than just a political battleground.
“Red, blue, yellow, gray, it doesn’t matter because it’s about what we do for each other every day, all day, not just an election year,” Perry said. “Voting ain’t never been the only answer ever. It’s about what are you doing every single day? Boots on the ground. Grassroots. Do you know your neighbor’s name?”
Louisiana incarcerated more people per capita in 2019 than any other state. However, Perry said the conversation about criminal justice reform is typically men-centered. People are shocked when Perry informs them that the population of women in incarceration is growing at twice the rate as men.
Perry said progress on criminal justice reform in the South involves recognizing its many facets, which include immigration, defunding the police and increasing community services funding and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Until we stop seeing these issues as separate, ideological problems or as things for individual communities of people to be concerned with, nothing will change,” Perry said. “We are all responsible for one another, and I am filled with pride that that mindset has not completely died in the South. To change the world, you have to see the humanity of others and foster your community.”
Leaving women out of the narrative of criminal justice reform means that their needs don’t get met. According to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, about 2 million women and girls are released from jails and prisons annually. Due to job discrimination and lack of women-specific reform programs, formerly incarcerated women are more likely to be homeless.
Those are more than just stats to Perry. She lived through them. Her world changed during her one-night stay in jail. Once word got out about her arrest, her support system dissolved as her friendships and relationship with her boyfriend at the time ended. Respect from others was a rarity. Even a church put her in a dilapidated house that lacked clean water. She experienced sexual harassment from those who knew she was formerly incarcerated. People would try to find where she lived just so they could tape her mugshot on her door. Verbal harassment was frequent.
While in tears, Perry explained how she developed Post-traumatic stress disorder from how evil people who knew her status treated her. Life after release can be a traumatic experience that weighs down the souls of many formerly incarcerated women to the point that they wished they were back in jail, Perry said.
“It’s important for people who have never been incarcerated to see that you can still be productive member of society. You can still offer something even if you’re a formerly incarcerated person,” Perry said. “You are not worthless. You are not this horrible, irredeemable person. You are not to be treated like trash just because of something that you have done, especially given the fact that the majority of people in jail for nonviolent offenses.”
Perry pushed through to create a new life for herself. Despite the stigma and discrimination, a judge lowered her charge to misdemeanor and she entered a pre-trial diversion program that included paying restitution and completing community service. In early 2016, her conviction was set aside and she enrolled at Baton Rouge Community College. Her record was expunged in June 2019 – one month after she received her master’s degree in public health from Tulane.
Perry said that easier access to funds is one of the most needed resources of formerly incarcerated women. The Prison Policy Initiative reported an unemployment rate of over 27 percent for formerly incarcerated individuals between the ages of 25 to 44, higher than during the Great Depression. When accounting for race the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated Black women jumps to 43.6 percent, which is almost double that of white women.
That is why Perry did not include a GPA requirement for her scholarship, which makes it more accessible than the relatively small number of scholarship available for formerly incarcerated people.
“In the book ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, there’s a part where the Salvation Army was throwing bread in the dirt and made poor people crawl for it,” she said. “That’s what I liken grants and scholarships to. I didn’t want people jumping through hoops for money.”
Perry believes the South knows how to change the tides of criminal justice reform. The South wrote the playbook on Black liberation. The founders of the Black Panther Party were from Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee while the roots of the organization can be found in the Black Belt of Alabama. Perry’s favorite Southern activist is Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi sharecropper who pioneered Black politics by cofounding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Major criminal justice organizations, such as the Equal Justice Initiative, Southern Poverty Law Center and FWD.us, are focused on the South.
Whatever the future holds for Perry, she’s sure it will include fighting for criminal justice reform from the South and nowhere else.
“On my daddy, I could never live anywhere but the South,” she said. “The South birthed the idea of freedom and a revolution… I don’t believe that abandoning it is going to fixing it. I believe that if I want better for my state – if I want better for my people – somebody has to be the one to help initiate the change.”
Young, Southern and Black is a series by Reckon’s Black Magic Project that amplifies the voices of Black Southerners under 30 who have something to say about the future of the region that raised them. The series was created in response to the 2020 election. Join the Black Magic Project’s Facebook group, where we celebrate Black Southern culture and community.