Tray Johns is head of Fedfam4life, a sisterhood to restore incarcerated women and former prisoners, focusing on women of color and LGBT women. Her knowledge of the law, her ability to stand up for her rights and for those of her sisters and brothers is astounding. It’s fitting, since as a child Johns dreamed of being the first black female Supreme Court Justice. Johns has successfully freed both women and men from jail and has a plan to free all women in federal, state and local prison. Her chief goal is to help people rebuild their lives.
John is currently working to create precedents in the law that will help improve life for incarcerated women on the federal, state and local level.
Editor’s note: The interview has been edited from a long conversation for length and clarity. A more complete version will be available online.
SCN: Tell me about Fedfam4life and your story of imprisonment.
Tray Johns: I was about 26, in school full time, studying to be a lawyer. I had a 3.7 GPA at South Illinois University. Then five days after graduating, I was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison for $450 worth of drugs. I spent 8 years, 7 months and 19 days in jail.
While incarcerated, I filed hundreds of writs of habeas corpus so someone’s incarceration could be reviewed. Some went as far as the Supreme Court. I filed clemency papers for “Grandma” Phyllis Hardy and she got out based on compassionate release. She had been sentenced to 366 months [or 30 and a half years] in federal prison for conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine and money laundering. I became one of the best jailhouse lawyers. Fedfam4life was born out of the bonds created between women in federal prison, where I met thousands of women from all over the country and the world, because many were deportees.
I’ve been out now for 6 years. Fedfam is about bringing my sisters together to support one another, those still behind bars through social media and those coming out. It’s also about keeping women and girls out of prison.
What is your plan to help women in prison now?
Our bold and impactful move is to immediately give a woman her own permanent place, with secured leases. We call that “a door closed” because in jail you cannot close or open any door without permission.
We want a woman to have the chance to be on her own without having to right away take care of others. We want each woman safe from those who often get a woman in trouble.
Releasing these women might have an incredible impact for others in jail.
Every woman I empower will empower others. And the federal female prisoner population is so small [about 14,000 women according to Prison Policy Initiative] it will be relatively easy to provide services for them. By focusing on this relatively small number of women and creating precedents in the law, we will be able to replicate this release in state and local prisons as well.
What are the conditions and what are the women like?
These women are some of the most brilliant I ever met. Women in prison don’t create gangs; we create families. We take care of each other. We celebrate our kids’ birthdays, we cry together and have fun decorating each other’s rooms. But there is always an element trying to divide us.
Do you know women have to pay for sanitary supplies? We are charged for being women! Women in prison don’t even have the opportunity to be f’n slaves. I say this with sarcasm. The men are paid 1 dollar a day. Women could be in 12 years doing nothing, getting no money, and no learning.
Abuse is rampant. Men supervise women while they sleep and while they shower. Men find ways to be alone with women.
How do racism, sexism, homo- and trans-phobia affect the incarceration of women?
From start to finish. Black and brown women and LGBT women have a higher rate of arrest, solitary, longer sentences, harsher punishment, and suicide.
White gay women face homophobia and sexism, black gay women face it all – homophobia, racism, sexism, colorism.
What are the biggest challenges, and how do we bring change?
I take it from a different perspective. We need to infiltrate the system and become the wardens, become the police. I have never been one to brutalize someone else. I wouldn’t sentence a 15-year-old girl. We must become the system to change the system. Currently, it is a white male system run by racist whites. You never saw a gaggle of black people taking pictures while whites hang from trees. It goes all the way back. We can’t deny history.
The Prison Industrial Complex is a failure from arrest to release. Even that kid who shot all them kids, the prison system is not for him either. It’s ok to punish him, but you just put him in a cage to be raped and tortured and he will come out a totally different person.
In jail you just fight for whatever scrap of dignity you can. You will do anything. The guards take everything from you.
Why are people being incarcerated?
Don’t assume if someone is imprisoned they are guilty. Sixty percent of women in jail have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.
The prisons are being privatized. The federal government pays about $100 a day to keep someone in jail. They get $25 for a prisoner’s food, but only spend $1.15 a day for that food, so they make huge profits. You have to have it privatized.
If I run a halfway house, it would take an act of god for me to call the police. I’ll do anything to keep an individual out of prison, even if I have to sit with her through the DTs. I’ll take her in my car to rehab, whatever.
What gave you the ability to do what you do?
I find joy in every damn thing I do. I was married to a white guy, Tray Johns. My husband sent me $330 a month. I was blessed, never wanted for anything and was educated. I saw my son, and that bond between us was kept strong.
I used my education to help other women. I am dedicated to anyone who wants to better themselves. I filed hundreds of motions, writs of habeas corpus motions with the state Supreme Courts. I won in Hawaii, Arkansas and Illinois.
Where did you get the strength to do what you do?
Fighting for them was fighting for me. I have been hurt and brutalized my whole life. Everything stems from the brutalization I suffered in the gulf war. It didn’t harden my heart; it hardened my resolve to never allow anyone to hurt me or anyone else. When I see anyone who can’t fight back, I help them.
I am going to stop working just for other people’s dreams and realize my dream. My motto is “I am not trying to make a million dollars. I’m trying to free a million women.”
If you could design a solution, what would it look like?
A world without prisons and that includes for the most heinous crimes and acts of terrorism.
Real accountability, removed from where they caused harm. But not beaten and raped and killed to be rehabilitated. We can do that without this current structure.
What are the specifics of what you offer to women?
Give them a place to live with secured leases and a year to become independent, not in same kind of situation that led to jailing. Also social support, anything they need, medical dental, psych care. We can provide reasonable services to people.
How can people help you?
Everyone can’t start their own organization or be a pen pal, but you can support those that do. This is not new work. There is a foundation for us now to support people doing work for decades. Support women’s groups, not men speaking for women.
We don’t need just allies; we need partners, contacts. Hire us, use your privilege, not 20 bucks for a hand out. Give someone a chance, an education lead, or grants that help people empower themselves. Don’t cripple us with handouts. We need sustainable contributions, you know what I am saying. If you ain’t got $5, borrow it. Can you give $2.50? Do it collectively.
We give those we help a year to become independent.
Support black women. Pay them for their time. Understand the importance of our contributions- from raising children who did not look like us to having ours sold down the river. We’re the first ones at the prisons and the hospitals for our sons, our daughters, and friends’ sons. Recognize that we have carried this damn country on our backs literally from the day they dragged us over here on ships.