By Emily Eiermann
Women who abuse substances should not be subjected to abuse.
Dr. Heloise Sulyans-Gibson, keynote speaker for the Gender and Sexuality Studies Colloquium, set out to prove this when she spoke to the Rider community on April 8.
A representative of JusticeWorks, an organization designed to educate and mobilize communities about the alternatives to the incarceration of mothers, Sulyans-Gibson began by recounting her biography for the audience. She described her troubled home life and damaged marriage, then detailed how these factors in her childhood and young adult life led her to turn to drugs for solace.
“I wanted the biggest and baddest thing out there, so I didn’t feel anymore,” Suylans-Gibson said, after describing her abuse. “That turned out to be crack cocaine.”
The message from the speech, however, was not about the drug. She spent the majority of her time describing her experience in correctional facilities after her first and second arrests, and the inequality and injustice found there for women.
She shared that in prisons, she had seen women being abused, being forced to have abortions, losing rights to their children, being medicated to keep them quiet and being subjected to legalized slavery, among other cruel acts.
“Prison is the last step on the continuum of oppression for women,” said Mary-Elizabeth Fitzgerald, executive director of JusticeWorks.
Even outside of the facilities, Suylans-Gibson was faced with discrimination from her local judicial system, and it was a constant struggle to remain out of jail.
In order to combat this, the formerly incarcerated woman turned to JusticeWorks to help her speak out against the abuse. Julie Mormando, program coordinator of the organization, described its mission.
“We want to see effective and updated family and residential treatment programs that are gender-specific,” she said. “We are pushing for more discretion for the judges in the courts and the total repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws.”
These laws state that the penalty for selling two ounces or possessing four ouces of a drug results in a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison, which is the same penalty as second-degree murder. JusticeWorks is fighting these laws as it feels the sentence is too harsh for such a crime, particularly in regards to mothers. Overall, the program is focused on keeping women out of prison for light misdemeanors and helping them move on with their lives.
Sulyans-Gibson asked the audience to help with this cause, encouraging listeners to research advocacy organizations in order to donate, intern or volunteer.
Audience members said they responded well to her emotional words and seemed motivated to make a difference after hearing her story.
“I love hearing about these kinds of things,” said Kiera Smith, a junior and audience member. “It always ignites something in me that makes me want to act.”
Since her incarceration, Suylans-Gibson has risen above the abuse, creating a reputable life for herself. She is now a photographer, pastor, founder of countless ministries including Broken Chains, and a guest speaker for JusticeWorks.
She felt it was her calling to promote the issue, having gone through the experience herself. Because of her past, she felt she was able to provide a human face for the issue.
“Out of the heart flow the issues of life,” Suylans-Gibson said. “And someone has to be the mouthpiece.”
For further information or to aid in the cause, visit justiceworks.org, or the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women at www.nownj.org.