A call for clemency through a quilt tour around Connecticut
By GABRIEL PIETRORAZIO
July 27, 2021
HARTFORD — Sewing a quilt is simply more than a pastime, hobby or chore; it can be a course of action toward social change.
A recent quilt tour for clemency organized by Women Against Mass Incarceration (WAMI), showed just that.
In 2011, Tiheba Bain, the WAMI executive director, was released from federal prison after serving a 10-year drug sentence. She headed home to become “a change agent for women and girls” in a state where reentry services for formerly incarcerated individuals weren’t prioritized — especially for women.
Bain primed herself to spearhead the Connecticut-based non-profit organization seeking to empower women, girls and families who have been impacted by the institutions of incarceration.
She got involved with supporting clemency services across the state and organized a quilt tour around New England after finishing her stint with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, which started in Danbury in 2010.
The Old Newgate Prison in East Granby, also known as the first state prison in early America, was the first stop on July 12. Their visit to present the quilt at the historic prison sought to “elevate and memorialize the women who are seeking clemency on the state level,” Bain said.
Petitions for clemency are reviewed by the state’s Board of Pardons and Parole, which started in 1883. Historically, the state averaged more than eight commutations each year typically for long-term sentences between 1968 and 1994 — until 1995 when no commutations were granted to any applicants.
In 2016, only three commutations were granted by the Board of Pardons — the most in any year since 1995 — which has signaled a deviation from the norm lately.
No petitions were filed or approved since May 2020 at the height of the pandemic, pending the release of an updated commutation policy and application from the state agency, which happened as recently as June 2021.
Dr. Jonathan Gregory, assistant curator of exhibitions at the International Quilt Museum managed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said quilting is a form of activism, one that has been stitching the fabric of struggling social movements together throughout all of history.
Today, the AIDS Memorial Quilt is still the largest grassroots quilt and public art project to date — not to mention the first of its kind, Gregory said.
“As significant as the AIDS quilt is today, it would not exist if Cleve Jones hadn’t been exposed to quilts as a young person in his family,” Gregory said. “And that exposure was due to the long traditions of women making quilts within their family and community contexts. And it was in those contexts that women in the first half of the 1800s used quilts to express their viewpoints on abolition.”
Aside from abolition, advocates like the National Council also created its own clemency quilt campaign, which is scattered through several states across the country.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice unveiled the Clemency Project, led by former President Barack Obama, which aimed at commuting and reducing sentences for federal inmates, particularly for nonviolent offenders. Even that effort has admittedly fallen short, according to an August 2018 report conducted by DOJ Inspector General Michael Evan Horowitz.
Lately, the National Council has called upon President Joe Biden to invoke clemency for 100 women — one for each day in office. It’s a plea that went unanswered.
In Connecticut, state lawmakers should not only listen, but actively prioritize the needs of incarcerated women through policy, Bain said.
Women Against Mass Incarceration collaborated with ACLU Smart Justice Connecticut, arriving at the state Capitol with their hand-made clemency quilt to mobilize in Hartford Tuesday, July 13. Photo Courtesy: WAMI.
“A lot of times we look at the men and say this will work when it doesn’t work for women,” Bain said, as WAMI organizers visited the state Capitol in Hartford with their hand-made quilt on July 13.
The issue of clemency is an intimate one — particularly for formerly incarcerated women like herself, and especially mothers.
Bain said she believes winning their rights back to see their children from the state’s Department of Children and Families is what it takes for women to successfully reintegrate into society after lockup and connected to commutating sentences.
“It’s not conducive for a parent, a mother to come home and have to fight for her child as well as get a job or an apartment, and just maintaining everything. And then you have to keep going back and forth to court to get your kids back” Bain said. “That’s not conducive for any type of successful reentry.”
But long before the journeyed road to reentry ever begins after countless hearings to receive clemency, the preemptive termination of parental rights before a conviction or sentence might snuff out any sense of hope for those who are incarcerated.
“Believe it or not, it's our children that keep us moving forward and figuring we can make this, we can get through this,” Bain said. “And if we don't have our children, and we know that our children are gone, that just gives us a little less hope.”
The struggle to expand clemency across the state continues even though the quilt tour has officially come to an end.
“We’re talking about clemency, but it's not just about clemency,” Bain said. “It all works together. It's one big machine that has many parts that work together to make the movement move.”
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About Gabriel Pietrorazio
Gabriel Pietrorazio is an award-winning journalist, who kickstarted his career in journalism in his home state of Connecticut. His storytelling interests aim at illuminating readers about topics and issues including food, agriculture, health, politics, policy, crime and justice as well as Indigenous affairs. In addition to covering the Constitution State, Gabriel has told stories across New York State, Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is a member of the Investigative Reporters & Editors and Native American Journalists Association, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. His work has appeared in numerous regional and national outlets, including the Washington City Paper, Waterbury Observer, TASTE, Civil Eats, FingerLakes1.com, Finger Lakes Times and The News Station.