Pamela Winn never meant to share her story.
However, her story is a powerful one, which positioned her to make real change for women like her by being a key person in the passage of the First Step Act in 2018. Winn helped facilitate the unanimous passage of HB345, putting an end to the shackling and solitary confinement of pregnant or postpartum women who are incarcerated in Georgia.
Winn is one of #cut50’s ‘Dignity Ambassadors’ for the bipartisan initiative’s Dignity for Incarcerated Women Campaign. #Cut50 has made it its mission to tell real stories, like Winn’s, in order to amplify the voices of women who have been locked in the system.
Winn’s story started when she was sentenced to 78-months in federal prison for a “white-collar crime,” as she puts it. At the time, Winn, who was a surgical nurse prior to her incarceration, was pregnant with her third child. She was shackled during her pregnancy, which caused her to fall and lose her unborn child.
This was all while enduring unspeakable conditions during her incarceration: having no access to drinking water, the fact that she fell while in custody and received no medical attention, and then an unendurable wait to get the help she needed even as she was miscarrying.
“They would lock us down at like 10:00 PM. You would be locked in the cell, there’s no way to call anybody,” Winn recalled. “And the particular day that I miscarried, I had been fighting about the water. The warden had finally authorized us to have coolers of ice and fresh water every day, but most times they would say that the cooler was broke or something like that. So, this particular day, I hadn’t drank anything all day.”
She woke to painful cramps, as she tried to drink water – believing it was because she was dehydrated. The cramping got worse. In the end, she felt “a gush,” but because it was dark she couldn’t see what it was.
Winn woke up the woman who was sharing a room with her; that woman, along with the other women on the floor, tried to scream and bang on the doors to get the guards’ attention. Winn said it wasn’t until about 2 a.m. the next morning that someone finally checked on them. When they opened the door, there was blood everywhere.
Even then, issues arose with the care she received.
“As I’m miscarrying, they’re debating if they even can call 911 and take me to the hospital, or do they have to…call the marshals for approval? So at this point, I’m begging them to just please take me to the hospital, because I’m afraid for my own life as well as my baby’s life,” Winn recalls.
“So finally, they call 911,” Winn continues. “I get there, I’m immediately shackled to the hospital bed, which is how I completed the rest of miscarriage—with two male officers between my legs that I didn’t know from Adam, who refused to leave the room, refused to give me any type of privacy.”
Winn’s trauma and lack of care was only further emphasized when her baby was thrown away in the trash. After her miscarriage, she was also placed in solitary confinement for “medical observation.”
“After everything was completed and [the nurse] did the ultrasound and seen that I had passed my baby already and asked the officers for the linen that I had bled on, because my baby had to be in there, they were like, ‘They threw it in the trash,’” Winn said. “And then from there, they put me in solitary confinement like it was supposed to be something that was good for me.”
Even though she had no desire to share what exactly happened to her in prison and the loss that she suffered, Winn was determined to do something.
“When I got home, I was told that there was nothing that could be done and that’s basically what kind of triggered me to do something, because I didn’t like that answer and I didn’t agree with it at all,” she told ESSENCE in a phone interview.
“We all make mistakes. And I did make a mistake and I had no problem with being accountable for the mistake that I made,” she added. “But when I was sentenced to serve 78 months, they didn’t say I was sentenced to serve 78 months and be tortured, kill my baby, be put in ridiculous circumstances, not have drinkable water. It didn’t say all of those things. And those are the things that are happening to the women that are inside.”
She started reaching out to organizations that were working on shackling legislation in her home state of Georgia, sharing some snippets of her story as those groups were struggling to find a way to give a voice to the issue.
The first time she spoke of what happened to her publicly was on a panel with the Drug Policy Alliance.
“I didn’t even mean to tell [the story] that day. I had other things that I had planned to talk about but sitting on the panel and listening to the other panelists prior to me speak about the money and all of the things that the private prisons were doing had me kind of heated,” she remembered. “So, by the time it got to me, I was feeling very emotional, because I just kept thinking about how I was treated when I was there, and hearing that these people make billions of dollars a year.”
Ultimately, her refusal to keep quiet led her to become aware of the Dignity for Incarcerated Women’s Act, and then to #cut50 and the Dignity for Incarcerated Women’s Campaign to spearhead the work to end shackling in Georgia under a Dignity bill.
It was while working and strategizing in Georgia for the upcoming 2019 session that Jessica Jackson, #cut50’s national director and co-founder, asked Winn how she would feel about including Dignity legislation in the First Step Act.
It was during the last House vote for the First Step Act that Winn realized how far her story had reached. Winn was in DC with other #cut50 leaders and staff for the vote when she heard the words “shackling” and “fall.”
“Everybody kind of got quiet and we were listening, and it was Representative Karen Bass and she literally told my story on the House floor, verbatim, as if I had sat down with her and just told it to her myself,” Winn recalled. “And to hear her speaking my story and speaking it on that platform, it was very… It was heartfelt and a little overwhelming, but it gave me a lot of hope, to know that someone of her stature knew my story, heard my story, had empathy for it, and was fighting for what was important to me, and for a lot of other women that I left behind.”
The First Step Act successfully passed in 2018, but Winn wasn’t content just yet. While she was excited about federal policy, she needed to know that what happened to her in Georgia would never happen again to another woman in Georgia.
So, she went back to work, visiting the state Capitol every day, meeting with representatives and securing Republican support, especially through state Rep. Sharon Cooper, the chairwoman of the Health & Human Services Committee, who hosted the bill.
That bill, HB345 passed unanimously and is set to take effect on Oct. 1 of this year.
“Although I didn’t plan to talk about it, didn’t really want to talk about it, I knew it was necessary that I did for the women that I had left behind, to make sure nobody else had to go through what I went through,” Winn said. “And now, I like to think that at least here at home, I was the last person to ever have to endure a horrific experience like that.”
Winn already has a lot of achievements under her belt, but she has no intentions of slowling down or stopping.
She is the founder of RestoreHER, the policy advocacy organization which spearheaded the Dignity campaign in Georgia.
RestoreHER, under Winn’s leadership, is working on bolstering the Dignity bill and keeps pressing at things that were originally removed to permit for its passage.
RestoreHER is also working on deferred sentencing for pregnant women. The hope is that when pregnant women are arrested, they will be automatically bonded out.
“If they’re convicted and sentenced and have to serve time, they won’t come back and serve that time until 12 weeks after they’ve delivered their baby, which should be a win-win for everybody, because that eliminates the funding and liability of the prisons for caring for incarcerated pregnant women, and it also gives that woman the opportunity to make her own decisions regarding her pregnancy, her body, her baby, where her baby goes, and spend some time with the baby,” Winn explained.
The other organization which she co-founded, the Formerly incarcerated College Graduates Network, is all about promoting the education and empowerment of those who are formerly incarcerated.
“I do understand that education is key. Education can change a life. Education changes your perspective on things,” Winn said. “[Also], 95% of the people that are incarcerated are coming back home. Who do you want to come back home? Do you want that same person that left here, with that same mentality, that same train of thought coming home, living next to you? Or you want someone that was able to get an education, to learn more and know more, so they can do more and do better next to you?”
It’s a wonder that Winn has any time for herself, though she assures ESSENCE that she loves relaxing with her 18o-pound Rottweiler, Maximus, and occasionally disconnecting for her mental health.
But there is also the basic humanity of others at stake, which is why she fights so hard for her causes.
“I want people to learn, see, and know that incarcerated people are no different from themselves. The only difference is we did something wrong, we made a mistake. So, the same empathy and compassion that they would want for themselves or their family members is the same that we’re asking for,” she said. “We’re not asking for sympathy. We’re not asking not to be held accountable. We’re just asking to be treated humanely as we hold ourselves accountable and asking for the opportunity to reestablish ourselves back in society as productive, happy, working human beings, as we are. Nothing special.”
Editor’s Note: ESSENCE originally wrote that Maximus, Winn’s Rottweiler is 108 pounds. He is a big boy and is actually 180 pounds.