Tonie Willis’ mother, Ardella, saw the good in everybody.
When she passed away in 2009, Willis was determined that her mother’s legacy would live on through her. And so, in 2010, Ardella’s House, a non-profit organization based in Pennsylvania—Willis’ home state—was born. The organization specializes in assisting women directly impacted by mass incarceration and is determined to show that their mistakes are not the sum total of their humanity, nor their identity.
“There was nobody more loving and caring than my mother. She saw good in everybody. We could be talking about someone and biting her back out, and talking about them like a dog, but my mother would always chime in about something good about that person. So, that’s why I named the program Ardella’s House,” Willis told ESSENCE in an interview.
The organization helps women who are preparing to leave the system for life after their incarceration.
“We have a 12-week program called Life Interrupted,” she explained. “We help build the foundation for the women once they’re released from prison because that is so important for them to have an exit plan as they re-enter society.
“Because if they don’t know what they’re going to do, it’s like a house,” Willis continued. “If that foundation isn’t solid, it’s going to collapse, it’s going to fall.”
It was Willis’ work in this arena that drew the attention of #cut50, a bipartisan initiative that seeks to reduce the prison population while still making communities safe. She was ultimately tapped to become a ‘Dignity Ambassador’ for the organization, spearheading the push for a Dignity Act in Pennsylvania as part of #cut50’s Dignity for Incarcerated Women’s Campaign.
“[The women] need a voice. They need someone that has a big mouth like me to help them, to motivate them, to give them a voice, and be activists,” Willis said with a chuckle.
Willis admits that, at first, she also had a hard time sharing her own story – which started with a drug conviction about 30 years ago. Her own mother didn’t know what had happened until about 10 years after her incarceration.
“I never told my mother that I was incarcerated,” Willis reveals. “My mother thought that I had moved out of Philadelphia and living in California.”
She explained coming from a stable, two-parent household, never really wanting for anything, left her embarrassed and terrified of disappointing her mother. It was a family member who informed her mother several years later, as a means of getting back at Willis after a falling out.
“My mother just came and hugged me and held me, and she told me that she never felt that I would go through something that I could never tell her about it, and she told me that there’s nothing in life that I could have ever done to disappoint her,” Willis recalled.
Now, Willis is just trying to share that spirit with others who are suffering or have suffered.
“When I started Ardella’s House, I was housing women in my house who couldn’t get a home plan, “Willis explains. “I would have two to three women at my house at a time living here. Because, either they didn’t want to go back to their environment, because their environment led to the incarceration, or either they had burned their bridges with the family, or whoever, and they didn’t want to, or couldn’t, go back there. They had family members that weren’t willing to see that the women have turned their lives around,” she said.
A force to be reckoned with, Willis is determined to ensure that the women who are currently in the system or who are trying to return home are able to advocate for themselves and share their stories, something which the #cut50 campaign encourages and specializes in, in order to amplify the women’s voices and share the truth of what is going on inside the prisons.
“I can tell my story, you can tell your story, so I teach the women how to tell their own story. Because all our stories are different, as you know from talking to the ambassadors. Everyone has a different story to tell,” Willis pointed out. “You might not be able to relate what I went through, but you might be able to relate to what Pam(ela Winn) went through, or Topeka (Sam) went through, or one of the other ambassadors went through.”
One of the issues that particularly became a driving point for her was the availability of feminine hygiene products for women in prison. In many jails and prisons across the nation, these products are allotted, and those that they have access to are often not the best quality.
For Willis, she didn’t know what was worse, her actual incarceration or having her cycle while incarcerated.
“Can you imagine when your menstrual comes on, and they’re telling you, you can only have one to two pads a day?” Willis said. “I don’t know what was worse, being incarcerated or when my menstrual came on.”
“It got to the point where I would have to even make my own pads out of toilet paper. And I don’t feel any woman should have to go through that. No woman at all. No one should tell a woman how her flow is, how many pads she can use a day, how many they can give her a day. No one should have to live like that,” she added.
That only scratches the surface of what dignity looks like for Willis and the experiences she endured during her own seven months of incarceration.
“Being incarcerated is probably the lowest point in your life when you’re stripped from everything. You’ve become a number. So, it’s bad enough…, but now you’re treating me like an animal, but some animals are treated better than some women that are incarcerated,” she said. “Women should still be able to hold their heads up while they’re incarcerated, and not be treated like an animal, or like they’re in modern-day slavery.”
This includes having access to their family and children by not being sent off to faraway prisons – as is often the case in Pennsylvania, Willis revealed. It also includes having unlimited phone calls with your children, having proper access to hygiene products, and not being subject to cavity searches by male guards.
In other words, being treated with basic human decency.
Still, Willis said it is sad that she and the other ambassadors with #cut50 have to fight to have common-sense legislation passed. But it’s a necessity, because some legislators she reveals, just don’t know what is happening—which brings back the importance of sharing stories.
“I think it’s taken so long because a lot of people didn’t know. They didn’t know what was really going on behind the walls,” she said. “Even now, when I go up to Harrisburg, to the Capitol to speak to the legislators, and I talk about some of the challenges of incarceration, they’re shocked. They didn’t know.”
“I’m constantly inviting legislators to take tours of the prisons, to come into the prisons and talk to the women,” Willis added. “And even putting these bills together, I’ve held roundtables all across the state of Pennsylvania with formerly incarcerated women, and also incarcerated women in the prisons here, to ask them what is it they need. What do they want? What changes they want. Because no one knows better than the women that are incarcerated, and the women that are formerly incarcerated.”
Right now, in Pennsylvania, Willis is working towards the reintroduction of a more robust Dignity Act—a combination of key parts of eight separate bills that were initially introduced. The bill will be reintroduced in the fall and will, of course, address the issue of feminine hygiene products, as well as ensuring that pregnant women are not placed in solitary confinement. Another key focus is placing women closer to their children and family, among other issues.
“It’s funny when I go around and speak now, and women and men say, ‘I would have never known that you were incarcerated. You don’t look like you’ve been incarcerated.’ So, I wanted to know, what does an incarcerated woman look like? Does she have to have two heads?” Willis said.
Willis, like the other ambassadors—like the women of Ardella’s House, like the women still incarcerated—is a reminder that formerly and currently incarcerated women are just people, who need and deserve to have their voices heard. And while society often attempts to demonize these women for their mistakes, rarely does society grapple with the race and gender discrimination embedded in the system itself.
According to the 2005 study, Wrongful Convictions Among Women: An Exploratory Study of a Neglected Topic, wrongfully convicted women were more likely than their male counterparts to be convicted of child abuse or drug violations. Additionally, wrongful convictions involving drug offenses were almost exclusively the province of African American women—and African American women were also more likely than White women to be wrongfully convicted of murder. Further, women make up about 11 percent of the people convicted of violent crimes, but just 6 percent of those exonerated of violent crimes, Mother Jones reports.
This is the so-called justice system at work. Still, whether the mistakes are institutional or individual, all women have the right to their dignity.
Currently, Ardella’s House is working on raising funds for another home, to ensure that more women have a place to go upon their release, and also ensuring that they have counselors and family therapists on board to help the women transition back into their family life in the healthiest way possible.
“I ask people this all the time, ‘When are you no longer a returning citizen? When are you no longer an ex-felon, or a convicted felon? When are you no longer this thing?’ It’s a label that you wear for the rest of your life that you shouldn’t have to wear,” Willis said. “If I did my five or 10 years, and I haven’t re-offended in years, why 30 years from now, 40 years from now, why am I still labeled this label? When are your shackles released?”
“I just wish more people were open-minded about a person who has been impacted by the criminal justice system. I wish they would be more open-minded about hiring them, or having them in their community, different things like that. [It’s] something we still have to work on. We were so close, but yet we’re still so far,” Willis added. “But the work is important that we do here at Ardella’s House, and I have a great team…And I have a great team of ambassadors that I work with. We are a force to be reckoned with. We’re definitely going to make the changes that need to be done for the women that are incarcerated, so that their dignity is no longer attacked.”