This is an extended version of the story that appeared in our September 2022 print edition.
Jessica Phoenix Sylvia is a writer. She is an abolitionist. She is a daughter, a sister, a friend. And she is a formerly incarcerated trans woman who lived in a men’s prison for more than 18 years.
I met Jess through Empowerment Avenue, where I volunteer as an editor. Since November 2021, Jess and I have had regular weekly phone calls to discuss her experiences living in a Washington State prison, our shared passion for social justice and abolition, and her plans for the future. Jess was released in June and resides with her mother south of Seattle. She continues to write for various outlets, and is planning on publishing a collection of essays. Jess and I spoke on the phone in July to discuss incarceration and release.
What does “release” mean to you at this point in your journey?
Release from prison after 18 and half years locked in a cage is a very difficult adjustment. I am in community custody, which means I am not completely free. My community custody officer recently stopped by my house without announcing himself. For the next four years, I can expect these people to show up at my home and my workplace whenever they want to. I am not even allowed to have pepper spray. I am a trans woman, so I already feel vulnerable, and now I cannot defend myself.
What does penalization mean to many in the U.S. — what purpose does it serve?
We have an economy built on torture, on human caging. Crime doesn’t actually go down [after people are arrested] because the conditions [in a community] remain the same. There is someone looking to take that drug dealer’s place because they do not want to be living on the streets.
Incarceration is a form of censorship. It is people in uniforms snatching people from communities, mostly Black and Indigenous people, queer people, and people from zip codes where there is more poverty. It takes away a person’s ability to do good in their communities and impacts families in a very negative way. We are told [prisons create] safety and security, but this is a false sense of safety.
What would a process of restoration to wholeness look and feel like?
Quite honestly, the state that I was in at the time before prison was not where I wanted it to be. I was struggling a lot. I had family and others who did not accept me and my gender identity. Drugs ripped apart my life as I was trying to cover my pain. What is prison to a person who is suffering but a change in venue and degree and type of suffering? I am not looking to restore my life. I am looking to reclaim and reinvent my life.
Can you share some information about your experiences post-release?
After release I was fortunate to have a family who welcomed me into their home. I do not have a driver’s license, so transportation can be an issue. The community custody officer demands that I show up once a week and my family members take days off of work so that I can make these appointments and stay out of jail.
I remember walking into the office a couple of weeks ago wearing this peach colored midi dress and some wedge sandals. I looked great and I was feeling myself and the community custody officer looked at me and said, “Excuse me, you need to wear a bra.” He compared me to a guy walking in with no shirt on. I said, “I wasn’t aware I was breaking policy.” He said, “You are not, but can you dress appropriately and wear a bra?” I know that acting in the capacity of the fashion police is not his job.
This is something that I dealt with countless times in prison. I actually had an infraction written against me [in prison] for sexual harassment because a staff member told me that being in my presence made them feel sexually harassed.
How have community and self care been part of your life since release?
Reuniting with my family and rebuilding relationships has been great. I talked to my brother for the first time in 14 years, and I have connected with a lot of folks on social media. One person visited me where I live. Social media and remote communication have made relationships in my life possible. And without that, I would feel very isolated.
I haven’t really had much of what I would call community care, which I think is the drawback of living in a rural area. I think that that has been one of the more disappointing and difficult parts of my release.
I am really enjoying the beauty of life in the simple things — just having lotion, perfume, and being able to buy the clothes I want to wear. Online shopping is amazing. Most of my self-care happens when my packages arrive on my front porch. I have played music for 27 years and having an emotional outlet with music has been amazing for me. I got a new pedal for my guitar and another guitar is on the way. I went to prison in January 2004, so I am learning how to use my smartphone.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
If someone comes out of prison a better person, it is not because of any of the state programs there. It is not because the state is supporting them. It is not because prison works. It is despite all the difficulties. I have tried my best to develop resiliency, and I have done my best to reach out for community and support. In prison we feel isolated, and it seems quite often that people forget about us. Having some sort of relationship with a prisoner, even if it is just a card during the holidays, can be very meaningful. For me, accessing education and programs in prison helped me a lot. As folks started to believe in me, I decided to invest more in myself and in my community, because I don’t want to feel abandoned. I want the people who believe in me to see that they were right for doing that.