Evie Litwok addresses prison reform at Smith College

Litwok founded the Witness to Mass Incarceration project


(Caroline O’Connor/Daily Collegian)

By Nate Proctor

On Thursday night, the Smith College American Civil Liberties Union chapter hosted a lecture by Evie Litwok, founder of the Witness to Mass Incarceration project. She describes herself as a victim of the prison system. During her time placed in one correctional facility after another, she was both disregarded and punished simply for being there.

Witness to Mass Incarceration is a nonprofit where LGBTQIA+ individuals can retell their experiences in prison. They’re building a community of people who have nowhere else to turn upon their release.

Smith ACLU chapter president Jaycee Greeley introduced Litwok as a “formerly incarcerated aging New York Jewish lesbian feminist, daughter of two holocaust survivors.”

Litowk was charged with three counts of tax evasion and one mail fraud. The courts reversed the decision a few months later, ordering her immediate release, but Litwok was brought back to trial and found convicted again.

“I expected to lose my freedom, but I did not expect to have my own life be at risk,” Litwok said.

She recounted her own experiences as a prisoner, highlighting the life-threatening treatment she had personally fallen victim to. Fluorescent lights hummed over her metal cot day and night, positioned just so the prisoners would get headaches, Litwok said. The tin toilets were far from suitable for anyone, let alone her aging body.

But some dangers crossed over from uncomfortable to life-threatening. Medical treatment, she insisted, was not provided in any way to detainees, according to Litwok.

“I knew a woman that told the doctor she felt like she was dying, and she looked like she was dying,” Litwok said. “So the doctor gave her the same old ‘you’re fat; you need to run on the track and drink water.’ Her gallbladder exploded, and she died.”

“You’re supposed to go to prison if you’ve committed a crime, not have your life at risk,” she added.

When she was able to publish a cover story on this, she was escorted to solitary confinement within the hour, guised under the loose title of a “security risk.” Litwok said she still hasn’t recovered from her time spent in that cell.

Security officers would routinely force inmates to perform sexual acts, or otherwise they would lose privileges such as visitation hours with their children. If an inmate requested toilet paper or women’s sanitary products, officers would advise them to “wipe themselves,” Litwok explained.

She argued that the prison system is corrupt, with a single outcome of harming lives. Instead of people fearing prison as a motive to abide by laws, the prisons themselves effectively ruin people physically and mentally.

One audience member asked, “What system do you envision replaces prisons?” Litwok responded that she and peers like her can’t truly answer that question, but they have some ideas.

She believes one alternative to the prison system involves allowing convicted persons to be trained in emergency response teams like firefighting and natural disaster relief. Litwok reported how half of the forces battling the California wildfires were incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people. Utilizing this could produce better character development in convicts that prisons systematically corrode.

Until the idea of prison reform is more popular, Litwok is underway with the “Suitcase Project,” a program to assist recently released people. They hope to provide some income, food and, most importantly, a community to make the individuals feel not so alone in a world that may have changed since their convictions.

Editor’s Note: The question “What system do you envision replaces prisons?” which was originally attributed to Abigail Weaver, a junior theater and Jewish studies major at Smith College, has been corrected to be attributed to a nameless audience member, as Weaver did not ask the question.

Nate Proctor can be reached at [email protected]