Pillows for Prisoners: Female Incarceration
Organization brings holiday comfort to Salt Lake County jail inmates by donating 600 pillows
Pillows for Prisoners Project Helps Female Inmates in Salt Lake County Jail
Just $11 can provide help, hope and healing to a woman in jail this holiday season.
Pillows for Prisoners is an initiative to get pillows to female inmates in the Salt Lake County Jail for the Christmas and Mother's Day (funds and resources permitting).
The fundraising initiative was launched October 16, 2017 via social media. And to date, P4P has donated more than 1200 pillows to the female inmates at the Salt Lake Co. Metro Jail.
Pillows are $13 in the jail for prisoners, but are purchased by the jail directly through commissary for a discounted price -- meaning $11 can make a huge difference in a woman's life.
The idea for the program came to the two eldest Suite sisters (Cassandra Suite-Smith & Sabrena Suite-Mangum) after our younger sister Celeste had been incarcerated for more than a week and was sleeping without a pillow.
While our sister had spent years under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and even been through rehab once already, we discovered far too late in her journey she was the victim of sexual assault. Just 17 years old at the time, she was on scholarship playing volleyball at a small STEM university in Arizona.
The college incident changed the direction of her life and our family’s – but by the time we found out what had happened, years of shaming, victim blaming and abuse had already occurred. She had been trying to self-medicate ever since. Progress is never linear. Celeste only spent a month in jail, but addiction is always lurking not too far in the background.
And yet prior to her incarceration, we had never experienced having a loved-one in jail. We did not realize that inmates did not get pillows.
We learned that inmates need money to purchase the most basic comforts—like a pillow or hair ties—as inmates are given scrubs to wear, a place to sleep, a bar of soap and not much else.
We chose providing pillows because it was the first thing our sister asked for—well, a pillow and a hair tie. We learned she had traded food (which apparently is a no-no) to get a hair tie; but the $13 cost for a pillow was one of the most expensive purchases you could make through commissary.
Unlike blankets or scrubs, pillows cannot be washed and reassigned to another inmate. They are something that most of us take for granted, but are also something that is heavily desired but can take a while to get. As we note above, because of how commissary is set up, it can take a week or more for prisoners to get access to a host of things we take for granted.
Our hope is that even if these women are spending Christmas in jail –regardless of when they were admitted—they would have access to a pillow. And with that gift, we hope come some small reassurance that someone is thinking of them, with hopes and prayers for a better life as they lay their head down to rest during a special, but often particularly difficult time of year.
As we mention above, we chose providing pillows because it was the first thing our sister asked for when we visited her at jail.
Even if an inmate has the resources to purchase a pillow, the process can take days to weeks to get through commissary.
But the reality is that most female inmates don't have pillows. Celeste shared with us, that while she was in jail (she's currently in rehab), in her Pod of about 60 women, only five or six actually had pillows.
Great question! Our introduction to the jail system was limited at best, but we knew we wanted to do something. Our experience began with one female inmate, our sister, so that’s where we started, and where we've focused our efforts. We’ve dabbled in community service and outreach in plenty of other spaces, but gifts to inmates was way outside our typical bailiwick. So we had to start somewhere.
It’s worth noting that although the majority of inmates across the prison and jail system are male, females are the fastest growing segment of the population for incarcerations. The ACLU notes that nationally, there are more than eight times as many women incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails as there were in 1980, increasing from 12,300 in 1980 to more than 182,000 by 2002.
Plus, because the majority of inmates are male, a vast number of programs are geared towards males. For example, the Salt Lake County Jail has an incredible garden the men can work in – but that service opportunity is not available to female inmates at this time.
So we're bringing something unique to the women, sharing our sister's story, and our family's story as the starting point for awareness and advocacy.
The Prison Policy Initiative recently noted that 60% of women sitting in jail have NOT been convicted of a crime.
Moreover, we believe that every person is entitled to the basic fundamental right of sleep – yes, even those who have committed crimes. Through our experience, especially as we gained more insight into who these women are, it became more apparent that the majority of the females incarcerated were victims of circumstance.
In Utah 57% women in state prisons reported that they were physically and/or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. The overwhelming majority of women in prison are survivors of domestic violence.
In a 2004 Utah Department of Corrections Report surveying female prison inmates:
What this tells us is that the majority of these women started out with not only less opportunities and less support to succeed, but were dealt the awful hand of abuse and victimization before they were even adults.
Because of the very specific restrictions on what comes in and out of the jail, collections received are turned over to Salt Lake County, in some cases need to be approved for receipt via the Salt Lake County Council, and earmarked for the jail. The Salt Lake Metro Jail places a mass order for pillows, and then pillows are distributed directly to the inmates for Christmas.
Since December of 2017, our program has donated more than 1200 pillows to the women at Salt Lake County Metro, and we hope to gift another 400 pillows this year.
We get it! “Giving Fatigue” can be a real thing -- especially as we enter the holiday season. There are so many places and causes that need support right now.
But we are not asking you to donate to Pillows for Prisoners instead of the current charities you are supporting; we are asking you to donate in addition to the current charities you are supporting. For the cost of less than three venti caramel macchiatos in a year, you could purchase a pillow for a woman who may find herself in jail for the first time in her life—scared, alone and unsure of the future.
Seriously, just $11 can help an inmate have a better night’s rest. (As mentioned previously, the jail purchases the pillows directly through their commissary provider, so commissary is able to purchase pillows at a discounted rate.
As a supporter of Pillows for Prisoners, you also can serve as an advocate for the plight of female inmates. The gift of the pillow, the investment in the incarcerated gives you insight into their situation that the average person just doesn't know.
Because in addition to the sobering statistics we mentioned above, the UCD’s Report also shed light on the horrible reality of rape and sexual assault associated with female inmates:
Clearly, these are women who have already suffered immeasurably before they even make their way into the system.
We would be the first to admit we come from a life of privilege. We primarily grew up on the east side of Salt Lake City, are both college graduates, and for the most part have lived a pretty idyllic life with an incredible support system of family, teachers and friends who did everything they could to help us succeed.
Through the experience of witnessing first-hand what it was like having our sister in jail, our eyes have been opened to a forgotten public in our very own community.
As we learned from our parents, church leaders and school teachers, we strive to be a force for good in the community – to help support those who are less fortunate and to treat each every person on the planet as a child of God.
Cassandra is a tenacious and goal-oriented wife and mother of three, who works as fitness instructor helping to empower others to realize their health and wellness dreams through goal setting, action and perseverance.
Sabrena (left) is a public relations consultant trying to raise two children to think outside the box and help get her friends and family (including her patient and supportive husband) as excited as she is about social justice and environmental issues. Through this experience, Sabrena also began volunteering at the jail, teaching yoga to female inmates.
It started with one girl, our sister Celeste, and her story.
Total Number of Pillows Donated to the female inmates at the Salt Lake County Jail since December 2017.
Total number of lives affected through the Pillows for Prisoners program.
Artwork by a SLCO female inmate.