Activist Topeka K. Sam gave the keynote speech at the Cut’s How I Get It Done Day on March 4, discussing her journey from incarceration to leading a national movement for criminal justice. After leaving federal prison in 2015, she devoted her life to helping formerly incarcerated women and children and helped pass criminal justice reform laws in eight states last year. As a native New Yorker, Sam has also been using her local and national activism experience to advise New Yorkers United for Justice, which advocates for criminal justice reform in the state.
“When I came home [to New York], I knew I would have the opportunity to do anything I wanted to do,” she said. “I had the experience to start businesses, I had my family, resources, my friends, support, mentors. But I also knew that the women I had left behind [in prison] didn’t.”
Currently, 1.1 million women are incarcerated in the U.S. Nearly half of American adults have a currently or formerly incarcerated family member, according to recent study from Cornell University and FWD.us. The same study showed that incarceration disproportionately affects people of color, and that a larger burden is often imposed on women and children.
After her incarceration, Sam opened the Ladies of Hope Ministries in the Bronx to temporarily house and help women adapting to life after prison. The residence has housed 15 formerly incarcerated women since opening in 2017. Last year, Sam helped pass the federal First Step Act, which will better prepare people for jobs and life after prison. Through her involvement with the Justice Action Network and #cut50, her political work has also taken her to the White House. Last spring, she met with Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, and Mike Pence to talk about her experiences in prison. She told them about being in prison and having to “quantify” her period to get more pads as part of her daily money allowance — by gathering used pads in a paper bag that she would show to a male officer. “If you could see the look on Jeff Sessions’s face.”
“I don’t look at myself as a voice for the voiceless, I create these platforms so all women can use their voice,” she said. “When you give a woman a voice, and when you give a woman a chance, you’re changing the world.”