Janae Pierre: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Janae Pierre, filling in for Melissa Harris-Perry. Studies show that 5% of all people incarcerated are behind bars because of a wrongful conviction.
Melissa spoke with Maggie Freleng, the host of the podcast Wrongful Convictions, about her upcoming season. Season two narrows in on innocent women who have been incarcerated for years because of a crime they did not commit. Let's listen in on that interview.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Your show is titled Wrongful Convictions, but maybe explain a bit to our Takeaway family. What is a wrongful conviction?
Maggie Freleng: Somebody who has been charged and convicted of a crime they did not commit. In a lot of the cases we have, there truly is no evidence, and oftentimes, we do see egregious behavior from prosecutors and police, oftentimes manufacturing evidence to get a conviction. That's a really scary thing because I see that in a lot of my cases.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How big is this problem?
Maggie Freleng: This is a huge problem. Wrongful convictions are everywhere, and they happen all the time. Fortunately, I think that us as a public, we are getting smarter. We are learning about these things. We don't trust everything that comes from authorities, police, and prosecutors all the time. I like to think we have less wrongful convictions happening now, but we are spending a lot of time correcting ones from the past.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about what is new in the focus for this season.
Maggie Freleng: This season, we are focusing much more in women than last season. This season, we actually have at least nine women on the podcast, out of 15. We're still working on a 10th one, but that's a lot of cases of women I'm trying to shine a light.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there something different in what we hear and learn, about the cases of women who are wrongfully convicted versus men?
Maggie Freleng: Yes, Melissa, as you probably know, sexism and bigotry is rampant. When a woman is in court, oftentimes, with a lot of these cases, she can be convicted just based on the way she's acting. She's not crying enough, or she's crying too much. I have a case of a woman, Patty Prewitt--
Patty Prewitt: I'm an old lady. I'm 72. I've been in prison way too long. I'm the oldest of my siblings, and I'm the only one alive. I was just looking out the window. There's a buzzard out there, circling, and I was wondering if he's circling cause I'm getting ready to die. I'm Patty Prewitt, I'm a prisoner in Missouri, and have been for nearly 36 years. I did not kill my husband.
Maggie Freleng: Her only chance right now is clemency. There was no evidence pointing to her at all. In fact, there was evidence pointing away from her, but Patty was literally convicted based on the fact that she had true crime novels around her house. That was a big point in court, that this woman is reading all of these crime novels, so she must have murdered her husband. I just heard you go, "What?" It's really shocking that that happens, but it does.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's interesting, I'm surprised at myself for being surprised, in some ways. My mother, who is now in her late 70s, but as a graduate student in the 1970s, actually did her master's thesis and was working on dissertation work around women and girls in the system of criminal justice. I suppose that at least one hypothesis could be that because we think to protect women and girls, that perhaps they get less harsh sentences, are less likely to be found guilty.
In fact, what she found, again, this is now 50 years ago, was that just for defying expectations of femininity, for doing things like running away or talking back, that these girls and women often faced much harsher sentencing. I hear you saying this may even be affecting wrongful convictions.
Maggie Freleng: Absolutely. Again, I feel like that's truly just sexism. Your mother's been doing this work since the 70s, and it's shocking we're still here, honestly. We're talking about intersections. 80% of women who are in prisons and jails are mothers. They're mothers. We're talking about-- When a woman goes to prison, not even a wrongful conviction, you are breaking up a family at that point. I've been covering, lately, women who give birth in prison.
Where does that child go? The child gets taken away from the mother, virtually immediately. They get no bonding time together, and then if there's not able family members to take care of the child, they go to foster care. They get put up for adoption. I have a woman who lost two of her children to closed adoptions because she was wrongfully incarcerated.
Unidentified Woman: When I lost my kids, I was at a fork. I could either give up on life, on everything, or I could fight.
Maggie Freleng: This woman committed no crime, and lost her two babies for her whole life.
Melissa Harris-Perry: They, of course, lost their mother.
Maggie Freleng: They lost their mother. Yes.
Janae Pierre: Stick with us. There's more takeaway right after this.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you talk about the large percentage of women who are incarcerated, whether wrongfully convicted or not, who are mothers, we also know there's an enormous proportion of girls and women who are incarcerated, or under the state, who are survivors of physical and sexual abuse. Have you seen that showing up in any of these stories?
Maggie Freleng: Yes, multiple. This season, I have two of them. Two women, similar cases, in the fact that they grew up being sexually abused by family members, had really difficult childhoods, of course, because of that, the trauma led them to drugs and alcohol addiction, and then it just spirals. They did not commit these crimes, but because of their trauma and the way they grew up, they sought out relationships with men that were not healthy, and they were in a position where these wrongful convictions happened.
Alisha Burns: I was a foster child and I was trafficked when I was 15. My trafficker forced me to participate in a robbery that resulted in a death. As a result of that, they made me his co-defendant in a murder charge. My name is Alisha Burns. They gave me 10 to life in prison. I served a total of 16 years.
Maggie Freleng: Yes, it's a lot. It's a lot.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I hear you saying it's a lot.
Maggie Freleng: It's a lot.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about how you maintain some sense of equilibrium, maybe even optimism, in the context of covering this really hard topic.
Maggie Freleng: Really, this is my life. Even when I'm not writing a script, I take four or five prison calls a day, just folks I've been in touch with, some of these people have nobody. In terms of separating and having a work-life balance, doesn't really exist. You mentioned optimism, and I think that's how I'm able to keep going and sustain the work. These people spend decades in prison and they come out ready to fight. They are fighters, they're strong, they're resilient, and that is so inspiring.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you have a takeaway that you want folks who are listening to this season to really take away with them?
Maggie Freleng: I want people to have compassion. That's what I really try to do with my season of Wrongful Conviction, or my series Wrongful Conviction, is humanize all these people. I think once we all start to understand each other and understand it doesn't matter what I look like, or where I come from, we're all people at the end of the day. When you get put in that prison cell, we're all the same. We do calls to action at the end of each episode, so people know what they can do if they feel inspired.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Maggie Freleng is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and host of Wrongful Convictions. Maggie, thanks again for taking the time with us today.
Maggie Freleng: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa.
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