Illinois Prison Project launches initiative to support incarcerated women

On June 5, 2007, Tewkunzi Green, of Peoria, was backed up against the kitchen sink, holding her 6-month-old son, when her boyfriend — her child’s father — began to strangle her. Afraid she would faint and drop her son, Green fatally stabbed her boyfriend in the chest.

Although she pleaded not guilty due to self defense, Green was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 34 years in prison. With the help of IPP, she was granted clemency by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in November 2020 after spending 13 years behind bars.

“The night that everything happened — I just knew it was over for me,” Green said at a virtual Illinois Prison Project event. “Some people didn’t understand that there was a lot more going on behind closed doors.”

IPP officially launched the Women and Survivor’s Project in a Zoom webinar last Thursday. The project aims to further support and represent incarcerated women, caregivers and survivors of domestic violence by ensuring their stories are heard. Additionally, the initiative provides legal representation to help fight for their release from prison.

Green was joined at the event by Vickie Quinn, who was sentenced to six years in 2018 for theft of items totaling less than $300 and released early from custody in July 2020. At the time Quinn committed the offense, she was struggling with addiction. She said she bonded with many other women in her unit who experienced similar struggles with drug and alcohol use. Quinn, who grew up with an abusive mother, also connected with the other women through their shared experiences being in abusive relationships.

“I miss them,” Quinn said during the webinar with tears in her eyes and a tissue in hand. “I think about them. Some of them didn’t understand the system and why they were there. We all worked together, me and my sisters in jail. We worked together and we prayed and we talked and wanted to be better moms, sisters.”

Quinn was in prison when COVID-19 hit. Due to her age and health — including heart conditions and a number of  medications she takes — Quinn was at high risk. 

“This past year has been absolutely devastating for so many people … prisons were already a humanitarian crisis; they always have been,” said Rachel White-Domain, a staff attorney and the director of IPP’s Women and Survivor’s Project, who also spoke at the event. “Yet when COVID hit, it made it devastatingly worse.”

White-Domain represented both Quinn and Green in their cases. She said she hopes to see a more robust use of the mechanisms for early release. While there are not many, the ones that do exist are not used as much as they could be. 

“For example, we do a lot of our work through commutation filings, which go to the governor’s office,” White-Domain said. “We are hopeful that the government will continue to use clemency in a more robust way than perhaps governors’ administrations in the past in Illinois have used it.”

Now, Quinn and Green are IPP ambassadors. Quinn advocates for people experiencing addiction and chairs many of the Alcoholics Anonymous groups in her neighborhood; while Green is an activist that addresses issues like domestic violence and the harmful effects of incarceration. 

Charise Walker, an attendee who is a program officer at the Westside Justice Center, said she was pleased to hear Quinn and Green’s stories about how they overcame their pasts to help others.

“The work that Tewkunzi is doing with getting letters to the women, with getting packages to the women, with helping other women be able to tell their stories so they have that opportunity to be released from incarceration — awesome work,” Walker said. 

Green said she accepts that she cannot change much. Still, she recognizes the importance of helping others understand that domestic violence is a serious and prevalent issue.

“I didn’t want to see 34 years. I didn’t want to see 13 1/2,” Green said. “But by the grace of God, I was out of [prison]. And I’m thankful. I’m so thankful.”

Illustration of Tewkunzi Green by Paul Callahan, courtesy of Love & Protect