Ellen Barry is a prison rights activist, lawyer, and organizer who speaks out about the crucial issues facing women in US jails and prisons. Ellen founded Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) and is a central figure in the Critical Resistance prison abolition movement. She has devoted much of her life to challenging the rapidly expanding prison system in the USA; with more than two million prisoners, it is the largest in the world. She has exposed the darkest prison abuses and has helped bring about significant, hard-won improvements to the California state prison system.
Ellen, who grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts, was one of ten children. Her father worked on an assembly line and "hated every day that he had to work," Ellen remembers. "I have always felt that loving your work is a privilege and not something that everyone does." Several of her brothers ran afoul of the law and she saw firsthand the effects of abusive police officers on street youth. She also has a number of brothers and sisters in recovery from addictions. Her introduction to what would become her life's work began in the mid-1970s, when she received a fellowship to attend New York University Law School. Her mentor was a pioneer in the area of women prisoners' rights, and together they visited the women's prison in Bedford Hills, New York, where they conducted a class for prisoners and worked on individual cases. As founder and director of LSPC, Ellen led the first national conference to focus on women in prison in the mid-1980s. Made up of approximately 50 per cent former prisoners, LSPC uses litigation, advocacy, community organizing, and individual work with families and prisoners. Through litigation, Ellen and her staff have forced communities to end abusive practices of women and their children and to use more progressive rehabilitation methods. For example, in the 1980s, she sued California's department of corrections for not using a residential treatment program called the Community Prisoner Mother-Infant Care Program. Before the suit, three women at a time were referred to the program; after the suit, beds for 100 women and 100 children were filled. In 1998, Ellen received the prestigious MacArthur Award for her groundbreaking work.
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) Critical Resistance