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Gabrielle Perry and the Thurman Perry Foundation: a Beacon of Light from a Dark Place


Epidemiologist Gabrielle Perry attends the Inaugural Mother's Day 365 luncheon hosted by her Louisiana foundation serving incarcerated women.

In a world defined by judgment and adversity, epidemiologist Gabrielle Perry's journey is a testament to compassion. She is the founder and executive director of a nonprofit working against incarceration culture, and she began her journey from the depths of incarceration.

 

A victim of poverty, homelessness, and exploitation, Perry was ensnared in a cycle of desperation that pushed her into the nation’s unforgiving justice system. She emerged with a burning determination to make a difference for other incarcerated women and founded the Thurman Perry Foundation. Perry also runs the Perry Second Chances Scholarship, which provides financial aid to incarcerated women and their daughters, as well as the groundbreaking Girl Code Initiative, which addresses menstrual equity in prisons.

 

The Foundation is set to surpass its goal of providing direct financial assistance, public health resources, and educational resources to 10,000 girls and women who’ve been impacted by incarceration by the year 2030.


BGX: Share your journey from incarceration to successful epidemiologist and the Thurman Perry Foundation?

 

Perry: My crime was survival against poverty. The death of my father from cancer left me and my elderly, disabled mother with no stability and few choices. The foreclosure of my childhood home, selling my vehicle to be able to afford rent and food that month, and pawning the ring my father bought for me as a little girl were just a few of the circumstances I endured. … [W]hat made the long road to redemption even more arduous was the perpetual, unending punishment caused by having a criminal record. The expungement of my record did not take place until five years after my arrest and release. Up until then, my safety, future, and dreams were hostage.

 

Through my The Thurman Perry Foundation, with no staff, no major grant funding, no organizations rooting for us, I have been able to teach others about the kind of women I left behind in that pink jail cell 10 years ago. Women like my birth mother, who knew she couldn’t save me from her own fate as an incarcerated woman. On the day I was born, she gave me to two total strangers, one of whom our organization is named in memory of.

 




Through The Thurman Perry Foundation, we have raised more than $250,000 to support 5,200 women nationwide. We fund The Perry Second Chances Scholarship, which has awarded $100,000 to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, and the daughters of our incarcerated brothers and sisters. I am the head of the only organization in the country addressing menstrual equity for incarcerated women and have donated more than 200,000 organic menstrual products to prisons and transitional housing facilities in Louisiana, Texas, and New York, since our Girl Code program began two and half years ago. We also pay the rents and mortgages of formerly incarcerated mothers—women like my own birth mother—through our Mother’s Day 365 program, so other women don’t have to make impossible choice between saving their children or themselves.

 

BGX: How did your personal experience with incarceration shape your perspective on public health and social justice?

 

Perry: My birth mother had been in and out of jail, and her final jail sentence was lengthy. I believe in my heart she was trying to save me, the youngest of her children, from her own fate and that of my biological siblings (by putting me up for adoption). I met her when I was 16 years old. She was on her deathbed and had sent my biological brothers to find me. She had been given a compassionate medical release due to a terminal illness. She had been ignored by prison medical staff and been given Tylenol for what ended up being stage IV metastatic colon cancer.

 

My own incarceration was due to me stealing to survive and care for my elderly adoptive mother. This led me to being homeless and to so many realizations about living in this country. Incarceration is a public health crisis unique to the U.S.

[S]urvivor’s guilt led me to want to find other women who were like me and help them. We didn’t start as The Thurman Perry Foundation. It was simply me giving money to random women on Twitter from my savings account after I got my first job as an epidemiologist post-graduation.

 

BGX: How does your organization's work impact women and girls affected by incarceration and the criminal legal system?

 

Perry: The value of this work is generational. Statistically, children are more impacted by the negative effects of incarceration (homelessness, substance use disorder, etc.) when the incarcerated parent is their mother. These women are experiencing a gendered bias that is feeding them to prisons through skewed poverty rates, sentencing bias, and the disproportionate violence in women’s prisons at the hands of male guards. That is a lot of trauma [to] rebuild your life in the face of. If we can offer [these women] housing or pay their tuition—something small in the short term—the long-term impact is a life worth living. That keeps both [the formerly incarcerated] and the public safe.

 

BGX: Tell us about a success story or a memorable moment from your work.


Perry: One of the most memorable moments for me is going through the applications for our scholarship program every year. Seeing what these women dream of alongside what they have endured and conquered is incredibly inspiring. Video game creators, authors, physicians, scientists, even two epidemiologists like myself. One woman is currently a software engineer for Walt Disney post-incarceration and opening doors for other women to do the same. I am honored to have a small part in their legacies.

 

BGX: What’s your end goal with the Foundation?


Perry: I pray the day comes when we don’t have to do this work. Where the humanity of these women is affirmed from the beginning so once they do return to society—as 98% of them will—they can begin anew. I see myself in that work as a voice for them until my dying day. Ideally, I’d love to expand the organization to the point that it outgrows me having to be involved in the day-to-day operations. I pray TPF is a generational ally, legislatively, fiscally, and culturally, for these women and girls.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


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C. Dreams is an advocate who writes and lectures about prison and criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, harm reduction, and government and cultural criticism.

 

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