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Evie Litwok went to prison for two years. Now she’s helping other formerly incarcerated people chart better futures.

Evie Litwok in New York’s Central Park with her Maltese, Ali. Photo by Jeff Eason for LGBTQ Nation
Evie Litwok in New York’s Central Park with her Maltese, Ali. Photo by Jeff Eason for LGBTQ Nation

At first glance Evie Litwok is an unlikely crusader for the formerly incarcerated.

Petite, with brown hair, a comfortable sweater and slacks, and an air of optimism that belies her 70 years, Litwok is very much the quintessential New Yorker.

The lesbian daughter of Holocaust survivors, she’s quick with a story about  her traditional Jewish upbringing or an insightful bon mot. 

But Litwok is a former prisoner herself: Incarcerated at age 60 for mail fraud and tax evasion, she spent nearly two years in two federal women’s penitentiaries. 

By the time she left prison, she was destitute, homeless, and disconnected from her family. She spent time living in shelters and on the street. 

“I had nothing — except for a 30-year resume in the nonprofit world and on Wall Street,” Litwok said. 

Litwok is a former prisoner herself: Incarcerated at age 60 for mail fraud and tax evasion, she spent nearly two years in two federal women’s penitentiaries.

With the support of long-time equality advocate Urvashi Vaid, Litwok was eventually able to find permanent housing, regain control of her life, and return to the activist work that had always fueled her.

“Urvashi helped me to secure my first studio apartment in a senior low-income housing building on the Upper West Side,” Litwok recalls. “I was hesitant to take the apartment because my only income was social security and it would only cover the rent. When Urvashi realized I was unable to get a job, she insisted on giving me $1000 a month to cover my bills so that I could start my nonprofit Witness to Mass Incarceration. In doing this, she saved my life.”

And now she is repaying her debt by helping other formerly incarcerated people return to society as productive citizens, living their best lives not just for themselves but to the benefit of the communities and families they eventually rejoin — and to avoid re-entanglement with a legal system that is not set up to deal with poverty, mental health issues, and drug addiction.

“I was lucky,” she said. “But for most people, it is almost impossible to recreate the life you had after prison. That’s why the recidivism rate is so high. It does no one any good to release people without any support, and only to relapse in drug use and criminal behavior and come back into contact with police and the legal system.

Today, Litwok lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in a modest apartment that’s become the headquarters for increasingly urgent advocacy work on behalf of the formerly incarcerated — particularly women, LGBTQ individuals and people of color.

“For most people it is almost impossible to recreate the life you had after prison. That’s why the recidivism rate is so high.”Inmate advocate Evie Litwok

According to the Williams Institute’s National Inmate Survey, conducted in 2011 and 2012, sexual minorities (those who self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual or report a same-sex sexual experience before arrival at the facility) are disproportionately incarcerated: 9.3% of men in prison, 6.2% of men in jail, 42.1% of women in prison, and 35.7% of women in jail belonged to sexual minority communities.

“Black, brown and queer people are still seen as disposible in some situations,” she said. “This is why we are overcriminalized and overrepresented in prisons and this is central to the work we are doing. Of course, there are people who should be confined. There are people who should not be in society, but I feel that is the minority. Most people can be rehabilitated and lead normal lives again. I want people who need help [after incarceration] to call me so that we can help out.”

Armed with her experience in finance and nonprofits, and aided by a team of devoted interns, she’s made the organization she founded in 2016, Witness to Mass Incarceration, a leader in the movement to improve the lives for former prisoners — and, by extension, their communities and families — through direct outreach, mental health care, economic empowerment and the canny use of technology.

Litwok’s organization tries to zero in on the moments when the formerly incarcerated are most vulnerable to recidivism and most need support. For instance, the organization’s Suitcase Project provides newly released prisoners with tools to find a job and connect with their communities, while the Map Project creates a record of businesses owned and operated by formerly incarcerated people so that they can more easily find support in their communities and from social service organizations. And Witness to Mass Incarceration’s digital library records the experiences of the formerly incarcerated to educate policymakers about the vital need for a grand reimagining of correctional institutions.

“Black, brown and queer people are still seen as disposible in some situations. This is why we are overcriminalized and overrepresented in prisons and this is central to the work we are doing.”

“The Suitcase Project started as me wanting to give a suitcase with a computer and phone worth about $2,000 to every recently released prisoner,” Litwok explained. “I love to take people out to dinner personally and give them the suitcase. These are the kinds of things you need not just to network and find a place to live and find a job. It is also your sense of companionship as you transition back into communities. I talked to a woman who was in a hotel looking for work but needed the computer desperately just to watch movies and have that distraction. That made all the difference in the world to her.”

Relying on grants and private donations, Litwok’s work takes place against a backdrop of increasingly bipartisan calls for prison reform. She’s committed to centering the conversation on the experiences of former LGBTQ prisoners and their need for economic self-sufficiency.

“Her resources not only benefit those she directly serves, but also make a difference in the lives of families and communities at-large,” said Salmah Y. Rizvi, former president of the American Muslim Bar Association, which has supported various Litwok fund-raising and grant-writing efforts.

“[Litwok’s] resources not only benefit those she directly serves, but also make a difference in the lives of families and communities at-large.”
Salmah Y. Rizvi, former president of the American Muslim Bar Association

“Litwok creates fresh policy proposals, informed by her network of formerly incarcerated women, to advance law, litigation and academia,” Rizvi said.

Much of this work relies on the intersections of Litwok’s identity — Jewish, lesbian, activist, former prisoner — which she uses to develop programs that enable those released from incarceration to not just survive, but thrive.

“The most important thing we can help the formerly incarcerated do is find a way to earn a living so that we don’t have to rely on anyone else,” Litwok said.

LGBTQ Nation spoke with Litwok about her work, her time in the justice system — including solitary confinement — and what she thinks people who have been incarcerated need most to thrive and give back in the real world.

Who is Evie Litwok?

Evie Litwok and her mother, Genia, strolling down Broadway and 151st Street in New York City a few years after Genia escaped the Holocaust and arrived in the city. Photo courtesy Evie Litwok
Evie Litwok and her mother, Genia, strolling down Broadway and 151st Street in New York City a few years after Genia escaped the Holocaust and arrived in the city. Photo courtesy Evie Litwok

I am a formerly incarcerated Jewish lesbian and the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. These are the intersections that impacted me while I was in prison — and this story gives me a powerful voice for the work I do.

What was being incarcerated like for you?

I was told early on that if I wanted my time in prison to be easy, I should remain invisible. But on my first day there, everyone kept on asking me if I was married, if I had kids.

After the fourth person I thought, “This is stupid, I’ve been out for 40 years,” and I told them I was a lesbian. Then a woman screamed to everyone, “This old white woman is a lesbian!” and within an hour I was on everyone’s radar.

“The most important thing we can help the formerly incarcerated do is find a way to earn a living so that we don’t have to rely on anyone else.”

Why not just keep a low profile until you got out?

Because I saw the racism in prison. And I also saw my privilege as a white woman amid all of that racism. From the moment you walk in, you understand who is there and for what. And while I may have thought of myself as radical before prison, I saw things very differently once I was inside.

How is Witness to Mass Incarceration different from other prison reform groups?

There’s a big difference between the large organizations that get the most amount of money to help versus those of us on the ground who are actually formerly incarcerated. We’ve personally experienced prison; it’s folks like us who really know what we need — and we are not getting it. 

And what do you need? What do people who have been through the justice system need to re-establish themselves in society? 

Evie Litwok in her Upper West Side apartment. Photo by Jeff Eason for LGBTQ Nation
Evie Litwok in her Upper West Side apartment. Photo by Jeff Eason for LGBTQ Nation

No. 1, you need to earn a living — because the most important thing to contend with is the poverty associated with former incarceration. When I walked out of prison in 2014, I was 63 years old. They gave me $30 and a Greyhound ticket and that was it. And that is no way to start your life over.

So the lack of resources is key.

Yes, poverty is the main cause of recidivism. Because if you can’t afford to eat, you’re gonna steal. The big nonprofits may train thousands of former prisoners per year, but how many of them have housing two years later? How many of them can earn a living? 

Again, this is why you need organizations led by the formerly incarcerated to truly do this work.

Your Suitcase Project was a direct result of this experience? 

Definitely. The project provides folks coming out of prison with the tools they need most: a cell phone so they can communicate with people, a laptop so they can look for a job, a food card, MetroCard, and a gift card from Target so they can buy clothes. 

You’ve also said the project is connected to your coming out as a lesbian many years ago. How so? 

But this meant I lost part of my connection with my family. So I knew what it was like to come out into the world and be alone.

“When I walked out of prison in 2014, I was 63 years old. They gave me $30 and a Greyhound ticket and that was it. And that is no way to start your life over.”

How crucial is serving the LGBTQ community?

It’s the backbone of everything we do. The first activists’ meetings I went to right after I got out of prison were for LGBT groups — and most of the work I do and have done is with this population. I choose primarily to work with women and LGBTs — by choice!

Why do you worry so much about them?

Because these are my people; these are the folks I worry most about — LGBTs and the formerly incarcerated are the communities I most identify with. Because they face such horrific conditions when they are inside and they are often released home, where they have even fewer resources than everyone else. This is something I know from personal experience. We are constant targets — especially transgender women and especially Black transgender women. We are targeted before we go into prison, we are targeted inside, and we are targeted once we are out. 

What kind of advocacy work are you currently doing for LGBTs in prison?

We are working to eliminate sexual violence in confinement. We are targets of sexual violence, again especially Black transgender women, more than anyone else. There’s the humiliation of strip searches and gender-appropriate showers.

How else are you aiding LGBT people?

I am currently working with a trans woman who was released and is now back in jail. She came with me to my synagogue and expressed interest in converting to Judaism. We send her books every week, our rabbi has met with her, and we are doing whatever she needs to help get her re-released. But the most important thing is that when — if — she is ever re-released we will be there to help her from the moment she leaves Rikers.

Evie Litwok’s parents, Genia and Zygmunt, in the Bindermichel displaced person camp in Linz, Austria, circa 1947. Photo courtesy Evie Litwok
Evie Litwok’s parents, Genia and Zygmunt, in the Bindermichel displaced person camp in Linz, Austria, circa 1947. Photo courtesy Evie Litwok

The Map Project seems to be about economically empowering people who have been through the justice system, much like how attention is finally being given to black-owned businesses.

Absolutely. We are building a digital map of businesses across the nation owned by former inmates, business by business, inmate by inmate. Who knows a barber? Who knows a beauty salon? Who’s familiar with Detroit? This is a necessary step for creating a much-needed ecosystem toward economic empowerment for the formerly incarcerated. 

What is the end goal of the Map Project? 

We want to be able to employ and mutually hire our own people, and we hope to eventually reach 2,000 entries on the map. The next step is to network all of these folks on the ground and eventually create an incubator fund or an accelerator fund offering loans to people who need it. 

We want to become an economic powerhouse, and along the way, change the narrative so that folks see us as businesspeople and entrepreneurs rather than just simply former prisoners.

These are the folks I worry most about — LGBTs and the formerly incarcerated are the communities I most identify with. Because they face such horrific conditions when they are inside and they are often released home, where they have even fewer resources than everyone else.

This is not necessarily a radically new idea.

Not at all. Back in the early 1980s, government funding was reduced for battered women’s shelters and rape crisis centers. Which meant they needed to become self-sufficient. 

I worked with a group that met with over 300 organizations to help them shift from being 100 percent government funded to having a source of income on their own. It always returns to economic self-sufficiency.

What are some myths about being incarcerated?

Prison is not like a factory where you’re learning crime — it’s a place you want to get out of. No one comes out of a prison saying, “I think I’ll rob a bank today.”

What keeps the cycle of incarceration going is not what happens inside prison, but the poverty you face when you get out.

Evie Litwok taking a break from her 12-hour days. Photo by Jeff Eason for LGBTQ Nation
Evie Litwok taking a break from her 12-hour days. Photo by Jeff Eason for LGBTQ Nation

What was the impact of that?

I was punished. I was placed in a cell with a woman who hated LGBT people. Who warned me, “Never go to bed, Mama. Never fall asleep.” And so I did not sleep, and all of the guards knew this. 

They would come ask me if I was alright, ask me if I “feared for my life.” But if I had said, “Yes,” that would have been it. They would have taken me to solitary, and it would have meant an entirely different kind of punishment. 

You did experience solitary confinement, though. What was that like?

The trauma associated with solitary never goes away. They intentionally use fluorescent lighting, which can trigger vertigo. There is very little in terms of medical care or medical tests, or even medication. People come out of it as ticking time bombs. One day in solitary is a day too long.

But prison itself creates a kind of PTSD that comes from living with the constant stress of physical danger; the stress of worrying about someone saying or doing something to you. Someone hurting you. It could be the guards, it could be other people incarcerated along with you. And it can happen at any time, you just never know.

“I was placed in a cell with a woman who hated LGBT people. Who warned me, ‘Never go to bed, Mama. Never fall asleep.’ And so I did not sleep, and all of the guards knew this.”

Why are LGBT people so easily targeted in prison?

Because incarceration is fundamentally about punishment. About being punished for your identity, punished for who you are. If you are LGBT, they will find a way for you to be punished for being LGBT.

There are plenty of lesbians in prison, but you never hung out together. It’s way too dangerous. The guards — who are mostly men — don’t like lesbians. They don’t want you to come out. They bring in preachers who speak badly about homosexuaity, calling it a sin. So there are a lot of women in prison having relationships, but they’re very conflicted about it.

Have you always felt a passion for social justice?

I heard Bobby Kennedy speak when I was 13 years old and have worked on political campaigns for all of my life. There was no question in my mind that this spirit would carry on into prison while I was there.

Evie, her mother, Genia, and her aunt, Bronka Kohn Serebrin. “The three of us did everything together,” Evie said. Photo courtesy Evie Litwok
Evie, her mother, Genia, and her aunt, Bronka Kohn Serebrin. “The three of us did everything together,” Evie said. Photo courtesy Evie Litwok

How did you work as an activist while you served your time?

I spent as much time as I could in the library, working with a group of people who were trying to get their cases overturned. I wasn’t one of those jailhouse lawyers, but I would read over cases and hand it over to their attorneys. I did what I could.

Even though you could have kept to yourself?

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer extolled the virtues of Witness to Mass Incarceration and Evie Litwok at a MAP event in July.

I had to. From the moment I was strip-searched — cold and naked and bent over in front of strangers — I knew I never wanted to return to a place like this. I knew that whether you’re black or white or brown, no one wants to ever be in a place like that. 

How do we dismantle the stigma around incarceration?

It’s time for society to demystify incarceration. There are some 70 million people in the U.S. who’ve been convicted of a crime. We represent nearly a fifth of the nation and if all of us came out as criminals, then the public would know us as people, know me as Evie, and not just as someone who went to prison. 

It took 40 years for people to be comfortable around LGBT people. We can do the same for the formerly incarcerated.

Should the formerly incarcerated be part of the conversation around diversity and inclusion?

Evie Litwok with Map Project business leader Ricky Scott and former NBA player Smush Parker. Photo courtesy of Evie Litwok
Evie Litwok with Map Project business leader Ricky Scott and former NBA player Smush Parker. Photo courtesy of Evie Litwok

Absolutely, inclusion is a very important part of this. Recognizing that someone who’s been behind bars for 20 years cannot just compete on equal footing with some 20-year-old you’re looking to hire.

The younger person may be more profitable, but being inclusive means not necessarily hiring the most profitable option.

You’ve created a digital library to record the experiences of people who’ve been incarcerated. Where did this idea come from?

My work is very much informed by the Holocaust, which both of my parents survived. In 1994, Steven Spielberg began the Shoah Foundation, to videotape the stories of Holocaust survivors before they passed away. So far they’ve completed nearly 60,000 interviews.

We’ve taken a similar approach, though on a far smaller scale — I’m no Steven Spielberg. We are really trying to do what he’s done, only for mass incarceration. So far we’ve recorded over 50 stories, and many of those interviewed have gone on to become public speakers. 

Did being in prison strengthen your faith?

I had not been to synagogue for decades, but the moment I walked into prison I was looking for a prayer book. And I began to attend services and I’ve been going to them ever since. My father was religious and almost died during a beating in a Nazi labor camp for wearing tefillin.

This image of him, his strength, that is what kept me going when I was inside.

“I don’t believe the system can be reformed. You have to radically break the system for real change to happen. It’s just too lucrative for those who benefit from it.”

People speak a lot these days about prison reform. Can the system truly be reformed

I don’t believe the system can be reformed. You have to radically break the system for real change to happen. It’s just too lucrative for those who benefit from it. 

Corporations benefit from the low-cost labor prisoners provide and then consumers are buying the products prisoners produce, often being paid just 15 cents an hour.

I don’t blame consumers, though, I blame the corporate culture and the greed that surrounds it.

So if we cannot fundamentally change the system, how can we at least improve it?

The answer to prison is education — early education — and prevention. So if you see a 5-year-old being bullied you fix it then and there, not when they’re 25 and ready to respond with violence.

We need educators in schools, psychologists in schools. What we don’t need are police in schools. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.