by JANET MANDELSTAM
It was a play, a poem, and COVID-19 that inspired Debbie Fish to become an advocate for prisoners.
Last fall, the former teacher and school principal attended a performance of Sentences: Stories from the Pen by Bloomington’s Resilience Theater. “The play was from the writings of Glenda Breeden, based on the visits she made to Indiana prisons with her husband, Bill Breeden, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister,” Fish recalls.
The play began with the poem I Am You by Phillip Stroud, an inmate Fish says is unjustly incarcerated, and opened with the words “I am your brother. I am your son. I am your childhood friend.”
“[The poem] jarred me,” Fish says. “Through Phillip, I started learning more about the conditions in Indiana prisons.”
Fish also learned about IDOC (Indiana Department of Corrections) Watch, a group advocating on behalf of prisoners. “They opened me up to what they were facing with their loved ones in prison,” she says, “and once you know, you have to do something.” A member of the Bloomington Unitarian Universalist Church, she is active in its Hope for Prisoners Task Force.
Then along came COVID-19, adding urgency. “Indiana prisons were about three weeks late implementing the governor’s guidelines, putting prisoners at risk,” says Fish. A number of inmates had tested positive for the virus when IDOC WATCH organized a protest at Pendleton Correctional Facility in May.
Fish says that more than 60 people in about 30 cars assembled in a restaurant parking lot near the Madison County, Indiana, prison. “We heard speakers talk about the conditions in the prison, how the prisoners hadn’t had any hot meals, how it’s difficult to isolate prisoners who are sick.”
The convoy then drove to the prison. “We honked and honked,” she says. “COVID-19 upped the ante. It showed us that we weren’t doing enough. We’re writing letters, making phone calls, trying to get the public informed about conditions in prison.”
The group is also urging early release of prisoners who are over 65 or have less than a year remaining on their sentences.
Fish’s work on behalf of prisoners isn’t her first plunge into activism. She is also a member of her church’s Racial Justice Task Force and Refugee Task Force.