Philly Justice Project Hosts Podcast Listening Event

Katie Reed, News Columnist

Content warning: sexual assault, substance abuse

On Oct. 19, the Villanova Chapter of the Philadelphia Justice Project for Women and Girls (PJP) hosted a podcast listening event. The podcast—”Wrongful Conviction” with Maggie Freleng—shared the story of Sylvia Boykin, who has been incarcerated for 31 years, serving a life sentence without parole. 

Boykin was charged with first degree murder and conspiracy while trying to collect a drug debt in 1992, a situation that escalated and resulted in the fatal shooting of Bernetta Pope. She was arrested alongside two male-codefendants, who both testified that she was unarmed and neither committed the murder nor conspired in it. Boykin is seeking commutation, or a reduction to her sentence, but her application was recently rejected by the PA Board of Pardons.

PJP has undertaken Boykin’s case with the leadership of Founder and Executive Director Dr. Jill McCorkel, a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University. She has been studying mass incarceration with an intersectional lens for decades, prompting her creation of PJP.

“I felt that the fact that women were being over-incarcerated needed to be recognized as a public policy issue and a social problem,” McCorkel said. “Secondarily, I was really concerned that legal actors in the justice system were not recognizing that women very often are victims.”

McCorkel also noted how the over-incarceration of women has a large impact on families and communities. Kim Oliver-Harris, one of Boykin’s three daughters, spoke to this.

   “I think my experience with my mother’s incarceration has changed over the years,” Oliver-Harris said. “Initially her incarceration had a huge impact on my life, as far as me not having a parent at home, so we dealt with the usual things that kids with no parents would deal with—a lot of abandonment issues and a loss of love and guidance.”

Further, Oliver-Harris mentioned how she has gotten closer with her mother over shared life experiences.

 “As an adult, my mom and I have been able to have more in-depth conversations about her life, her choices, her addiction and things that led her down the path to her incarceration,” Oliver-Harris said. “That has been very impactful for me, just to understand her as a woman and to understand her trauma as a child as well. She shares really freely with our kids as well how drugs and the streets could impact your life in a negative way.”

  The podcast listening event sought to spread awareness around Boykin’s case, and it was packed with students eager to listen. Ajée Robinson, a senior at the University and President of the Villanova Chapter of PJP, was happy with the turnout of the event.

“We were definitely shocked and so pleased that it was a really solid turnout,” Robinson said. “There were people who really seemed to care about Sylvia Boykin, her story and her case overall.”

Robinson’s involvement in PJP was inspired by her identity and her experiences growing up in Baltimore, noticing how women of color are often “forgotten in legal spaces” and, consequently, “don’t get the kind of justice they actually deserve.”

         “Being from Baltimore City, I’ve seen very closely how the criminal justice system can act in oppressive ways, not only toward communities of color, but women in communities of color,” Robinson said. “I think, being a Black woman, representation is very important, so I always knew I wanted to be a legal advocate and fight against injustice.”

         Meagan Murray, who graduated from the University in 2020 and is now studying at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, also expressed her passion for addressing societal injustices. PJP gives her an opportunity to actively combat and dismantle systems of oppression, and her commitment to Boykin and the cause has become even stronger post-grad.

         “I’m in law school for a reason, and most of that reason is motivated by Sylvia, her case, and similar cases,” Murray said. “I have never wanted to take a step back on her case because I’m in law school, because what’s the point of being in law school if I’m ignoring people that need help?”

         Murray, like others, expressed frustrations over Boykin’s case and the hardships she endured. This includes the childhood trauma that led to her substance abuse, being coerced into signing a false statement by the detective who handled her case, being abused by this detective with a phone book during the interrogation and not having access to sufficient legal help.

         “If you listen to the podcast, you know Sylvia is a survivor of just extensive levels of sexual abuse, violence and battery,” McCorkel said. “Her case is, to me, really indicative of a system that just continues to fail women. No one should have had to experience what she had to at the age that it began, with absolutely no intervention or help from community organizations, law enforcement or social welfare organizations.”

         Robinson similarly noted how this case reflects the deeper issue of “how we criminalize everything that shouldn’t, in fact, be seen as criminal,” as society consistently criminalizes women of color, substance abuse and sexual violence.

         Boykin did not commit the murder and received such a severe sentence because she did not cooperate with the police out of a fear of retaliation from her co-defendants. What also makes her case so devastating is that despite dedicating herself to rehabilitation, her commutation application was still rejected.

“My mom has been incarcerated for 30 years now, and she’s done a lot of rehabilitation work, a lot of sobriety work and a lot of trauma healing,” Oliver-Harris attested. “She’s definitely not the same woman that she was back in 1992 when this crime was committed.”

Despite the unfavorable outcome, PJP will continue fighting for Boykin, which Oliver-Harris expressed great appreciation for. The organization is hoping to strengthen her commutation application or get her back in the courtroom to contest the abuse she endured at the hands of the Philadelphia Police Department.

McCorkel extended her gratitude to Villanovans for always supporting PJP and families impacted by incarceration, but Murray reminds us there is more work to be done.

“I think a lot of times Villanova students can get caught up in the Villanova bubble, and I think it’s really important to remember that people like Sylvia and her family are our community members,” Murray said. “If you aren’t supporting the most marginalized members of your community, what are you doing?”

Robinson also noted how it’s easy to feel so disconnected from Philly, but we must be willing to do the work, be “unapologetically vocal” and educate those who are unfamiliar with these issues.

 “I think it’s important to use your voice on this campus to speak for people that can’t speak for themselves,” Robinson said, reminding us that there are plenty of Sylvia Boykins in the U.S. needing advocacy and compassion.

For more ways to get involved and help incarcerated women like Boykin, check out the PJP website, sign its petition, share its information with everyone possible, get out to vote and listen to the podcast.

Additionally, if nothing else, make sure to take Oliver-Harris’ moving words to heart.

“I believe that everyone deserves a second chance,” Oliver-Harris said. “We are human, we all desire to be seen, heard and loved. We all have the ability to change, and I have seen it in my own eyes from my mother, in my life and those around me. We are not our worst mistake.”