RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – On June 30, 1995, Kristine Bunch’s life changed forever.
“I woke up and my home was on fire. And I tried to get into my son’s bedroom and there was fire in the doorway,” Bunch told CBS 17’s Angela Taylor.
She tried putting the fire out with a pillow and blanket but the fire was too intense.
“I ran out the door screaming for help. I took his tricycle and busted out his bedroom window and I tried to climb in and get him and my neighbors ran up and pulled me out of the window,” Bunch said.
When firefighters arrived, they helpled her into an ambulance to wait for news of her son, Anthony.
“I wanna be in the same room as Tony. I want to stay with him until he gets better so my dad was the person who had to tell me that tony was dead,” she said.
No sooner than she heard the news, investigators hold Bunch something she never expected.
“They told me they determined it was arson, couldn’t have been anything but,” she said.
Bunch was then arrested and charged with arson and murdering her son.
In 1996, a judge sentences her to 60 years in prison for murder and 50 years for arson.
It took 17 years but the truth finally came out.
A fabricated story from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms helped convict her.
The report stated accelerants were found in the home but undisclosed documents showed that was not true.
In August 2012, Bunch was released from prison.
Even though she never committed a crime, she understands the prison system and how it is working against women behind bars.
Now Bunch has helped start a nonprofit, Justis 4 Justus, to help exonerees transition back into society.
J4J offers resources to women that may not be afforded when they are released.
According to the Innocence Project, the growth rate of incarcerated women is growing faster than men.
It goes back to the War on Drugs when the criminal justice system began cracking down on drug offenses, but not in the traditional sense.
The War on Drugs targeted Blacks, Hispanics, and low-income white men.
“Those males often have female counterparts and left to fend for themselves. What ends up happening is they get involved in the same sort of trade,” said Dr. Amin Asfari.
It is a problem the criminal justice system did not prepare for.
The North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women has seen an increase in female offenders.
In 2015, the offender population was 1,583.
In 2019, it was 1,626.
It did drop in 2020 partly due to the pandemic.
Asfari admits it will take a lot to help women behind bars because most jails and prisons are underfunded.
“They’re experiencing all of this trauma outside and they go into these institutions and they are further traumatized so it’s not very rehabilitative in its nature. nor are we prepared,” Asfari said. “Now all of a sudden these correctional facilities and these programs are entirely absent.”
In fact, because jails are used for short-term stay, they do not offer programs such a rehabilitation which is typically offered in prisons.
Also, North Carolina only has one state prison for women – which poses its own problems.
“You’re often times incarcerated away from your support structure because it’s only one institution in the state so that has implications for their children down the line,” Asfari said.
There is no quick fix to help incarcerted women but Asfari acknowledges more needs to be done.
He believes criminal justice reform should take into account the unique difficulties incarcerated women face.