Victoria Law is a longtime prison activist and the author of the new book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PMPress), which was recently reviewed at Alternet. "This book is the result of seven and a half years of reading, writing, listening, and supporting women in prison," Law says about Resistance Behind Bars, noting that each chapter in her book "focuses on an issue that women themselves have identified as important." The chapters include topics as diverse as health care, the relationship between mothers and daughters, sexual abuse, education, and resistance among women in immigration detention. Resistance Behind Bars paints a picture of women prisoners resisting a deeply flawed prison system, which Law hopes will help to empower both the women held in cages and those on the outside working to support them.
In this interview, Law talks specifically about how women are affected by solitary confinement and other forms of torture in US prisons, and what women are doing to fight back. Exposing solitary confinement as torture has been the focus of recent campaigns in Maine, Pennsylvania, and around the US. This is also a central issue in the campaign to free the Angola 3, who are a trio of Black Panther political prisoners: Robert King, Albert Woodfox, and Herman Wallace. King was released in 2001 after 29 years in continuous solitary confinement. Woodfox and Wallace remain imprisoned and have spent over 36 years in solitary confinement, where they remain today.
Angola 3 News: What do you think of the case of the Angola 3?
Victoria Law: The case of the Angola 3 is one of the most visible (and damning) indictments of the U.S. prison system.
As broadcasted by NBC Nightly News, the widow of slain prison guard Brent Miller has even stated that she wants justice and that, if Woodfox and Wallace did not kill her husband (and there is so much evidence that they did not), they should be freed. It's interesting to note how the voices of victims and their family are used to whip up pro-imprisonment hysteria, but when they speak out against railroading people, they are ignored. For example, the widow of Daniel Faulkner publicly condemns Mumia and urges people not to let out her husband's alleged killer. The media loves this and uses her to play on public opinion against freeing Mumia. However, when Brent Miller's widow Leontine Verrett says, "If these two men did not do this, I think they need to be out," her words are ignored.
Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace should be released. The fact that they have not been released clearly demonstrates the racism that is rife in the prison system and how "justice" isn't really a factor in who goes to prison and why.
A3N: Do you consider the use of solitary confinement in US prisons to be torture?
VL: I most definitely consider solitary confinement a form of torture. Solitary confinement is used not only to break the woman (or person) who is resisting, but also to scare others around them into not only complying but ostracizing the person who is challenging prison rules or conditions. And, unfortunately, it often does.
A3N: What other practices in US prisons would you consider to be torture?
VL: I consider the whole prison system to be torture. But to narrow it down to actual practices: I would consider the use of strip status, in which all of a person's clothes and belongings are removed from the cell, as a form of torture. You have to remember that over half of incarcerated women have suffered past abuse and trauma. To strip them of all of their clothing and place them in a bare cell with guards watching them retraumatizes them. I recently reread an account from Lisa Savage, a woman who was placed on strip status for talking to the other women on her unit about the psychological reprogramming of the Close Management unit (a unit where women are held in their separate cells 23 hours a day). Being on strip status meant that everything was taken from her--clothes, toothbrush, bedding, and sanitary napkins. She wrote, "As bad luck would have it, I just started my monthly. Now, I must beg for a pad for hours before receiving it."
Other practices that I would consider to be torture are: