"When I was 15, my friends started going to jail," says Victoria Law, a native New Yorker. "Chinatown's gangs were recruiting in the high schools in Queens and, faced with the choice of stultifying days learning nothing in overcrowded classrooms or easy money, many of my friends had dropped out to join a gang."
"One by one," Law recalls, "they landed in Riker's Island, an entire island in New York City devoted to pretrial detainment for those who can not afford bail."
Law shares this and other recollections in her new book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press). At 16, she herself decided to join a gang, but was arrested for the armed robbery that she committed for her initiation into the gang. "Because it was my first arrest -- and probably because 16-year-old Chinese girls who get straight As in school did not seem particularly menacing -- I was eventually let off with probation," she writes.
Before her release from jail, Law was held in the "Tombs" awaiting arraignment. While the adult women she met there had all been arrested for prostitution, she also met three teenagers arrested for unarmed assault. "Two of the girls were black lesbian lovers. In a scenario that would be repeated 13 years later in the case of the New Jersey Four, they had been out with friends when they encountered a cab driver who had tried to grab one of them. Her friends intervened, the cab driver called the police and the girls were arrested for assault." Law notes that "both of my cellmates were subsequently sent to Riker's Island."
These early experiences, coupled with her later discovery of radical politics, pushed Law "to think about who goes to prison and why." She got involved in several projects to support prisoners, which included helping to start Books Through Bars in New York City, sending free books to prisoners. In college, she "began researching current prisoner organizing and resistance," and upon discovering almost zero documentation of resistance from women prisoners, she began her own documentation and directly contacted women prisoners who were resisting. A college paper became a widely distributed pamphlet, and at the request of several women prisoners she'd corresponded with, Law helped to publish their writings in a zine called Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison. Law writes that the zine and pamphlet "heightened awareness not only about incarcerated women's issues, but also women's actions to challenge and change the injustices they faced on a daily basis."
"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.
Who Goes To Prison?
Since 1970, the US prison population has skyrocketed, from 300,000 to over 2.3 million. According to the US Justice Department, this staggering increase has not resulted from a rise in crime. Since 1993, the prison population has increased by over one million, but during this same period, both property offenses and serious violent crime have been steadily declining. The New York Times recently cited a 2008 report by the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College London documenting that the US has more prisoners than any other country. Furthermore, with 751 out of 100,000 people, and one out of every 100 adults in prison or jail, the US also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With only five percent of the world's population, the US has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.
While women comprise only nine percent of the U.S. prison population, their numbers have been increasing at a faster rate than men. As Law documents, "between 1990 and 2000, the number of women in prison rose 108 percent, from 44,065 to 93,234. (The male prison population grew 77 percent during that same time period.) By the end of 2006, 112,498 women were behind bars."
Like with male incarceration rates, women behind bars are disproportionately low-income and people of color. Law writes that "only 40 percent of all incarcerated women had been employed full-time before incarceration. Of those, most had held low-paying jobs: a study of women under supervision (prison, jail, parole or probation) found that two-thirds had never held a job that paid more than $6.50 per hour. Approximately 37 percent earned less than $600 per month."
A 2007 Bureau of Justice study documented that 358 of every 100,000 Black women, 152 of every 100,000 Latinas, and 94 of every 100,000 white women are incarcerated. Explaining this racial discrepancy, Law argues that inner-city Black and Latino neighborhoods are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. She cites a 2005 U.S. Department of Justice study which concluded that Blacks and Latinos are "three times as likely as whites to be searched, arrested, threatened or subdued with force when stopped by the police."
The so-called "War on Drugs" has played a key role in the growth of the U.S. prison population. Law writes about the impact of New York State's Rockefeller Drug Laws passed in 1973, "which required a sentence of 15 years to life for anyone convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of a narcotic, regardless of circumstances or prior history. That year, only 400 women were imprisoned in New York State. As of January 1, 2001, there were 3,133. Over 50 percent had been convicted of a drug offense and 20 percent were convicted solely of possession. Other states passed similar laws, causing the number of women imprisoned nationwide for drug offenses to rise 888 percent from 1986 to 1996."
Distinguishing women prisoners from their male counterparts, Law cites a Bureau of Justice study which "found that women were three times more likely than men to have been physically or sexually abused prior to incarceration."
Women Prisoners Don't Resist?
The central thesis of Resistance Behind Bars is truly profound. In clear, non-academic language, Law argues that recent scholarship documenting and radically criticizing the increased incarceration rates and mistreatment of women prisoners "largely ignores what the women themselves do to change or protest these circumstances, thus reinforcing the belief that incarcerated women do not organize." Alongside academia, Law also harshly criticizes radical prison activists, arguing that "just as the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s downplayed the role of women in favor of highlighting male spokesmen and leaders, the prisoners' rights movement has focused and continues to focus on men to speak for the masses."