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Life Arts    H2'ed 2/11/10

Victoria Law Explores "Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women"

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In late December, I interviewed Ramsey Kanaan of PM Press. In the process, I perused their catalog. One of the books that caught my eye was Victoria Law's, which I subsequently read. It was equally fascinating and harrowing. Welcome to OpEdNews, Vikki. Please tell our readers how you came to write Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women ?


In college, I had spent a semester researching post-Attica prisoner organizing and resistance. At the end of that semester, I looked back at what I had found and realized that every instance, except for one, was about male prisoners. I talked this over with my professor and spent the next semester exploring incarcerated women's issues and their ways of resisting or challenging their conditions of confinement. I also explored why their actions weren't as well-documented (or remembered) as their male counterparts.

To do this, I set aside all preconceived notions of what I thought of when I thought of prisoner organizing and started reading books and articles specifically about women in prison. I found a LOT of literature that covered specifically female issues like motherhood and pregnancy behind bars. Issues of parenting (and, of course, pregnancy) are often not even mentioned in books and articles about male prisoner organizing leading people who are looking for instances of prisoner resistance to ignore how people in prison organize around parenting and family issues. Battering and abuse is another issue that comes up in literature about incarcerated women, but again, since that's not an issue that we see impacting men going to prison, it isn't perceived as as a "prison issue."

I also scoured the news (and alternative media, mostly prison-related zines) for mentions of actions by incarcerated women. Once I found that someone had done something (filed a lawsuit, complained to the press, launched a hunger strike, etc), I used the websites of either that state prison system or the federal Bureau of Prisons to find the woman's contact information and sent her a letter explaining who I was and what I was researching. I asked if she would be willing to share her stories and experiences with me.

Not wanting to take without giving back, I offered what I could: I offered to look up lawsuits for them and send them copies of court decisions; I offered to look up other resources for them; I offered to send them books via the Books Through Bars program that I helped start here in NYC; I sent stamps so that they could not only respond to me, but also write letters to other groups or people; in one cases, I offered to call the woman's children when she was unable to call.

I got a lot of reading, researching and writing done in those four months. That one semester really opened my eyes about the gendered perceptions that we, as a society, have about prisons as well as about what resistance looks like (both inside prison walls and outside).

I also want to add that a huge part of my ability to get so much research and writing done in four months was because I had had a baby daughter 6 weeks before the semester started; being stuck inside during the winter with a newborn gave me a LOT of time to read, respond to letters, contemplate ideas and issues (mostly while nursing), and revise draft after draft. I doubt I would have had the same ability to concentrate (and write) if I had still been as a childfree person rushing off from one political event to another at various hours of the day and night or if my daughter had been older, more mobile and needing more direct attention.

photo: Maggie Wrigley

That was the start of what became Resistance Behind Bars. After the semester ended, I kept in contact with most of the women and continued to add their stories and experiences to my paper. I sent the paper to a man named Anthony Rayson, who publishes many many zines of prison writings. He, in turn, photocopied the paper and brought it with him to a talk he gave about prisoner organizing; someone at his talk took the paper and turned it into a pamphlet and started distributing it.

I continued to add stories and facts to my original paper as I came across them. I also started taking sections of my paper, like the part about women's organizing for better health care and women creating their own media, and sent them to activist publications like Clamor Magazine, Punk Planet and off our backs.

Almost 8 years after I had first started exploring this subject, I met Ramsey Kanaan at PM Press. He was interested in publishing my work as a book. I wrote to the women who had shared their stories with me and told them about the opportunity to spread their experiences to wider audiences. All of them agreed to have their stories published, although a couple of them asked that their real names not be used.

Following the example of a few other articles by activist groups on the outside written about women in prison, I decided that I would share my drafts with the women whom I was writing about. Every woman got multiple drafts of the chapter(s) that her stories and experiences appeared in. Each woman had the opportunity to add, correct, update or remove anything that pertained to her.

That must have been incredibly time-consuming.

In a couple of instances, women also commented on some of the material and information in that chapter. For instance, when I sent the chapter on education to RJ, she commented extensively on a study about higher education in women's prisons, pointing out that the study made prison seem like an idealized environment for women to pursue a higher education and highlighting some of the harsher daily realities for incarcerated students.

I also had incredible help from several people on the outside who read my entire manuscript at various stages, gave feedback and asked questions that forced me to explore the issues further.

And, being the mother of a small child (although she might disagree with the characterization of herself as "small"), I want to stress that a book-length work would not have been possible without the huge amount of support I received from both my friends and the people with whom I organize. I realize that not all mothers get this type of support, although they should, and that I'm extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful support system.

That's the long answer. When I told her about the interview and this question, my daughter, now age 9, suggested a shorter response: "There are some things in the world that I disagree with. Also, many people don't think about women when they think about prisons and so I wanted to write a book that brought attention to them."

If we look at the imprisoned as being at the bottom of the totem pole, women prisoners are, in general, even lower. Women face many disadvantages that men do not. Could you talk about that a bit, Vikki?

When prisons were first built in the U.S., they were designed for men. Women were not thought about when prisons were designed. When women were incarcerated, they were stuck in the attics or basements of the penitentiaries. Sometimes they were even stuck in the cells next to male prisoners (and then were blamed for any disturbance that their presence caused among the male prison population). They were given less access to the few programs and activities that the men were allowed, such as access to the chapel, medical care or to go outdoors. They were also in danger of sexual abuse from the male prison staff.

Keeping that in mind, we can see how, even centuries later, incarceration is still gendered as male and thus prisons are designed with men in mind. For instance, prison health care is geared towards men. This is not to say that men in prison have excellent medical care, mind you. Health care in prison is atrocious for all genders, but it also does not take into account the specific health concerns of women, such as menstruation, pregnancy, breast cancer, cervical cancer, etc. (I also want to add that the prison health care system takes into account even less the concerns of transgendered and transsexual prisoners)

Another aspect that affects women much more often than it affects men is parenting. This reflects not only the way prisons were originally designed but the way our society, as a whole, is gendered so that the bulk of parenting falls upon mothers. The majority of people in prison are parents, but when a father goes to prison, often times a female relative (such as a wife, girlfriend, mother or sister) will take on raising his child(ren). When a mother goes to prison, she's much more likely to already be a single parent. Lacking the same support as her male counterpart, her children are five times more likely to end up in the foster care system.

This becomes particularly pernicious because, under the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (or ASfA), if a child is in foster care for fifteen of the last twenty-two months, the child welfare agency is required to file a petition to terminate parental rights. Only 2 states have made exceptions for incarcerated parents.

However, most people don't think of parenting when they think about prison. Even incarcerated fathers don't necessarily recognize parenting as a prison issue. Last year, I did a talk at a reentry program for formerly incarcerated men. Half of the men were fathers; all of them had their kids cared for by their wives or other relatives while they had been locked up. None of them had had their children placed in the foster care system because there was no one willing to care for them while their father was incarcerated. The men were startled to learn about the 15-month time line of ASFA because their children were taken care of and so ASFA didn't impact them.

Yet another aspect that disproportionately affects women in prison yet is ignored is abuse. Over half of women in local jails, state and federal prisons report having experienced past physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse. Keep in mind that people tend to underreport experiences of abuse, so that number is, in reality, much higher.

A Bureau of Justice report found that women in prison are three times more likely to have been physically and/or sexually abused before incarceration than men. However, prisons not only lack the resources to help support women in working through past abuse, but often perpetuate the abuse. Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, gender cannot be considered when employing guards. This means that women have the right to work in male prisons and men have the right to work in female prisons. In many, many cases, this has led to sexual abuse of women prisoners by male staff members, who often have the right to be in sensitive areas such as the toilet area, the shower area, the housing units where women dress, undress and sleep, etc.

I could go on and on about how women face additional problems and dangers than their male counterparts in prison, but I'll stop with these examples. I do want to emphasize though that I am not pointing out these disadvantages to call for more "women-friendly" prisons. The construction of the first women's prison units were the result of well-intentioned reformers' horror at the abuses and depravities that women suffered when they were housed in male prisons.

However, when the first female-only prison unit was built in Illinois in 1859, the number of women being sent to prison tripled because judges became less reluctant to send women to the hellholes that were prison.

More recently, in 2006, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) identified 4500 women who did not need to be imprisoned and instead would be better off in their home communities getting drug treatment, job training, etc. Instead of putting together a plan to release them, however, CDCR proposed building 4500 new beds in what they called Female Rehabilitative Community Corrections Centers, essentially mini-prisons, in the urban areas where many of these women had lived before arrest **without** closing any of the beds in the existing women's prisons. In essence, their recommendation means that 4500 more women could be sentenced to prisons. The existence of these mini-prisons also meant that, lacking many of these treatment programs on the outside, judges would be more likely to sentence women to these Corrections Centers to access these programs.

However, the bill that was finally passed in 2007, AB76, did not address the root causes of rising female incarceration: mandatory sentencing, racial profiling, poverty and the feminization of poverty, or the lack of support systems for women leaving prison. Instead of focusing on reforming the prison system to make it more habitable for women, I'm a firm believer that we should shift these resources back into the communities to address the reasons why women are sent to prison in the first place.

Okay, Vikki. Let's pause here. When we return, you can tell our readers how our prison system mitigates against families staying together and how prisoners' children can be used as pawns to control their mothers' behavior.


Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women,

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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