Welcome back for the second installment of my interview with Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars . Another factor in the women's virtual invisibility in prison is the way the institution itself stifles any complaints or dissent. If I recall correctly, filing complaints is considered on a par with inciting a riot, bringing retribution on those who dare to stand up to the system.
This even extends to non-threatening educational programs where inmates strive to better themselves. These efforts are often unceremoniously shut down. Why doesn't the system want women to become literate and aware of their rights? And what is the basic purpose of incarceration anyway? Is it punishment or rehabilitation?
If prisons were meant to rehabilitate, then the system should have no problems whatsoever with women's efforts to become literate, educated and aware of their rights. However, despite the mission statements of various departments of corrections across the country, prisons are not meant to rehabilitate those held within.
Prisons are and have been a means of social control. In the post Civil War South, new laws were passed to strip newly freed slaves of their rights under the slightest pretext. Under the Black Codes, people could be arrested and jailed for being outside after a certain hour, absence from work or possession of a firearm, but only if they were Black. The passing of the Black Codes radically changed the color of prisons in the South--prior to the Civil War, when slavery was the form of social control for Black people, the majority of those in prison were White. After the Civil War, incarceration became the means to strip newly freed Blacks of their freedom and their rights.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the rise of female independence caused an increase in women's incarceration for actions such as being drunk, engaging in pre- or extramarital sex, contracting a venereal disease, or "keeping bad company." Like the Black Codes in the South, these actions were only criminalized when they were performed by women; men could do all of these and not be penalized.
These days, laws like Three Strikes and other mandatory sentencing
legislation as well as racial profiling by police across the country
disproportionately target people in poor communities and communities of
color. Again, we're seeing incarceration being used as a form of social
control against those who are poor and of color. For instance, in 2000,
the census found that 75% of New York State prisoners came from 7
neighborhoods in New York City.
These neighborhoods were poor communities of color where there were few resources and opportunities for the residents. Incarceration hasn't made those neighborhoods "safer" nor has it rehabilitated those who have been imprisoned so that they can return to their communities and thrive; instead, it's disrupted and destroyed families in these neighborhoods and made it even more difficult for people who were already at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to survive and thrive. Those who have been to prison face not only the same lack of resources and opportunities, but now have a criminal record which prevents them from getting certain jobs, qualifying for certain housing or social safety nets (for example, the 1996 welfare "reform" banned people with drug felonies for life. Similar legislation banned them from receiving governmental financial aid for college), etc.
It's also not a coincidence that mass incarceration began as the civil rights movement and various liberation struggles were gaining momentum in the United States. Government officials linked the growing civil unrest with crime and used arrest and incarceration to remove people from their communities *before* they could organize against social conditions and demand their rights.
So to get back to your question, if the system were set up to rehabilitate people, it would not be threatened by women (or people) becoming literate and educated and learning about their rights. It would actually encourage these actions.
Again though, the basic purpose of incarceration is not rehabilitation, but social control, so to have people learn about their rights and then begin challenging the injustices and oppressions around them is a threat.
And, following this thread, it would seem that the prison system would want the family to remain strong and united so that women, upon being freed, would more easily reintegrate into their lives and communities. If so, the way prisons seem to run in the opposite direction. As a mother, this aspect of our system bothers me the most. Can you talk a bit, Vikki, about how the system uses women prisoners' families and access to them to keep them in line? How many kids under 18 have a mother in prison? And what happens to these kids while their mothers are incarcerated?
In 2007, approximate 147,400 children under the age of 18 had a mother behind bars. Over 2/3 of all women in prison reported having a child under the age of 18. Keep in mind again that with self-reporting, the actual numbers tend to be higher. If there is someone else who can take care of her children when she is arrested, a mother may very well not report having minor children to the police or other authorities for fear of child welfare officials taking away her children.