The Hidden History of Resistance in Women’s Prisons

By Danielle Maestretti
UTNE Reader

February 17, 2010

Women make up about 7 percent of the U.S. prison population, a small (but growing) group that’s nearly always lost amid the male-centric coverage of overcrowded prisons and worsening conditions.

Invisible, then, are acts of resistance by incarcerated women, a colorful history explored by prison abolitionist Victoria Law in the progressive journal New Politics. Law, who recently wrote a book on the subjectResistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Womendigs deep, chronicling events as far back as the 1835 riot at New York’s first prison for women, where female inmates protested abominable conditions by “attacking and tearing the clothes off the prison matron and physically chasing away other officials with wooden food tubs.” She also reports on a range of recent and modern-day collective organizing campaigns against inedible food, abusive guards, meager libraries, and insufficient or nonexistent education programs.

Law draws an important parallel between these resistance movements and those being waged by social justice advocates on the outside:

During the 1970s, outside activists and organizers recognized that the injustices occurring on the inside were exaggerated mirrors of those on the outside and often worked in solidarity with people in prison to challenge and change prison conditions. Today, although many on the left are alarmed about the trend of mass incarceration, few are making the personal connections with people inside resisting and organizing. Why aren’t we connecting the struggles for social justice outside with those on the inside?

If reading this fascinating history inspires you to make that connection, Law concludes with a list—compiled by “incarcerated women and their advocates”—of ways to support these oft-unsung resisters. She also publishes a zine, Tenacious: Art and Writing from Women in Prisonwhich I profile along with other prisoner zines in the brand-new issue of Utne Reader.

Back to Victoria Law’s Author Page