Women in Prison: An Unquiet Minority

Victoria Law talks about the unlikely acts of self-assertion by the correctional system’s second sex

By Adam Hyla
Real Change
May 6, 2009

When we talk about prisoners, we’re still mostly thinking of men.

And the mental imagery that the subject conjures — from the TV show “Oz” perhaps, or “The Shawshank Redemption,” or from the Willie Horton ad of the 1988 presidential election — now belies a subtle yet, for those involved, explosive change. For during the 1990s, while the number of males in U.S. prisons grew by an astronomical 77 percent, the number of women grew by an even more astonishing 108 percent.

Still, only 7 percent of all those in state or federal prison are women. But as their numbers rise, the needs specific to their gender push up against the walls of an institution designed wholly with men in mind. How do female inmates express their different needs and organize for their rights? That’s the question posed by Victoria Law’s new book, “Resistance Behind Bars: the Struggles of Incarcerated Women” (PM Press).

As a kid, Law knew plenty of kids who rejected “stultifying days learning nothing” in their Queens public school in favor of a Chinatown gang. When they landed at Rikers Island, she brought them reading material. In 1996 she began a books-to-prisoners program that sent free literature to inmates across the country. Since 2002, she has published the zine “Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison,” which collects articles, essays, poetry and art from across the United States.

Of “Resistance Behind Bars,” historian, feminist and indigenous rights activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz says Law’s first book is “an illuminating effort” that “focuses not only on renowned political prisoners, but on the lives of ordinary women of all colors and ages, many being mothers separated from their children…. The author is well aware that in that long fight, women prisoners deserve support and honor in their daily efforts.” Weather Underground historian Dan Berger writes that “Law documents the many ways women challenge the twin forces of prison and patriarchy, each trying to render women invisible. In the face of attempts at erasure, women prisoners resist to survive and survive to resist.”

Law reads with local investigative journalist and essayist Silja J.A. Talvi on Thurs., May 14 in Seattle, in an event sponsored by Books to Prisoners, the all-volunteer local nonprofit established in the early 1970s.

You name a few things that are sending more women to prison, like mandatory sentencing

With mandatory sentencing, the judge has no way to consider mitigating factors: that this is a first-time offense, a nonviolent offense. If someone is convicted of a nonviolent drug offense, in New York state it was mandatory up until this year that they’d have 15 years to life for having two ounces or more of a narcotic. In 2005 the laws were reformed and people could go back to court and have their sentences reduced, but prosecutors actually went back and said we want more, not less time, for these people. So it ended up not being much of a reform.

And mandatory sentencing happens all over the country.

In some way or form. New York started it in 1973.

But also you have cases where wives or girlfriends are convicted because they took a phone message, because they were in the house. Their partner, being a bigger player in a drug operation, has valuable information to trade, so he gets his sentence reduced. The person who just took a phone message doesn’t have any valuable information to trade.

I don’t know if there are statistics saying how many women have been incarcerated under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which says you can be convicted of the same crime as your partner even if you did something seemingly inconsequential, but anecdotal evidence from talking to women in prison suggests many do.

You also mention poverty and the feminization of poverty.

In 1996 Clinton signed welfare reform, which led to the feminization of poverty in that many women who were on welfare now had time limits, and if you had a child while you were on welfare you had to sign a paper that said any future children would not be eligible for future benefits.

A study done fairly recently found that 96,000 people had been pushed off the welfare rolls who still had no formal employment. So that means you had 96,000 people trying to survive through some kind of informal economy: selling bootleg DVDs on the street, engaging in sex work, selling drugs. There’s 96,000 people, mostly women, unaccounted for.

Tell me about the lack of support systems for women leaving prison. How is it different from men?

I think there are gender issues that come up. We don’t view prisoners as female. The majority of women who go to prison are mothers and, of those, 65-90 percent are mothers of children under the age of 18. And so when they get out they’re trying to reunite with their children if they haven’t lost custody. Most transition places don’t think about, for example, hooking up former prisoners with affordable and safe childcare. If you have a three-year-old and no way to find child care that you can afford, you can’t be in a work program.

Do most female prisoners lose custody of their kids forever?

In 1997 Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which stated that if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months, the state automatically terminates parental rights.


And given the gendered nature of society, it’s often the case that, if a father goes to prison, his partner, his mother, or his sister will step up. When a mother goes to prison, oftentimes their partner or spouse is already in prison or not around. So children of incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to end up in the foster care system [than children of imprisoned fathers]. And after the Adoption and Safe Families Act passed, the number of termination cases rose dramatically.

So there is a rise in the number of mothers losing their kids, since many mandatory minimums extend beyond 15 months. And since there’s a societal expectation that men are less able to take care of their children, men often have a better social network to fall back on before they go into prison.

How do prison officials make it difficult for mothers to connect with their kids from the inside?

It depends on where the children have ended up. Even if the number of women in prison have increased more dramatically than the number of men, they are still fewer, and their facilities tend to be further from the urban areas from which most incarcerated people are drawn. They tend to be in these rural out-of-the-way areas. So the travel time and the expense makes it prohibitive to visit.
In New York state there’s Albion, up near the Canadian border, which is like a nine-hour bus ride, you’re looking at having to stay overnight in a motel, you’re looking at having to get from the motel to the prison with I don’t know what kind of public transport in the town; and then you’re looking at a nine-hour bus ride back. Say it’s grandma and one kid taking the bus for nine hours.

You mention in your book an unknown but very significant prison rebellion, something commensurate with Attica —

The August Rebellion? In New York. It happened in 1974, after a prisoner was beaten by a guard and placed in segregation. It was just a few miles from Attica, in the same state, at around the same time, when a lot of attention was being paid to prisoner rights, prisoners’ struggles, prisoner activism. Somehow, 30 years later, nobody remembers.

How long did it last?

About a day. Female prisoners took over parts of the prison, held seven staff members hostage, and the remaining staff were unable to take back the prison and had to call in male state troopers and male guards from neighboring prisons. The women were basically protesting the beating of this prison organizer who had won a court case the month before saying women were not to be placed in segregation [solitary confinement] without some sort of hearing.

She took this to court and won, and in retaliation the guards beat her and placed her in segregation, again without a hearing. The women, instead of saying ‘That’s just what happens, that’s prison,’ fought off the guards and took over parts of the prison.

Do you have any hypotheses as to why events like that don’t get the same attention as an Attica?

I think in large part we define prisoners, still, as male. Women get a lot less attention, a lot less support. When women go to prison they get a lot less important, period.

In New York there’s Rikers Island, a whole island devoted to pre-trial detainment, and on visiting day on the men’s side there’s a three-hour wait, the visiting room is packed with all these women going to visit their men folk, whether it’s mothers visiting sons or wives visiting husbands or girlfriends visiting boyfriends. And then you go to the women’s side and it’s empty.

And I think also that, when women are organizing too, a lot of the historical instances I got from reading journals like Off Our Backs, publications that, if you’re not interested in feminist issues, you’re not going to read.

Mainstream feminism certainly hasn’t embraced prison issues.

No. I think feminism regards it as a travesty but doesn’t ask what are the underlying causes of this, what can we do, and what are women themselves doing about this — even if they’re relatively small things.

Things like demanding hot water and soap.

Or things that are more female specific, like sanitary napkins and tampons. Which is something again that isn’t an issue in male prisons. If someone is bleeding heavily it’s a sanitary issue and a human rights issue.

You had some heartbreaking stories about people with undiagnosed terminal illness — like cancer.

Prisons are very slow to deal with anyone’s health concerns, because it costs time and money. If you add onto that the idea that the prison must say, ‘Oh, now we’ve got to screen you for breast cancer?’ it’s a lot easier to just kind of pretend it doesn’t exist. And because it is someone in prison, with limited ways to challenge this, the prison feels like they can.

You write in your conclusion that prisons “function as a site of state sanctioned violence against women.” What do the rest of us get out of this?

A false sense of security. There’s been a standard set: in order to be safe, we need to have a place where we can lock up these quote-unquote bad people. I also think people aren’t thinking very deeply about these issues. If you ask who goes to prison, people think Willie Horton or Charles Manson. I don’t think people are asking why we’re locking up three million people at a cost of $40,000 each when we could be taking that money and using it on things like mental health services.

Do you have any heroes in prison resistance?

I don’t know if I’d call them heroes, because that’s rather personal, but there are many people who have been really strong and courageous and defiant in the face of having their dignity and liberty stripped away. People who are actively challenging things, like Carol Cooks, whose beating sparked the August Rebellion. There’s Mary Glover, who went in and filed the groundbreaking Glover vs. Johnson in 1977, which gave women incarcerated in Michigan the right to the same vocational training that men had. She went on to be part of 11 other civil rights cases against the prison.

There was a woman in Florida, Yraida Guanipa, who for eight years surreptitiously wrote to every church and civil rights organization — anyone she could get an address for — and asked, “We in this federal prison are 300 miles from our children in Miami; would you be willing to sponsor a bus so our kids could come up?” Under Federal Bureau of Prisons rules it’s illegal for prisoners to ask for help from the outside world; they can get charged with soliciting and get additional time. Even though she knew this was the case she kept doing it, and after eight years found an organization to sponsor the bus so the children of 50 mothers could travel to see their mothers for the first time in who knows how long.

And these are things that are not often recognized as acts of activism or resistance because they’re small, but they mean a tremendous amount to a lot of people

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