By Brittany Shoot
At age 15, Victoria Law’s friends started ending up behind bars. Ny 16, she had joined a gang and was arrested for armed robbery. Though she was eventually let off on probation, her short time in jail planted a seed.
Later discovering radical politics and conducting research in college, Law began to investigate who goes to prison and why. A nation New Yorker, Law previously worked to help found Books Through Bars and helped publish the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison.
Women face unusually harsh conditions behind bars. Moreso than their male counterparts, they encounter inadequate heal care, systemic sexual violence at the hands of prison officials, and face the possibility of losing rights to their minor children. Almost without exception, their struggles go undocumented by the mainstream media. Even women’s organizations often forget that prisons are a feminist issue. In her first book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, Victoria Law expands her previous writing to explore the glaring inconsistencies and subtle nuances of women’s difficulties and victories in their resistance from inside the prison industrial complex.
Brittany Shoot (BS): It can be incredibly difficult for women in prison to educate themselves about other female prisoners’ resistance efforts. With so many restrictions on what literature is allowed in many facilities, do you think this book will make it into the hands of women behind bars?
Victoria Law (VL): One of the first thins I said to all of the incarcerated (and some who are now formerly incarcerated) women who contributed to this book was that I would send them a free copy. My publisher was wonderfully open to giving each woman a free copy and the minute I received the books from the printer I addressed and sent them out. Almost every woman has managed to get the book. One woman told me that she was called to the mailroom when my book arrived; the officer in charge of the mailroom was reluctant to give it to her because the officer wanted to read it herself!
Since the book has gotten to all of the women behind bars who have contributed their stories and insights to the book, I’m hopeful that it will continue to make it inside.
BS: You have done extensive work over the years on the realities and struggles of incarcerated women. How did you gain the trust of women to share their stories and testimony of life behind bars?
VL: I found so many women and their stories because my work has been spread out for so many years. I started by reading about incarcerated women’s issues. Whenever I read about a woman who filed a lawsuit or spoke out against an injustice or was doing something that challenged the usual way prisons work, I looked her up on the state’s department of corrections website. I utilized those to find women’s addresses and wrote them letters explaining who I was, that I was researching women’s actions to change or challenge prison realities and asked if they would share their stories and experience. I didn’t want it to be a one-sided exchange, with me taking from them and not giving anything back, so 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 to 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 some cases, I offered to call their children if they were unable to get through themselves.
I think that having worked on this for 7 1/2 years also meant that I was building relationships with these women, not simply writing them once or twice and forgetting about them. I got to know their stories and their lives and they got to know mine. I think that that builds trust, and it means that they feel comfortable being open with what goes on inside the prison and how this affects them.
BS: Men’s work to empower themselves while behind bars gets a lot of attention, but there is a critical need to recognize the organizing efforts of women as well. Can you talk about why you think scholars and researcher soften overlook or ignore women’s efforts?
VL: When people who have looked at women in prison issues, they’re either not searching specifically for the actions that the women themselves have taken to challenge and change some of their conditions or they’re not recognizing them as such. For instance, in the late 1980s, women in the Ohio Reformatory for Women formed a group called LIFE (Looking Inward for Ecellence) as a support group for women serving life sentences. Members of the group realized that many women were serving such long sentences for killing their abusive partners. In 1990, they met with the governor’s wife and his aide and organized a clemency campaign. LIFE members reached out to others who weren’t in their group, not only encouraging other survivors to apply for clemency but also helping them understand that they had been abused, helping them remember incidents of battering and where they might find documentation to bolster their appeals for clemency. their outreach efforts led to 18 more women who understood now that what they had lived through was abuse and that they weren’t to blame for it. In the end, the governor granted clemency to 25 of these women.
Some issues are specifically impacted by gender, particularly because we live in a parriarchal society. Although the majority of people in prison are parents, the issues of children, foster care, and potentially losing parental rights forever is a concern specifically for incarcerated women. When fathers go to prison, there is usually someone (usually a spouse, girlfriend, or female relative) who steps up to take care of his children, thus reducing the possibility that the child(ren) will end up in foster care. When a mother goes to prison, oftentimes, she was a single parent prior to her arrest. If she was partnered, sometimes her partner is arrested with her or sometimes the partner simply disappears. Children of incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to end up in foster care than children of incarcerated fathers. This is particularly concerning because under the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, if a child who spends 15 of the past 22 months in foster care, the foster care agency must begin filing for the parents’ rights to be terminated. Only two states have made exceptions for incarcerated parents. In the other 48 states, if a parent’s sentence runs over 15 months, their rights are terminated.
If people aren’t recognizing some of these issues are prison issues, they’re certainly not going to recognize the actions that the women take to challenge and change them. I also want to add that this hasn’t always been the case. In the 1970s radical feminist organizations and publications, including off our backs, ran articles about organizing and uprisings in women’s prisons. They not only publicized these actions; they called on readers to contact prison administrations to protest these conditions and the acts of retaliation against the women inside as well as published letters by the women themselves.
BS: Some women, such as those who have survived domestic abuse, seem to be getting the support and community on the inside that they lacked on the outside. Do you think that says something about how women are isolated from one another in the outside world, as well as in prison?
VL: I think that when you look at who goes to prison, you’re looking at people who are mostly at the bottom socioeconomic classes. These are women who lacked support on the outside and, for the most part, had to turn to doing things that people with more resources and opportunities wouldn’t have to do (like prostitution or drug selling or economic crimes)(. If they’re not getting their basic human needs met, like food, clothing, shelter, they’re most likely not getting support and community around other issues either.
I think the fact that women have started support groups and formed communities in prison testifies to their strength and resilience. I was on a panel on “Women, Incarceration and Resistance” with former political prisoner Laura Whitehorn recently. She said that the thing that struck her when she first went to jail was that she was in a community of women. She said, “Even though women’s prisons are much worse off than the men’s in terms of resources, I’d much rather be in a women’s prison because our first form of resistance is to form communities.”
I on’t however, want to romanticize prisons as a place where people can find the support and community that they lacked on the outside. That women have to go to prison before they find the time and space to form communities should be a damning indictment on our lack of support— and support systems— for women, especially women of color and poor women when they’re on the outside.
BS: Women who experience life-threatening conditions in prison are often ignored, left untreated for excessive periods of time, and some even die. Cases like Shumate v. Wilson have addressed some of the systemic failings of prison healthcare, but many widespread problems of inadequate care and abuse persist. Why isn’t that sort of treatment illegal?
VL: Supposedly, it is unconstitutional. In 1976, in Estelle v. Gamble, the Supreme Court ruled that deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious medical needs violates the Eighth Amendment. But, when there’ a lack of public outcry or organizing around this issue, then the prison (or the private health care provider hired by the prison system—which we’re seeing happen more and more these days) will not spend the money and resources necessary to provide adequate health care to the people for whom it is responsible. If there’s no one calling for responsibility and accountability, prison administrations sweep these travesties under the rug.
BS: You have another book coming out in the near future. How is it different from Resistance Behind Bars?
VL: My next book, Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, will be an anthology co-edited with China Martens, a mother, writer and publisher of the longest running subculture parenting zine The Future Generation. We’re addressing the need to support— and build support systems for—families in our own social justice movements. In so many of our so-called radical movements, we’re not providing support for people who decide to have children so that they can continue participating in political work. There’s an individualistic attitude that says, “well, I didn’t choose to have kids. You did, so you deal with them.” Even when there’s not an overt resistance to having children in our movements, we need to look at how ways that we organize (and socialize!) exclude parents and caretakers.
We lose valuable organizers—and organizing experience— when we don’t take these factors into consideration. Many of the people I organized with in the past stopped doing political work once they had children and found that the movement they were part of didn’t offer support. I was able to carve out support, little by little, but without allies who were enthusiastic about having a new baby— and enthusiastic about my continued participation in the projects we shared— I would have dropped out too.
The idea for this book started when China and I wanted to share our experiences as radical mothers and advocate for community support of all families. We created a workshop and were also gather stories and experience, both through surveys and through meeting partners involved in (or excluded from) various social justice groups. A couple of years ago, we realized that we wanted to extend the reach of our message of community support and decided to start putting together a handbook specifically geared toward allies (or potential allies) of radical parents.
Unlike Resistance Behind Bars, this book will be an anthology of both caregivers and their allies and of the ways that these movements can support children and their caretakers in collectives, organizations or communities. We are especially seeking experiences that take into account factors such as race, class, gender, single parenthood, and/or mental health issues since these issues often aren’t talked about when we talk about building communities and support systems here on the outside.
For more information on Victoria Law’s work, visit http://resistancebehindbars.org.
Brittany Shoot is an American freelance writer and animal caretaker who has written for Bitch, make/shift, and The Women’s International Perspective. Currently based on Copenhagen, Denmark, she lives with her partner and their cat Malcolm X and plans their triumphant return to Boston.