By Joan Brunwasser
February 19, 2010
Welcome back for the conclusion of my interview with Victoria Law. You've shown us how appalling prison conditions are, particularly for women trying to keep their families together somehow. All in all, a pretty bleak picture. What's the bottom line here, Vikki? What can those of us on the outside do to raise awareness of what's going on inside? And can it help? Or does it just put those inside more at risk?
Of course it can help!
When I was doing research for my book, every woman whom I contacted thought that the issues and injustices of incarceration needed to be brought into the public conversation. Not a single woman expressed a fear that increased public attention towards prison conditions would put them more at risk. On the contrary, almost all of them felt that increased public attention (and pressure) would force prison administrators and staff to improve conditions, even if it were only slight improvements.
Here's an example of how outside awareness and pressure resulted in an improvement for the women inside: In 1976, the California Institute for Women established an "Alternative Program Unit" or closed-custody behavior modification unit for women deemed "disruptive" (those seen as leaders, lesbians or disobedient).
Women inside the prison organized against this unit and people outside organized a rally where ex-prisoners spoke out about this unit. Media coverage of the rally generated public outrage over the discriminatory criteria by which women were selected for the behavior modification unit. The ensuing public pressure and the disapproval of influential state officials (who no doubt were also pressured by their constituents) led the prison to close the unit soon after the rally. Women who had been confined in this "prison within a prison" were transferred back to general population.
More recently, when the California Department of Corrections proposed building 4500 new beds in "Female Rehabilitative Community Corrections Centers" in 2006, over one thousand women incarcerated in California signed a petition voicing their protests against the construction of these new beds and sent it to California Governor Schwarzenegger while advocates on the outside held rallies, filed a lawsuit, lobbied elected officials and raised public awareness (and outrage) about the issue.
I asked the women inside how they felt that people on the outside could help to both raise awareness about what's going on inside and support women in prison without inadvertently making the prison system bigger or stronger (as I talked about earlier with calls to reform the women's prison system leading to an increase in sentencing and an expansion of the prison system). These are their suggestions:
- Make contact with women in prison. "Visits, phone calls, and letter writing are essential. Only with a firm foundation, a strong foundation, can we together be able to build a greater movement," says a woman incarcerated in Florida.
- Speak out about these issues, especially when they intersect with issues that are considered "non-prison" issues, such as education, employment, racism, etc.
- Send literature and news from the outside to help keep women connected with the rest of the world.
- Write articles about women prisoners' issues, experiences, and actions, or publish their articles.
- Peer education groups need up-to-date information on health issues and treatments! They need outside people who are willing to provide services not available (but much needed) within the prison.
- If you are connected to a university or other educational institution, look into setting up a women's studies course or other program within a women's prison that helps articulate and challenge the dominant ways of thinking and the power structure. In Oklahoma and other states, there is already a structure set up for outside organizations to come in. Thus far, these structures have primarily been utilized by Christian groups seeking converts. As one woman pointed out, "People in prison soak up information. Anything new and different is absorbed--coveted even. Books, pamphlets, etc. And, if you tell me that you will give me a certificate when I complete an assignment, I will do it--just so that certificate can go in my parole file. So, sell it--and make it a novelty. Only come to the same unit once a quarter, etc"Then while you have their attention, teach the lesson. Empower the women. Help them pick up and stand them on their feet. The men's units have this all over the place, especially from the religious organizations."
- prison art by R Sieber
Tell us about the book program you set up for prisoners. How does it, and similar programs, work?
In 1996, I helped set up Books Through Bars--NYC, a program that sends free books to prisoners across the country. There were already several other books-to-prisoners programs across the country and this project was partially inspired (and assisted by) the Books Through Bars group in Philadelphia.
Books Through Bars--NYC was originally a joint project between two explicitly anarchist groups (Blackout Books and Nightcrawlers Anarchist Black Cross). It was a project with an explicitly political purpose of providing political and thought-provoking literature that people in prison would not be able to get otherwise. Since then, we've expanded our focus to include sending educational books (such as writing how-tos and math and science books) as well as history books and non-mass market fiction.
The way Books Through Bars NYC (and other groups like it) works is this:
A person in prison finds out about the group and writes a letter requesting books. Sometimes the person requests specific titles, such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Webster's dictionary. (Dictionaries, by the way, are our most popular request) Sometimes the person requests the subjects that she or he is interested in, such as African-American history, Aztec history, Chicano/a history, etc. Sometimes the person simply wants reading material to pass the time.
We get the letter and, during one of our thrice-weekly packing sessions, a volunteer scours our shelves of donated books to find a match (or, more often, an approximate match). We then send the person the book(s).
We receive over 400 requests each month, so multiply that process many many times over.
Being an all-volunteer, grassroots organization, Books Through Bars relies on donations for both books and postage money. We receive a modest grant from a family foundation that covers about half a year's worth of postage expenses. The rest of the money we raise through benefit fundraisers and donations from individuals. We are also fortunate to be working in the basement of an organization that recognizes the importance of our work and thus does not charge us rent.
Oftentimes, volunteers do not include a personal note with the book(s) being sent. However, on a few occasions, a letter may move one of the volunteers to begin a personal correspondence. I developed relationships with several women who had originally written to Books Through Bars requesting books on HIV/AIDS for a peer educator program or books on radical politics. Later, these women contributed their experiences and insights to Resistance Behind Bars. I also developed a relationship with the woman whose illustration graces the cover of my book; she had originally written to Books Through Bars requesting radical political literature. Her request caught my attention and so, after sending her a package of books, I wrote her a letter and that's how our correspondence began.
Even without the personal note or striking up of a relationship, the group sends books to thousands of people behind bars, most of whom would not receive books any other way. (Most state prison systems are not required to have a library or access to reading material for prisoners. Even when a prison does have a library, it is not necessarily accessible to all of the people inside. If a person's prison job conflicts with library hours, that person will never be able to use the library. If a person is in solitary confinement, he/she is often not allowed access to the library.)
What a terrific service this provides. Okay, I think this about wraps it up, Vikki. Is there anything you'd like to add?
Whew! I think that's all.
Well, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. You have tackled an unpleasant but important topic. Women in our prison system have been largely invisible. With the publication of Resistance Behind Bars, perhaps that's about to change. Thank you, Vikki, and good luck with your book.
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