Part Two: Victoria Law Explores "Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women"

RBBcoverBy Joan Brunwasser
OpEdNews

February 13, 2010

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.

But also keep in mind that about half of all incarcerated mothers were single mothers before being arrested and, given that those who go to prison tend to be those with the least amount of resources and opportunities, they have less of a support network to rely upon to help care for (and keep in contact with) their children.

A 2007 government study of incarcerated parents found that 37% of incarcerated mothers reported that their children were living with the father. In contrast, 89% of incarcerated fathers reported that their kids were living with the mother. An incarcerated mother's children are five times more likely to end up in foster care than an incarcerated father's children. And, as I pointed out earlier, this becomes particularly pernicious because of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act's (ASFA's) stringent timeline. (Here's another fact that will trouble you: the 15 month timeline was decided upon as a political compromise; it was not based on any child development theory or practice. When ASFA was first negotiated by Congress, one party wanted the timeline to be 12 months and the other wanted it to be 18 months. So hundreds of children are legally losing their parents based on a timeline that was a political compromise in Congress.)

The children of incarcerated mothers who don't end up in foster care are often cared for by other family members, like their grandparents.

For those who think that this is not such a bad thing, remember that people who go to prison are often at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and that the families and communities from which they come are as well. That means that grandparents may already be struggling financially (and perhaps health-wise as well). Given that women's prisons tend to be built far from the urban communities they called home before incarceration, it is a strain for caregivers to take children to visit their mothers. One study found that 60% of incarcerated mothers are imprisoned at least 100 miles away from their home communities. Approximately half of all incarcerated mothers in state and federal prisons report never having had a visit with their child(ren).

Keeping in contact by phone is also a huge challenge, one that can be almost impossible for those with limited resources. In Colorado, for example, a 20-minute phone call costs $3.80 in state or $4.60 for an out-of-state phone call. Again, given that family members and caregivers often come from the same socioeconomic circumstances as the women in prison, these costs can be prohibitive.

Even when a family has the means to visit their loved one in prison, they are subject to the whims and caprices of the prison staff on duty. A woman in Colorado recently sent me a few examples of how prison officials can arbitrarily withhold visits:

  • Last month, my roommate was expecting a visit from her family, including her four-year-old daughter. Visits begin at 1 pm, but she was not called until 3:30 pm. She learned that her family had arrived at 1:45, but the guard at the front desk told them that the visiting room was full and that they would have to leave and return later if they wanted to visit. He told them not to come back until 3 pm and that they could not wait in the parking lot or sit in their car.

Later, another woman, who had been in a visit that day, heard about this, told her that there had been an empty table next to hers during the entire afternoon. Of course, there was no way for my roommate's family to know this in order to question being turned away. My roommate knew even less; all she could do was wait and worry.

  • Last weekend, my friend was to have two days of visits from her mother and daughter, who had driven 1200 miles to see her. On the second day, her mom arrived wearing the exact same shirt as on the previous day. The officer on this day did not permit her mother to visit until she left and bought a new shirt, despite the fact that it had not been a problem 24 hours earlier.

All the while, my friend watched from the window as her family pulled into the parking lot, walked in, then she watched them leave without knowing what was going on. She sat on the stairs, devastated and crying for what she believed was a lost visit until her family returned and she was paged one hour later. One hour is precious time, especially when our families drive across the country to visit.
Now that I've given you some context as to how hard it is for mothers to stay in contact with their children and families, I'll answer your question about the system using women's access to families to keep them in line.

As you can see from the above examples, prison staff can arbitrarily impede a woman's ability to visit with her family, even when the woman has not been challenging prison conditions. Prison administrators also use visiting to punish those who challenge existing prison conditions. A woman incarcerated in New York noted that prison staff would actually turn away family members who were visiting women who had been seen as problematic.

Other times, prison officials have acted to strip a mother of all ability to see her child(ren). After one woman successfully sued the Michigan Department of Corrections for sexual abuse, guards targeted her cell and belongings for frequent searches. In the eight months after MDOC adopted a policy banning visits for prisoners with repeated substance abuse violations, the woman, who had never tested positive for any drug during her eight years of incarceration, received four tickets for substance abuse. "I received two substance abuse tickets in one day," she recalled. "One was for borrowing Motrin (Ibuprofen) from a prisoner for cramps. I also had Iron pills that had been prescribed to me that were a day over the expiration date." These tickets prevented her from having her daughter visit her.

A woman in the federal system had been speaking out against prison conditions in the facility where she was housed. She was finally eligible for a furlough, which was a chance to leave the prison for 36 hours and visit her family at home. The prison's unit manager delayed approving her furlough papers, stating, "It was concluded that you may be a threat because you might contact the media and manipulate the system."

She did eventually receive her furlough and wrote, "Here I am enjoying my sons in my arms and wondering if it is worth it to put my next 7 day furlough and half way house at risk, if I continue writing from prison." However, she concluded, "But my dear friends, I feel that if I do not write to you I am as good as dead. The truth is important to me, and such it should be told."

I give you these examples to illustrate the all-too-real threat that incarcerated mothers face when deciding whether to speak out or otherwise challenge prison conditions. However, despite these threats, mothers (and other women) have spoken out against, challenged and resisted unjust prison conditions.

This breaks my heart. Would I have the strength to persevere in the face of this? I wonder. Let's break here. When we return for the final portion of our interview, Vikki will tell interested readers how we can help women in American prisons.

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