Resistance Behind Bars at the Edmonton Anarchist BookfairBy Scott Harris
October 1, 2009
The struggles of prisoners against unjust incarceration or inhumane treatment has a long history in the United States, from the national "Free Huey" movement which sought to have Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton released from prison in the late '60s to the 1971 Attica Prison uprising in New York to contemporary prison solidarity movements seeking the freedom of political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier.
But despite this long history, the specific struggles and realities of female prisoners has largely gone unrecognized, a fact that is all the more important given that while women make up less than 10 percent of the 2.3 million prisoners now in US jails, female rates of incarceration are increasing faster than their male counterparts, more than doubling in absolute numbers through the 1990s.
This oversight is one which Victoria Law, who will be visiting Edmonton as the keynote speaker at this weekend's Edmonton Anarchist Bookfair, aimed to remedy in her recently released book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press, 250 pp, $20). Part of the reason the prison activism of women has been ignored, Law explains, is because the specific issues faced by women in prison lead to different priorities and forms of struggle.
"When you consider that prisons were set up originally to incarcerate men, and this hasn't really changed in the past few centuries there are a lot of things that aren't specifically for women that are needed, like gynecological services or resources to deal with women who come in who are pregnant or who have a history of things like breast cancer or cervical cancer," Law explains over the phone from New York. "In addition, because of the way society is gendered when a mother goes to prison oftentimes there is not a male relative or somebody willing to step up and take care of her children, whereas when a father goes to prison oftentimes a female relative, like the biological mother of his children or his girlfriend or his wife or this mother or his sister will take care of his children. The majority of women who go to prison are mothers and the majority of those mothers have been single heads of households before going to prison, and again this is in large part because of the way society has gendered parenting."
The result of these gender-specific issues, she says, is a different form of prison-based struggle, one that is rarely recognized to the same extent as more straightforward prison issues.
"A lot of the resistance isn't looked at as quote-unquote resistance by people who are looking for things like organizing and activism. So if incarcerated women are organizing around access to their children this doesn't fall under the traditional idea of what we think of when we think of prison issues," she says. "So women at the maximum security prison of New York, Bedford Hills, formed a foster-care committee specifically to educate the incarcerated mothers there as to what their rights were when their children entered foster care. But because when we think of prison issues we think of male prison issues, we're not necessarily looking at things like parenting and access to children particularly as a prison issue. It's not a big glamourous thing, it's not a work strike, it's not a riot, nobody gets hurt and it's not something you can look at and see."