Resistance Through Writing
An Interview with Victoria Law
By Ellen PapazianThe Feminist Review
Feminist Review recently interviewed writer and activist Victoria Law on her book Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. Here Law shares her thoughts on making her book an activist tool, the culture’s blind spot about the prison industry, social justice movements’ responsibility to incarcerated women’s issues, and how motherhood radically altered her own work and informed her upcoming anthology, Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind.
Who did you write Resistance Behind Bars for?
I originally wrote the book, or the college paper that was the start of it, with no audience in mind. I had spent a semester researching post-Attica prisoner organizing and resistance in college. At the end of the semester, I looked back at what I had and realized that every instance, except for one, was about male prisoners. So the first paper was written to explore what women were doing and why their actions weren’t as well-documented, or remembered, as their male counterparts.
When I first had the idea to turn my paper into a book, I had a few audiences in mind: people who were already interested in prison and prisoner issues; those interested in women’s issues; people who aren’t particularly interested in prisons or prisoners’ issues, but are interested in tales of resistance, and incarcerated women themselves. In corresponding with over a dozen women incarcerated around the country, I also wanted to make sure that the book was accessible to them. None of the women I’d reached out to had any idea of organizing being done in other prisons or of the previous organizing, resistance, and riots that had happened in women’s prisons in the 1970s and 1980s. I kept in mind that I wanted my book—and the information in it—to be accessible to someone with an eighth-grade education. The book doesn’t work as a potential organizing tool if those most affected by these issues aren’t able to read and comprehend it.
What’s the response to Resistance Behind Bars been like—and how has it affected you personally and your work as an activist?
I think that because Resistance Behind Bars is a book specifically about incarcerated women—and even more specifically about their acts of resistance—it’s attracted attention and interest from people who normally think of prison issues as male issues and are excited and intrigued by incarcerated women’s resistance. Such an enthusiastic response means that I’ve been kept busy planning and doing events, not only the typical bookstore readings, but also workshops at various social justice conferences and at schools.
My daughter, who was a newborn when I first started researching incarcerated women’s resistance, is now eight years old and knows a lot about prisons, prison and gender, and abolition, probably more than most other eight-year-olds (except, perhaps, for any children whose parents are Critical Resistance organizers). She’s asked me very pointed questions about both realities inside prisons and ideas about abolition, which means that I had to clearly articulate my arguments, thoughts, and ideas.
What was the writing process like for this book?
When I first started researching, I did two things: I set aside all preconceived notions of what prisoner organizing might look like and started reading specifically about women in prison. I found a lot of material covered issues like motherhood and pregnancy. Issues of parenting—and, of course, pregnancy—do not come up in documentation about male prisoner organizing, and so people who are looking at instances of prisoner resistance aren’t going to necessarily look at how they organize around and challenge the realities of parents in prison. Battering and past abuse is another issue that comes up in a lot of the studies around incarcerated women, but again, that’s not an issue that we see impacting men going to prison and thus isn’t looked at as a “prison issue.”
I also scoured the news—and alternative media, mostly prison-related zines—for mentions of actions by incarcerated women. Once I found that someone had done something—filed a lawsuit, complained to the press, launched a hunger strike, etc.—I used the websites of either that state prison system or the Federal Bureau of Prisons to find the woman’s contact information and sent her a letter explaining who I was and what I was researching. I asked if she would be willing to share her stories and experiences with me.
Not wanting to take without giving back, 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 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.
What were some of the most surprising realities about women in prison that you discovered in researching your book?
I remember receiving a letter from the Clear Creek County Jail in Colorado about the re-institution of the chain gang for the women held there. That wasn’t the huge surprise; the surprise was that the woman who wrote me was actually happy to be on the chain gang! She had recently given her newborn son up for adoption, and so I can’t help but wonder if keeping occupied, even if it’s on a chain gang, helps her process losing him. She’s not the only one: women at Clear Creek want to be on the chain gang. It’s tiring, backbreaking work in the hot sun, but it’s also the first chance they’ve been given to get out of their cells, be outdoors, and accrue “good time,” or time off their sentences. Keep in mind that the jail’s male inmates have had the chain gang for a while. They also have other chances to earn “good time.”
What are the most common misconceptions and assumptions circulating right now about women in prison that keep people from understanding what’s really going on inside prisons for women?
In May, I was invited to speak at a New York City high school about women and prison. Having done so many of these talks to people who are interested in prison issues and have some framework about the issue, I forget what the majority of people think or don’t know. I came in ready to talk about historical contexts and what is going on now and started with the question: “What do you think about when you think about prison? Who goes to prison and why?”
One girl raised her hand and said, “Criminals. People who do bad things.”
I realized that most of the students had no framework about incarceration other than what they had been fed by the mass media, so I had to mentally throw out my outline and start from scratch. I talked about poverty and racial profiling, the history of the prison as a means of social control, how Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon equated the civil rights movements and liberation movements with street crime and started their war(s) on crime to lock up poor people of color before they could mobilize to demand their rights. None of the students had ever heard of the Rockefeller Drug Laws or mandatory minimum sentencing. I hadn’t either when I was their age, and I grew up in New York City too!
I also talked about some of the conditions inside—the lack of health care treatment, the fact that staff members often encouraged prisoner-on-prisoner violence, because it’s easier for them if the prisoners aren’t uniting and fighting for basic human rights, lack of educational programs inside the prison. At the end of the hour, when we talked about what they, as high school students, could do about this issue, one boy raised his hand and suggested that we should lobby for medical treatment for people inside prison. “If I broke my leg in prison—or anywhere—I would want people to help me get it treated.”
Later one of the coordinators of that high school’s community day told me, “Students in your session were really struck by the experiences you shared with them, and there has been a lot of conversation in among students about issues concerning prison.” Some of the students were talking about forming a student club to do work around some of these issues, like the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
You write in the book that calls for reform have failed to adequately address the factors leading to women’s incarceration. How so?
Prisons fail to address the societal conditions that lead to incarceration, such as poverty and the increasing feminization of poverty, misogyny, violence, racism, and the issues that accompany women to prison. How does locking someone in a cage address any of these factors?
You have to remember that people have gone to prison face numerous obstacles in successfully reintegrating into the community when they are released from prison. Oftentimes, they are not only released with the same lack of resources and opportunities than they had before being arrested and incarcerated, but now have a criminal record which prevents them from getting certain jobs, qualifying for certain housing, or social safety nets. The 1996 welfare “reform” banned people with drug felonies for life. Similar legislation banned them from receiving governmental financial aid for college, etc.
We also need to keep in mind that prison issues affect all sorts of issues on the outside, shifting money and resources away from other public entities, such as education, housing, health care, drug treatment, and other societal supports that are needed.
Did motherhood change your own activism?
Before motherhood, I was super-involved in all sorts of political projects and organizing. New motherhood definitely made me sit still! Once my daughter was born, I realized that I had to pick a few issues and focus on them. I also couldn’t risk arrest or bringing my daughter to something where the police might attack the crowd.
I started researching resistance and organizing among incarcerated women shortly after my daughter was born. Being stuck inside during the winter with a newborn gave me a lot of time to read, respond to letters, contemplate ideas and issues—this, by the way, is something I did a lot while nursing—and work on draft after draft of this paper. I don’t know if I would have had this same opportunity if I had tried to do this as a childfree person rushing off from one political [event] to another at various hours of the day and night, or if my daughter had been older, more mobile, and needing more direct attention.
I want to stress that what’s made my continued involvement and even writing my book possible is the huge amount of support I get from my friends and the people with whom I organize. I realize that not all mothers get this type of support, although they should, and that I’m extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful support system.
What are you working on now?
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. Originally, China and I wanted to share our experiences as radical mothers and advocate for community support of all families. We were meeting parents and their allies and hearing their stories and experiences. A few years ago, we realized that we wanted to extend the reach of our message of community support and decided to compile a handbook specifically geared towards allies, or potential allies, of radical parents.
With Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, 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.
Unlike Resistance Behind Bars, this book will be an anthology of both caregivers and their allies of ways that their movements support children and their caretakers in your 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. We’re still reaching out, meeting people and collecting submissions, so if anyone out there has stories and experiences to share, they should definitely get in touch!
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