Painter and poster artist Malaquias Montoya, famous for his contributions to the Chicano Art Movement of the ’60s and ’70s, was kind enough to let his painting Ruth Snyder appear in Razor Wire Women. Ruth Snyder is part of Montoya’s series PreMeditated: Meditations on Capital Punishment. (Also appearing in this series: The Rosenbergs; Jesus Christ). Despite his prestigious career and deep back catalogue, he remains committed to activist causes and has shown great personal kindness again and again to the book’s co-editor, my wife, Ashley Lucas. His presence honors the book.
Just found this from the War Resisters League: “Six Ways for People on the Outside to Support Women’s Resistance on the Inside.”
- 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.
- Send literature and news from the outside.
- 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.
If you’re thinking about doing Item Six, we just might be able to suggest a decent textbook …
A valuable piece by Victoria Law, who is the outside publisher of Tenacious and the author of Resistance Behind Bars. (More about both of those here or just look at the sidebar.) She narrates an entire secret history of fighting back in women’s prisons, beginning with the August 1974 rebellion at Bedford Hills:
IN 1974, WOMEN IMPRISONED at New York’s maximum-security prison at Bedford Hills staged what is known as the August Rebellion. Prisoner organizer Carol Crooks had filed a lawsuit challenging the prison’s practice of placing women in segregation without a hearing or 24-hour notice of charges. In July, a court had ruled in her favor. In August, guards retaliated by brutally beating Crooks and placing her in segregation without a hearing. The women protested, fighting off guards, taking over several sections of the prison, and holding seven staff members hostage for two and a half hours.
(Note: My linking to this piece is not meant to valorize rioting or hostage-taking. I wouldn’t want to be one of those seven guards. Nor for that matter would I want to be Carol Crooks after the guards finished beating her. Which is kind of the point.)
Jodie Lawston and Ashley Lucas appeared last week to read from the book’s introduction, “Las representaciones de Estados Unidos: las mujeres encarceladas,” at a conference in Cuba! Thanks to the organizers of VIII Taller Internacional: Mujeres en el Siglo XXI, hosted by the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Havana, Cuba, for hosting them, and hopefully we’ll feature some excerpts from Jodie and Ashley’s adventures in Cuba here on the blog over the next few weeks.
Anyone interested in issues surrounding women’s incarceration should be aware of Northern Arizona University sociologist Kathleen Ferraro’s work. Her 2006 book Neither Angels Nor Demons: Women, Crime, and Victimization (Northeastern) is an incredibly important contribution to the debate. (It was even reviewed, by your friendly neighborhood blogger, no less, in the Lawston-and-Lucas-edited issue of NWSA Journal that became, after much labor, Razor Wire Women.) Her most recent book is Women’s Lives. Her work is devoted to showing the complexity of the paths by which women become subject to the criminal-justice system: being physically forced to participate in illegal activity; killing an abuser/stalker/potential murderer after repeated refusals by local police to enforce restraining orders; etc. The stories she tells almost always belie the extremely simple terms by which we then refer to these women: murderers, inmates, trash. Ferraro’s work reveals such women as neither angels nor demons, but people.
(Tongue-in-cheek aside: If Ferraro ever wishes to study male antisocial behavior, she could do worse than turn her keen sociologist’s attention to the law enforcement professionals and legislature of the state where she lives and teaches. Their bizarre and aggressive behavior shows a much more profound resistance to explanation than most acts committed by women in prison.)
(Second tongue-in-cheek aside: I bet Kathleen Ferraro hears that joke a lot.)
I didn’t learn of this story until I was doing some other research for this blog. But a Mother Jones reporter posted the following to his blog in November, 2010:
A prisoner at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Norfolk recently wrote to me to report the existence of a “sex for information’’ ring run by guards within the prison. He says the existence of this hitherto unknown operation is responsible for the state’s high number of prison suicides. The inmate suicide rate in Massachusetts is four times the national average, with eight suicides this year alone–including one in June at MCI-Norfolk, the state’s largest medium-security prison, which also had two high-profile suicides last year. The prisoner, who says he has become the advocate for others too frightened of retaliation to talk, himself fears retaliation from within the prison.
Go read the whole piece–it’s disturbing, but, being thinly sourced and inconclusive, it also raises more questions than answers. Hopefully MoJo (or someone else) will do some follow-up. If anyone has any information they might contact the MoJo reporter, James Ridgeway.
Western Michigan University sociologist Angela Moe contributes a harrowing chapter to Razor Wire Women on women’s mental-health care in jail; the title, If I Wasn’t Suicidal, That’ll Drive You to It–a quote from one of her research subjects–tells the story. Much of her other work focuses on the ways women are victimized by patriarchal battering, law enforcement, the health-care complex, the corrections industry, and by the complex interplay between all three. This article, “Like a Prison!”, extends her critique by comparing the experiences of homeless shelter users to those of the imprisoned. (Having worked for a year at a major Midwestern homeless shelter, I certainly think this comparison deserves to be made!)
Her more recent work examines US cultural assumptions surrounding belly-dancing. (No one survives Michigan winters without an excellent indoor exercise routine of some kind.) Her forthcoming Beyond the Belly(Dance): The Transformative Effects of an Ancient Art will use ethnographic research “to attest to the multidimensional, interconnected and holistic benefits of this dance form.” More of the valuable eclecticism that characterizes RWW contributors.
The conservative-majority Roberts Court has yet again blocked a lawsuit on behalf of Binyamin Mohamed and other Bush-era victims of extraordinary rendition. I am beginning to think these Supremes could have done a better job overseeing this country’s courts than the Supremes we’ve got.
Did you know New Zealand has a “faith-based” prison? Neither did I, and it sounds all kinds of problematic. It has restorative justice programs but, apparently, no “rehabilitative” programming, and now the New Zealand department of corrections has ordered it to add one. New Zealand has one of the highest prison-population-per-100,000 persons ratios in the developed world; half its prisoners belong to the country’s indigenous Maori population.
More on elderly prisoners, medical bills, and cost containment, this time from the Houston Chronicle.
Overreacting to the new availability of small recording devices, some states are imposing draconian prison terms on people who make audio- or video-recordings of police activity (including recordings of their own harrassment at police hands). One mechanic may face up to 75 years in prison for making a tape of a public hearing in which he was involved, after officials denied his request for a court reporter. (More on this issue from Reason Magazine. Warning: libertarian publication; serious ick factor.)
Speaking of draconian sentences, an environmental activist may get up to ten years for disrupting federal public-land auctions (he made bids he couldn’t afford to pay, hoping to save a few wild spaces from the oil companies).
I wanted to write another in my series of conributor notes; instead I was confronted with one more example of the way the correctional system uproots lives.
According to the book, The Sisters of Unique Lyrics are a poetry group (sponsored by PCAP) meeting weekly at Scott Correctional in Plymouth, Michigan. A quick Google search, however, showed that Scott Correctional is no more … soon after women at the prison won a massive class-action lawsuit for years of sexual harrassment at the hands of guards. (At the emotional verdict, jurors actually stood and read a formal apology, on behalf of Michiganders, to the women.) It’s hard to get more information on the members of Sisters of Unique Lyrics after that, but one of the first Google hits that turns up for “Scott Correctional Facility” is this sad message from a man posting on writeaprisoner.com:
“All the inmates were moved to Huron Valley. I haven’t heard from my love in over a week and a half. I just keep writing. I don’t know if they are delivering my letters to her. I send at least one or more letters, jpay, or postcards each day hoping at least they are given her mail.”
Broke my heart a little.
More information about these contributors or any writing they’d like to see posted would be very welcome.
Eleanor Novek, who teaches journalism and public relations at Monmouth University in New Jersey, has done academic work on prison journalism for years (a list of her publications in just this area can be found here). But she doesn’t stop there. She also works with the Alternatives to Violence project and blogs for PCARE, the Prison Communication, Activism, Research and Education Collective. Moreover, one of the first things that pops up when she is Googled is a moving blog-tribute by one of her former graduate students and a fascinating paper on the ways everyday communication perpetuates segregation.
Carolina Arts and Sciences, a publication for UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, has done a wonderful profile of Razor Wire Women co-editor Ashley Lucas, discussing the book in detail as well as her play Doin’ Time (excerpted in the book), as well as ten thousand other things that make Dr. Lucas so uniquely impressive.
RWW contributors should feel free to use this blog to let others know about any sympathetic press coverage of their work (whether or not it’s RWW/prison-related). Forward those stories to philipchristman [at] gmail [dot] com.
Edit: Most people reading the blog know this, but in response to a friend who questioned my “journalistic ethics,” I hasten to clarify that Dr. Lucas is also Mrs. Guy-who-posts-these-things.
Last week’s New Yorker had a long, absorbing piece by Jeffrey Toobin about the emergence of mitigation as a strategy for cutting down on the numbers of death penalty verdicts in Texas and other places. For advocates of prison reform, it’s an exciting but problematic strategy–exciting because Danalynn Recer, the woman profiled in the story, seems to have come up with techniques that will cause even Texas jurors to value a defendant’s life; problematic because most defendants who benefit from it are then given sentences of life without parole.
The article gives useful recent history on the development of US criminal law. Unfortunately it’s not available online, but the abstract here is pretty thorough, and people who follow these issues will want to track down the story in print.
A major human rights issue that is also of interest to those who study women’s prisons worldwide is the ongoing persecution of Iran’s Baha’i religious minority. (Our friend Mark Perry has written a play to contest this injustice.) The Kansas City Star has a brief item on this from Missouri Baha’is who are organizing to improve conditions for all women imprisoned in Iran, not only their co-religionists.
Sara Warner, a Razor Wire Women contributor, is a rising scholar who works at the crossroads between theatre, performance, and LGBT issues. A past president of the Women and Theatre Program–another past WTP president, Razor Wire Women co-editor Ashley Lucas, assures me that Sara was invaluable in helping her to plan the yearly WTP pre-conference–Warner teaches in the department of Theater, Film, and Dance at Cornell, where she serves as a core faculty member in the Feminist, Gender, and Sexual Studies Program and an affiliate faculty member in LGBT Studies and Visual Studies. “Her work,” according to her official bio, ”focuses on the affective dimensions and temporal logics of contemporary performance and politics. She has published widely in journals and anthologies on prison theater, queer aesthetics, second wave feminism, political terrorism, and academic labor. Her article, ‘Rage Slaves: The Commodification of Affect in The Five Lesbian Brothers’ The Secretaries’ (The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 2008) was nominated for ATHE’s [Association for Theatre in Higher Education] Outstanding Essay Award. “ Her ongoing interest in prison theatre is demonstrated by her willingness to speak with Lawston and Lucas on a panel on Razor Wire Women at ATHE this August (see above, under “Appearances” tab).
Simone Weil Davis, an independent scholar, has the distinction of being one of the easiest-to-Google of Razor Wire Women‘s contributors. This is largely because of her very widely-read, -assigned, and -discussed article “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” which deals with the horrifying cosmetic surgery known as “labiaplasty.” (The procedure involves trimming, and sometimes fattening, vaginal lips that someone somewhere deems “excessively droopy.” I wish to God I were making this up.) “Loose Lips Sink Ships” traces the hidden cultural history behind this rich-world form of genital mutilation with wit and eloquence, making unexpected connections and discoveries along the way. At seventeen citations (for an article published in 2002!), it is already one of the contemporary classics of women’s studies.
Davis also has to her credit the book Living Up to the Ads: Gender Fictions of the 1920s (2000) and stints teaching English, gender studies, and American studies at Mount Holyoke, NYU and Long Island University. She is on the National Steering Committee of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, is the daughter of a HUAC non-testifier, and shares two-thirds of a name with one of the century’s great Christian mystics. How can she help being interesting?
Ever wonder who benefits from the insanely high cost of prison telephone services? So did the fine folks at Prison Legal News, and here they give an eye-opening account of what’s in those contracts.
The Institute for Higher Education Policy reports on educational opportunities in state prisons, and the Wall Street Journal reports on the report. Relatedly, here’s an interesting keynote address by academic Jeremy Travis (from the University Faculty Senate Conference on Higher Education in the Prisons, February, 2011) on “Rethinking Prison Education in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”
The American Prospect‘s Anna Clark reports on the disappointingly “muted” attempts of Eric Holder’s justice department to reduce prison rape.
California currently plans to perform no further executions during 2011; bureaucratic shakeups have resulted in a delay in review of a new lethal injection protocol.
Finances are driving Ohio’s conservative legislature to consider “community-based centers” (not sure what this means) as an alternative to state prison for nonviolent offenders.
Texas looks at privatizing its prison health care system, while would-be private contractors quiver with anticipation. Sounds like a quick means of conveyance between point Bad and point Worse.
We know that racial sentencing disparities exist. What about racial disparities in prison conditions? Two academics examine.
Referenced more than once in Razor Wire Women is The Punitiveness Report, a study commissioned by the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice. Subtitled “Hard Hit: The Growth in the Imprisonment of Women, 1977-2004,” it is one of the more important primary sources on this topic. It can be accessed in its entirety here.
Readers will see that I’ve added a tab (far right, above) listing upcoming appearances of RWW contributors at conferences, bookstores, etc. Please, if you have writing appearing in RWW, let me know of any upcoming public appearances, readings, academic presentations, etc., whether related to the book or not, that you’d like people to know about in advance, and I’ll post them.
(One last piece by activist, former prisoner, and RWW ally Gloria Killian.)
FORGET ME NOT
We are incarcerated women
We are the forgotten, the marginalized, the dispossessed, the abandoned
The disposable refuse of a throw-away society
But the consequences of our repudiation have been overlooked in society’s haste
To hide its social and moral problems behind barbed wire and bars of steel
For we are the mothers of the future generations
The children who were torn from our arms
Will grow up to share the lessons they learned in their youth
As they have received, so shall they give
Those who were beaten, will inflict violence on others
Those who were sexually abused, will prey upon the innocent
The homeless and unwanted will become destroyers
The addicted will spread their sickness throughout the land
But those who received love, will give love to others
Those who received help, will one day help others
Compassion will be shared in the measure that it was received
Children who were permitted to bond and heal with their imprisoned mothers
Will grow up to make positive contributions to society
They will not sow the pain and anger of those who could never heal
Women who were helped to rehabilitate themselves
Will teach their children
To recover from their wounds
To be strong
To be kind
And to rise above their circumstances
Bitterness or blessing
The choice is yours
WE ARE YOUR FUTURE
Fantastic piece from The (fantastic) American Prospect‘s fantastic Adam Serwer on censorship in jail and prison libraries. He mentions Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Prison Legal News as targets of various DOC’s censorship efforts, as well as a novel by Walter Mosley. The latter really bugs me, because I led a book group at a Milwaukee men’s jail in which the guys were moved and impressed by Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow stories–they strike me as great rehabilitative tools and good stories to boot.
From my own family’s experience (my father-in-law is imprisoned in Texas), I know that The Great Gatsby, Ken Follet’s World Without End, the photographs of Annie Liebowitz, and the paintings of Mary Casatt (!) are all unwelcome in that state’s prisons. Texas DOC officials also sent us back a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, citing Rushdie’s use of the adjective “niggardly” (which comes from Old Norse, was used in English hundreds of years before the invention of the word “Negro” or its pejorative little cousin, and has nothing to do with race) as a “racial slur.” My wife then wrote to her father, quoting the offending paragraph; this got through, resulting in a situation where the only part of Rushdie’s deeply overrated novel that my father-in-law was allowed to read was the part that ostensibly got it banned. (Random thought: It’s wonderful to think that Texas prison officials have suddenly decided they care so much about racism. Maybe next they’ll do something about sentence disparities, white-supremacist guards, and other, you know, things that actually matter.)
Do any readers of this blog have any wonderfully-absurd stories of prison censorship? Send ‘em to philipchristman [at] gmail [dot] com and I’ll post ‘em.