My friend Melissa Radcliff, the executive director of Our Children’s Place (an excellent nonprofit which helps the children of prisoners), coauthored an article for the Chapel Hill News about what it means for fathers to be locked away from their children. Kudos to Melissa and her collaborator, prison chaplain Dave Nickel, for honoring fathers like mine this Father’s Day.
Those of you who keep up with this blog may remember an earlier post about Iris Morgenstern and her former student Robert Avila, who now lives on death row in Texas. Iris and a team of lawyers have continued to lobby for Robert’s life, and yesterday, within a week of his execution date, they received good news. Judge Ana Perez granted Robert a ninety-day stay of execution, putting his new execution date in July 2013.
Robert received an earlier stay in December. He was then scheduled to be killed on the feast day of the Virgen de Guadalupe–a significant date in the religious calendar for many people in Robert’s hometown of El Paso, Texas. The criminal justice ministry group at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Robert’s family, and other supporters successfully campaigned to have his execution date moved, which is how he received an execution date of April 10, 2013.
Iris and Robert’s lawyers are very hopeful that new evidence will grant him a new trial. Robert, Iris, and I are all very grateful to those of you who wrote letters to Robert in response to my earlier blog post. People in prison, especially those on death row, need to know that they are not forgotten and that their lives have value, and those letters helped Robert through a terrible time. Mil gracias. Robert’s battle for his life is not over, but this is a significant victory for him and for those of us who oppose the death penalty.
Believe it or not, I found out about this awesome project because a prisoner emailed me about it.* Martin Vargas, an incarcerated painter who has worked with the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), sent me a message letting me know that our mutual friend and PCAP alumnus Julia Taylor was involved with this new venture called Prison Production which uses theatre to inform high school students in New York about how the prison industrial complex affects all of our lives.
Prison Production is at the tail end of a fundraising campaign and have almost met their goals. If you’d like to donate to this incredibly worthy cause and perhaps receive a postcard or piece of artwork from Martin Vargas in the process (depending on the size of your donation), go to the Prison Production Website.
*As a side note, here’s what it means for someone to be able to send email from prison. Generally speaking prisoners are only allowed fifteen minutes or so of computer use at a time, and depending on the state, they have a restricted list of people to whom they can send emails. Prisoners do not have email access as you and I know it. The computers on which they send and receive email are set up only to allow them access to their own email accounts and nothing else on the web. In some states, like Texas, prisoners can receive but not send email messages. This means that a prisoner in these states would never see or touch a computer but would receive a printed version of an email message sent by a person on the outside. The benefit of sending an email rather than a letter is that it reaches a prisoner faster than regular mail, usually within 48 hours and sometimes on the same day you have sent it. Sending an email costs the same amount as the going rate for a US Postal Service stamp, but the money goes to the corporation running the email operation. In both Texas and Michigan, prisoner email is run by a corporation called JPay. I prefer that my money goes to support the US Postal Service rather than JPay, but I will use it in a pinch to relay information that I want to reach someone quickly.
CALL FOR PRESENTATIONS
The 5th Annual National
PRISONER’S FAMILY CONFERENCE
February 20-22, 2013
Hilton Houston Southwest
For Presenter Guidelines & Application Please Visit
Please “LIKE” the “Prisoner’s Family Conference” on Facebook
For Regular Updates
˜ ˜ ˜
The Prisoner’s Family Conference is a Project of
Community Solutions of El Paso
Ashley and I just returned from the NWSA conference in Atlanta, which was fantastic. Ashley’s performance of her one woman show, Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass was last night; she performed and I did the sound. The play was met with a standing ovation and rich post-show discussion that delved into the writing process of the play and the struggles of prisoners and the families of prisoners.
Immediately after the show we went to a reception hosted by NWSA, where we signed copies of Razor Wire Women. We met some wonderful colleagues who do creative prisoner support work, including performance work and writing workshops. Here we are (below) with one of those great women, Marie.
We’d like to extend our thanks to NWSA for having Ashley perform and for hosting our book signing and reception. Special thanks to Bonnie Thornton Dill and Michelle Berger for helping to organize all of these events! Special thanks also to Phil for not eating all of the cake while we were in Atlanta!
Yesterday morning, at around 2:30 am, police in riot gear arrested 51 peaceful protestors at Occupy San Diego. The arrests took place at the Civic Center Plaza and Children’s Park. Earlier this week, Scott Olsen, a former marine, had his skull fractured by Oakland police as the police arrested protestors. Arrests have also taken place in other cities around the country, including Nashville, Atlanta, and of course New York.
I am an avid supporter of the Occupy movement. I attended marches in San Diego when it first began, and have joined the protests regularly since then. I have friends in New York who are a part of Occupy Wall Street, and send updates about their experiences regularly. I encourage my students to attend. When we talk about this movement, the question that constantly arises is how police clad in riot gear—who have more in common with the 99%–feel about attacking, hurting, arresting, and jailing peaceful protestors who are fighting for interests that include the interests of the police. We wonder how they feel working for the interests of the 1% when their interests are with the 99%. Indeed, even the Oakland mayor said that she and the police have more in common with the 99% then with the 1%.
In a time when society is growing more and more punitive—imprisoning younger people, undocumented people, the poor, women, people of color, and trans people—it is clear that any resistance will be met with punishment. This is very clear with the Occupy movements; police are used by the state to maintain the status quo. Corporations and big banks take advantage of those of us who are part of the 99% with impunity, and our resistance to this is met with ridicule—as exemplified in the mainstream media’s accounts of the movement—dismissal, and outright violence. Jails and prisons, already filled to capacity, and used to try to convince us that resistance is futile.
But resistance is not futile. The Occupy movement has already unmasked the greed of the 1% and the injustice of the laws that protect it. It is time for society to march toward justice and equality, and to listen to what “we the people” have to say, without using violence, aggression, and imprisonment to silence us.
We know you’ve probably been wondering why we’ve drifted away from posting in the last month, and we sincerely apologize. No major crisis has occurred–merely the typical interruptions of an academic life drawing us away to other projects.
The good news is that we are back with a renewed commitment to keep open the lines of communication for all the razor wire women in cyberspace. We want to hear from you and hope that you will respond to us as we get back to posting regularly. Here’s a little overview of what to expect in the weeks to come:
- News about artists working in and around prisons
- More contributor spotlights
- Updates on our upcoming appearances to speak about Razor Wire Women and Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass
- Reviews of books about women and incarceration
- Descriptions of activist organizations which are doing important work to support prisoners and their families
Keep reading this blog! Much more will come soon!
Yours in solidarity,
Ashley, Jodie, and Phil
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
The concepts of time and space have very different connotations for incarcerated women than for other people. It is undoubtedly true that every individual who is imprisoned measures time by the length of their sentence, but for women the markers are more personal and painful. Time is measured in the weeks, months, and years by which a woman is separated from her family. It is measured by the hours and days between letters and phone calls.Time is measured by the birthdays, holidays, and personal events that she misses.The first tooth under the pillow, the new trike, and the first day of kindergarten are little pieces of time in her children’s lives that she can neither share nor recapture.
Incarcerated women who are lucky enough to have visits with their families can see the passage of time in their children’s faces,the sudden growth spurt, or the new hairdo. In the Visiting Room mothers and children try to recapture those missed moments with stories, hugs, laughter,and tears.In that nosiy,crowded room families try desperately to re-establish bonds and create new ones to bridge the gaps in lives that were torn apart by the mass incarceration of mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers.There is never enough time in the Visiting Room.
Women who do not receive visits from their families measure time by the photographs they receive and the letters and pictures that their children send. Each treasured photograph, and scrawled crayon drawing is proudly displayed to everyone the mother knows, even the guards. The scraps of paper and faded photos carefully taped to an inmate’s locker bear silent witness to the passage of time in which a mother and her child are kept apart.
For women whose children have been placed in foster care, time is measured by the months between court appearances and her desperate efforts to fulfill the court ordered reunification plan. Often times the woman’s sentence runs longer than the period of time that she has been granted to get her life back together so that she can regain custody of her children. Failure to fulfill the court ordered reunification plan results in the termination of parental rights and the adoption of the children. In these cases time cuts both ways as it marches on: too much time in prison, too little time to get the children back.
Time drags in prison as the women wait for the days to pass. They wait to go to meals, to sign up for the phone, to be called to a visit, to be allowed into and out of their cells, to go to Canteen, to go to Clothing, or to go to work. They wait to be assigned to school, a better job, or a self help program that can make a difference in their lives. They wait for good news, good times, and a new life. Time passes on and still they wait.
In prison there is always too much time, but sadly there is never enough space. Women in California prisons live 8 women to one cell, crammed into a tiny space about the size of a bathroom, sharing one toilet and one shower. They exist literally on top of each other; 4 women on top bunks, 4 women on bottom bunks, with their meager possessions stuffed into a drawer beneath the bottom bunk.There is no space to breathe, to think, to grieve or to grow. There is no space to heal wounds, to make amends, to find peace, or to seek a better way. Everywhere a woman goes in prison she is surrounded by crowds of inmates and dozens of guards. Space does not exist in prison.
Yet as time drags on in prison, the women worry about both time and space. Will there be a space for me in my children’s lives when I am released? A space in my mom’s house? A space in my husband’s heart? Is there space for me anywhere or has it been destroyed by the time that I have lost behind these concrete walls?
Essential read from the New York Review of Books, a once-tired magazine that has been revitalized by this awful past decade. There is much to admire about the piece, starting with its willingness to buck stereotypes about prison rape by beginning with the story of a female prisoner:
Back in 1998, Jan Lastocy was serving time for attempted embezzlement in a Michigan prison. Her job was working at a warehouse for a nearby men’s prison. She got along well with two of the corrections officers who supervised her, but she thought the third was creepy. “He was always talking about how much power he had,” she said, “how he liked being able to write someone a ticket just for looking at him funny.” Then, one day, he raped her.
Jan wanted to tell someone, but the warden had made it clear that she would always believe an officer’s word over an inmate’s, and didn’t like “troublemakers.” If Jan had gone to the officers she trusted, they would have had to repeat her story to the same warden. Jan was only a few months away from release to a halfway house. She was desperate to get out of prison, to return to her husband and children. So she kept quiet—and the officer raped her again, and again. There were plenty of secluded places in the huge warehouse, behind piles of crates or in the freezer. Three or four times a week he would assault her, from June all the way through December, and the whole time she was too terrified to report the attacks. Later, she would be tormented by guilt for not speaking out, because the same officer went on to rape other women at the prison. In a poem, Jan wrote:
These are a few of the reasons why prisoners fear reporting rape.
Fear of being written up and possibly losing good time.
Fear of retaliation.
Fear of feeling that no one will believe them.
Fear of feeling that no one really cares.
For all these reasons, a large majority of inmates who have been sexually abused by staff or by other inmates never report it.
This is the blog for Razor Wire Women: Prisoners, Activists, Scholars, and Artists, edited by Ashley Lucas and Jodie Michelle Lawston, just out from SUNY Press. This important collection illustrates how the arts and the social sciences not only can, but must, work together to illuminate the lives of imprisoned women.
To quote from the blurb: “Jodie Michelle Lawston and Ashley E. Lucas have created a powerful call to action, a reminder that resistance is not futile. With powerful images, testimony, intersectional theorizing, and examples of educational and visual organizing, Razor Wire Women offers essential readings for organizers and scholars—both inside and outside of women’s prisons and detention centers. This is a central read for courses in women’s and gender studies, justice, and sociology, and for all invested in interrupting our nation’s expanding carceral nation.” — Erica R. Meiners, author of Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies
Here on this blog, we’ll attempt to further the conversation this book begins, linking to reviews and also to news and analysis relevant to the issues it raises. Hopefully, in a small way, this site will help make visible what women prisoners experience–and the hope and resilience of which they are still capable.