In her latest edition of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggle of Incarcerated Women (PM Press 2012), Victoria Law offers us a whole-hearted chronicle of despair and resistance in the modern prison industry. It is worth a good read by anyone interested in the sociology of American life, as well as any radical with friends or comrades behind bars. Law’s accounts of women prisoners taking action are so inspirational that you will never be the same after reading them.
In the traditional style of a human rights chronicle akin to the old Soviet samizdat press, Resistance Behind Bars carries no piece of frivolity in its tight, hard-hitting prose. Law moves from facts to facts, drawing out broad truths about the prison industry’s systematic oppression of women throughout the United States of America. What we find is rampant sexual abuse, neglect, and manipulation—the holding of women in shameful conditions where prison becomes an almost airtight container for misogyny and patriarchy. But there is hope in resistance.
Law’s work is crucial, because the greatest recent works on the prison industry (for instance, Ruth Gilmore Wilson’s Golden Gulag, Micelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and the Let Freedom Ring anthology) are more focused on male prisoners. “Many activist-oriented publications mirror the mainstream media’s masculinization of prisons and prisoners, contributing to the invisibility of women behind bars,” states Law. “Because they receive much less attention than their male counterparts, women in prison receive much less support from both individual activists and prisoner rights groups.”
By revealing the obscured facts of prisoners’ oppression, Resistance Behind Bars exposes immediately the need for such a work. During an investigation of two women’s prisons in Michigan in 1994, the Justice Department found that “nearly every woman… interviewed reported various sexually aggressive acts of guards,” while a 1996 Human Rights Watch report exposes commonplace reprisals of guards against women who complain. In one mind-blowing statistic, Law explains, “[i]n both men’s and women’s prisons, prisoners are more likely to experience sexual violence at the hands of prison staff than from their fellow prisoners.
In his vital text, The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Victoria Law’s impressive chronicle opens the heart of humanity with stories of resistance—stories of love and patience more than rage and riot, which are most commonly associated with prison resistance.
Law’s intensive investigations obviate exhaustive knowledge of the day-to-day situations of resistance, such as the spreading of information, the slow motion of court cases, and the relationships of people involved. She discusses the surges of women’s movements behind bars, the media, communications, and alliances formed between heroic women willing to risk their bodies and their access to others for mutual aid and basic rights. Law notes the critical and lasting impact of magazines like Sojourner: A Women’s Forum, which helps women resist “feeling as if their words, thoughts and actions are meaningless. For these women, having their words and thoughts taken seriously is, in and of itself, a major achievement.” Media also presents “an act of subversion against both their own lack of agency and the isolating effects of prison.”
So much of the struggle against oppressive conditions takes place in the battle for information. Information being shared between people, on personal levels as well as through magazines, leads to liberation. One crucial chapter in Resistance Behind Bars illustrates this point through a discussion about detention facilities and women subject to incarceration awaiting deportation. Many of these women do not speak English, yet prison officials often place them among English speaking populations without any translators. The ability of prisoners to then work together to create unity beyond the language gap indicates the compassion and tender, careful relationship-building that accompanies being together in prison.
In a welcome addition to the second edition of Resistance Behind Bars, Law presents a stirring analysis of incarcerated trans people. Authorities place trans people in prisons according to their sexual organs at birth, a practice which leads directly to increased abuse and alienation. In one tragic example, Dee Farmer, a trans woman, was placed in Terre Haute (an institution that will ring a bell for ecodefense activist), where she was repeatedly beaten, raped, and infected with HIV. Trans men in women’s prisons have traditionally been confronted with abuse from guards, including even forced segregation. Cis-privilege, in general, is reified within the patriarchal container by the guards. Law declares, “[n]arratives of transgender, gender variant and intersex people’s resistance in prisons are rare. This should not be interpreted to mean that they do not resist prison abuses. Instead, researchers, activists, and abolitionists should see the conspicuous absence of transgender, gender variant and intersex stories of resistance behind bars as a challenge to dig further, figure out why such tales are absent and do what isneeded to both end the silence and support their struggles.”
Resistance Behind Bars is replete with such harrowing stories of women acting out of their own agency, against assault and neglect, with little tools to win the fight. One example is that of Stacy Barker, whose successful lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections led to an onslaught of cell searches yielding “contraband violations” for iron pills and Ibuprofen. When the corrections officials used the violations to keep Barker from visiting her daughter, she joined a large suit against the regulations keeping mothers from their children—and won.
Much of women’s resistance in prison stems from letter writing campaigns, newsletters, and law suits. These efforts are forwarded by education efforts behind bars. Law discusses the awesome work of Marcia Bunney, who used her job in the prison library to teach herself law, eventually becoming one of five prisoner representatives of the National Steering Committee of the National Lawyers’ Guild’s Prison Law Project. The classes taught behind bars, Law shows, are frequently degrading, humiliating, and repressive, but offer rewards for those who can work through the system.
Even working through the system can bring new roadblocks, however. A request for medical treatment can bring unwanted reactions from authorities, for instance. “Women in prison face not only medical neglect and malpractice,” writes Law, “but also retaliation from the prison administration should they advocate for themselves and demand adequate treatment.” Underlying the lack of care is a basic lack of counseling and information available to prisoners with AIDS and hepatitis C, but Law notes that prisoners team together to pass on their knowledge, speak out, file lawsuits, and make their daily lives livable. One example is that of Charisse Shumate, whose work with other inmates with sickle-cell anemia led to a class-action lawsuit, Schumate v. Wilson, that resulted in preventative care (although Shumate would succumb to her illness before the case was settled).
In the seminal In Russian and French Prisons, Peter Kropotkin declares, “No autocracy can be imagined without its Tower or Bastille.” The symbol of the central prison, and the possibility of its rupture, makes history. The US, with its tentacle-like prison industry complex provides multiple histories of oppression and autocracy. Law shows that much of the most important work to benefit prisoners comes from the prisoners themselves, in a heroic movement with support groups around the world working to fight the system. The hard task abolishing the prison industry is upon us, and it builds from the kind basic communication of facts and truths presented in Resistance Behind Bars—this is a method steeped in the feminist tradition, and it is one worth taking up at once.