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Oral History Collection Gives Voice to Incarcerated Women

(Image: McSweeney's Books)

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women's Prisons
Waldman, Ayelet and Robin Levi
San Francisco: McSweeney's Books, 2011.

“Manhandled, arrested, cuffed, searched and locked away” is how AlterNet describes the story of Barbara Schneider Reilly, who spent 30 hours in jail after being arrested at an Occupy Wall Street-related protest.

Reilly reported:

During the long, cold night in the Tombs, at some point we asked a female officer if we could have some blankets. “We have no blankets.” Some mattresses since we were twelve or so people? “We have no more mattresses.” Some change in exchange for dollar bills so we could call parents and loved ones? (The one public telephone in the cell would only take coins.) “It's against regulations.” Some soap? “Maybe we'll come up with some soap.” … Distressing is hardly the word for a culture of willful neglect and the exercise of what power those officers held over us for those thirty hours.

The arrests at Occupy Wall Street protests have brought greater attention to jail and prison conditions. However, protesters experience only a fraction of the inhumane realities facing over 100,000 women incarcerated across the country.

“Inside This Place” delves further into injustices inside women's prisons through firsthand accounts from the women themselves. Recognizing that not all people in women's prisons identify as women, it also includes the story of Charlie Morningstar, incarcerated in a women's prison because, although he identifies as a man, his body is deemed biologically female.

These stories illustrate the myriad ways that prisons attempt to erase their personhood: One woman entered prison while pregnant; because her due date fell on a holiday weekend, medical staff forced her into a Caesarean section. She was handcuffed throughout the surgery; she held her newborn for the first time while in cuffs. Another woman was given a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent. Others discuss the lack of medical care, ranging from the lack of a diabetic diet to staff withholding necessary medications. Women's humanity is assaulted in other ways as well: In 2010, Colorado prison staff instituted a demeaning search procedure known as the “labia lift”: “We had to spread our labia and staff would make us cough while they were looking.” (p. 158)

Prisons act as sites of gender control as well. Because Charlie Morningstar is biologically classified as a woman, he is housed in a women's prison. There, staff members continually attempt to strip away his dignity: “They would talk about putting a dress on me in an attempt to humiliate me,” he recalled. (p. 196) From another prison, “Sherri” reported that guards searched prisoners who appeared masculine more roughly: “They'd go up under your breasts a couple more times than necessary. They'd take the back of their hand and swipe your crotch.” (p. 43)

These are painful stories, but the women tell them. The act of talking, of breaking the silence around the violence they've endured, is an act of declaring one's experiences valid.

“Inside This Place” is not just a recitation of prison horrors. It also contains tales of resilience, resistance and hope. The reader catches glimpses of the community and support created inside women's prisons. These stories, the ones that recognize women's agency, are often missing from existing accounts of women's prisons.

“Maria,” for instance, recounted being sexually abused by her landlord when she was ten. When she told her mother, her family did nothing to stop the abuse; instead, they debated whether the abuse had actually happened. Their disbelief and inaction taught Maria that she was powerless against such violence: “Afterward, it wasn't talked about any more. I didn't want to bring it up because I knew how it made me feel. And we couldn't talk about it because the guy who was abusing me owned the house that we lived in and we would have been homeless without him,” Maria recalled years later. “Even back then, a part of me understood that it was better to just be quiet.” (pp. 59-60)

Maria went to prison three days after her 18th birthday. Two years later, a prison guard began repeatedly raping her. Other staff also sexually harassed and molested her. Having learned at an early age that she would not be believed, Maria kept quiet. Seven years later, other women in the prison told her about a lawyer named Amanda Taylor: “She was known as the lawyer who would protect you … This lawyer was also fighting for us to get better educational programs and to change prison rules because there was so much sexual harassment inside. I hadn't heard the words 'sexual harassment' until I met Amanda.” For the first time, Maria realized that sexual abuse should not be a normal occurrence for girls. She also realized that she did not have to suffer in isolation: “I had never realized that people would care. With Amanda's help, I started becoming really, really strong. I finally started to love myself, regardless of everything and I started to fight.”

Maria joined a lawsuit of women who wanted to end the systemic sexual abuse in prison. She also told her story to the media, becoming a spokeswoman for the suit. Maria risked harassment and retaliation from prison staff for her outspokenness. Nonetheless, Maria took that risk, noting later, “I felt very proud to be in this group of women who had gone through similar things and were standing up against these people who had abused their power. It made me feel strong and powerful. It also helped me to deal with my demons. It helped me to not continue to blame myself. I had worked very hard to become the person that I was.” (p. 67)

Others also describe both the organizing and community building in prison. Noting the growing number of youth sentenced to prison and the lack of support for them, “Victoria,” sentenced to life without parole as a youth, started the Juvenile Offenders Committee. “I try to keep a connection with all of them because it helps me also to remember, Victoria, you're not the only one serving such a harsh sentence. Go to one of them and give them a hug, just talk to them and they'll understand. They'll know they're not alone.” (p. 185)

In 2008, noting the absence of a place where people could talk about gender-identity issues, Charlie Morningstar started the Two Spirits Wellness Group. The group allows people to reaffirm their identity and talk about their experiences. When a lawsuit forced the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to give hormones to anyone with gender-identity disorder regardless of whether they had a prescription prior to arrest, the group shared information about their right to hormones.

Among its many appendices, Inside This Place includes a resource list directing outraged readers to groups organizing around these issues. As Occupy Wall Street and other protests raise awareness and outrage about the inequalities in the world, we need to remember that many of these same injustices are perpetuated and often exaggerated, behind prison walls. And then we need to act.

As Maria summed up at the end of her story, “I know that what saved me was finding out that someone cared and I know that will save those women I left behind.” (p. 71)

While Inside This Place is published by McSweeney's, Voice of Witness [] is a nonprofit imprint of McSweeney's that publishes oral history collections documenting the stories of men and women who have survived human rights crises. Inside This Place, was created in partnership with Justice Now, a California prisoner rights organization and the first teaching law clinic in the country solely focused on the needs of women prisoners []. Both organizations are also great additional resources for people interested in creating change in their own communities. All Voice of Witness books can be purchased on the McSweeney's store site [] if readers prefer to buy through an independent bookseller.