Book Review/Seth Sandronsky

Women Prisoners Resist

Their over-all numbers are small compared with males. However, the female rate of imprisonment is rising faster compared with men in the US, writes Victoria Law, in Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press, 2012).

This gender imprisonment trend is a bit distant from the public’s radar screen. We have a problem here, and misogyny is a part of it.

To this end, Law sheds light on the largely hidden conditions of women prisoners in the nation that leads the world in per capita incarceration. Hers is an indictment against a US capitalist society that locks up low-income and nonwhite people disproportionately.

Further, Law addresses the relevant and significant whys and wherefores of imprisoned women in the US justice system. Moreover, she humanizes the women prisoners.

They are mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, grandmothers, and friends. They have histories and dignity, born in and out of the US.

Women who lack citizenship documents and languish in detention centers face especially harsh time, in no small part due to geographic separation from their children. Law devotes a chapter that lays out who these women are, their charges and dissent.

Take speaking out against sexual abuse during imprisonment. This alone runs the risk of staff retaliation for domestic women prisoners, let alone those born abroad.

Law’s portraits of women prisoners reveal them as complex and complicated, just like those of us on the outside. Locked up, these women prisoners are anything but passive victims of what Beth Ritchie, author and professor, calls “incarceration nation,”a systemic feature of US society.

Individually and collectively, women protest inhumane prison conditions. The women, as Law documents, become politically conscious while serving time, a process that the late revolutionary Malcolm X underwent decades ago.

The women create programs for HIV and AIDS victims. Prison health-care is a flashpoint of activism. Crucially, women prisoners produce media to inform themselves and allies, and to move grievances and lawsuits forward. Media also provides forums for self-discovery of common struggles.

Such activism goes over like wet socks on a cold day with prison administrators. They attempt to deter women prisoners’ solidarity at every turn.

We see systemic attempts of prison officials to control locked up women. The logic is that of power based on force and law.

Law details how women prisoners network and organize to overcome hurdles to their human rights in a penal system set up for a male prison populace. The author provides over 650 notes for readers seeking more information.

Her first exposure to prisons and the imprisoned took place as a teen held on charges in New York City. This experience led to Law’s later involvement as a prison activist laboring to make visible the living conditions of women locked up.

Invisibility is a hell of a thing. Honesty can spur public visibility, Law’s goal.

On that note, rape culture pervades US society. Some women prisoners, as Law writes, fall prey to the unwanted sexual advances of male staff, and rebel, sometimes with success. The women fight back under grossly unjust conditions. Their filing of complaints is risky.

One risk is retaliation, such as longer sentences, a punitive policy, for speaking out. Yet women take many tacks to transcend their unjust conditions behind bars.

Education for imprisoned women improves their lives, radically. In this way, many of them learn how to resist injustice, Law writes. Further, she lays out the practices and policies of women prisoners’ work. With scant support from those outside, Law reveals how and why women have organized to fight against gender and labor mistreatment.

Law’s chapter on the historical background of imprisonment as a social policy to control poor and working-class women documents the past as part of the present. There are differences and similarities to other times in U.S history, such as Reconstruction.

The narratives that Law shares, the voices and views of the brave women prisoners, enlighten and inform. I recommend her book.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2013

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