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The untold story of women’s resistance behind bars

Published Aug 13, 2009 8:09 PM

"Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women" by Victoria Law, PM Press, 2009, 288 pages

“When I was 15, my friends started going to jail,” says Victoria Law, a native New Yorker. “Chinatown’s gangs were recruiting in the high schools in Queens, and faced with the choice of stultifying days learning nothing in overcrowded classrooms or easy money, many of my friends dropped out to join a gang.”

“One by one,” Law recalls, “they landed in Rikers Island, an entire island in New York devoted to pretrial detainment for those who cannot afford bail.”

Law shares this and other recollections in her new book, “Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women” (PM Press). At 16, she decided to join a gang, but was arrested for armed robbery she committed for her initiation into the gang. “Because it was my first arrest—and probably because 16-year-old Chinese girls who get straight As in school did not seem particularly menacing—I was eventually let off with probation,” she writes.

Before her release from jail, Law was held in the “Tombs” [holding cells that adjoin the Manhattan courts] awaiting arraignment. While the adult women she met there had all been arrested for prostitution, she also met three teenagers arrested for unarmed assault.

“Two of the girls were black lesbian lovers. In a scenario that would be repeated 13 years later in the case of the New Jersey Four, they had been out with friends when they encountered a cab driver who had tried to grab one of them. Her friends intervened, the cab driver called the police and the girls were arrested for assault.” Law notes that “both of my cellmates were subsequently sent to Rikers Island.”

These early experiences, coupled with her later discovery of radical politics, pushed Law “to think about who goes to prison and why.” She got involved in several projects to support prisoners, including helping to start Books Through Bars in New York.

In college, Law “began researching current prisoner organizing and resistance,” and upon discovering almost zero documentation of resistance from women prisoners, she began her own, directly contacting women prisoners. A college paper became a widely distributed pamphlet, and at the request of several women prisoners, Law helped to publish their writings in a zine called “Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison.”

“This book is the result of seven and a half years of reading, writing, listening, and supporting women in prison,” Law says about “Resistance Behind Bars,” noting that each chapter in her book “focuses on an issue that women themselves have identified as important.”

Chapters include topics as diverse as health care, the relationship between mothers and daughters, sexual abuse, education and resistance among women in immigration detention.

Who goes to prison?

Since 1970, the U.S. prison population has skyrocketed, from 300,000 to over 2.3 million. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate and more total prisoners than any other country. While women comprise only 9 percent of the U.S. prison population, their numbers have been increasing at a faster rate than for men.

“Between 1990 and 2000, the number of women in prison rose 108 percent from 44,065 to 93,234. (The male prison population grew 77 percent during that same time period.) By the end of 2006, 112,498 women were behind bars,” Law documents.

Similar to male incarceration rates, women behind bars are disproportionately low-income and people of color. Distinguishing women prisoners from their male counterparts, Law cites a Bureau of Justice study which “found that women were three times more likely than men to have been physically or sexually abused prior to incarceration.”

Women prisoners resist

The central thesis of “Resistance Behind Bars” is truly profound. In clear, non-academic language, Law argues that recent scholarship documenting and radically criticizing increased incarceration rates and mistreatment of women prisoners “largely ignores what the women themselves do to change or protest these circumstances, thus reinforcing the belief that incarcerated women do not organize.”

Law also criticizes radical prison activists, arguing that “Just as the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s downplayed the role of women in favor of highlighting male spokesmen and leaders, the prisoners’ rights movement has focused and continues to focus on men to speak for the masses.”

Law gives numerous examples of women rioting and initiating litigation, including the “August Rebellion” in 1974 at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York state. On July 2, 1974, prisoner Carol Crooks won a lawsuit against prison authorities, with the court “issuing a preliminary injunction, prohibiting the prison from placing women in segregation without 24-hour notice and a hearing of these charges,” writes Law.

In response, “Five male guards beat Crooks and placed her in segregation. Her fellow prisoners protested by holding seven staff members hostage for two and a half hours. However, ‘the August Rebellion’ is virtually unknown today despite that fact that male state troopers and [male] guards from men’s prisons were called to suppress the uprising, resulting in 25 women being injured and 24 women being transferred to Matteawan Complex for the Criminally Insane without the required commitment hearings.”

Law cites several rebellions that received significant media attention, including one the New York Times wrote two stories about. As Law recounts, “In 1975, women at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women held a sit-down demonstration to demand better medical care, improved counseling services, and the closing of the prison laundry. When prison guards attempted to end the protest by herding the women into the gymnasium and beating them, the women fought back, using volleyball net poles, chunks of concrete and hoe handles to drive the guards out of the prison. Over 100 guards from other prisons were summoned to quell the rebellion.”

Arguing for prison abolition

When Victoria Law was first introduced to radical politics, shortly after her own stint behind bars, she discovered groups and literature espousing prison abolition. “These analyses—coupled with what I had seen firsthand—made sense, steering me to work towards the dismantling, rather than the reform, of the prison system.”

To support her abolitionist viewpoint, Law makes the practical argument that prisons simply don’t work to reduce crime or increase public safety. She writes that “Incarceration has not decreased crime; instead, ‘tough on crime’ policies have led to the criminalization ... of more activities, leading to higher rates of arrest, prosecution and incarceration while shifting money and resources away from other public entities, such as education, housing, health care, drug treatment and other societal supports.

“The growing popularity of abolitionist thought can be seen in the expansion of organizations such as Critical Resistance, an organization fighting to end the need for a prison-industrial complex, and the formation of groups working to address issues of crime and victimization without relying on the police or prisons.”

This is a shortened version of an article first published at Alternet.org. Hans Bennett is an independent multimedia journalist whose website is www.insubordination.blogspot.com.