Prison is not a Building It’s a Set of Relationships


Why the Women’s March had this writer thinking about Mass Incarceration


On January 21st, I was one of millions who participated in the Women’s March. In the days following the march, I read articles and saw photos of women in the least likely of places participating, including thirty people on an expedition ship in Antarctica (marching with penguins!) and five women in a cancer ward in Los Angeles. It has been broadly reported that the Women’s March was the largest one-day demonstration in US history, and for me, seeing so many people stand up to resist the incoming government was invigorating. The Washington Post reports country-wide turnout for the Women’s March at between 3.2 million and 5.2 million people, their best bet hovering around 4.1 million participants. I take this as indicative that many people feel as I do: something needs to change, and we must resist our current administration. But even typing this sentence, I see in myself the challenge that I think many of us feel — “something” needs to change. We need to “resist.” But what does this mean?
In trying to determine for myself the most fruitful ways to participate in this resistance, I took a look at the Guiding Vision and Defining Principles set forward by the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington. One of the first statements made is “Our liberation is bound to each other’s.” As I think about how to move forward in my own life and my own commitments to activism, I aim to center this principle. It is human nature to focus on our own needs, fears, and lives. I marched, of course, for myself and for my own access to healthcare, the right to control what happens to my body, and equal compensation for my labor. I would be lying to say otherwise: I am not selfless. But, I also marched with the understanding that my ability to march was a privilege afforded to me as a straight, white, financially stable, able-bodied woman, and that many others who need more protection than myself did not feel welcome, safe or able to attend. There is a sad irony in the fact that one group of women who could perhaps benefit most from our protest and support are quite literally barred from attending these events: women who are currently incarcerated.
Currently there are over 200,000 women in prisons in the United States. While one could argue that this is a relatively small issue, particularly in comparison to the 2 million men the US currently incarcerates, it’s important to note that the United States holds only 5% of the world’s population of women, but 30% of the population of female prisoners. In other words, we put women in prison at rates dramatically high rates. During her speech at the Women’s March on Washington, feminist scholar and prison abolitionist Angela Davis mentioned the issue, calling for “resistance to state violence perpetrated by the police and through the prison industrial complex.” While Davis has long been a vocal advocate for changing the way our country misuses mass incarceration to “solve” social issues, I was pleased to notice that she was one of multiple speakers who drew attention to the prison industrial complex at the women’s march. Addressing these issues from a national platform focused on women’s rights indicates that the problem belongs to all of us, and that we must educate and involve ourselves in order to continue to impede (and ideally to reverse) the devastating effects of mass incarceration. The good news is that while progress is slow, it’s happening: culturally, we are becoming more aware of state-sanctioned violence and its devastating effects, particularly on communities of color, and we’re finally calling for lawmakers to address the failings of our systems of justice which are structurally racist and benefit a for-profit prison system while costing Americans billions of dollars a year. However, despite the uptick in popular interest in the subject (think Orange is the New Black), very few of us know what to do about it. In my mind, the question of what we should do to fix the problem is not particularly useful until we have really reckoned with how we got here in the first place.
Our system of mass incarceration has been growing at a rapid rate since the early 1980’s, due in large part to the criminalization of drug addiction and poverty. It is widely accepted that the War on Drugs, a movement coined by Richard Nixon, has drastically contributed to the rise of mass incarceration. It has taken monumental effort to simply slow this expansion, and thinking about shrinking the prison population substantively becomes even more challenging. We understand that our current methods aren’t working: we’re locking human beings–many of whom struggle with addiction and mental health issues–into cages, with little access to their own communities, educational opportunities, therapy, or addiction services. What we’ve come to understand, albeit too late, is that this makes people violent and angry, exacerbates struggles with mental health, and rarely leads to rehabilitation, which is the “goal” of prison in the first place. The vast majority of the over two million people currently housed in prisons across our country have arguably been made worse rather than better by “doing time,” and over 90% of them will reenter our communities after serving their sentences.
Returning to society with a felony conviction is no cakewalk: while the laws differ from state to state, folks who have been convicted of a crime are nearly always demonized and are often denied access to government support while they try to get back on their feet. Folks frequently struggle to find stable employment, as many companies are hesitant to hire anyone with a criminal record. Given the struggles people often face during re-entry, prison almost never functions simply as a place you live for a bit while you make up for something you’ve done wrong. Instead, it often harms the chance that those who have been incarcerated can be successful in the future. As scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues, “Prison is not a building ‘over there’ but a set of relationships that undermine rather than stabilize everyday lives everywhere.” This reframing has been useful for me in my own thinking about the ways in which the prison industrial complex effects all of our lives. Prisons are not just buildings, and those inside them are not just criminals. When we push ourselves to question these definitions, we create the possibility of more successful conversations about how to address the problem: in short, by complicating our own views of who is in prison and why, we can actually simplify the issue.
By dividing ourselves into “us” and “them” — those on the inside and those on the outside — it becomes much easier to write off or ignore the experiences of people who are in prisons. By terming folks “criminals” and warehousing them away from society, we render them silent and invisible. This invisibility, both literal (we hide prisons behind barbed wire fences in rural communities) and metaphorical (we behave as if anyone who has been convicted of a crime no longer deserves to have a voice in our society, and enforce this judgement with laws barring citizens from voting during and/or after their incarceration), allows us the mental distance needed to avoid reckoning with the experiences of people who are incarcerated or really wrestling the circumstances that got them there. Frequently we place blame solely and squarely on the “choices” of individuals without addressing the structural impact of state-sanctioned violence in their lives, or the ways in which conditions entirely out of their control might have affected their lives prior to arrest and conviction. Without addressing these facets, it is impossible to truly understand the underlying systemic issues that must be addressed in order to improve living conditions not only for people who are incarcerated, but for all people living in the United States. We must shift from thinking of prisons as buildings that keep us safe from bad folks to viewing them as representative of a skewed set of relationships that negatively affects all of us — relationships we are bound into as actors, not bystanders, and for which we are accountable and responsible.
This boundedness — the hidden but profoundly entangled relationships between those of us who are in prisons and those of us outside of them — is precisely the reason mass incarceration is a feminist issue, and one that the organizers of the Women’s March address specifically in their vision and principles, arguing that it is our moral imperative to  dismantle the gender and racial inequities within the criminal justice system. The rate of imprisonment has grown faster for women than men, increasing by 700% since 1980, and the majority of women in prison have a child under the age of 18. Incarcerated women also face a high rate of violence and sexual assault.  We are committed to ensuring access to gender-responsive programming and dedicated health care including substance abuse treatment, mental and maternal health services for women in prison. We believe in the promise of restorative justice and alternatives to incarceration. This statement situates the dismantling of the prison industrial complex not as a peripheral concern but rather as a central goal of the organizers, vital to achieving the broader goals of the movement, to holding our government accountable to the tenants of our constitution, and to ensuring that our our elected officials legitimately champion and fight for “liberty and justice for all.”
Many of us believe that our tax dollars should fund government investment in the well being of Americans and ought be used to provide things like affordable health care, sufficient public education, access to clean water, protection of public lands, and a community-based police force that protects rather than brutalizes those it has sworn to protect. These are not obscene or unreasonable requests; they are common sense investments that are not only vital to the success of our country, but are actually cheaper than managing the repercussions of our failures to provide reasonable care for those who live in this country in the first place. From here, it follows logically that we that we must do a better job of supporting those who have ended up incarcerated due in large part to lack of access to these basic human rights. The Women’s March in January functioned not as an initial exhibition of new and exorbitant demands, but rather as a recent, well-publicized example of a longstanding fight for appropriate representation in government and reasonable access to basic human rights.
At the root of the issue, the majority of women in prison, many of whom are women of color, have been incarcerated for crimes that stem directly from trying to survive in a country that is, at best, uninvested in them doing so, and at worst explicitly committed to ensuring that they are unable to live freely or at all, let alone thrive. Author of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, offers stark statistics:
The overwhelming majority—over 90%—of women in prison have suffered sexual and/or domestic abuse, and have lived in extreme poverty. In 2004, more than 90 percent of imprisoned women reported annual incomes of less than $10,000, and most hadn’t completed high school. They find themselves behind bars primarily for minor drug offenses and for crimes of poverty and survival […] our women’s prisons are filled with people from the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalized segments of our society, whose offenses are often a consequence of their circumstances.
These numbers indicate that the vast majority of women who are incarcerated are in prison because they have been failed by our country. They have not had access to even minimal support that some of us, myself included, have been lucky enough to rely upon in moments when we have needed help. Frequently, instead of being given the chance to go to rehab, or being protected from an abusive partner, or being given support in finding alternatives to sex work, women (over half of whom have children under eighteen) are deemed “criminal” for trying to survive, and are thrown in jail.
Children from families where either parent is incarcerated (and this is not a small number: ten million American children have had a parent incarcerated during their childhood) are far more likely to experience childhood instability and extreme poverty, effectively putting them substantially more at risk to continue the cycle of mass incarceration. When men go to prison, children most often stay with their mothers, but when women go to prison, children sometimes live with family members, but frequently go into foster care. In most cases, the burden to the state of incarcerating a mother and supporting her children in the foster care system is substantially more expensive and less effective than the simple safety nets outlined by activists: the idea that drug addiction is a health issue, not a criminal issue; the idea that women should have access to safe and legal abortion;the concept of a mandatory minimum wage and affordable childcare. To address the issue of mass incarceration, we must call for the redistribution of government funds to programs that legitimately support people in America who are struggling, rather than continuing to funnel exorbitant amounts of money into prisons that harm not only those they are supposed to rehabilitate, but also those left outside the walls.
Many activists argue that incarceration, while not good for anyone, is particularly harmful to women, but few of us want to wrestle with the fact that there is a sad ordinariness to the abuse that many women experience inside of prison.The type of physical and sexual assault that happens to women who are in prison also happens every day to “free” women across the country. In prisons, these issues are simply magnified. Many tactics utilized in carceral spaces are particularly problematic because they function as state sanctioned and supported methods of control and abuse that women have already experienced outside of prison walls. Rape of women who are incarcerated by male guards is absolutely an issue, but this is at least acknowledged as problematic. Also problematic is much of the everyday strategy used to manage people who are in prison, nearly all of which relies on violation of the physical body in order to maintain control: think invasive strip searches, isolation and restraints, physical violence, abusive language and constant surveillance.
As is often the case, women’s bodies come to function as sites upon which larger social struggles are enacted. Women struggle to maintain autonomy over their own bodies whether they are incarcerated or “free,” but within carceral spaces, which utilize structures of control and punishment, these struggles become all the more extreme. Horrific treatment of women takes place behind the walls of prisons without repercussion, but the repercussions of these methods do not stay behind the walls of prisons, and in large part neither do the women who have suffered this punishment. As Angela Davis has argued, “the deeply gendered character of punishment both reflects and further entrenches the gendered structure of the larger society.” In order to fully address the systemic patterns of abuse that operate within the carceral system, those of us who believe in an intersectional, anti-racist feminism must work to educate others on the ways in which intersections of class, race, and gender lead to disproportionately harsh treatment for poor women, indigenous women, women of color, and undocumented women. We must have difficult conversations with others who have not yet had the opportunity educate themselves about the historical context in which the prison industrial complex came to power, and encourage them to question the common, comfortable belief that prisons protect us, the good folks, from the criminals who did terrible things and deserve to be there.
Those of us who see systemic marginalization as damaging to our country should address the prison industrial complex as a forefront concern. Without truly understanding the structural history that lead us to this point, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a way out. Here are some excellent places to start:
  1. Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. You can stream it on Netflix and in an hour and a half you’ll have a much clearer understanding of the ways in which systemic racism has shaped our methods of justice.
  2. Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete, which is conveniently available for free in PDF form, does an excellent job of forcing us to question not only the abysmal conditions in the vast majority of prisons, but the existence of prisons in the first place. Look especially to Chapter 4, “How Gender Structures the Prison System” for an in-depth and fascinating examination of the gendered aspects of the prison industrial complex.
  3. Ta Nehisi Coates’ article, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” illuminates the need for lawmakers, many of whom now see that mass incarceration is failing on all fronts, to reckon with the history that got us here in the first place.
  4. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has quickly become a seminal text among those advocating for disruption of the prison industrial complex, and is well worth purchasing.
As with all causes, we will do the most good by following the leadership of the people most affected by the issue we’re attempting to address. While it can be hard to access the stories of those who are incarcerated, we must work to bring their voices past the walls of prisons, and we must amplify their stories. The vast majority of these stories teach us that the methods we are utilizing are failing, and that we must imagine and then bring into reality  alternative ways of addressing the social issues we are attempting to solve by warehousing and punishing people in our country who have already been marginalized. In 2003, Angela Davis wrote, “The most difficult and urgent challenge of today is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice, where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor,” and this statement still holds true. Just as women’s rights are human rights, the issue of mass incarceration is a human issue. Those of us who marched on January 21st marched under the leadership of a group of women calling for us to affirm our shared humanity– a humanity that is currently stretched tenuously through barbed wire fences and concrete walls. It is our responsibility to strengthen these bonds and to work toward transforming our broken system of mass incarceration into a system of justice that is legitimately restorative.

jewell-bio-photo Remy Jewell lives in Portland, Oregon and recently completed a MA at the University of Oregon, where her research centered on race and mass incarceration. Incapable of staying out of school, Remy will return to her studies in June, working to obtain a MAT at Lewis & Clark. She aims to shape high school minds on the weekdays, cook her way through a substantial stack of cookbooks on the weekends, and spend all her summer days hiking and gardening.
Accompanying Art, “Symbiosis” by Maya Fielder.

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