Women Prisoners on the Cutting Edge: Development of the Activist Women's Prisoners' Rights Movement

Article excerpt

Introduction

SOMETHING HAPPENED TO THE PRISONERS' RIGHTS MOVEMENT FROM 1975 TO THE 1990s. Women happened. Over the past 25 years, inside and outside of prison, in progressive organizations and in more mainstream efforts, in adult prisons and juvenile facilities, gender has become an increasingly prominent and urgent issue. Although women and girls are still a small minority of the overall prison population, issues affecting women and girls, and, by extension, children, families, and community members, have had a significant impact in shaping the emerging dialogue about the U.S. prison-industrial complex.

Critical Resistance organizing has reflected this issue in a variety of ways. The initial exchange that produced the original CR organizing committee was rooted in a feminist dialogue shaped primarily by women activists and academics working with women in prison. Women made up over three-quarters of the first organizing committee, more by happenstance than by deliberate selection. Young women, mostly women of color, are heavily represented in the leadership of CR Youth Force -- the powerful youth coalition that germinated in CR and has grown by leaps and bounds since the first national conference. Although not a conference about women in prison, organizers of the first national conference fore grounded issues affecting women and girls in prisons and jails, integrating women into every aspect of the program.

Some prisoners' rights activists have been concerned that foregrounding women's issues would detract from, or diminish, the importance of activism by, and on behalf of, male prisoners. In fact, the attention to issues affecting women has led some to conclude that CR is a movement primarily focused on women in prison. This is clearly not the case. Rather, the foregrounding of issues affecting women has brought a richness and strength to prison organizing that has benefited all prisoners, and prison organizing generally. By the same token, the parallel emphasis on issues affecting prisoners of color and their families and communities in the CR conference and campaign has effectively broadened organizing efforts, and has not, in any way, been meant to exclude the interests of prisoners who are white.

The Emergence of Women's Issues in the 1970s

The prominence of women prisoners and activists working with women in prison in the Critical Resistance movement is no accident. It is the result of a sea change in the prisoners' rights movement over the past 25 to 30 years. In the early to mid-1970s, very few organizers in the United States were working with incarcerated women and girls. The focus of grass-roots organizing efforts, as well as prison litigation and legislative advocacy, was overwhelmingly on male prisoners. Most of that organizing and litigation involved issues affecting men inside prisons. Few activists were focusing on the impact of incarceration on the children and families of (male) prisoners. The visionary work of the Black Panther Party, linking the need for strong community programs for children and families, flourished in the 1960s, but was being dismantled by COINTELPRO and the incarceration of a number of prominent party leaders. A few women had emerged as leaders in the civil rights and prisoners' rights movements, most significan tly Angela Davis and Assata Shakur in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but women prisoners were otherwise virtually invisible to the progressive Left, as well as to the more mainstream efforts to reform the prison system.

However, as the 1970s progressed, a general consciousness about the presence of women and girls in U.S. prisons began to emerge. Grass-roots organizations were springing up throughout the country to address the serious legal and political needs of women in prison. New York University Law School -- which has an unusually strong focus on progressive and public interest law -- had a very active and effective legal clinic that worked with women prisoners at Bedford Hills Women's prison in New York. …