Cruel but Not Unusual: The Punishment of Women in U.S. Prisons

By Day, Susie | Monthly Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Cruel but Not Unusual: The Punishment of Women in U.S. Prisons


Day, Susie, Monthly Review


An Interview with Marilyn Buck and Laura Whitehorn

After years of neglect, the issue of women in prison has begun to receive attention in this country. Media accounts of overcrowding, lengthening sentences, and horrendous medical care in women's prisons appear regularly. Amnesty International--long known for ignoring human rights abuses inside United States prisons and jails--issued a report, two days shy of International Women's Day 2001, documenting over 1,000 cases of sexual abuse of U.S. women prisoners by their jailers. However, we seldom hear from these women themselves. And we never hear from women incarcerated for their political actions.

Here are the voices and observations of two women political prisoners. Laura Whitehorn, released in 1999, served over fourteen years behind bars for a series of property bombings, including one of the U.S. Capitol building, to protest police brutality and U.S. foreign policy (the "Resistance Conspiracy" case). Marilyn Buck, Laura's friend and codefendant, was also convicted for her alleged role in the 1979 prison escape of Assata Shakur, and a number of armored car expropriations in support of the Black Liberation Army. She is serving a total sentence of eighty years and remains in the Dublin California Federal Correctional Facility. (Her codefendants on that case include Dr. Mutulu Shakur and Sekou Odinga, both also incarcerated in federal prisons.)

While it was possible to talk to Laura at length about her time behind bars, Marilyn was able only to make four long-distance phone calls, each summarily cut off by the prison after fifteen minutes. After reading Marilyn's words--and having known and lived beside Marilyn for years in prison--Laura added to what Marilyn wasn't able to say, as well as expressing her own experience and recollections.

SD: You both were arrested and imprisoned in 1985. How have prison conditions around you changed over those years?

MB: They've become much more repressive, particularly since Ronald Reagan's presidency. Each year, there's been slippage. And certainly Clinton played a big role with the Anti-Terrorism Act, which further limited people's legal rights.

The balance of who is in prison has also changed. There's a much higher percentage of blacks and Latinos, and--at least in the Federal system--an enormous number of immigrants. Not just immigrants but foreign nationals, who've been arrested for incidents in crossing borders. People are detained for years without ever being given any kind of judicial decision.

LW: I think it's typical of Marilyn not to complain in an interview about her own conditions. When we look at the two million people now in the federal and state systems, the proportion of women in those numbers has gone way up. What that means to someone like Marilyn is tremendous overcrowding: you're living the rest of your life in a tiny cell that was built for one person and now houses three. It means you have no property, because there's no room. Little by little, they took away any clothing that was sent to you, and put down much more stringent requirements. It means that you have no desk. Marilyn Buck, like many prisoners who fight very hard to get an education, has to sit on a cot and write on her lap. The overcrowding means that people are treated like problems and like baggage.

The other thing is the federal conspiracy laws, which are particularly pernicious for women. In 1985, when people heard that I was facing thirty-three years, they were astounded. That seemed like so much time. In 1990, when I ended up with twenty-three years, people were less astounded, because the laws had changed and sentences were much longer. By then, my cellmate had a twenty-four-year sentence on a first offense. This was a drug conspiracy case where it was really her husband who had run this drug ring, and she was swept up in the indictment. Or there's our friend Danielle, who has a triple-life sentence for another drug conspiracy-her crime was basically refusing to testify against her husband. …

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