Coming to the Aid of Women in U.S. Prisons

By McClellan, Dorothy S. | Monthly Review, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Coming to the Aid of Women in U.S. Prisons


McClellan, Dorothy S., Monthly Review


I first became involved in the criminal justice system in 1976, when I was completing my graduate work in counseling psychology in Albany, New York. The last phase of the program required an internship--750 hours of fieldwork. The professor who taught the course, "Police & the Black Community," pulled me aside after class and told me he wanted to introduce me to a friend of his, Sam MacDowell. Sam was a black community activist who had spent two years in prison on trumped-up charges. The Commissioner of Corrections in New York knew of the injustice and on Sam's release made him head of volunteer services at Coxsackie Prison. We met, we talked, and he invited me to do my internship at his prison.

No woman had ever worked inside a cellblock in New York, and he felt it was time. The prisoners at Coxsackie were young, sixteen to twenty-two, most of them scared, distraught black youth convicted of felonies. Those most troubled needed to talk about their feelings in a professional setting. They needed to hear a woman's voice. They could open up to a woman, he assured me. I would be harassed by guards, administration, and perhaps by prisoners, he warned. Would I be willing?

Having no idea of what it entailed, having never been inside a prison, but having lived my life to that point under the banner, "If the door opens, walk through," I said yes. The following week my husband, Jim, and I drove the thirty-five miles to Coxsackie. He and Sam toured the prison and talked to suspicious guards who warned, 'You'd be crazy to let your wife work in this zoo. What we got here are animals."

Meanwhile, I was taken to Fl Cellblock--the Crisis Intervention Unit. A guard pounded on the door, it finally opened, and I entered. A tall young man, the chief psychologist, took one look at me and snarled, "Never wear a skirt again. We're in the midst of a crisis. Roll up your sleeves and get to work." The smell of sweat and cigarette smoke was overwhelming. Down the long tier of cells I saw a large black man carrying an equally large black man in his arms. Both were inmates. Alan, the one being carried, was curled in a fetal position. He had tried to set his mattress on fire and was now being deposited on the floor of the unit's ancient shower stall. The psychologist and inmate counseling aides got Alan to his feet, slapped his face, and tried to coax him out of his catatonic trance. They finally turned to me and said, "Give it a try." Protecting my dignity, they stepped aside.

My heels clicking on the shower room floor sounded entirely out of place. The giant's frame was frozen in an arc, his eyes tightly shut. I whispered in his ear, "My name is Dorothy. This is my first day here. I'm scared too." It didn't matter what I said. Sam was right. The surprise of hearing a woman's voice in this all-male society worked its magic. He peeked to look at me, took his thumb from his mouth, and his frame began to relax. The others witnessed the transformation; the therapeutic intervention could begin. I had survived my first crisis.

I worked in the Crisis Intervention Unit for the next two years, the best professional years of my life. The psychologist and I were hounded and harassed by correctional staff and administration. They did all they could to sabotage our program--they threatened our lives, impugned our integrity. The inmates never once disrespected me. It was common knowledge among the inmates that I brought a radical political perspective to my work as psychologist, and they liked it. They were determined to protect the dignity of my professional position.

After a bitter, protracted struggle, our unit closed. I had worked in the "belly of the beast," as inmates referred to the prison; now I wanted to study the whole animal. How fortunate that the nation's finest program in criminal justice was located in Albany. What I learned there and try to pass on to my students is to look at prisons as a social scientist. …

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