Unruly Women: The Politics of Confinement & Resistance // Review

Article excerpt

Karlene Faith has presented a timely discussion of women in conflict with the law in her book Unruly Women: The Politics of Confinement and Resistance. Concerns about Canadian women offenders and their incarceration have been on both federal and provincial agendas. Recent government reform documents, such as Creating Choices (1990), Agenda for Change (1990), Blueprint for Change (1992), and Racism Behind Bars (1994) have all critically assessed and denounced current practices in women's prisons. Several Canadian feminists(f.1) have also demonstrated a renewed interest in issues related to the female offender. Karlene Faith's book contributes to a limited but growing body of knowledge on women's penal regimes. This literature is beginning to challenge the usefulness of incarceration for a small number of women who by and large do not present a "risk to society."

Faith raises a number of questions and concerns about academic and popular perceptions of the female offender and her treatment in the criminal justice system. Her descriptions of "institutionalized violences" including medical practices, strip searches, isolation, self-mutilation, sexual abuse and psychological distress illustrate some of the inhumane aspects of imprisonment. Faith's brief but current discussion of the sexual exploitation of young women incarcerated at the Ontario Grandview training school is distressing. She aptly notes that "perhaps no human environment is as potentially deadly or abusive to stigmatized populations as are total institutions which are supported by ideologies that blame victims" (p. 247). Women incarcerated at the school reported physical and sexual abuse by both male and female guards during the 1960s and 1970s.

The book also describes some of the experiences of Native women in conflict with the law. Faith clearly documents the complacency of the Canadian government and the discrimination and racism encountered by Native women in Canadian institutions. Faith is sensitive to racial issues throughout her analysis; however, like many Canadian authors she focusses primarily on the plight of Native women and provides little information about the circumstances and experiences of Black and immigrant women offenders. In her historical discussion of women's crimes, Faith suggests that class, race and gender are interrelated concerns which influence policing, punishment and social perceptions of crime. This preliminary discussion opens the door for a more detailed analysis.

Unruly Women presents a refreshing, selective theoretical overview of women and crime. Faith's interview with Freda Adler is a unique contribution. Adler's work Sisters in Crime (1975) was the source of controversy when the media interpreted her work as suggesting that the women's liberation movement would or had already caused a dramatic increase in female crime. The interview attempts, once again, to clarify and contextualize Adler's hypothesis.

In concluding her discussion of theoretical perspectives, Faith documents how wider feminist efforts have affected our understanding of the female offender. Feminist analyses of women's victimization have influenced perceptions of the female offender. Many individuals acknowledge that most women in conflict with the law have had past experiences with victimization. In many cases victimization has been used heuristically to rationalize women's crime. Faith identifies some of the limitations associated with a female offender's victim identity (p. 108). She notes that, "the feminist impulse to decry the harm done to criminalized women is best met with recognition that women's crimes do not necessarily signify defeat; they may demonstrate women's resilience and capacity for positive action as well as negative action against social injustices" (p. …