Magazine article Women in Action

The Invisibility of Women Prisoners' Resistance

Magazine article Women in Action

The Invisibility of Women Prisoners' Resistance

Article excerpt

The following is an excerpt of a much longer, extensively foot-noted, pamphlet with the same title. It is the lead article of the latest issue of Turning the Tide: Journal of Anti-Racist Action, Research and Education, Volume 16, Number 3, Fall 2003. This is a work in progress, available from Vikki Law, P.O. Box 20388, Tompkins Square Station, New York NY 10009.

Women in prison are less than 6 percent of the total prison population, but their numbers are growing faster than men. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of women in prison more than doubled. Nearly one million women in the U.S. are now in some form of criminal justice system custody, prison, parole or probation. Women are struggling against the oppressive conditions they face. Yet, interest in the struggles of women prisoners against the prison-industrial complex remains much lower than in those of male prisoners. Even in the scant writing published about prisoner activism and resistance, women prisoners are nearly invisible.

This invisibility is not new. In the early 1970s, activists recognised that prisoners, one of the most marginalised populations, were struggling for their rights. In response, new critical analyses of prisons emerged, prisoners' rights organisations and unions were created, and there was communication among prisoners, academics and activists. Prisoner writings became required texts in university courses, and some universities began offering courses inside prisons. But, as activist and researcher Karlene Faith discovered in a 1970 survey of male convicts at Soledad (California), "Female prisoners were as invisible to them as to the general public." Faith argues this overlooking of women prisoners occurred because they were fewer in number, "not as politicised as the men, and did not engage in the kind of protest action that aroused media attention."

Women's concerns at the time, if recognised at all by prisoners' rights movements, were dismissed as personal, self-centred and apolitical. Similarly, the protest actions that women prisoners engaged in were ignored by outside movements, which chose to focus on the better-known names of male prisoners. Thus, while male prisoners gained political consciousness and enjoyed support from outside groups, many women in prison were neglected by the same organisations. With the exception of a few well-known political prisoners like Angela Davis and Assata Shakur, the movement overlooked the female prison population.

According to Juanita Diaz-Cotto, one of the few scholars to study women prisoners' activism, the silence around women prisoners' resistance from outside prisoner rights and service groups stems from a reluctance to support activism within women's prisons. The new literature on women in prison, which focuses on the causes, conditions and effects of incarceration, does not delve into what the women themselves do to change or protest these circumstances. For example, Karlene Faith, the coordinator of the 1970s Santa Cruz Women's Prison Project, the first higher education programme for women in prison, cites virtually no examples of women's individual or collective acts of resistance in her book Unruly Women. Even The Celling of America, edited by the imprisoned (male) editors of Prison Legal News, which includes articles on prisoner organising, omits instances of female resistance. This reflects a continued lack of outside recognition for women prisoners who act as their own agents for social change. The lack of public attention, even from male prisoner activists, outside prisoner rights groups, or the organised women's movement leads to a vicious cycle, undercutting--rather than supporting--the resistance that does emerge. Invisibility tends to discount not only women's resistance, but the validity of the issues and forms of oppression they are resisting. It assumes and thereby reinforces women's alleged passivity in the face of oppressive conditions.

Reality of Women Prisoners' Resistance

But women prisoners' individual and collective resistance does exist, and takes as many forms as the oppression they face, including some of the most demonstrative forms that have drawn media attention to men's prisons. …

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