a world apart

This week I was assigned Cristina Rathbone’s A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars as part of my Foundations of Prison Ministry class. I was only required to read parts, but I ended up tearing through the whole thing. It helped that I had a snow day on Tuesday.

The book hits close to home (it looks like I’m calling Boston home now!) because the author lives in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood just a few miles away from mine. Plus, the subjects of the book are women incarcerated at nearby MCI-Framingham, a women’s prison, where I mentor an inmate who is in Boston University’s College Behind Bars program. I visit her as part of an interfaith initiative between Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological Seminary, the CIRCLE Prison Justice and Ministry Program.

Rathbone’s relationships with the five women whose stories constitute the majority of the book developed over five years — and were only the result of years of initial litigation for access to the prison. As she notes at the outset, she has just about only been in MCI-Framingham’s visiting room. But despite the considerable efforts of the powerful Massachusetts Department of Corrections to keep her out, Rathbone presents a comprehensive picture of life on the inside (in so far as any outsider can tell, I suppose).

The importance of the book lies in the fact that, Rathbone notes, “women behind bars are startlingly unlike their more violent male counterparts. Predominantly incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related offenses, they are frequently mere accessories to their crimes: girlfriends, wives, or lovers of drug dealers, even leaseholders of apartments in which drugs are stashed. Almost all have serious drug problems themselves, and about half are victims of domestic abuse.” It stands to reason that life inside a women’s prison would be different, too.

If the stereotypical male experience in prison is working out, illegal procurement of weapons and drugs, physical violence, and trying to escape, the stereotypical female experience is eating junk food, illegal procurement of underwear and personal hygiene products, gossiping, and trying to see children. But sex is the great unifier: It turns out that almost everyone, in both environments, sleeps with a fellow inmate or a guard.

The book alternates between the stories of a handful of women and the history of women’s incarceration in the U.S. I found the latter only of passing interest, in part because how little effect the past has had on the trajectory of how women now fare in the criminal justice system. The first women’s prison, Mount Pleasant, opened in 1838 on the grounds of the infamous Sing Sing prison, and it was closed in 1850. MCI-Framingham, which opened in 1877, is the oldest running women’s prison in the U.S., so its history could be instructive. But it falls into a depressingly rhythmic pattern: A reform-minded woman takes over and institutes changes aimed at true rehabilitation, and then a (usually male) higher-up decides that the programs and practices are self-indulgent and replaces the reformer with a traditionalist. And then a reform-minded woman takes over again . . . The regularity of the ups and downs made me wonder whether a permanent revolution will ever be possible.

rug hooking class at MCI-Framingham, 1948; photo via Framingham Public Library

rug hooking class at MCI-Framingham, 1948; photo via Framingham Public Library

In Rathbone’s account, MCI-Framingham, probably like many prisons in the era of government budget shortfalls, has very little in the way of programming. She writes: “Its website indicates a long list of programs available to the women of Framingham . . . but when you take into account the diversity and breadth of its population, it remains a fact that each women at MCI-Framingham has access to fewer programs, and therefore to fewer privileges and less prison-earned ‘good time,’ than most male prisoners in the state.” Indeed, Rathbone’s analysis is that the sexism of our society is reflected in the prison system: Men get disproportionate resources. But women in prison have disproportionate need, in part because of past abuse, drug addiction, mental illness, and their responsibility for children.

Sidebar: For what it’s worth, I should note a criticism of this analysis: Our class discussion on the book was led (in the absence of my professor) by Rev. Joyce Penfield, executive director of The Blessing Way, a Rhode Island institution that provides “spiritual guidance for reentry & recovery.” She argued that per capita, women get vastly more resources than men: There are more programs in men’s prisons, but they constitute 94% of the country’s prison population. I’m not sure that this changes the experience of scant resources that the women in Framingham report, but I feel compelled to mention this disagreement. And Penfield even went further, suggesting that her experience in the Rhode Island penal system is one of plenty where women are concerned.

Most compelling, as is so often the case, are the stories Rathbone tells. These are women you want to root for: None of them ever had much to begin with, were given pretty short shrift in life, and are now facing just about the steepest uphill climbs you can imagine. Most heartbreaking were the struggles with child-rearing. As women are most often the primary caregivers in our society, so too are they in prison. And they seemed to spend most of their energy behind bars monitoring the often insecure living situations of their kids. Unlike the majority of incarcerated men, each woman could not rely on her children’s other parent to do the care-taking in her absence.

Somewhat mystifying was Rathbone’s treatment of sexual relationships at the prison. She devotes a number of pages to the prevalence of these illicit affairs (physical touch between inmates and just about anyone is forbidden), both between prisoners and between prisoners and guards. Such contact is commonplace, even rampant, for all the same reasons that it is on the outside: One of the women in the book, who resists such affairs for most of her time in prison, even witheringly notes that her fellow inmates just replicate on the inside the same problematic relationships they had on the outside. Her cellmate hooks up with almost every officer that is interested, while another woman is involved in an abusive relationship with a fellow prisoner. And these relationships, like everything else in jail, are commodities. What’s lacking, to my mind, is a discussion of the question of whether carceral relationships can ever be truly consensual, particularly between inmates and guards. Rathbone only talks very briefly about allegations of rape in that institutional context — but devotes an entire chapter to a now-defunct web site that seeks to connect men to incarcerated women (ultimately called “Jail Babes” but originally and unfortunately dubbed “Jail Bait”). Maybe that says something important: As Rathbone begins her book, “Life in a women’s prison was full of surprises.”

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  1. […] — to say this with the privilege of marriage already in hand.) On Thursday I visited the inmate that I am mentoring — a queer woman of color — as she finishes her college degree as part of Boston […]

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