“Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women” by Victoria Law

2nd edition cover!

Second Edition, 2012, PM Press

In the introduction, ex-Weather Underground cadre and Resistance Conspiracy Case political prisoner Laura Whitehorn describes her nine months in a Baltimore City Jail that preceded her 14 years in prison.  The recent growth of support for prisoners and prison statistics in the U$ are also described in their context of the ever growing Prison Industrial Complex.

She notes how Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow describes how the government’s so-called War on Drugs has been an attack on Black communities, but doesn’t address women in prison, whose numbers have grown far faster in proportion to men in recent years.

Interspersed with a review of Law’s book, Whitehorn goes on to write about her own time in federal prison.

The Author’s Introduction starts with Law’s personal story of friends going to jail starting when she was 15, and her own arrest for armed robbery when she was 16.  Her radicalization through this process including visiting friends in jail and all the other people she met there, co-founding a free books to prisoners group, co-curating a prisoner art show, and her research on prisoner organizing, and how she refused to believe women prisoners didn’t organize.  The story of this research going from a school paper to a ‘zine, then eventually this book is told.

In an Overview Law outlines the statistics representing the incarceration of women in the U$ and racial profiling.  She also writes about the lack of written material on women prisoners, the general lack of knowledge on women prisoners’ resistance such as the 1974 August Rebellion in New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility or the riot at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women the following year.

Law goes on to describe various challenges to organizing in prison, especially retaliation.  She also examines the social control aspect of prisons and how and why reformatories of the early 20th century were only for women.

What follows in a lot of ways, is a book formatted more like a ‘zine, with the following chapters simply entitled with their specific subjects, then broken down into very specific, labeled sub-sections.  At the same time, there are extensive end notes for those who are interested in doing further research.

In UNLIKELY COMMUNITIES, mutual aid, in-depth AIDS education done by and for prisoners, and support groups for battered women and lifers are all described, including the political struggles of women who fought to attain and got their clemency granted.

In BARRIERS TO BASIC CARE Law starts off with how “In 1976, in Estello v. Gamble the Supreme Court ruled that deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious medical needs violates the Eighth Amendment.” but then goes on to explain how despite this ruling, prisoners’ health care continues to be neglected all too often, even to the point of death.  Law focuses on how this relates to women’s health, such as in cases of pregnancy and breast cancer.

This format of hard hitting facts and statistics, followed by personal stories of prisoners is another basic element of the book.  Continuing along these lines, Law describes the struggles of mothers in prison in the next chapter.

Sexual Abuse, and the struggle for accountability is the subject of the next chapter.  Education, both for credit and peer to peer is covered in the next chapter.  Prison labor is covered in the next chapter,  followed by an entire chapter about the general struggle for better conditions in the prisons both through grievances and lawsuits, and using media. 

The next chapter goes even further into the media aspect.  Going from the corporate media of the previous chapter, this one’s sub-sections include Utilizing Radical Feminist Media, Working with Prisoner Rights Groups, Creating their Own Media, and New Possibilities:  Utilizing E-mail, to explain some of the various ways female prisoners have used or created media outside of the bourgeoise press.  Forbidden Words details prison mailroom censorship and in Getting Their Words Out, Law describes distribution, or lack there of, of women prisoners’ writings. 

The next chapter is about Women in Immigrant Detention Centers, followed by a full length chapter on the history of the Prison Industrial Complex.  After the glossary is an extensive resources list, with the contact information and a paragraph description of some 61 different groups.  Though I did notice one big error here; she lists South Chicago ABC’s address to be in Minneapolis.  For a moment, I thought maybe they were another group of that name in MPLS since I belive there’s a North-South street there named Chicago, but… it’s the address for Boneshaker Books, or so the oracle tells me.  You can actually write them at:

S. Chi ABC ‘Zine Distro

PO Box 721

Homewood, IL 60430

They carry two ‘zines by Law, free for indigent prisoners!  Anthony Rayson, who is mentioned twice in Law’s book is the main person behind S Chi ABC.  He’s retiring and can use help!   

Law also suggests these other groups for prisoner resource lists:  http://www.prisonactivist.org, http://www.criticalresistance.org, http://www.prisonbookprogram.org/nprl.php and http://www.fcnetwork.org.

RECOMMENDED READING includes a paragraph synopsis each of 15 books, five periodicals, and eight reports.

Afterwards is A NOTE ABOUT TRANSGENDER, TRANSSEXUAL, INTERSEX AND GENDER-VARIANT PEOPLE IN PRISON which is a chapter length addition to the second volume, the first one having only one story.

And in the epilogue, Law points out how the stories collected in the book “are only the tip of the iceberg.”  She goes on to explain how touring the U$ after the first edition came out, she learned many stories some of which she includes here.

Law also describes acts of women’s resistance behind bars that have occurred since 2010, and tells stories of outside activism of female ex-convicts. 

Recent radio appearance by the author:  http://prisonbooks.info/2012/11/05/victoria-law-on-the-struggles-of-incarcerated-women/#more-1826

Author’s page on PM Press includes a couple videos on the youtube:  http://www.pmpress.org/content/article.php?story=vikkilaw

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2 responses to ““Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women” by Victoria Law

  1. It’s very difficult for women prisoners to tell their stories to male prisoner supporters, for a variety of reasons. Vikki Law has been a real beacon of light and understanding for these prisoners. She’s been very dedicated and consistent in this crucial work. Good overview, Alex! Let’s go get them! @nthony Rayson of South Chicago ABC Zine Distro.

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