by Rickie Solinger, Paula C. Johnson, Martha L. Raimon, Tina Reynolds, and Ruby C. Tapia (eds). Berkeley, University of California Press, 2010. 450pp. ISBN: 9780520258891. Hardback. $55.00/£37.95. ISBN: 9780520252493. Paper. $21.95/£14.95. ISBN: 9780520258891. eBook. $18.00. ISBN: 9780520944565.
Reviewed by Jennifer Cobbina, Michigan State University, School of Criminal Justice. Email: cobbina [at] msu.edu.
In INTERRUPTED LIFE, Rickie Solinger, Paula Johnson, Martha Raimon, Tina Reynolds, and Ruby Tapia have put together a number of important essays on the timely topic of the experiences of incarcerated women. The volume is aimed towards practitioners, advocates, and those looking to “ally with the growing movement to dismantle systems of imprisonment and oppression through solidarity, collaboration, and action” (p.6). These essays integrate reports, personal stories, autobiographies, advocacy, and poetry on a number of critical topics, including the prevalence of female imprisonment and its impact on poor women of color; the complex issues that surround motherhood; various mechanisms women use to cope and function behind prison walls; and the challenges women face following their release from prison.
Given that the majority of female inmates are mothers of minor children, a number of essays specifically address the topic of children of incarcerated mothers, including: providing tips to incarcerated parents about how to regain custody of their children, examining the effect of termination of parental rights under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, and demonstrating programs that aim to strengthen the mother-child relationship during incarceration. A particularly compelling essay, written by staff at the Administration for Children Services in New York City, describes many of the rights and responsibilities parents have when their child is in foster care. Readers who are less familiar with the child welfare system will be surprised by the amount of planning that incarcerated parents must undertake to avoid having their parental rights terminated and to regain custody of their children. Adding to the confusion, under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, termination of parental rights must be brought after the child has been in foster care for 15 months. It is no wonder that many incarcerated parents have their rights terminated, as most are sentenced to more than two years in prison. This is highlighted in another essay by Arlene Lee, Philip Genty, and Mimi Laver who reveal that state law can terminate the rights of parents who are imprisoned without taking incarceration into account, resulting in permanent separation of families. While research has documented the important role of maintaining strong parent-child relationships, Lee and colleagues assert that “public policy aimed at preserving family relationships during and after incarceration is still severely lacking” (p.79). [*381]
Another focus of the essays in the volume involves strategies women use to adapt to institutional life. While some women establish close friendships with other inmates to function while under constraints of incarceration, others establish more affectionate relationships. One particularly interesting chapter focuses on how Chicano women behind bars defied their families’ and the prisons’ expectations of gender role mandates. Juanita Diaz-Cotto weaves quotes from her interview of 29 current and former female prisoners at Sybil Brand Institute for Women, a women’s jail in Los Angeles, with research documenting common ways female inmates cultivate relationships to satisfy their needs. These include engaging in intimate relationships while incarcerated, having sex with male staff to receive desired goods, changing their sexual identification or their beliefs about it (i.e. lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual), and establishing pseudo-families. In addition to relying on relationships, some resort to reading and writing memoirs, reports, essays, and poetry as acts of resistance against the institution, while for others prayer and spirituality serve as sustenance for incarcerated women. The writing covers a wide spectrum of intellectual, spiritual, and creative expressions, which according to one essay written by Anne Fowell Sanford gives “faces, names, details, and heart to dry statistics” (p.169).
An additional theme of the essays in the volume involves the rights of imprisoned women, including the right to adequate health care, to parent and visit their children, not to be treated as slaves, for the prosecutorial and incarceration system to distinguish between victims and perpetrators, to affordable prison-telephone rates, and to be treated with dignity and respect. These reports and personal stories on health care cover a wide spectrum of topics. This includes Johanna Hoffman’s discussion of the consequences of having inadequate and inefficient information and care regarding hepatitis C, pap smears, and basic care (pp.227-235), Tracy Lynn Hardin’s personal experience of attempting to receive adequate dental treatment (pp.236-241), contributions by both Nancy Stoller and Beverly Henry on the ultimate consequence (death) of horrible health care in prison (pp.246-251; 254-255), Tiffany Jackson’s poem on living with a deadly virus (p.256), as well as discussions of imprisoned women’s constitutional rights in Rachel Roth’s piece pertaining to pregnancy and abortion (pp.242-245), members’ of a grassroots organization regarding mental illness (pp.252-253), and a demand by incarcerated girls for safety, services, and basic resources (pp.257-258). The section ends with Sheila Enders’ discussion on the obstacles women experience expressing their medical care needs to their providers (pp.259-263), and a fact sheet that details the health challenges incarcerated women face (pp.264-270). In addition to healthcare, a number of the essays in one chapter underscore how women behind bars struggle to attain their rights, highlighting the role the correctional system plays in diminishing their rights and experiences of motherhood, family, and work. A particularly convincing essay from a prisoners’ newspaper, "The Fire Inside," critiques many of the labor conditions inside the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, contending that the correctional system has evolved into a form of new millennium slavery. While prison labor [*382] is typically justified as a means to reduce idleness and violence, in reality prisoners are considerably underpaid, many work in inhuman conditions, and often face dire consequences if they refuse or are unable to work. While the government has largely accepted this form of enslavement because prisons are a top growing industry, the authors attempt to educate the public about common practices that “violate prisoner-worker dignity and health and lay down a set of principles for protecting prisoner-workers’ rights inside” (p.316).
With the increasingly fast rate in which women are incarcerated, a variety of essays attend to the arbitrary nature in which many women are sentenced and detained in the United States, including: personal accounts of how immigrants and political refugees have less protection than U.S. citizens, the deplorable conditions female asylum seekers endure once they are detained, and the problems associated with holding women in prison for long periods. A particularly compelling essay by Kathy Boudin reviews the reasons why an increasing number of women are imprisoned and receiving longer sentences than in the past. Although the pathways most women take to prison are a result of victimization, drug and alcohol addiction, economic marginalization, and their attachment to male partners, those who commit violent offenses are typically denied parole. While many would argue this is justified given the nature of the offense committed, in her study of 92 women who were convicted of a violent crime and were released in New York, Boudin found that they were least likely to recidivate, as only one percent returned to prison for a new offense. Ironically, despite being model prisoners, many are constantly denied parole, contributing to feelings of hopelessness among incarcerated women.
Finally, the last theme of the book addresses the experiences, challenges, and obstacles formerly incarcerated women face following their release from prison. A number of essays address the topic of life on the outside, including: the difficulty former prisoners face in finding employment, securing housing, receiving adequate treatment, reuniting with children and family, and becoming eligible for various forms of social benefits, such as welfare and food stamps. Underlying many of these challenges are discriminatory laws against individuals with criminal records, which make it increasingly difficult for returning prisoners to gain a foothold in society. Despite the structural barriers that are in place, several essays document advocacy programs, projects, and initiatives designed to help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women tackle multi-faceted challenges, effectively advocate for themselves, improve criminal justice policies, and combat discrimination.
By sharing the stories of current and formerly incarcerated women, their advocates, abolitionists, and academics, INTERRUPTED LIFE offers an insightful picture of this typically forgotten group. One important limitation, however – especially for teaching and research purposes – is that the essays which present research findings often do not include a discussion of methodology and analysis, and there is limited citation and reference to scholarly works to support [*383] some of the arguments the authors make. This somewhat limits the book’s utility for upper division and graduate courses, despite the richness of the materials included.
Overall, the primary contribution of this collection of essays is its broad appeal to a wide audience in order to bring to light the voices of a typically invisible group: incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. While the book is lengthy (more than 450 pages), practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and others interested in women and prison will be exposed to extensive coverage of women’s experiences and struggles in and out of prison. The editors and several authors recommend either abolishing or reforming the current correction system to alleviate iniquities of the prison. According to the authors, failure to take action will result in soaring female imprisonment rates, an even larger overrepresentation of poor women of color with the prison system, and continued dehumanization of women within the prison system. While the editors’ stance on the need to abolish prisons and change the status quo is sure to spark debate, it is clear that warehousing individuals behind prison walls does much more harm than good to women and their families.
© Copyright 2010 by the author, Jennifer Cobbina.