I write about incarcerated women and corrections education because I see how prison (and all its attendant systems) does so much more harm than good. The prison system was designed by men, to dominate and control other men, and those practices are even more traumatizing and harmful for women. Women were never a significant part of the prison population until the early 90s. Between 1990 and 1995, the number of women’s prisons in the US more than doubled, and by 2010, women made up nearly 7% of the prison population.
There are many reasons for this – ‘tough on crime’ laws, including mandatory minimums and three strikes, and increased criminalization of drug use and non-violent offenses. What I see is that women are punished for making bad relationship decisions, being poor, uneducated, black, and having untreated mental health and addiction issues. Literature and reporting reveal that the vast majority of women in prisons have suffered some form of abuse, with at least 25% of them reporting abuse while they were minors.
What does all of this have to do with romance? Given all of these factors, it becomes almost impossible not to romanticize incarcerated women. It is far too easy to think of them as innocent victims, as people at the constant mercy of men, systemic abuse and injustice, and their own broken-ness. While all those things may be true, casting them in the role of victims and martyrs is a mistake.
When we cast people as victims and insist that that they think of themselves in that way, we remove their autonomy and their responsibility for their choices. This is such a crucial component of working with women that it bears repeating: We must not cast incarcerated women in the role of victims and martyrs. When we do, we remove their autonomy, and their sense of responsibility for their own actions. Accepting their responsibility, regardless of the why, is a key step toward understanding that they can make different choices.
My advocacy does not mean that I wear blinders, or rose-colored glasses. I am keenly aware that the women I work with have committed crimes, wreaked havoc, hurt people, destroyed their families, and left swathes of devastation in their wake. I speak with them openly about this, because having those blunt, uncolored conversations about accepting responsibility must happen. If they are to heal, we cannot pretend that they didn’t do terrible things, or that those choices somehow weren’t theirs.
Before I started working at CCCF, I leaned much more toward the romantic view of incarcerated people – men and women. I had vague notions of unjust imprisonment, oppressive systems, and innocent people being victimized. I realize now that even though those things are sometimes true, society still has to manage people who endanger themselves and others. We don’t always do it well, which is why the system needs vigilant watchdogs and advocates and transformation, but we need to do that work with our eyes open and unclouded by romantic ideals.