Occupy Prisons

“Manhandled, arrested, cuffed, searched, and locked away in the Tombs” is how AlterNet described the story of protester Barbara Schneider Reilly, who spent 30 hours in jail after being arrested at an Occupy Wall Street-related protest in October 2011.

Reilly reported: “During the long, cold night in the Tombs, at some point we asked a female officer if we could have some blankets. ‘We have no blankets.’ Some mattresses since we were 12 or so people? ‘We have no more mattresses.’ Some change in exchange for dollar bills so we could call parents and loved ones? (The one public telephone in the cell would only take coins.) ‘It’s against regulations.’ Some soap? ‘Maybe we’ll come up with some soap.’ After no, no, no to every reasonable request, we wound up with a small jar of soap. Distressing is hardly the word for a culture of willful neglect and the exercise of what power those officers held over us for those 30 hours.”

While Reilly’s experience was horrific, it is only a sliver of the atrocities that over 114,000 women in prisons and jails must endure on a daily basis. When the article first appeared, I printed it out and circulated it to several currently incarcerated women and asked how Schneider’s weekend compared to their own realities.

“It’s always great to see stories like Barbara Schneider’s published. It’s important that as many people as possible spread the word about jails, prisons, incarceration and our justice system,” wrote RJ, a woman who had been incarcerated in Colorado. “As a prisoner myself, Schneider’s descriptions are definitely familiar: Thousands of people experience similar processes every day, many for years on end. Each time a story of incarceration is shared, I hope we think of ALL who are in jail/prison. Regardless of what has led to our arrest and whether we have been held for ten hours, ten years, not yet, or never, the same oppressive system contains us. We all are offered dehumanization and brutality in the name of order, rehabilitation, deterrence or justice.”

“Her experience was just a tip of the iceberg,” wrote Terrina, another woman incarcerated in Colorado. “I am, by no means, trying to minimize her experience because incarceration is horrible for anyone that goes through it. However, she was blessed that she was somewhere that the spotlight was being shined on. Can you imagine how the forgotten people feel? The ones with no family, no support, no organization standing behind them?”

Terrina describes what the process is like for those entering the prison system:

When someone arrives at DW, you’re stripped, photographed, poked, prodded, asked a bunch of questions that seem to have no bearing on your actual crime or personal situation (although the answers do chart out a path for your life in DOC), and given a piece of dry stale cake to eat. Yes cake. And that is it for the day. When you take into account that the prisoners are awake and traveling before 6am, without food or drink, from the county jail, and scared, anxious and unsure of the upcoming events, not being fed until 6pm is an awfully long time.

The women are placed in the first living unit. Although it is called a LIVING unit, you would think it is more like a kennel. The women are allowed out of their cell for one hour a day. At that time, they have to shower, use the phone, and try to learn the rules and regulations of their new surroundings without any guidance from the officers. Yes, it is true that there are “Posted Operational Regulations” (PORs) but … Lord forbid that the officers tell the new inmates how to use the telephone, when they are allowed to shower, how to get their medication, if needed, and, if they are pregnant, they are lucky if they are allowed to receive prenatal treatment for the first month that they are here. The women live like animals for at least a month before moving to the next “living” unit. Once they move, they are allowed TWO hours out a day. No classes, one hour a week at the gym, a minimal church, and hopefully by now the new girl has found a decent “old number” that can explain the way of her new world. If not … she’s still shit out of luck.

Unfortunately she still has to deal with the same offices that she’s been around for the first month. At this time, her telephone system should be working. However, the case managers that are supposed to be there to help are not able to explain the phone system, the classes that are available, the jobs that are attainable, or even the canteen that should be purchasable. Three to four weeks later and the confusion begins all over with another “living” unit move. Previously, contact with the other offenders was restricted altogether. Now you are thrown into a space set up like the monkey exhibit at most zoos. It is so overwhelmingly loud and disorganized that many women shut down, get angry, fight, and begin to behave like the animals they are being treated like.

In this new building, the inmate is supposed to automatically know the rules they were never taught, they’re expected to know where to go and when, which sidewalks to walk on at specific times, who they are and aren’t allowed to talk to, and are expected to show up to work on time, usually without knowing that they have even been assigned a job…

Let’s take a moment and discuss the jobs: labor crew, kitchen, laundry … those are the first jobs available. DOC pays 60 cents a day to do the work that keeps the facility running. The majority of inmates MUST pay restitution, which is, of course, taken out of their state pay … so after a full month of working hard, they are able to spend approximately $10.63. The only thing that is free in DOC is one roll of toilet paper a week and one pack of sanitary pads per month. If the inmate has a heavy menstrual cycle and needs more pads, she has to pay $4 to get them. Toothpaste, toothbrush, body soap, a brush or comb, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, hair grease, floss, any hygiene besides one roll of toilet paper a week, the inmate HAS to pay for. Since I have been in prison, the prices of canteen have gone up at least every two to three months. Why hasn’t the rate of our pay? The state is allowed to charge more for the toothpaste, but unable to pay us enough to purchase it? Don’t get caught giving away any hygiene if you are lucky enough to have it because then you can get a write-up for loaning and bartering or unauthorized possession if you don’t have a receipt for the items in your room.

These inhumanities are of the everyday variety for women behind bars. Then there are the other injustices that are all too common in women’s prisons nationwide:

  • Health care: Women in prison are more likely to be HIV+ than either men in prison or women who are not in prison. In 2000, women in prison were 60% more likely to have HIV than men in prison. Women in prison are 36 times more likely than women outside to have HIV. In addition, prisons are not likely to have female-specific health care (pregnancy, breast and cervical cancer screenings, GYN services, etc) and so women’s health needs often go untreated.
  • Parenting: More than 80% of women in prison are mothers to children under the age of eighteen. Because of the ways in which parenting is gendered, when a mother goes to prison, she is far less likely to have a co-parent, partner or family member who is willing and able to take care of her children. As a result, children of imprisoned mothers are five times more likely to end up in foster care than children of incarcerated fathers. This statistic became even more devastating in 1997 when Congress passed the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). Under the Act, if a child has been in foster care for fifteen of the past 22 months, the state has to automatically begin terminating legal custody. Only three states make exceptions for parents who are in prison. If a mother is fortunate enough to maintain the legal rights to her child(ren), the distance of the prison from her home community makes it less likely that she will ever receive a visit from her child. More than 50% of mothers in prison reported never having received a visit from their children.
  • Sexual Assault: In 1996, Human Rights Watch released All Too Familiar, a report documenting sexual abuse of women prisoners throughout the United States.  The report, reflecting the organization’s two-and-a-half years of research, found that sexual assaults, abuse and rape of women prisoners by male staff members were common and that women who complained incurred write-ups, loss of “good time” accrued toward an early parole and/or prolonged periods in disciplinary segregation.[1] Little has changed in many prisons since the report’s release in 1996. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits gender discrimination in employment, giving both male and female guards the right to gender-neutral employment in prisons housing prisoners of the opposite gender. Male staff members have been placed in female facilities with little to no training on cross-gender supervision and no procedures for investigating or disciplining staff sexual misconduct. In Michigan and other states, untrained male officers were assigned to positions in which they were able to walk, unannounced, into areas where women dress and undress, shower, and use the toilet. Male guards have also been given the task of performing body searches on prisoners, which includes patting down women’s breasts and genital areas. They also transported women to medical care and were required to observe gynecological and other intimate medical procedures.[2] It was not until incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women won a class-action lawsuit were restrictions on male access put into place.
  • Abuse and battering: More than half of women in state prisons and jails report having experienced physical and/or sexual abuse.[3] Women are three times more likely than men to have been physically and/or sexually abused prior to incarceration.[4]

In 1964, peace activist Barbara Deming spent 27 days in jail in Albany, Georgia. Deming and a group of activists had embarked on a Peace Walk from Quebec to Guantanamo, the American army base in Cuba. When the walk reached Georgia, the Peace Walkers found it impossible to demand peace without also demanding the right of all people — black and white — to walk together down any street in any city. In Albany, where the police chief had boasted that he had defeated Martin Luther King non-violently,[5] the group twice attempted to walk through the White section of town; each time, they were arrested and brought to the county jail. Deming was among the group of fifty-four women arrested the second time. Her fellow Peace Walker Yvonne, who spent first 24 days in jail and 27 days the second time, wrote: “If there is anything I have learned by being in jail, it is that prisons are wrong, simply and unqualifiedly wrong.”[6]

Nearly fifty years later, in 2011, Barbara Schneider Reilly ends her account of jail on an optimistic note: “Society must be changed. They insist on it, and, I hope, will continue to insist. And, not withstanding the difficulties ahead, we will fight for it.”

One hopes that these fights also recognize and include the struggles of people in prison. As RJ states,

“When we hear and tell our stories, we must think of the abuse that is churning behind the razor wire at that moment. When we are released, or when we greet our friends outside the gates, we must think of the person who is already waiting to fill the vacant bed. We must imagine what it will take to disable this corrupt industry with its devastating methods that are carried out under the lie of ‘bettering society.’ We must not turn our backs on each other!”

Spurred on by prison justice organizers, people in the various Occupy movements are beginning to realize this and are calling for a National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners on Monday, February 20, 2012. There will be actions across the nation. To find out about the nearest one, go to: http://occupy4prisoners.org/actions/.

Victoria Law is a writer, photographer, mother, and Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women(PM Press, 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison, and a co-founder of Books Through Bars — NYC. She is currently working on transforming Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, a zine series on how radical movements can support the families in their midst, into a book.


[1]  Human Rights Watch, All Too Familiar.6.

[2] Jennifer Bagwell, “Barred from View: How Michigan Keeps the Lid on Allegations of Widespread Sexual Abuse Against Female Inmates,” Metro Times: Detroit’s Alternative Weekly, March 24, 1999.

[3] Beth E. Richie and Kay Tsenin, Female Offenders, Pornography and Prostitution, Child Abuse and Neglect, research forum on women and girls in the justice system for the Department of Justice, 1999.

[4] Caroline Wolf Harlow, Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates and Probationers, special report for the U.S. Department of Justice, April 1999, 1.

[5] Barbara Deming, Prisons That Could Not Hold, 6.

[6] Deming, Prisons That Could Not Hold, 36.

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