Women, Incarceration and Carceral Feminism

by: Olivia Laramie

On September 20 at 5:30 PM students, faculty and residents of the Five College area met in the Student Union Ballroom at the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus to hear from panelists about women in incarceration. The panel was presented by the History Department’s Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series. This was the first panel in the series. This panel was entitled “Women, Incarceration, and Carceral Feminism.”

The moderator for the evening was Victoria Law. Law is a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. Law is also an author. She wrote Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. Law is the cofounder of Books Through Bars, a nonprofit that sends free books and educational materials to prisoners and aims to educate the public about incarceration.  Books Through Bars had a table in the back of the room during the panel where audience members could donate books.

The panel began with a spoken word poem from panelist, Herschelle Reaves. Reaves is an organizer with Arise for Social Justice, a non-profit organization in Springfield, MA. Arise for Social Justice is a self-described “low income led, anti-oppression organization”. Reaves is also the author of her own memoir, B.O.S.S.: Broken Only Still Standing.

She said, “Sometimes I don’t want to carry the burdens of this capitalist society and this racism on my shoulders...Two and half jobs, trying to make it work while you’re trying to save the [explicit] world...I got issues like will my daughter make it and how can I possibly ensure that she does…”

Law then went on to define carceral feminism to the crowd.

“Carceral feminism describes an approach that sees increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to violence against women.”

Law informed the crowd that harsher punishment doesn’t erase an attack.  She asked hypothetical questions to  the audience: “Will a longer prison sentence deter others from attacking and assaulting? Will prison teach people not to rape? Will it teach people to respect women’s bodies?”

In 2014, 106,000 women were in prison according to Law. This number does not include local jails and trans women and other people who are not included in the government’s binary system of men and women. This number also does not include women in immigrant detention centers.

Andre James was next to speak. James is the founder of Families for Justice as Healing and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. James worked for more than 25 years as a youth worker to a former criminal defense attorney.

James began by informing the crowd of a petition circulating around Massachusetts. “[The prison system] is trying to further restrict the visits to incarcerated people in Massachusetts. They want to shrink who can come into the prisons more than they already are restricted.” The petition is against this piece of legislation!

James was sentenced to 24 months in federal prison at the age of 45. She spent 18 months in this prison with about 200,000 other women. During the summer of 2010, James recalled sitting around an outdoor table with other female prisoners and starting the organization, Families for Justice as Healing. She recalled how supportive the other women were.

“The only people that get you are the women who were on those bunks with you.”

This organization works to send women home from prison early. The program focuses on women who are in jail for nonviolent drug offenses. For more information on the program, visit: candoclemency.com.

Herschelle Reaves then spoke about her own experience in the federal justice system. She told the audience that active addiction is the real problem. While trying to escape the endless cycle that is addiction, these women accrue charges that they can’t get out of. Due to poverty, they cannot afford proper legal representation. Reaves also stressed  that when white people are arrested for nonviolent drug related crimes, they are often pointed in the direction of rehabilitation. Reaves said that is often assumed that people of color cannot afford rehabilitation so the only option they are given is jail time. “When I go to these treatment programs, all I see are white faces… but they tell us it’s all us.”

Mariame Kaba was next to the mic. Kaba is the founding director of project NIA, a grassroots organization dedicated to ending youth incarceration. In Swahili, NIA means “with purpose”. As defined by their website, project NIA’s main purpose “is to prepare communities to get involved in creative an effective strategy to address violence and crime.”

Kaba began by quoting Beth Richie, author of Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation. “In order to understand women’s experience of offending, we have to look at their prior experience of being harmed.” Kaba mentioned assault survivors who were criminalized for self-defense.

Kaba spoke to her opinion on carceral feminism. “Feminists should not be partnering with the state; the state itself is violent, collaborating with the state makes us part of the violence.” Kaba stated that partnering with law enforcement means partnering with their agenda. Kaba says their agenda does not care about marginalized people.

“This violent system harms survivors and we need to eradicate it to make sure survivors don’t continue to get harmed by the state. The prison itself is the rapist and the serial killer; if you don’t understand that you need to talk people who have been on the inside.”

The final speaker for the evening was Elias Vitulli. Vitulli is a Gender studies professor at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA. His research focuses on trans* people in United States prisons.

Vitulli began by displaying artwork on the screen behind the panelists. The artwork was from a book called Hidden Expressions: Volume 2. The images in the book are artwork done by incarcerated trans feminine people. Vitulli stated that he believes trans women of color may be one of the most incarcerated people in the United States.

“[They are] punished in a hetero-patriarchal society for choosing to be feminine when they were assigned male at birth.”

While incarcerated, trans women most often do not have access to hormone therapy, gender appropriate clothing, or gender appropriate grooming products. It is difficult for trans women to even access bras. They often have to cut their hair to appeal to traditional male standards.

Vitulli made mention of Zine projects. A zine is a self-published print booklet that is often filled with essays, photography, drawings, poetry, etc. The book, Hidden Expressions is considered a zine book.  Hidden Expressions was created by trans women, three of whom were incarcerated at the time. Common themes from the booklet include love for trans femininity, community, power, collective action, and support.

Vitulli stated that, “[the zine] is an avenue for which transgender people have the space to speak for [themselves]; to stand and say ‘enough is enough’”.

The evening concluded with a question and answer section between the audience and the panelists.

“What we need to be pushing for is freedom for all of us, at all times.” -Mariama Kaba