- Living on the Inside
I am an incarcerated woman—something I never thought was possible for me, something that I never even vaguely conceived. In fact, during what little consideration I did give to the subject of prisons or locking people away, I am ashamed to now admit that I dismissed it as irrelevant to me. I held an underlying and unevaluated belief that people who were behind bars probably deserved to be there; the idea of a prison work crew chopping up rocks was not too harsh for prisoners. After all, these were people who had thwarted society’s norms, people who had violated other persons or property.
How blind I was.
I have been incarcerated now for over six years. It was a nightmare that brought me here, but the greater nightmare is the existence I wake up to every morning. I am wrongfully convicted—but that is a different story about the failures of the so-called justice system. I have learned a lot about prisons since I’ve been here, locked away first at Central California Women’s Facility and now at the California Institute for Women (CIW).
The larger picture of this prison industrial complex and how it has become a driving force in society is best told by statistics. These statistics were published by the Department of Justice (1999) and the Little Hoover Commission (2004). They will give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem here in our “Golden State.”
• Sixty-six percent of incarcerated women are single parents locked away for nonviolent offenses. Most were victims of abuse before they became offenders.
• Eighty percent of incarcerated women are mothers of dependent children. The state of California must respond to the needs of at least five hundred thousand children.
• More than half of all prison and jail inmates have mental health problems.
• Crime rates have been consistently dropping. The 2007 crime rate has dropped below 1973 levels.
• In 1973, California’s imprisonment rate was roughly 100 imprisoned for every 100,000 population. Today’s rate of imprisonment is 450 per 100,000 population.
• If California’s imprisonment rate stayed true to the crime rate, there would be 37,000 people behind bars today in the state, instead of the 173,000 who are now locked away. This reflects an 800 percent increase.
• Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison industrial complex. [End Page 19]
These are the practices in which we as a country participate, which has led to 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States. Never before in the entire history of civilization has a country locked away so many of its people.
So these numbers illustrate the general situation, but what about the individual women who I have come to know? When eight women share a 246-square-foot cell, they learn a lot about each other, like it or not.
One woman who I have come to know, Tanya, was convicted of dealing drugs, prostitution, and indecent exposure. These were crimes of survival more than anything else—an easier way to feed her children. Tanya was torn away from her babies, who are now being raised by the state. Because of the indecent exposure conviction, which she received because she accepted a plea bargain (thinking it would minimize her penalties so she would get home to her children sooner), Tanya will have to register as a sex offender when she leaves the prison setting. Will Tanya get a job offer after prison with this kind of conviction on her record? Will she get her children back from the system? I don’t know; Tanya doesn’t know. Tanya’s trip to prison is not only an “interrupted life,” but it is a life thrown away.
Anna, another woman I know, speaks very little English and is called an “illegal immigrant.” She worked as domestic help and sought to protect herself from an abusive employer by brandishing a knife. Anna is now serving a sentence of seven years to life for attempted murder because of a combination of overcharges, an overzealous prosecutor, and an overburdened public defender.
While incarcerated, Anna has had increasingly...