- Whither Justice: Stories of Women in Prison, and: Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System
The two books reviewed in this article concern themselves with the lives of women in prisons. One focuses on India while the other looks predominantly at the United States. Although the women profiled in these two books come from dissimilar cultures, they face alarmingly similar circumstances. Particularly troubling is the way in which incarcerated women in both countries are overwhelmingly poor, undereducated, abused, and incarcerated by corrupt criminal justice systems.
Whither Justice: Stories of Women in Prison by Nandini Oza is a book about the problems faced by incarcerated women in India. It is based on the author’s Masters fieldwork, for which she was placed in a local jail for women. However, in a curious omission, Oza does not specify in what part of India the jail is located. It was through her fieldwork that Oza became aware of the injustices meted out by the Indian penal system, particularly where women are concerned.
I realized that, in many cases, women were being punished for crimes they had not committed, or crimes that they were forced into, in many ways inevitably, due to the fact that they were women . . . In many cases these women were paying the price for the crimes of society.(xiv)
Oza recounts the information she gathered in her fieldwork as fictional stories. She indicates that this choice was driven by a desire to protect the [End Page 252] identities of the women; highlight the connections between the social, economic, and political aspects of the women’s lives; make the accounts more palatable to a wider audience, and “articulate and highlight the issues, desires, feelings and thoughts not clearly raised by the women themselves, though these were obvious while they talked about their lives with me” (xv). However, not only is the last reason vague, but it also is never made clear how and why the use of a fictive format enhances these elements. Furthermore, while her desire to protect the identities of the women profiled is certainly understandable, she seems to have gone to extreme lengths, as there is no information provided regarding the region in India on which Oza’s work focuses.
Another problematic outcome of Oza’s choice to recount the experiences of the women as fictional stories and, in particular, to expand upon issues “not clearly raised by the women themselves” is the fact that it is often difficult to discern when she is engaging in such deductions and elaboration. For example, chapter 2, “Homeless: Revli’s Story,” tells the story of how a woman, Revli, and her family are pushed off their land by wealthy developers. As a result, they find themselves suddenly homeless and without means to meet daily expenses or purchase medical care for an ailing son. Therefore, Revli agrees to smuggle packages of illegal drugs to a nearby village. The pay is good, but the work is dangerous and eventually she is arrested and sentenced to ten years in jail. Oza spends considerable time describing the dismal jail conditions and the demeaning, unpaid labor—such as doing laundry for the entire all-male jail staff, mending blankets and sheets, and massaging the wardens’ feet—performed by the female inmates. At one point, Oza claims, “The static, bleak existence went on and on, month after month, year after year, without a moment’s respite. The suffocation of being enslaved was heartrending; to take wings and flee was the only persistent, maddening thought among one and all” (14). Here, Oza seems to speak not only for the women, but also as one of the women—a perspective that is confusing and perhaps unwarranted, even in light of the degree of familiarity she undoubtedly achieved whilst “on the inside” as a researcher.
Another problem with Oza...