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Why Women Joined—And Didn’t Join—One Of The Largest Prison Strikes In US History

The number of incarcerated women participating in a national prison strike launched on September 9 may be very small compared to the number of incarcerated men, however, their actions have been no less significant.

“I would like you and supporters to know that there was a symbolic protest at Washington Correctional Center for Women in Gig Harbor on September 9,” an anonymous prison staff member wrote in a message published by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

“Three women refused to go to work in the prison library. The emergency response team was dispatched and the women were taken to Segregation. At their hearing last week, they were given 20 days in [segregation], and are facing reclassification and probably the loss of their jobs.”

“In my opinion, this was a peaceful, non-violent expression of their opinions meant to draw attention to the issue of prison labor, and the response was much more disruptive than the event itself,” the staff member wrote. “The library has been closed since September 9. According to [department of corrections], this was the only action in the entire state of Washington.”

The women in Washington are not alone in their protest. There have been conflicting reports of a work stoppage at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California, where  Warden Deborah Johnson retired this past August after allegations that women were sexually abused. Prisoners also alleged guards allowed them to fight, used excessive force against them, and retaliated against those who lodged complaints.

Women at the Fluvanna Correctional Center For Women in Troy, Virginia, also reportedly engaged in a work stoppage. That facility was recently the subject of a class action lawsuit regarding inmate healthcare, which the facility contracted out to the controversial private health provider Corizon Health Services.

“We are treated like we are meaningless, like we have no worth,” said Colorado inmate TW. (TW and other women prisoners spoke to Shadowproof under the condition of anonymity to share their views on resistance behind bars.)

“No matter what our crime was or how long ago it was, we are all treated like crap. It doesn’t matter what you accomplish, how respectful you are, or how much you’ve changed; you’re still a number,” TW said.

“The challenge of speaking out is being stuck in here. In here, I have no voice. I want my voice to be heard. I want things to change even if it doesn’t benefit me, if it can help someone else it would still mean the world of difference to us all.”

When asked why it’s still important for her to speak out, TW said, “A closed mouth doesn’t get fed. One person alone can make a difference, even if it’s so small—it’s a start.”

“We are dehumanized, and we have such little medical and mental health care,” said prisoner JF. “If I don’t speak out, no one will.”

“These are already pretty broken women,” JF continued. “They come here to get better, to heal, and to become a ‘productive’ member of society, yet we are treated just as bad as though we [are] not humans.”

“We are oppressed and they think we are not strong enough to speak up for ourselves. They demand we do what they tell us to do; right, wrong, or indifferent,” JF said.

“I’ve seen girls, who have needed medical help badly, be ignored,” AN said. “I’ve seen correctional officers take advantage of the position of power they hold over women. With case managers, I’ve seen bias and racism from correctional officers towards inmates; it’s disgusting.”

“People need to know that our needs aren’t being met and that the Department of Corrections is not helping to correct people,” AN added. “I’m never coming back to this place, but I pray things change because it’s an endless cycle.”

A recent report on incarcerated women from the Vera Institute Of Justice found, “Once incarcerated, women must grapple with systems designed primarily for men. As a result, many leave jail with diminished prospects for physical and behavioral health recovery, as well as greater parental stress and financial instability.”

Incarcerated women often suffer from a history of trauma and abuse and many times end up in prison because of an addiction, mental illness, or for defending themselves from an attacker. They are sexually assaulted at higher rates, particularly by prison guards.

Aside from suffering the inhumane conditions common to most American jails and prisons, incarcerated women face some challenges that male prisoners do not. For instance, they often struggle to receive feminine hygiene products. Incarcerated pregnant women suffer from inadequate medical care. There have been reports of pregnant prisoners being shackled during doctors visits and while in labor, even in states where such practices are illegal. Incarcerated mothers struggle to stay in contact with and in custody of their children, who face their own hardships as they try to learn and live while their parent is behind bars.

Many of these women were incarcerated as young girls in the juvenile detention system. One study found incarcerated girls may experience “maltreatment, sexual abuse, inadequate education, and lack of appropriate mental and physical healthcare, all of which can negatively affect their development.” This was particularly the case for girls of color and those held in higher-security facilities.

Colleen Hackett is a formerly incarcerated person who works with women prisoners in two Colorado facilities. She is the editor of a magazine for incarcerated women and trans women, Unstoppable Publications. The magazine [PDF] provides these prisoners with a platform to share news between prisons, as well as artwork, poetry, and commentary on other issues of interest to this population.

Hackett said she expected some women would demonstrate solidarity with the labor protests individually and on a smaller scale, perhaps by refusing some meals or engaging in a brief hunger strike. She said prison labor and living conditions are just as brutal for women as they are for men, and the pay is equally as dismal. But she suggested that larger work stoppages on the scale of which some male facilities have engaged can be more challenging to organize in women’s facilities.

This is not to say incarcerated women are submissive or adverse to struggle. Before this month’s coordinated strikes began, for example, incarcerated mothers in US immigration detention centers went on hunger strike to protest their mistreatment and demand their release. But past traumas and experiences common to incarcerated women can make it difficult for many women to be in a place, where they have the confidence to engage in resistance.

“Some of the things we’re learning about women and trans women is that they have experienced disproportionate amount of violence on the streets or in their homes growing up before they even reach prison,” she explained. “This is also true for the male population, but the rates are much higher for women and trans women.”

“As a result,” Hackett said, “the patriarchal violence and trans-misogynistic violence that is enacted upon them causes disproportionate reports of mental health issues, trauma” and other problems. This is complicated by the fact that women and trans prisoners experience violence from other prisoners or guards regularly, and in the case of trans prisoners, they are often dealing with all of this while in protective custody or solitary confinement.

“Trans women are especially susceptible to sexual assault by other prisoners, as well as guards,” she noted.

All of these factors help make incarcerated women reluctant to engage in more overt acts of resistance.

Hackett highlighted the example of women who leave the facility for work, such as contracted farm laborers, and are subject to strip searches upon their return. “For women in particular, that can be re-traumatizing, and also it is often done inappropriately,” she said.

“I’ve heard reports of guards telling them to lift their labia, which was a recent issue in Colorado,” she said, referring to the effort to stop the Colorado Department of Corrections from conducting the invasive searches. “And there’s still reports of them violating that.”

When asked why more women’s facilities may not have joined the September 9 strikes, Hackett first reiterated her praise and support for the action. But she said the call put out by organizers didn’t speak to the “lived realities of women and trans women who are incarcerated.”

“I think that there are more issues that [women] are worried about on top of prison slavery that need to be addressed in the call-out and in the way we communicate to fem prisoners on the inside,” she said. She suggested linking prison slavery to patriarchal violence in order to link the work stoppages to womens’ and trans womens’ lives.

“There’s a belief among some women prisoners that they’re just not capable of doing what men do,” Hackett said. “The myth is that men all have each others’ backs, no matter what, but women are backstabbing.”

Hackett argued there is a tendency to focus on militant resistance in prisons and “that we underestimate the resistance that is happening in women’s prisons and jails.”

“There’s a lot of mutual aid and communities of resistance that are built among women,” she said, “especially those who are coping with past trauma or ongoing sexual or physical abuse. They provide each other support. That’s in essence an act of resistance.”

She noted, “When push comes to shove and there is a direct assault on their community,” incarcerated women speak out. She pointed to Colorado as an example, where women at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility objected to being forced to lift their labia during searches, Hackett said, “A whole bunch of women prisoners wrote to lawyers and their families and to the press saying this is what’s going on and they were able to get the ACLU involved and successfully win a lawsuit.”

Hackett also said there should be an acknowledgement of the consequences of reprisal women prisoners might face for their resistance. She noted that around two thirds of incarcerated women have children under the age of 18, and that “it’s really hard to lose connection to your family when you feel like thats all you got.”

One incarcerated woman suggested to Hackett that if they take action, they should get people on the outside to talk to their families, and “tell them this is us using our voice and standing up for our rights and speaking up against the power structure.” This would help families understand their action and possibly support them, “instead of their families [saying] ‘Ugh, she’s acting up again, she’s being a fool.'”

“If we can sort of put that political framework out there to their families,” she said, “they might be more understanding.”

“I think that when we communicate to prisoners on the inside, whether they be women or trans women, we have to sort of meet them where they’re at,” Hackett concluded. “If they’re still coping with any trauma or abuse, we’ve got to say, ‘What exactly do you need? And are you able to move into a mode where you’re resisting and pushing back against violence?'”

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.