[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]
Women, especially poor women and women of color, experience violence at the hands of street cops, prison guards, johns, fathers, partners and lovers. For most women in prison, incarceration functions as one more in a series of acts of violence against them. Then, being incarcerated is used as an excuse for further acts of violence, including sexual violence, medical neglect, physical brutality and the removal of their children.
Beyondmedia Education is a media arts activist organization that strives to aid women and girls in producing media that shares their stories, including their stories of surviving these traumatizing experiences.
In the course of Beyondmedia’s ongoing collaboration with women on prison issues, we have had the privilege of speaking with many women about the continuum of violence in their lives. The one-of-a-kind web-based archive Women and Prison: A Site for Resistance builds on these interviews, bringing together stories of violence in a way that highlights women’s firsthand ac-counts of their own lives. These are the stories of women for whom the criminal justice system is one more tool used against them by their abusers. These are the stories of trans-women who are denied any protection from violence while being housed in men’s prisons. These are the stories of women who are resisting the violence of incarceration on a daily basis.
In presenting these stories, we are creating a map of women’s experiences of violence. This map extends across the boundaries of public/ private, urban/rural, and state-sanctioned/ illegal. These complex geographies of women’s lives include multiple paths of resistance, including organizing, legal challenges, mutual aid, personal acts of defiance and self-care, and —above all—survival. Marking out the continuum of violence in these women’s lives serves the same purpose as any map, helping us in understanding the world around us more clearly, and providing direction for our movements.
The following Beyondmedia interviews with women impacted by the prison system describe their experiences with state and private violence. The women interviewed share their important perspectives mainly with those who haven’t experienced the same kinds of repression. The full text of these interviews is available, along with other stories of women’s experiences in prison and selected video and audio clips, at http://www.womenandprison.org.
Yolanda Mills is a former member of Visible Voices, a support and advocacy group of formerly incarcerated women. Visible Voices collaborated with Beyondmedia to create the video What We Leave Behind in 2001, as well as the Voices in Time traveling exhibit.
“[The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) took me from my mother when] I was about nine or ten years old…And every foster home I went to I ran away… [In the foster homes,] the father used to try to molest me, touch me, try to con me, talk to me, ask me questions, or maybe the brother, or the son, or grandson or somebody, it’s just not safe—not for a girl. For a girl to go in a foster child it should be a lady herself. [With] an old lady, no men around. No, not to be taking no responsibility like that. No.”
Brenda Myers-Powell is an activist with Prostitution Alternatives RoundTable (part). This excerpt is from an interview completed in the process of making the 2006 video Turning a Corner about women leaving prostitution.
“…One other thing that happened in the emergency room was that they were going to take care of me, and they brought in the police because they thought I was a victim of domestic violence. When they found out that I was just a prostitute, they all kinda just turned away because they didn’t think that I was actually worth the time. I remember them saying that, ‘Oh, she’s just a prostitute.’ So I really wanted to die because not only was I brutally beat up, but nobody cared. ”
Donna Henry is a former member of Visible Voices. She contributed this story of losing her children to the Voices in Time exhibit.
“[I lost my kids] by going to jail. They felt that—dcfs felt that—there was no one there. How’d they put it… wasn’t nobody there able as they claim enough to take care of my kids, but I felt that was a bunch of crap because they father stepped up, my family was there. […]
“They did not notify me. My family, I called home and my sister, my neighbor told me. Then my sister came and told me everything that happened. Dcfs steps into your life and… it’s not like the first time to deal with them coming into my life. I had two herion addicted kids, you know, so I been dealing with herion for about six, seven years. I was kind of angry for them coming back in my life… because I felt like I did what I needed to do to get them out my life. . . as I sit down now and think about it, it’s hard to come to grips with it, but I’m doing what I can do now to get my kids back. It’s not easy being in the penitentiary knowing that dcfs is in control of your kids.”
Pamela Thomas is the former director of Rose House, a rehabilitation center for women returning to Lake County from prison. In this story, she describes an incident in which she called the police for protection and was instead arrested. She was violated on her parole and sentenced to eighteen months in prison as a result of her interaction with the police that night.
“So I go in, and I call police ’cause he just started getting—he always used to try to intimidate me. Right. But see, I ain’t the old Pam. See, now I got a little bit of self-esteem, so you not fittin’ to intimidate me. So I go call the police.
“Well they get there, and they feel that—he’s out there before I can get out there, and he’s telling them about my history. He’s telling them about my history… I’ve been to jail, prison. You know, I used to use drugs and all that. And by the time I get out there, he done told this police all this…
“He told them I was on parole, and the police mentioned it. And when he mentioned it, I told him, I said, ‘Because I’m on parole, you telling me that I can’t call the police? You’re telling me that I don’t have the right to ask this man to leave my house where I pay rent at?’ And I start getting loud and belligerent. And the police told me I was going to jail. He arrested me. And by me being on parole, it violated the condition…”
Diana Delgado is a former advocacy worker at Chicago Legal Advocates for Incarcerated Mothers (claim).
“…And when I had to have my daughter, I couldn’t have nobody with me. I couldn’t even call my family and tell them that I was having a baby because they consider that an escape risk if they know that you’re at the hospital they could come and try to break you out. So you can’t tell nobody when you’re having a baby. And for you to have a stranger sitting next to you.
“And I was shackled and handcuffed for nineteen hours through the labor pains. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t sit up. I just had to lay there and deal with the pain and deal with having an officer next to me telling me to be quiet.
“When they shackled me I had two handcuffs. One was on my wrist and the other one was attached to the bed. And then I had another shackle and my legs—my ankles were so swollen, I don’t even know how they got it closed around my ankle and then attached to the bed too. So my leg and my arm were attached to the bed so there was no way for me to move and to try and deal with the labor pains. And the metal, ’cuz when you’re swollen, it would just cut into your skin. I had bruises after the fact that stood on me for three weeks. I mean, purple bruises from my ankle and my wrist from them having them shackles and handcuffs on me.
“Even when I had to get an epidural, they didn’t take the shackles and the handcuffs off. I just had to bend over and just pray that I could stay in that position while they were putting that needle in my back through the whole procedure. Not once did he try and loosen them. And the doctor asked him, you know, ‘Can’t you take them off of her? She can’t go nowhere. She can’t walk. She’s not goin’ nowhere.’
[The guard replied] ‘It’s procedure and policy. Can’t do it.’”
Joanne Archibald is the Associate Director of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM).
“Being there [in prison] and meeting the women who were there, and seeing how very, very, very few of them needed to be in a place like that, and how many other kinds of needs they had that weren’t being taken care of. … It was so clear: This isn’t what’s going to make things better for any of these people.”