A World Apart

Cristina Rathbone begins her account of women in prison with one of the salient ironies of correctional institutions: how difficult it can be for outsiders to the system-be they family members of inmates, volunteers, or reporters-to get inside. It took Rathbone a year, and some help from the ACLU, which filed a lawsuit on her behalf, to gain access to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Framingham (MCI-F). And things didn’t get any easier once she was allowed in. She had to wait for hours to enter the visitors area, found herself subject to “random” pat-down searches, and was refused anything beyond the bare minimum of access until she initiated further legal action. She persisted, and her work is at once a tribute to the humanity of the women inside, and a searing indictment of our society’s practices of incarceration.

Rathbone weaves together two narratives: the story of Denise, a thirty-two-year-old crack addict serving time for arranging a drug purchase for an undercover cop, and the story of MCI-F itself, the oldest operating women’s prison in the country. (I volunteered with the Catholic chaplaincy at MCI-F for ten years, and continue to help out in prisons in California.) Along the way, she also provides a broader view of the history of the imprisonment of women.

Denise’s experience gives us a feel for prison life. She arrives terrified, and is taken under the wing of an older woman also serving time for a drug offense. Denise’s nine-year-old son, Pat, is left in the care of his unstable and intermittently abusive father, leaving her frantic about his well-being. Her fears are confirmed: like many children of women inside, Pat becomes a casualty of his mother’s incarceration. By the time Denise is released, her son is in custody for petty theft.

We meet other women inside, too. Charlene is a nineteen-year-old who was first arrested for acting as a drug mule, and is serving a fifteen-year mandatory sentence for smuggling. Susan, abandoned at the age of twelve on the Boston streets, has been in and out of “good ol’ MCI” twelve times by age thirty-three, never quite able to make a go of it on the outside. Janine is a lifer who tries in vain to organize the women to demand better conditions, but is herself trapped in an abusive relationship with a fellow prisoner.

Rathbone also describes the troubling relationships between prisoners and guards. Even though sexual contact with prisoners was made a felony in Massachusetts in 1999, sex between inmates and guards occurs virtually without penalty for the officers involved. Rathbone notes that for some women, sex with guards is a way of gaining status, or at least of passing the time. But the vast power difference between prisoners and guards leaves the inmates defenseless against sexual abuse, ranging from unwanted fondling to outright rape. The exceptional cases that do reach the courts are unlikely to result in conviction. After all, why would a jury accept the word of an imprisoned woman over that of a corrections officer?

Since women are a small percentage of the total number of the incarcerated, women’s prisons have been seen as something of an “add-on” to the men’s prison system. Typically they offer poorer facilities and fewer therapy, education, and job-training programs than men’s prisons. Such programs can reduce an inmate’s sentence, yet many female prisoners cannot participate in them. This means that women will leave prison without the vocational or life skills that might reduce the likelihood that they will return. And the poor quality of mental health care for a population in which one-third is estimated to suffer from serious mental illness is a crime in itself.

In the early days of MCI-F, women could be imprisoned for disobeying their husbands, drunkenness, adultery, prostitution, or simple homelessness. As Clara Barton, superintendent at Framingham in the 1880s, remarked, “three-fourths of the women in this prison are neither convicted of, nor sentenced for, crimes deemed worthy of trial by jury, but rather offenses against the good order and customs of society. [These] are not so much crimes against others as against the offender herself.” Today, Rathbone remarks, “men are still punished mostly for crimes against property and people...while the majority of women continue to be punished for transgressions against conventional morality, namely, for having sex and getting high.”

The demographics are shifting in this regard, driven by a sharp increase in the rate of property offenses such as embezzlement, fraud, and forgery committed by women. But Rathbone has a point. In 2002, about 38 percent of women in state prisons were doing time for drug or public-order violations-a category that includes prostitution, weapons violations, and drunk driving-compared to 28 percent of men. What’s more, just over half of men in state prisons are serving time for violent crimes, while only one-third of women are there for similar offenses. So crime-or at least punishment-remains very much a gendered affair in the United States.

Rathbone raises other questions that linger: Why is it that nonviolent drug offenders in Massachusetts are sentenced to longer terms than some violent criminals? And why are violent criminals eligible for flexible sentencing and work-release programs, while drug felons are not? Does it make sense to treat incarcerated women the same way as imprisoned men, given that women in prison have different personal histories, patterns of behavior, and rehabilitative needs? Why are reform efforts derided, despite their effectiveness in reducing recidivism? Children are a powerful incentive for incarcerated women to reform. (Two-thirds of imprisoned women are mothers; there are more than 1.3 million children whose mothers are in prison in the United States.) Why then are 60 percent of imprisoned women incarcerated more than a hundred miles from their children, making even occasional visits difficult or impossible?

Rathbone paints a bleak picture, but she ends her book on a hopeful note. Denise is released, hoping that a relationship with a male prisoner she met in a prerelease program might prove mutually sustaining as she tries to get her life, and her son’s life, back on track. The current commissioner of corrections, Kathleen M. Dennehy, is a respected and reform-minded veteran of the system. Still, it remains to be seen whether overcrowding, budget constraints, and the accumulated inertia of a system built on the further degradation of society’s outcasts can be effectively overcome. Here’s hoping Rathbone continues to pay attention, and continues her incisive critique.

Published in the 2006-02-10 issue: 
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Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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