Thursday, January 22, 2009

Prisons and women

In my previous post, I didn't deal with prisons as a feminist issue, or the effect of prisons on women. Prisons are a deeply gendered phenomenon, and their effect on men is fairly widely known (they go to prison). I think that aspect of the gendered nature of prisons makes it easy for feminists to put a 'someone else's problem' field around the issue. But I think this ignores some important aspects of women and the prison system.

Men who are in prison are a feminist issue, because of the impact their imprisonment has the lives of the women who love or need them. The vast majority of the work of having someone in prison, is done by women. Visiting, bringing children to visit, providing money and phone cards and the things that ease prison life, this is done by women. I'm not yet in a space where I can write about that with any kind of distance. I'm not sure I ever will be. It's over a year since I set foot near a prison and I still identify so strongly with the women that I queued behind and visited with. I think I'll have to let my previous post on this issue explain some of what I have to say for this.

Women in prison are also a feminist issue although they are a tiny minority of the prison population as a whole (although I think that percentage of prisoners who are women is increasing in many NZ and the US, and probably other countries with similar prison policies). Like the men in prison, women in prison are not just chosen as a random sampling of the female population, but tend to be poor, and non-white.

But prison is more gendered than that, and women in prison are not just the female version of men who are in prison. Women in prison are very likely to have been on the receiving end of violence against women, and on the receiving end of abuse, misogyny and control. There is often a path between women in prison's experience of abuse and being in prison.

Women also get considerable less support in prison than men (I wrote a post about this here which is based on my experiences of visiting at women's prisons). So the experience of being in prison is more isolating for women than it is for men, and women have less to call on when they get out of prison than men.

I might later try and write about the implications of being under complete control in prison for women who have been in abusive relationships (but I may not, because it is so far away from anything I know). But I think it's an important thing to think about, when conceptualising feminism and prisons.

So to ignore prisons as a feminist issue is to abandon the women who are in prison. Feminists who support the prison system (and I am planning to discuss the ways feminists uphold the prison system) abandon these women as collateral damage. I don't think that's acceptable.

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