Inside This Place, Not of It: Stories from Women's Prisons is the ninth book in the Voice of Witness series, which carries the Studs Turkel torch by using oral history to share stories from the margins of America. Inside This Place has thirteen accounts from people who have been—and several who remain—incarcerated in women's prisons. Editors Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman and a team of nineteen interviewers conducted over seventy interviews with thirty individuals over the course of ten months.
Before you even dig into the narrators' troubling stories, the statistics in the introduction will make you sick: Nearly half the women in prison are women of color, 34% are black. In 1977, 11,000 women were in prison; twenty years later that number had increased almost tenfold. Eighty percent of women in prison are the primary caretakers of children. Many common threads emerge from the stories: the dehumanization that begins the second you're booked, sexual and psychological abuse by prison staff, the pain of being separated from family (and the regulatory barriers that make it worse—one prisoner lost her visitation rights for having a Motrin she wasn't supposed to).
By far the biggest commonality was not just the lack of adequate healthcare, but medical treatment that actually harmed prisoners. Irma was misdiagnosed with HIV, and suffered toxic effects from the medication she was given. Sheri, a mother, received surgery to remove ovarian cysts, only to learn she was given a ovarectomy—effectively sterilized. She says, "I noticed that a lot of African American women were going into prison in their fertile child-producing years, and coming back with these partial hysterectomies, complete hysterectomies, abnormal cells. I noticed that it was a pattern." Olivia gave birth in shackles, and was forced to have a C-Section. Her pregnancy was induced early because her due date fell over a holiday weekend.
In the forward, Michelle Alexander (professor, civil rights advocate, and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) speaks to how the staggering amount of men behind bars now (American imprisons a quarter of the world's prisoners) means that women in prison are often an afterthought when it comes to discussions around incarceration. Through the narratives of this book, many issues unique to women in prison (reproductive justice, maternity rights, cross-gender supervision) are given due attention directly from the women who lived it. Charlie Morningstar, a trans man incarcerated in a women's prison, talks about the traumatizing effects of the court and prison's misgendering of him, and the challenges of being gender-nonconforming in prison.
Unfortunately, in a book about women and prison, there were no accounts from trans women, who are some of the most vulnerable inmates (they are often housed in men's prisons, since prisons tend to group you by your genitals, not your gender). It also lacked stories of women living without legal status in the United States, who are also brutalized at the hands of the justice system (although it looks like the Voice of Witness book, Underground America, might explore more of this). The editors recognize the limitations of the project to begin with in the introduction.
It's deeply important to hear the stories from women who have been to prison, but also to recognize the systems and power structures that allow atrocious violations to occur to people. An appendix in the back of Inside This Place helps fill in some of the facts behind how our legal system disenfranchises women in prison. That rapist guard who was simply transferred instead of brought to justice himself? He's among the 15% of corrections staff who have abused inmates and get to keep their job (only 42% are prosecuted, 23% arrested, and 3% convicted). It also includes a helpful glossary and resources for readers to get involved with prison activism. Michelle Alexander writes in the introduction, "The women in the pages that follow—mothers, daughters, sisters, wives—will tell you stories that are nearly unbearable to read, and yet their courage, dignity, and perseverance compel us to imagine how their lives would be different—how we would be different—if we responded to their experience with genuine care, compassion, and concern."
These are only thirteen stories out of over 100,000 women under the criminal justice system today. Just this week in California, a bill that would limit the shackling of pregnant women in prison was vetoed by Governor Edmund Brown. Inside This Place, Not of It, available for pre-order, is only one way to become informed about, and begin to fight against, the human rights abuses taking place daily in the United States, but it's one place to start.