Stories from the Big House
A World Apart: Women, Prison and Life Behind Bars
by Christina Rathbone
New York: Random House, 2005, 279 pp., $24.95, hardcover
All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated
by Nell Bernstein
New York: The New Press, 2005, 320 pp., $25.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Jean Trounstine
Two books recently published would have been godsends to me in 1987 when I first entered Massachusetts’s Framingham Women’s Prison for ten years of teaching and directing plays behind bars. Cristina Rathbone and Nell Bernstein, both prize-winning journalists, put in hard time to get honest and painful stories for A World Apart and All Alone in the World. In the 1980s and 1990s, I rummaged around endlessly, seeking writers with real voices who didn’t rely only on statistics to teach me about people on the inside. While H. Bruce Franklin’s pivotal text, Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist, directed me to interesting sources, few were about incarcerated women, and even fewer about their children. In 1996, I gobbled up Kathryn Watterson’s Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb, which relayed some of the despair I had seen in my tenure; and in 1997, I found solace in The Farm, by Andi Rierden, which focuses on the Connecticut Correctional Institute. Solace—in this case, the notion that others have suffered this knowledge with you—is what you need when you first discover what really goes on in the Big House. Make no mistake, once your eyes have been opened, it is a relief to read books by others who have breathed the dead air and seen up close what inmates and their families suffer, no matter what their crimes. Prison in America is an abomination.
So I was delighted to delve into Rathbone’s exposé of Framingham. It is a necessary read for anyone studying incarcerated women and a welcome addition to other recent books such as Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison, by Paula C. Johnson, and Too Much Time, by Jane Evelyn Atwood. I was glad to see that A World Apart was published by a major press, since so many prison books get shoved-off reactions from the mainstream: “people want to earn, not learn,” and the like. Rathbone, who honed her investigative skills on inner-city schools and to whom the Department of Corrections (DOC) refused visiting privileges, begins her book by detailing her fight to get access to the women—or as I see it, her fight to get access to the truth. This is not uncommon; sometimes, getting into prison is harder than getting out. Rathbone’s insistence on finding out the back story in the lives of these women was unflagging. She says, “I have tried here… to render the lives of women in prison as fully and humanly as possible… precisely what the DOC’s posture toward the media prevents you from seeing.”
What is most appealing is Rathbone’s manner of revelation throughout A World Apart. She has a handle on the sadness of prison life, the infuriating nature of the criminal justice system, and the humanity of the women, as they strive for better futures. She interweaves the bleak facts with portraits of prisoners, giving us these women’s words and stories. And she draws her powerful conclusions from both insight and observation: “All human contact is illegal in prison,” she says, discussing the danger for inmates of reporting officer-inmate sexual abuse. In the thorny world of prison, the inmates are the ones who get detention reports or serve time in the hole for such infractions; they are the ones who are disbelieved. Of the complicated feelings of women behind bars who might be lured into seemingly consensual sexual arrangements, she says, “A more subterranean and complex reason for [their] silence on this issue… has to do with rebellion and desire.” Rule-breaking becomes almost sensual. I remember the delight I took in getting past the guards with my gold chain tucked safely inside my turtleneck. The urge is even stronger for the kept: rebellion feels necessary in the face of repression.
Rathbone focuses on five women, taking us through their ups and downs as they seek to find a modicum of comfort in austere conditions. I had some difficulty in differentiating them from one another, perhaps because Rathbone relies heavily on exposition, but two prisoners she follows through the entire book came alive for me because of their relationship with one another. Denise gropes her way through life inside while dealing with her son Patrick and his development without her presence. She befriends Julie, a flirtatious younger woman who finds “escape” from her terrible environment by fantasizing about and going after men. At first, Denise, a mom, 34, holds onto a belief that she can stay apart from such nonsense and refuses to get involved in Julie’s sexual scheming. But by the time Denise gets to Lancaster Pre-Release, where men and women from more secure facilities serve out the remainder of their sentences (it’s closed now, but was still open when Rathbone penned this book), she is filled with hopelessness about her son, who has been through periods of hospitalization. He ends up in the custody of the Department of Youth Services (DYS) because of his “anger-management” problems. Denise, possibly out of despair, ventures into the illegal contact arena. Unflinchingly, Rathbone documents the deterioration of her relationship with Julie. Through her portrait of these two women and their friendship, forged in lock-up and destroyed by lock-up, we come to understand what it is to be a female prisoner today.
Certainly there are the unsurprising statistics: “72.8 percent of women in prison today are serving time for nonviolent offences…84 percent…have histories of drug addiction, and 57.2 percent have been victims of sustained physical and sexual abuse.” Certainly we know that poverty, bad lawyering, and lousy relationships have not helped incarcerated women’s cause. But there are the surprising facts, too, that put Rathbone’s portraits in context: “68% of women are found to be clinically depressed when they are examined in prison.” Rathbone links this to the fact that over two-thirds of women in prison are mothers, which puts their 1.3 million children under “correctional sanctions.” Depression may be why so many corrections officers would rather work with men than women. “There’s no moaning and groaning with men,” an admitting officer once told me.
Because of depression, these women must struggle with their own psyches as well as with grim prison conditions. Rathbone tells us that in 1944, under reformer Miriam Van Waters, Framingham was “intended to increase women’s professional and emotional skills alike,” with classes in “singing, parenting, physical education, poetry, literature, playwriting, English as a second language, cooking, dressmaking, handicrafts, sketching and painting…woodcarving, hiking and rugmaking….[and] for those who were able, college-level courses.” Females incarcerated today, though, face a barren scene: the only two job training courses at Framingham are manicuring (with a waiting list) and construction arts (which in my time was called Women in the Building Trades and had to function without tools that might be “dangerous.”) Since Pell grants for prisoners—which for years allowed indigent women to gain a college education—have been eliminated nationwide, higher education, despite its well-known ability to reduce recidivism, is limited. Rathbone notes that Boston University (using state, not federal monies) offers courses at Framingham only to women who already have sixteen credits. In an environment where deprivation is the norm, education is no longer a priority.
And what of programs to take care of children? There’s not much at Framingham beyond a drab visiting room. And, someone must bring the kids for a visit, if they choose to come, and if they haven’t been placed elsewhere by the Department of Social Services (DSS). Rathbone presents a chilling portrait of Denise’s experience in the trailer program at Lancaster (out of existence even before Lancaster closed) and dispels any illusion that family overnights in the trailer might be a healing panacea. When Denise tries to make an apple pie, Patrick, like his abusive father before him, “grab[s] the knife from the counter and presse[s] its point into his neck,” leaving Denise to feel even more helpless and afraid for his future
Nell Bernstein takes up the call to consider the present and future lives of children who, through no fault of their own, were born to those in trouble with the law. While Bernstein’s text occasionally gets bogged down in facts, hers is an important book that shows how poorly our nation deals with its troubled children. “Three in every hundred…have a parent behind bars,” she writes, reminding us that these children have remained “invisible.” She details the how, what, and why of this invisibility, and for each problem area she cites, she provides an example of a program that has succeeded in confronting it. While this problem/solution approach introduces us to so many people and programs that it is hard to keep them all straight, it nevertheless shows how children, parents, and practitioners make their way through an often heartless criminal justice system.
Bernstein begins with a section called “Arrest” that poignantly introduces Ricky, a nine year old who is left alone when the police arrest his mother. He ends up cooking and cleaning for his younger brother, even changing the baby’s diapers, until a neighbor finally figures out what is going on and calls DSS. “I was trying to ask [the police] what happened and they wouldn’t say. Everything went so fast. They just went in the house and got her and left,” says Ricky. The result for him, as for many such children who are unwillingly abandoned, is “unnecessary trauma”—what Bernstein calls “a tremendous missed opportunity” on the part of adults to handle children with care. While Bernstein says that such trauma can lead children to view the system as the ultimate bad guy, she advocates for programs like the Child Development–Community Policing Program in New Haven, Connecticut, which “is officially charged with healing the wounds that chronic exposure to violence inflicts on children and families.” Police receive training in child development and learn to deal compassionately with children and to diminish the children’s feeling that they too are guilty. They hook up kids with counseling and act as intermediaries and advocates. Trauma is reduced although certainly not eliminated.
What impressed me most in Bernstein’s book, similar to what impressed me in Rathbone’s, were her hard-won insights. “Those who are not taught to vilify a parent are likely to idealize her,” Bernstein says early on in the chapter “Sentencing,” where she shows the effects on children of brutal mandatory sentencing laws: “If you are found to have possessed or distributed a specific amount of a particular substance, you will serve a legislatively mandated number of years… Among the things the judges are specifically barred from considering are the needs of children.” Some children conclude that it is their responsibility to bring their mothers home and take care of them; others try to believe that their mothers will beat their sentences. However, since these women are often poor and hardly the drug “kingpins” the laws were intended to punish, their sentences are often unbeatable. The children also carry “the burden of being their absent parents’ reason for living.” The system, ironically, destroys children’s lives and leads to their own incarceration. “To assert that prisoners have no intrinsic rights to visitation, is also, necessarily, to assert that children have no right to contact with their parents,” adds Bernstein.
Grandparents care for half the children of incarcerated mothers and for a sixth of those of incarcerated fathers. They are unsung heroes who are often unappreciated and considered too old by their charges to understand them. “Sometimes I think that the family of a person who commits a crime is worse off than if the person died,” says a grandmother who “went to sleep many nights to the sound of her grandchildren crying.”
Foster care is of course even more difficult for such children to bear. “Thirty-four states now have statutes in place that explicitly cite parental incarceration [as a reason] for termination of parental rights,” says Bernstein. She promotes the excellent idea of helping the incarcerated felon and the child together, with programs that house women sentenced for short terms with their infants or young children. She also points to a stellar program that teaches fathers behind bars parenting skills by having them care for stuffed bears. The men assert loudly, despite occasional scorn, that “real men can take care of their kids.”
We can do better. Right now, we don’t just “lock ‘em up and throw away the key”; we infantilize, demean, diminish, sexualize – and just plain don’t care about women behind bars or their children. They are both forgotten minorities, and understanding what goes on in their lives and the systems that surround them is almost like cracking a secret code. Cristina Rathbone and Nell Bernstein are passionate tellers of tales who’ve cracked the code.
Rathbone begins her book with an epigraph from poet Mary Oliver: “Oh heart, I would not dangle you down into/ the sorry places,/ but there are things there as well/ to see, to imagine.” It is fitting that we go with both these women and find the light they shed on the sorriest of all places, our prisons. Our hearts must demand it.
Jean Trounstine wrote Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison, cofounded the women’s branch of Changing Lives Through Literature, and most recently co-edited Why I’m Still Married: Women Write Their Hearts Out on Love, Loss, Sex, and Who Does the Dishes.