Like an “Animal in a Cage”

Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb
By Kathryn Watterson
Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996 (revised edition), 402 pp., $26.00, paperback

From Witches to Crack Moms: Women, Drug Law, and Policy
By Susan Boyd
North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 2004, 392 pp., $37.00, paperback

Neither Angels nor Demons: Women, Crime, and Victimization
By Kathleen Ferraro
Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2006, 344 pp., $26.00, paperback

Freeing Tammy: Women, Drugs, and Incarceration
By Jody Raphael
Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2007, 232 pp., $22.00, paperback

Reviewed by Silja J.A. Talvi

Criminology has traditionally ignored or simplified the complexity of women’s experiences behind bars, but a new generation of books about female incarceration has begun to examine the large-scale imprisonment of women.

First, though, a look at the mother of all these books: Kathryn Watterson’s Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb. An exceptional work for its time, it debunked the crass stereotypes of women in prison by identifying consistent, troubling themes of childhood trauma, domestic violence, drug abuse, poverty, and persistent gender and ethnic discrimination in the backgrounds of most incarcerated women.

Starting with research at the Marysville prison in Ohio, Watterson was the first to provide extensive detail of the daily abuse and degradation of modern-day life in a female detention facility. As she soon discovered, the women’s experiences in Marysville were not much different from those of imprisoned women around the US. In 1973, when Women in Prison was first published, there were 7,730 women nationwide in jails, and another 15,000 women in state and federal prisons. When she updated her book in 1996, Watterson noted that the overall number of incarcerated women had jumped to 108,000.

“Certainly, some circumstances and rules have changed,” she wrote in the updated work, “but in today’s severely overcrowded prisons and jails, the demands for security and control are even more stringent than they were in the 1970s.” She admitted to feeling disheartened by how much worse things had become, but expressed her hope that something would stem the tide of overincarceration of both women and men.

Instead, in the decade’s since Watterson’s revision, the number of women in prison has almost doubled to 203,000. This figure does not include the one million women on probation nor the more than 94,000 women on parole—for an estimated 1.3 million women under some form of correctional supervision. From 1977 through 2004, the number of imprisoned women increased by 757 percent, or nearly twice the growth rate of men’s incarceration.


Three books of the past several years have made outstanding contributions to the discussion of the conditions and causes of the widespread incarceration of women: From Witches to Crack Moms, Neither Angels nor Demons, and Freeing Tammy. Each is a product of intensive research into the root causes of the historically unprecedented number of imprisoned Americans. All provide unique insights into issues in female prisoners’ lives such as abuse, addiction, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder—as well as into the roles of classism, racism, and enforced gender conformity in the conviction, sentencing, and subsequent treatment of women who violate the ever-changing laws of the land. None has enjoyed much commercial success, even though each was (unintentionally) well-timed to coincide with media scandals about imprisoned celebrities, including housekeeping mogul Martha Stewart, rapper Li’l Kim, reporter Judith Miller, and “celebutante” Paris Hilton.

From Witches to Crack Moms is a fascinating historical and sociological overview of changing attitudes toward women’s use of both legal and illicit substances. An associate professor at the Centre for Addictions Research at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Boyd is well-positioned to offer a useful perspective on the efficacy of the North American drug war.

Throughout history, Boyd explains, women have alternately been respected, tolerated, or castigated for their drug use. Attitudes have varied wildly from one generation to the next, and have always been skewed by a woman’s ethnic and class status. Of particular significance, notes Boyd, was the fact that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, upper- and middle-class women’s use of opiates, cocaine, or marijuana in medicinal tinctures was viewed as a matter of sophistication and high social standing. “Women who used opiates were not cut off from the rest of society, nor were they stigmatized. In fact, the words ‘addict’ and ‘addiction’ were only introduced to describe ‘negative’ drug/alcohol use in the mid-1800s,” explains Boyd.


A retributory, harsh, and punishment-minded double standard was set into place during the temperance movement of the late 1800s, says Boyd:

Contrary to early Christian views that women were inherently evil, the new temperance movement depicted women as naturally moral. However, some women were constructed as more moral than others. Poor women and women of color, immigrants, and “fallen women” were viewed as immoral and deviant.

Some women were redeemable, while others were dismissed as hopeless. The religiously based concept of the “fallen women” has marred the American psyche, informing current attitudes, laws, and media portrayals of women who use illicit drugs. While drug- and alcohol-using boys and men have a certain amount of latitude to indulge their pleasure-seeking proclivities, women who are similarly inclined are viewed with disdain and disgust, which they themselves often internalize.

Boyd is an outspoken critic of the concept that recreational or regular alcohol and/or drug use is, de facto, a sign of addiction. Her position is controversial, but it should be considered in the context of the mass incarceration of youth and adults targeted by the “war on drugs.” She writes,

Central to the debates surrounding illegal drug use is the negative and addictive quality of specific drugs, especially heroin and cocaine. But these drugs are not as dangerous or as “addictive” as generally believed, and numerous studies demonstrate that controlled use is not only possible but frequent … Although drug users may lose control of their use, it is not impossible to regain control again or to stop using without professional help.

While abstinence-focused twelve-step programs may help some individuals, a one-size-fits-all model is not the answer, objects Boyd. Immediate abstinence often backfires for people accustomed to altering their brain chemistry. Instead, she advocates “harm reduction” approaches, in which the focus is mitigating and gradually reducing the damage of unhealthy substance use.

Pregnant women and mothers, Boyd explains, face the most acute legal and social wrath. In an alarming trend, nearly 100 women in the US have been arrested and/or prosecuted in recent years for having used drugs or alcohol during their pregnancies. Some of these women have miscarried for reasons that may or may not be related to their drug use, and others have carried their children to term. Regardless, women’s use of drugs or alcohol while pregnant is almost never viewed with compassion, much less as a medical and psychological issue. As usual, politicians and prosecutors almost always put the “interests” of the fetus ahead of the mother’s struggles.

Feminists working in the field of drug and addiction studies have long understood that women’s substance abuse tends to be interrelated with trauma, the pressures of child rearing and survival in a capitalist society, and/or persistent sexism and/or racism in a woman’s daily life. Notwithstanding, imprisonment has increasingly become the nonsensical American reaction to drug crimes of any kind. It is the main reason for the explosive growth in women’s imprisonment. Tens of thousands of Americans are locked up for not much more than simple possession or small-scale dealing. In fact, women with no criminal record whatsoever can now be sent away to serve five, ten, or even fifty year sentences. As Boyd rightly points out:

Drug defendants who don’t cooperate know that the full weight of the criminal justice system will be utilized and they will be severely punished for failing to provide evidence. Consequently, women have been imprisoned merely due to their association with their sons and boyfriends who have been arrested for drug violations.

Moreover, as I have witnessed during my own research, women are far less likely than men to “snitch” on their friends, partners, and family members, something that prosecutors tend to punish heavily with egregiously long sentences.

The overwhelming majority of women in prison come from backgrounds of extreme poverty and abuse, typically entering the prison system with chronic medical and/or psychiatric problems. This situation would be difficult even if it were not regularly compounded by humiliating body-cavity searches, rampant sexual abuse by prison employees, callous disregard for the needs of the mentally ill, and indifference to providing the tools that women need to re-enter society. The lot of imprisoned women has always been troubling, even tragic, but the fate of women in prison these days has reached new extremes of cruelty.

Jody Raphael, a senior research fellow at the DePaul University College of Law, picks up where Boyd leaves off, conveying a gripping story of one woman’s journey through abuse, drug addiction, and imprisonment. The third of Raphael’s trilogy of books about Chicago women enmeshed in lives of poverty, violence, prostitution, and drug use, Freeing Tammy is an invaluable contribution to the field of women’s criminology. Tammara (Tammy) Johnson, Raphael’s subject, is African American, a former addict with a nineteen-year history of heroin use, and a mother of two. Now in her fifties, Johnson has pulled her life together against overwhelming odds.

Before her imprisonment in 1997, Johnson had an on-again-off-again relationship to heroin, which she clearly used to mask unresolved traumas of childhood sexual assault and, later, domestic abuse at the hands of several male partners. She had never dealt drugs or been arrested on a drug-related crime when her husband and a close friend pinned on her the possession of a drug stash that she has always insisted was not hers. (Both disappeared after Johnson was arrested.)

First, Johnson was locked up in the Cook County Jail, a torturous experience that brought her to the point of excruciating, nearly suicidal depression. As if to ensure the misery of the jail’s captives, the guards didn’t hesitate to call women “hos,” “dope fiends,” and “bitches.” Female guards were actually the worst, according to Johnson: “They thought we were the weakest women in the world.” She told Raphael,

You are overwhelmed by the chains on your legs … They want you to be overwhelmed. We’re like cattle, we’re not people anymore. We’re not worthy of any privacy. The mentality is, that when you become a property and get a number, all your rights are stripped away, you have no privacy, you have no rights.

Raphael adds that

Women drug addicts appear to reject core womanly values; they are seen as defiant and stigmatized as impure and despicable. Not only have they abandoned their role as guardians of moral standards, they are also bad mothers and wives, out of control—in short, polluted women.

Raphael’s analyses are valuable, but it is Johnson who gives readers the most insight into the effect of persistent degradation at the hands of sadistic captors. Her graphic, heartbreaking account will haunt even those accustomed to reading women’s stories of imprisonment:

I was an animal in a cage, with so many other animals. I lost my first name because everyone was called by their last name or number only. I lost my identity, my respect, my soul, and I could feel the loving heart that I had all my life slipping away. My heart was the one thing I wanted to keep … I wondered why we had to suffer so horribly because of a mistake, and why we could not have a little color on the walls to lift our spirits. I wondered if anyone knew how lost I was, if they knew I was slowly losing my mind. And I wondered if the guards ever thought about us once they left the jail.


Another group of female offenders who are likely to be on the receiving end of disproportionately severe sentences and humiliation at the hands of prosecutors and guards are those who seriously injure or kill their abusive partners.. A professor of sociology at Northern Arizona University, Ferraro deftly weaves together research and extensive interviews with women serving lengthy or life sentences for retaliating against physical, sexual, and/or mental abuse at the hands of their boyfriends or husbands. For readers unfamiliar with the dynamics and cycles of domestic abuse, Ferraro provides enough background to bring them up to speed:

All of the men who were killed by their partners demonstrated pathological jealousy and possessiveness. They constantly accused women of flirting, being unfaithful, and having sex with the most unlikely partners: their close relatives, a repairman, a man phoning the house by mistake. They attempted to enforce loyalty by close surveillance and physical punishment … Women continually expressed bewilderment over men’s perceptions of their transgressions.

Ferraro layers the incarcerated women’s stories over a strong feminist theoretical framework. “Women’s use of lethal and near-lethal violence against an intimate partner is unlike most other forms of interpersonal violence,” Ferraro explains.

Women who kill their intimate partners are scrutinized by criminal processing agents and the general public in terms of their motivations and character. They are not automatically demonized, but their innocence or guilt is evaluated in gendered terms regarding the appropriate behavior of women and wives. Like female victims of sexual violence, battered women who kill are analyzed in terms of their “moral purity” as victims of male violence prior to their fall into criminal homicide. Legal justification of their offense often turns on perceptions of their innocence prior to their use of lethal violence.

This level of analysis is essential, particularly in light of the popularity of shows like Oxygen Network’s Snapped and E!’s Women Who Kill, which recount sordid details of women’s murder cases, usually involving an abusive male partner. The women on these shows are judged according to the degree to which they exhibit “promiscuous” behavior, revealing clothing, or lesbianism. Similarly, when they get to court, battered women who kill are typically portrayed either as “angels” who deserve sympathy or “demons” who don’t. The “demons” generally end up with longer prison sentences than child molesters, traffickers of prostitutes, or even men who kill their children or wives.

Contrary to these portrayals, however, Ferraro’s interviews with 45 women for this book reveal not a single instance of a woman who wanted to kill her intimate partner. Instead, many of them had begun to view violence as the only way out of their situations—whether by their abuser’s hand or by their own: “They were not serious intentions but desperate thoughts in a situation of hopeless entrapment,” Ferraro says, adding that

for some women, their partner’s death was a horrible personal loss. Despite the violence and abuse, they loved them and mourned their death … They felt safer after his death, although many continued to feel his control.

Incarcerated women are relegated to a near-invisible status in society. Through these three works, some of them have found their voices, but the stories of untold thousands will never make it out. They are unlikely ever to experience pardons for what prosecutors, juries, and judges have deemed inexcusable transgressions of femininity. Many are unlikely to be released until the last few decades of their lives; worse yet, some will leave prison only in a pine box. This level of disregard for the essential humanity of prisoners—most of whom are entirely capable of rehabilitation given the right tools and circumstances—is a disgrace upon this land.


Silja J.A. Talvi is a multiple award-winning investigative journalist, essayist, and senior editor at In These Times magazine. She is the author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (2007).






For Further Reading

It has been gratifying to see that a feminist critique of women’s imprisonment in particular and mass incarceration in general has evolved since the publication of Watterson’s groundbreaking work. The most notable of the scholarly works of the past several years include Dana M. Britton’s At Work in the Iron Cage: The Prison as Gendered Organization (2003); Patricia O’Brien’s Making It in the “Free World: Women in Transition from Prison (2001) and, most impressively, Marie Gottschalk’s recent The Prison and The Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America (2006.) (Although Gottschalk’s book does not focus exclusively on women, it includes several sections dealing with the history of female prisons in the Western world.)

Two recent, compassionately written works have also brought the realities of women, motherhood, and incarceration to light: Nell Bernstein’s All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated (2005) and Rennie Golden’s politically charged War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Families They Leave Behind (2005).

Other important contributions center on transcribed and thematically organized interviews with current and former prisoners who fit certain demographic profiles, such as Paula C. Johnson’s Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison (2003); and Juanita Dîaz-Cotto’s Chicana Lives and Criminal Justice: Voices from El Barrio (2006). Books designed to be used as texts in college criminology courses include Susan Sharp’s The Incarcerated Woman: Rehabilitative Programming in Women’s Prisons (2003); Meda Chesney-Lind and Lisa Pasko’s The Female Offender: Girls, Women, and Crime (2004); and The Prison Experience: Special Issues of Women in Prison, edited by Merry Morash and Pamela Schram (2002).

Unfortunately, with the exception of Jennifer Gonnerman’s Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett (2004) and Christina Rathbone’s A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars (2005), few of these works have had the potential to achieve crossover appeal during a time when the broader subject of women and crime has had little place in public discourse.


—S. J. A. T.


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