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This is the first of three posts celebrating the work of journalists/academics/photographers bringing to popular conscience the abuse of women in the American prison system.

I have called this triplet mini-series Women Behind Bars and it was spurred by a couple of news stories this week. In New York state, protesters outside the Governors house drew a promise from David Paterson that he’d sign legislation banning the chaining of incarcerated women who are giving birth.

Also, a class action lawsuit is gearing up in Michigan, which seeks a $100million settlement for over 900 female inmates and former-inmates who suffered harassment, groping and rape between the years of 1993 and 2009.

Women Behind Bars as a name for this mini-series was co opted from the Silja J. Talvi‘s most recent book of the same title.

Talvi, Silja - Women Behind Bars

I had the pleasure of hearing Silja talk at the Seattle Public Library. Silja speaks as she writes – without jargon or polygonal argument. She keeps it simple; she is usually retelling the testimony of female prisoners she has visited and interviewed. No flourish required.

Beyond the physical and sexual harassment of female prisoners, Talvi asks us to reevaluate our understanding of psychological welfare as it is handled by the prison system. The 775% increase in the US female prison population since 1977 is – for want of a better word – criminal. It is double the rate of growth for the male prison population. Talvi is in no doubt that this increase is due for the most part to the war on drugs. Talvi also describes the constituencies entering US womens prisons.

Nearly every woman I interviewed (around 100) had a serious history of trauma or abuse in her life, emotional abuse or sexual abuse or domestic violence. Many had been raped. More than a third of the women entering the prison system were homeless, while 70 percent had moderate or severe mental illness.

Talvi’s work crystallises the fact that the massive incarceration of American women has not been a result of crime on the streets, but a result of criminalisation by writ of political assemblies. In the war on drugs, women are involved but surely we must analyse that involvement. Occupying residence, associating with family drug dealers are indirect misdemeanours that stand to be punished. When a society is blighted by drugs and the dealers are involved in the “war” on the street, usually it is women who hold the threads of family and community – and home – together … despite its faults and its drug use.

Talvi points to another remarkable trend,

There’s also the fact that women are less likely than men to snitch on loved ones. Prosecutors will come to them and say they will go to prison unless they give up the names of three higher-ups, but women usually either say they don’t know those people or will simply decline. Men will snitch and, unfortunately, they often get less time in prison than women who don’t.

The shocking statistics are simply an application of US culture that is too morally bankrupt & class divided to think of more imaginative forms of criminal justice than incarceration.

Prison is a violent, inhumane environment – the modern designations of built with violent offenders in mind. But what proportion of women prisoners are violent? Not nearly as many as our fear-gripped culture would presume.

The prison is a disciplinary tool that has needlessly subjugated women. It has been imposed and it has demolished poor communities.

When Talvi supports prison for violent murderers and rapists and then argues for its non-implementation for female ‘criminals’ she is entirely consistent. The prison has a place, but it is not in the persecution of non-violent females, it’s counter to the notion of justice and it flies in the face of social justice.

As This Is Not A Book Sale put it,

Even readers who believe that the main goal of incarceration is to punish and not to rehabilitate prisoners for successful reentry into society, will be horrified by the treatment that many women have faced behind bars in this country

The book Women Behind Bars was produced as part of the Women Behind Bars Project which:

Works to break away from black-and-white rhetoric on issues of crime and punishment in general – and females in the criminal justice system in particular. The prison crisis has been compounded by the multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar strategy of fighting the American War on Drugs

As a part of the drug war, girls and women have been swept along in ever-greater numbers, owing in great part to the mandatory minimum sentencing, federal “conspiracy” charges, and weighty allocation of public funds for drug-related undercover operations, sweeps, arrests, and prosecutions in both rural and urban areas.

[Source]

Women Behind Bars. The Book: More and more women—mothers, grandmothers, wives, daughters, and sisters—are doing hard prison time all across the United States. Many of them are facing the prospect of years, decades, even lifetimes behind bars. Oddly, there’s been little public discussion about the dramatic increase of women in the prison system. What exactly is happening here, and why?

Bio: Silja J. A. Talvi is an award-winning journalist with credits in more than seventy-five publications nationwide, including The Nation, In These Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. She was honored as a recipient of the 2005 and 2006 PASS awards for criminal justice reporting by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a 2006 New American Media Award, and twelve regional SPJ awards for excellence in journalism. Talvi’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor, Body Outlaws, The W Effect, It’s So You, and Prison Profiteers. She lives in Seattle.

Copyright: Angela Shoemaker

Copyright: Angela Shoemaker

Angela Shoemaker, visual journalist and graduate of The School of Visual Communication at Ohio University, informs us, “Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) nursery, one of four such programs in the U.S., offers a unique opportunity for female inmates to keep their babies while serving out their prison sentences.”

Angela has also produced Prison Nursery: Keeping Mothers and Babies Together in an audio slideshow format Prison Nursery.

© Patricia Aridjis

"Karla Liliana" 2005. Women's Prison "Reclusorio Oriente", Mexico City. © Patricia Aridjis

Patricia Aridjis spent over seven years on The Black Hours Project. She documented incarcerated women in the Mexican penitentiaries of Santa Martha Acatitla, Tepepan, “Reclusorio Norte & Oriente” and Michoacan Prison in Mexico City.

It is not only the photographs that Aridjis uses to tell the women’s stories with familiarity and sensitivity. Aridjis also compiled a video archive and a correspondence archive; I urge you to listen, read and pause.

I contacted Patricia and she generously gave permission to publish works from The Black Hours. It gives me great pleasure to do so, as her motivation bear striking similarity to a core principle of Prison Photography; to present imagery that jolts viewers into reassessments about prisons and the lives and stories therein.

Aridjis has been described as one of the photojournalists most committed to social issues in Mexico. It has also been explained that this project was a point of revelation in her career; Aridjis [coming to] understand prisons as only reflections of outside society:

The female penitentiary is more than a place where society hide its errors and cleans its faults; inside there are hundreds of stories of abandonment, abuse and even love.

Exhibition Board, Nacho Lopez Hall, INAH National Photographic Library

Aridjis’ photographic philosophy is clear, “To Make Visible, the Invisible”. Mexico’s penal system exerts control over what can and can’t be seen mimicking the practices of parts of the American penal system.

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

Photographers Statement

To do this photo essay I thought about being for long hours inside some women’s prisons in Mexico City. I considered that that was the only way to capture the feelings that go around the cells and corridors of these places. Loneliness, lesbianism as a way of satisfying affective needs; self punishment and suicide attempts are like gaping wounds in the wrists that cry for help. Drugs to escape reality, maternity, solidarity. Life is limited by watching towers, guards, gates and schedules. The black hours. My commitment found its exact words when I took an inmate’s picture in her cell. She asked me to be photographed because that was to be her only way out of there.

Patricia Aridjis, Mexico 2004

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

"Mario (Maria) and Eli" 2000. Tepepan Women's Prison, México City. © Patricia Aridjis

"Mario (Maria) and Eli" 2000. Tepepan Women's Prison, México City. © Patricia Aridjis

Where is Jail?

“What would you do if I mugged you?” Natalia asked mischievously.

“You wouldn’t.” I answered. When Juan Carlos the inmate’s five-year old son over heard us he screamed, “Don’t do it mom! Don’t! Or you’ll end up in jail!”

“Jail does not exist.” she said after a brief silence.

“Where is jail?” I asked the boy who was inside his mother’s cell. “Outside, where the policemen are” he answered, pointing out to the window.

Talking with Natalia & Juan Carlos
Womens Prison, Tepepan, Mexico City, 2002.

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

Time

To enter you have to walk through a long tunnel which leads to an almost completely feminine world, a world with no living colors, but beige and navy blue of the uniforms.

“I have been here seven years, four months and two weeks.” Exact, endless counting. Time that passes slowly and suddenly has turned into years ‘the black hours’.

Visitors are special; they are a breath of fresh air, freedom that comes from the outside.

"Cereso", 2004. Mil Cumbres, Prison Michoacan, Mexico. © Patricia Aridjis

"Cereso", 2004. Mil Cumbres, Prison Michoacan, Mexico. © Patricia Aridjis

Children

Some children have been born inside and their eyes have not seen any other light than the one that passes though the bars, especially those that have no one to take care of them. If such is the case they remain under the custody of government institutions until the legal system says otherwise.

“Dulce, Why are you in for?”
“Drugs.”
“How many years did they give you?”
“Ten.”
“Where did they get you?”
“At the airport.”
“How much did you have on you?”
“Two kilos.”
“What is your cause?” [sic]
“My mom… Maria.”

These are the words that Dulce, a four year-old girl memorized. She was born during her mother’s conviction.

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

Objects, People, Spaces

Objects acquire a different value once they pass through the gate. Either because they are not allowed, such as scissors, perfumes in glass bottles, mirrors, or because they are outrageously expensive, like soap, deodorant or toilet paper. A phone card is like gold; the telephone is one of the few ways to keep in touch with the outside world. Family visits are another, but it is common that their partners or even their closest relatives abandon the inmates.

Beds have to be earned. Each cell houses about 15 inmates and is no more than 9 square meters. There are people sleeping on the floor and under the beds. As they leave, the ones that have been there longer get the beds. Other way to obtain this privilege is to buy it from someone who has been there more time.

© Patricia Aridjis

© Patricia Aridjis

Love in the Time of Jail

Silvia and Claudia met in prison, they fell in love. They have loved each other night and day … intimacy is a very public thing in prison. Silivia did her time, soon after the relationship began. She could not bear to be free without Claudia – the love of her life – and planned a simulated burglary. She asked a friend to press charges so that she could be in prison again, and together again with Claudia.

"Silvia and Claudia" 2004. Women's Prison, "Reclusorio Oriente", Mexico City. © Patricia Aridjis

"Silvia and Claudia" 2004. Women's Prison, "Reclusorio Oriente", Mexico City. © Patricia Aridjis

Biography

In 2006, Aridjis obtained the sponsorship of Revelaa Spanish organization which supports social justice photography. In 2002, she received a Grant for the Encouragement of Cultural Projects from FONCA (National Fund for Culture and Arts). That same year she won 1st place in the Anthropological Photography Contest awarded by the National School of History and Anthropology. In 2001, she received 1st place in the 5th Biennale of photojournalism. In 1994, Aridjis obtained a Grant for Young Creators (FONCA). She has been part of over sixty group & solo exhibitions.

Aridjis has recently been praised for her project The Sickness Behind Every Flower, which examines the use and toxic side effects of pesticides in agriculture.

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