In countless exploitation movies and TV series, women's prison comes off as a sort of Amazonian society in which inmates get it on a lot (and sometimes get shanked). The reality, of course, is somewhat more complicated.
The reality is also becoming much more common. Although 87 percent of inmates are male, the number of women in federal and state prisons has been increasing at twice the rate of the men's population since 2000. Since 1994, the Oregon women's prison population has tripled, while the male population has roughly doubled.
Silja Talvi, a Northwest writer, has published a book detailing some of the reasons behind the increase in women prisoners nationwide, and the problems it poses. WW spoke with Talvi before her reading at Powell's on Monday, Nov. 12, from that book, Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press, 300 pages, $15.95).
WW : You wrote in your book that the number of women in prison rose 757 percent between 1977 and 2004. Obviously there's no simple answer, but why is this happening?
Silja Talvi: In the federal prison system, the primary reason is the drug war, although these women are hardly kingpins. The federal laws were designed to catch traffickers from Afghanistan, Colombia, etc. But the lion's share of the women in prison on these charges—on conspiracy charges—are in prison because they were unwilling or unable to snitch on their partners. So loyalty is backfiring on these women. We're not, on the other hand, seeing any increase in violent crime by women, which has actually been decreasing since the 1980s. Many young girls end up in the system because of truancy laws, which until recently hadn't been enforced.
Why focus exclusively on women when many of these problems, and the problems of incarceration in general, also apply to men?
I've actually done more investigative journalism that focuses on male inmates. But I noticed over the course of my investigative work that prisoners were being referred to almost exclusively in the male pronoun. The women were being completely left out of the discussion. Women also present distinct issues and problems.
Women are coming in needier—a greater degree of mental illness and childhood or marital trauma, along with a greater incidence of HIV, hepatitis C and MRSA [drug-resistant staph infection]. In many cases, menstrual cycles are not taken into account, so women have been resorting to using socks. [During extensive research for her book, Talvi did not visit Oregon's own Coffee Creek facility, where menstrual pads are distributed in such abundance they are being used as shoe insoles. See "Q&A: Bill Hoefel," WW , Feb. 22, 2006.] And it might sound ridiculous for a feminist writer to complain about this, but makeup and leg-shaving aren't allowed. It was the most common complaint. It's as if they're being deprived of everything they need to be a woman…. In academics we call it "othering," where you make someone into the other, so you don't care about them. These women are the other. People ask me, "Why should I care about criminals? They're criminals." And I always say, "When's the last time you've done a line of cocaine? Smoked a bowl? Driven over the speed limit? Jaywalked?" We're all criminals. It's just that with some people it's more likely to be enforced.
Is sexual abuse a greater problem in women's than men's prisons?
It's more a question of where isn't it, as opposed to where it is. But in men's prisons a lot of the time the problem is that people with different backgrounds are being placed in cells together, so you might find someone with a violent sexual history in the cell with you. The danger in women's prison is more coercion from the staff. In men's prisons, there are visitors lined up, whereas these women are largely abandoned by their communities. So the staff might offer them favors—get them lip gloss, or some fresh grapes. It sounds trivial, but it's things they don't have access to. Eventually they break down.
Since 1994, the women's prison population in Oregon has grown from 343 to 1,043.
There are about 1.3 million women under some form of correctional supervision in the United States.
GO: Talvi reads from Women Behind Bars at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Nov. 12. Free.