Women In Prison: A Longform Reading List

I read a lot of longform for my Things I Read That I Love column and I also read a lot about the prison-industrial complex in general.  With the premiere of the ID series Women in Prison tonight and the debut of Season Three of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” tomorrow, I’m thinking hard about a lot of what I’ve read and maybe you’d like to do the same. So, I’ve put together a longform reading list containing some of the most important things I’ve found that apply to issues faced by women in prison specifically. I’ve also included a prologue of sorts with some readings that aren’t specifically about women but are also really important.


I. In-Depth Special Reports and Key Readings on American Prisons

The Prison-Industrial Complex (The Atlantic, 1998)

This was a big story (by Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser) that served as the first warning to many in-the-dark Americans that something is seriously fucked about our system, like that “the prison-industrial complex is not a conspiracy, guiding the nation’s criminal-justice policy behind closed doors. It is a confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum.”

Slavery and Prison: Understanding the Connections (Kim Gilmore, 2000)

“Scholars and activists have plunged into an examination of the historical origins of racialized slavery as a coercive labor form and social system in an attempt to explain the huge increase in mass incarceration in the U.S. since the end of World War II. Drawing these links has been important in explaining the relationship between racism and criminalization after emancipation, and in connecting the rise of industrial and mechanized labor to the destructive effects of deindustrialization and globalization. The point of retracing this history is not to argue that prisons have been a direct outgrowth of slavery, but to interrogate the persistent connections between racism and the global economy.”

Slammed: The Coming Prison Meltdown (Mother Jones, 2008)

An in-depth extensive special report. Topics include “what happens when you lock up 1 in every 100 Americans,” the plight of juveniles in the “justice” system, California’s prison crisis, a successful work program in Kansas for ex-cons, the profiteering probation system, Texas’s thirst for locking up immigrants and an interview with The Angola Three.

Louisiana is The World’s Prison Capital (The New Orleans Times-Picayune, 2012)

Another in-depth special report. “In Louisiana, a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole. A trio of drug convictions can be enough to land you at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the rest of your life. Almost every state lets judges decide when to mete out the severest punishment and when a sympathetic defendant should have a chance at freedom down the road. In Louisiana, murderers automatically receive life without parole on the guilty votes of as few as 10 of 12 jurors. The lobbying muscle of the sheriffs, buttressed by a tough-on-crime electorate, keeps these harsh sentencing schemes firmly in place… Every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar not spent on schools, hospitals and highways.”

Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequality in the Criminal Justice System (The Sentencing Project, 2015)

One of the most important things ever published.

From Gitmo to an American Supermax: The Horrors of Solitary Confinement (Vanity Fair, 2015)

The roots and evolution of solitary confinement, one of the most horrible things we do in America.

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II. Women In Prison: The Longform Reading List

Women in Prison: How It Is With Us, by Assata Shakur for The Black Scholar, 1978

There are no criminals here at Riker’s Island Correctional Institution for Women, (New York), only victims. Most of the women (over 95%) are black and Puerto Rican. Many were abused children. Most have been abused by men and all have been abused by “the system.” There are no big time gangsters here, no premeditated mass murderers, no godmothers. There are no big time dope dealers, no kidnappers, no Watergate women. There are virtually no women here charged with white collar crimes like embezzling or fraud. Most of the women have drug related cases. Many are charged as accessories to crimes committed by men. The major crimes that women here are charged with are prostitution, pick-pocketing, shop lifting, robbery and drugs. Women who have prostitution cases or who are doing “fine” time make up a substantial part of the short term population. The women see stealing or hustling as necessary for the survival of themselves or their children because jobs are scarce and welfare is impossible to live on. One thing is clear: amerikan capitalism is in no way threatened by the women in prison on Riker’s Island.

Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison-Industrial Complex, by Angela Davis, 1998

To deliver up bodies destined for profitable punishment, the political economy of prisons relies on racialized assumptions of criminality — such as images of black welfare mothers reproducing criminal children — and on racist practices in arrest, conviction, and sentencing patterns. Colored bodies constitute the main human raw material in this vast experiment to disappear the major social problems of our time. Once the aura of magic is stripped away from the imprisonment solution, what is revealed is racism, class bias, and the parasitic seduction of capitalist profit.

Prison Rape and the Government, by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow for The New York Review Of Books, 2011

“Preventing sexual abuse in detention is primarily a matter of management. The policies needed are, for the most part, straightforward: for example, considering characteristics that make an inmate especially vulnerable when deciding where to house him, such as homosexuality or a history of prior abuse. Well-run prisons have adopted such policies already, and their rates of sexual assault are dramatically lower than the national average. But for too long, too many facilities have failed to take these basic measures.”

Beyond the Binary Behind Bars: An Interview with Juanita Diaz-Cotto, by Julianne Hing for Guernica, 2013

“What happens is you’re talking about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, age, all those are identities that we have inside of ourselves. We take them everywhere. There are relationships of power and oppression that are identified with all those different identities. So when you’re looking at structures of power, you need to understand how those identities—how race, class, and gender—work together to produce different relations of power. Because you want a theory that expresses oppression, ideally for as many people as you can. We’re trying to explain: Why is it that one Puerto Rican is incarcerated, and the other ends up being a prison guard, and the other ends up in Iraq killing a bunch of Iraqis? You want your theories to be able to explain why those contradictions happen.”

Real Life Sophia Bursets: Transgender Women Face a Nightmare in Men’s Prisons, by Mey Rude for Autostraddle, 2013

“The horrifying reality of the situation is that trans people are almost always put in prison with inmates that match their gender assigned at birth. This not only leads to lack of proper medical care, but also mental anguish, increased rates of harassment and violence and shockingly high rates of sexual abuse. For trans women who are locked up, getting access to medical care and safety from the guards and inmates is a serious problem. But the problem starts when they are put in prisons designed for men.”

Conversations With Literary Ex-Cons: Patricia McConnell, by Cullen Thomas for The Rumpus, 2013

“Like Piper Kerman, I’m ever-so-conscious of being white and middle-class-looking, though unlike Kerman, I’m actually a lowlife. On the street at fifteen and also in jail for the first time at that age, and off and on the street until my mid-twenties. People think I’m educated because I talk and write well, but the fact is I never finished high school. I’ve read a lot, is all. The fact that educated white women automatically assume that we have similar backgrounds annoys me. We don’t. I feel like I’m in a certain kind of drag.”

Five Formerly Incarcerated Women on Prison, Relationships and Orange is the New Black, by Kat Stoeffel for The Cut, 2013

“Orange Is the New Black might be impressively faithful to the experience of prison life that Piper Kerman chronicled in her memoir—but Kerman’s experience, however accurately depicted, is glaringly rare. Most women don’t go home to a man and a career. “Prison doesn’t prepare you at all,” said Donovan, who quickly relapsed before taking advantage of Fortune Society’s offerings. “

How “Real” Is “Orange Is The New Black”? Comparing The Show To The Memoir To The Numbers, by Riese Bernard for Autostraddle, 2013

I looked at how the stories from the movie compare to the memoir, and what both can teach us about women in America’s federal prisons. It’s pretty exhaustive and took a few months to write — contains information on work programs, life after release, social life behind bars, and pretty much every verifiable detail presented in Season One of the show. (This article was also the first to reveal the now very-public identity of “the real Alex Vause.”)

The Conversation On Women in Prison, multiple authors for Ravishly, 2014

This multi-part series includes stories from formerly incarcerated women, including Evie Litwok’s story on What It’s Like To Be A Queer Woman In Prison, which talks about how her lesbian identity was used against her in court. Unfortunately most of the stories in this “conversation” are from white women, not all who have been incarcerated, but there’s some good stuff here.

5 Things To Know About Prison Abolition and the Prison-Industrial Complex, by Maddie Taterka for Autostraddle, 2014

The PIC is especially dangerous for queer and trans* people. Outside prisons, queer and trans* people are vulnerable to being targeted by law enforcement for gender identity and presentation. In prisons, queer and trans* people, and in particular trans women, face high rates of violence, sexual assault and harassment, especially from prison staff.

The Carceral State, by Kameelah Janana Rasheed for The New Inquiry, 2014

An interview with Eric A. Stanley, editor of Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex.

Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work, by Melanie Deziel for The New York Times, 2014

This is actually a piece of paid content placed in The Times by Netflix last year, but it’s also really remarkable and well-done, and contains a few video shorts featuring former and current female inmates, as well as heaps of facts and research.

16-Hour Shifts, 300 Inmates to Watch, and 1 Lonely Son, by Alysia Santo for The Marshall Project, 2014

What it’s like on the other side — a female corrections officer tells her story.

We Should Stop Putting Women In Jail. For Anything. by Patricia O’Brien for The Washington Post, 2014

“Essentially, the case for closing women’s prisons is the same as the case for imprisoning fewer men. It is the case against the prison industrial complex and for community-based treatment where it works better than incarceration. But there is evidence that prison harms women more than men, so why not start there?”

Battered, Bereaved, and Behind Bars, by Alex Campbell for Buzzfeed, 2014

Why do so many victims of domestic violence end up in prison?

“Lindley’s case exposes what many battered women’s advocates say is a grotesque injustice. As is common in families terrorized by a violent man, there were two victims in the Lindley-Turner home: mother and child…. No one knows how many women have suffered a fate like Lindley’s, but looking back over the past decade, BuzzFeed News identified 28 mothers in 11 states sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for failing to prevent their partners from harming their children. In every one of these cases, there was evidence the mother herself had been battered by the man.”

Modern-Day Slavery in America’s Prison Workforce, by Beth Schwartzapfel for The American Prospect, 2014

The exploitation of prisoners as slave labor.

“About half of the 1.6 million Americans serving time in prison have full-time jobs like Hazen did. They aren’t counted in standard labor surveys, but prisoners make up a sizable workforce: with 870,000 working inmates, roughly the same number of workers as in the states of Vermont and Rhode Island combined. Despite decades’ worth of talk about reform—of giving prisoners the skills and resources they need to build a life after prison—the vast majority of these workers, almost 700,000, still do “institutional maintenance” work like Hazen’s. They mop cellblock floors, prepare and serve food in the dining hall, mow the lawns, file papers in the warden’s office, and launder millions of tons of uniforms and bed linens. Compensation varies from state to state and facility to facility, but the median wage in state and federal prisons is 20 and 31 cents an hour, respectively.”

Platinum: A Singer Visits a Women’s Prison, by Thao Nguyen for Radio Silence. 2014

“I am in prison but prison is not in me. I can celebrate every day I live on purpose and love on purpose and that’s what gives me a joyful heart. Just being thankful. Someone didn’t wake up this morning. So I’m so grateful.”

Hard Labor: A Doula Offers A Little Comfort for a Birth Behind Bars, by Simone Weichselbaum for The Marshall Project, 2015

On a group of doulas who started The Minnesota Prison Doula Project, an attempt to provide education and humanity to mothers behind bars, before, during and after pregnancy. With limited success. And about the conditions for incarcerated pregnant women overall.

Break-in At Y-12, by Eric Schlosser for The New Yorker, 2015

The story of “how a handful of pacifists and nuns exposed the vulnerability of America’s nuclear-weapons sites” and Dorothy Day, a pacifist Catholic bohemian activist who inspired The Plowshares Movement, an anti-nuclear weapons group that advocates active resistance and nonviolent protest actions. Sister Ardeth Platte, who inspired the character of Sister Jane Ingalls, is prominently featured.

Death and Neglect at Rikers Women’s Jail, by Erika Eicrhelberger for The Intercept, 2015

But “women prisoners often get overlooked,” says Amy Fettig, a senior counsel at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. The island’s women’s jail, known as Rosie, is home to about 600 of the 11,000 inmates at Rikers. “In some facilities you might not see beat-ups, but you’ll see the violence of not receiving appropriate health care,” she says. Medical records, inmate complaint data, and interviews with current and former inmates bear this out.

A Family Locked Apart, by Gabriela Bulisova for narrative.ly, 2015

A short film about the impact of a mother’s incarceration on her family.


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Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2838 articles for us.

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