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Unlikely Communities

By Victoria Law

When Michigan inmate Kebby Warner attempted to call her daughter on her fourth birthday, she discovered that the telephone number, which she had been calling once a month, was restricted. The reason? Michigan Department of Corrections had started a new telephone program with Sprint. Those on an inmate's telephone list had to pay a minimum of fifty dollars before they could receive a call from their incarcerated loved one. If the outside person was unable or unwilling to pay, Spring and the prison kept the number restricted. The new system reinforced the sense of isolation and alienation that prisons inflict upon their inmates.

"Roberta," an incarcerated mother in California, learned of Warner's situation and offered to pay the fifty dollar deposit from her own prison wages. (The pay scale at Roberta's facility ranges from eight to thirty-two cents per hour.) "I know how it is not to hear your child's voice," she wrote in her offer. "I've been there. And thank God for the kindness of strangers that I was able to talk to them [my children] a few times during the roughest times. I would give it [the deposit] to her [Warner], just let me know if I can and where to send it, okay?"

Within prison activist circles, women's concerns have often been dismissed as personal, self-centered and apolitical. At the same time, women prisoners' resistance is often overlooked - usually because it is not as dramatic as the hunger strikes, work stoppages and riots seen in men's prisons. In addition, women in prison often complain about the apathy among their peers, furthering the impression that there is little to no unity in female facilities. However, women in prison have also demonstrated their capacity to network, share and help each other in times of need.

Prison activists and scholars have usually overlooked such actions, examining networking in female facilities through the lens of the prison family instead. However, the prevalence of the prison family - in which inmates take on traditional roles such as mother, father, daughters, aunts - declined after the 1971 Attica Rebellion as prisoner groups and social services for inmates began to emerge in its place. Women behind bars today are attempting to create community and share the few resources available to them without replicating the traditional gender roles of the patriarchal family.

Some acts have been as simple as comforting an ill companion. When Oregon prisoner "Boo" was taken to a prison infirmary after turning yellow, her fellow inmate Barrilee Bannister made a get-well card and had 80 women sign it. When Boo was released from the infirmary, the women on her unit, seeing how much weight she had lost, shared their food from the canteen with her. While such actions do not overtly challenge or change Boo's medical condition or the inadequate health care system, they do break through the sense of isolation that prisons inflict upon their inmates.

Other strategies have had even broader effects. In New York State, inmate Kathy Boudin discarded the standard method of having women answer multiple-choice questions about unrelated paragraphs and instead used the issue of AIDS to teach literacy to her fellow inmates in the Adult Basic Education class. She handed out vocabulary worksheets drawn from an AIDS program the class had recently watched, encouraged students to write about their feelings about the disease and had the class write a play about the issue. Her students became aware of themselves as a community - first in the classroom and then in the larger setting of the prison. They not only began to help one another over the stumbling blocks towards literacy, but also used their newfound knowledge of the disease to support and comfort others.

Sometimes the networks have multiplied available resources, such as when women have assisted their peers with their legal work. After losing custody of her own daughter, Kebby Warner used the knowledge she had gained in the prison law library to assist another inmate with the legal paperwork that kept her from losing her child. Likewise, Margaret Majos and "Elsie," in two different Illinois prisons, have assisted women around them with their legal work. This sharing of resources is often reciprocated. When "Elsie" was placed on a suicide watch after engaging in a hunger strike against the unsanitary preparation of food, another woman on the unit lent her a pen and paper to write letters to outside supporters. Similarly, when Warner filed a grievance against a male officer, the woman she had helped agreed to hold her paperwork so that prison officials would not "lose" or destroy it during a search or transfer.

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