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.
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.
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.
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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