Victoria Law is a longtime prison activist and the author of the new book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press).1 “This book is the result of seven and a half years of reading, writing, listening, and supporting women in prison,” Law says about Resistance Behind Bars, noting that each chapter in her book “focuses on an issue that women themselves have identified as important.” The chapters include topics as diverse as health care, the relationship between mothers and daughters, sexual abuse, education, and resistance among women in immigration detention. Resistance Behind Bars paints a picture of women prisoners resisting a deeply flawed prison system, which Law hopes will help to empower both the women held in cages and those on the outside working to support them.
In this interview, Law talks specifically about how women are affected by solitary confinement and other forms of torture in US prisons, and what women are doing to fight back. Exposing solitary confinement as torture has been the focus of recent campaigns in Maine, Pennsylvania, and around the US. This is also a central issue in the campaign to free the Angola 3, who are a trio of Black Panther political prisoners: Robert King, Albert Woodfox, and Herman Wallace. King was released in 2001 after 29 years in continuous solitary confinement. Woodfox and Wallace remain imprisoned and have spent over 36 years in solitary confinement, where they remain today.
Angola 3 News: What do you think of the case of the Angola 3?
Victoria Law: The case of the Angola 3 is one of the most visible (and damning) indictments of the U.S. prison system.
As broadcast by NBC Nightly News, the widow of slain prison guard Brent Miller has even stated that she wants justice and that, if Woodfox and Wallace did not kill her husband (and there is so much evidence that they did not), they should be freed. It’s interesting to note how the voices of victims and their family are used to whip up pro-imprisonment hysteria, but when they speak out against railroading people, they are ignored. For example, the widow of Daniel Faulkner publicly condemns Mumia and urges people not to let out her husband’s alleged killer. The media loves this and uses her to play on public opinion against freeing Mumia. However, when Brent Miller’s widow Leontine Verrett says, “If these two men did not do this, I think they need to be out,” her words are ignored.
Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace should be released. The fact that they have not been released clearly demonstrates the racism that is rife in the prison system and how “justice” isn’t really a factor in who goes to prison and why.
A3N: Do you consider the use of solitary confinement in US prisons to be torture?
VL: I most definitely consider solitary confinement a form of torture. Solitary confinement is used not only to break the woman (or person) who is resisting, but also to scare others around them into not only complying but ostracizing the person who is challenging prison rules or conditions. And, unfortunately, it often does.
A3N: What other practices in US prisons would you consider to be torture?
VL: I consider the whole prison system to be torture. But to narrow it down to actual practices: I would consider the use of strip status, in which all of a person’s clothes and belongings are removed from the cell, as a form of torture. You have to remember that over half of incarcerated women have suffered past abuse and trauma. To strip them of all of their clothing and place them in a bare cell with guards watching them retraumatizes them. I recently reread an account from Lisa Savage, a woman who was placed on strip status for talking to the other women on her unit about the psychological reprogramming of the Close Management unit (a unit where women are held in their separate cells 23 ½ hours a day). Being on strip status meant that everything was taken from her—clothes, toothbrush, bedding, and sanitary napkins. She wrote, “As bad luck would have it, I just started my monthly. Now, I must beg for a pad for hours before receiving it.”
Other practices that I would consider to be torture are:
- The use of male guards in female prisons
- The shackling of pregnant women while they are in labor
- Loss of access and custody to their children simply because they are incarcerated
- The denial of health care and the life-threatening slow health care in prisons
A3N: How is solitary confinement used against women prisoners? How does it effect women in ways that are different from male prisoners?
VL: Solitary confinement makes women more vulnerable to staff sexual assault since no one can see what is happening. In my book, I write about the experience of Christina Madrazo, a transsexual immigrant who was placed in INS detention. Originally, the INS (now called ICE) did not know what to do with her since her assigned gender at birth was male, but she identified (and was seeking asylum status) as a transgendered female. Madrazo was placed in solitary confinement where she was raped twice by a prison guard.
Even when they are not being physically assaulted, the women have no privacy—toilets are in full view of the cell door windows, guards can look through those windows at any time and, in many prisons, male guards can watch the women in the showers, on the toilet or when they are trying to dress or undress.
In addition, solitary confinement is used to punish women who have either reported being sexually assaulted by staff, or who have been discovered to have “consensual relationships” with staff members. I put “consensual” in quotation marks because, given the power dynamics in prison, especially the ability of guards and staff members to withhold services and/or provide small amenities, the relationship can never truly be consensual. I recently received a letter from a woman incarcerated in Colorado whose cellmate was accused of having a “consensual” relationship with a staff member. While the accusation was being investigated, the staff member was allowed to continue working in the prison. The woman was placed in solitary confinement for the duration of the investigation and only released once the charge was found to be unwarranted.
Also, with women, there’s the prevailing notion that women need to be “good girls” and “to behave.” Thus, women are punished for behaviors that violate gender norms, behaviors such as spitting or cursing or not following orders, behaviors that men are not punished for. This is also why women are sent to segregation when they report sexual misconduct or engage in sexual activity; they’re violating what we, as a society, see as “good girl behavior.”
A3N: Do you believe activist prisoners are disproportionately targeted with solitary confinement?
VL: Yes! This is obvious in the case of the Angola 3. This has also been true among women who have been challenging prison conditions. Most female facilities have some form of solitary confinement. At California’s Valley State Prison for Women, the Special Housing Unit consists of eight-foot by six-foot cells with blacked-out windows where women are confined for 23 hours a day. Even in their cells, the women have no privacy — toilets are in full view of the cell door windows, guards can look through those windows at any time and male guards often watch the women in the showers. If the women complain, the guards turn off the water.
In 1986, the Bureau of Prisons opened a control unit specifically for women political prisoners in the federal prison at Lexington, Kentucky. It was built underground and entirely white. Women were prohibited from hanging anything on the white walls, causng them to begin hallucinating black spots and strings on the walls and floors. Their sole contact with prison staff came in the form of voices addressing them over loudspeakers. The unit was shut down in 1988 following an outside campaign and a court decision that determined their placement unconstitutional, but the solitary confinement is still used to punish and silence jailhouse lawyers and other incarcerated activists (of all genders, I should add).
A3N: How have women prisoners resisted the use of solitary confinement?
VL: In 1974, a woman incarcerated in Bedford Hills (the maximum-security prison for women in New York) filed a lawsuit challenging the practice of placing women in solitary confinement without 24 hours notice and a hearing (basically any sort of due process). She won a court injunction prohibiting this practice. In response, she was beaten by male guards and placed in solitary confinement (again with no due process). Other women in the prison protested by rioting.
More recent ways in which women have resisted solitary confinement aren’t as visible. While she was in the Close Management unit in Florida, Lisa Savage joined the StopMax campaign and became part of the Steering Committee. Her participation added gender to the way that people were viewing (and organizing around) the use of solitary confinement. She also wrote a long (16 pages!) piece about the Close Management unit for Tenacious, the zine that I publish of women prisoners’ art and writings. Writing about that reality is, in and of itself, a form of resistance, but she also included ways in which she, as an individual woman being held in the Close Management unit, was resisting:
I’ve finally gained a firm sense of self by holding fast to my beliefs in equality, liberty and life without threats or coercion. Each accomplishment, may it be emotional, psychological, or mental “growth,” is a form of resistance.
Every time I teach someone geometry or basic reading or tell them of their own intrinsic ability to be autonomous and secure with themselves, I resist the mentacide, and hopefully arm the women with ways to combat their own mental slow death sentence here in CM SHU…
Every time I get mail from you or Anthony of the South Chicago ABC Zine Distro or Abigail of Burning River or the meeting notes from StopMax (I am on the Steering Committee for the National Campaign to End Solitary Confinement and Torture in U.S. prisons), it confirms that I am part of this resistance movement.
As I conclude this piece, I have been informed of an increase in my custody to CM Level I. I know this is only a label, not who I truly am. DOC may have condemned me for my actions, but I know in my heart that for the past 7 months, I have taken the measures necessary to ensure my beliefs and integrity remain intact within a corrupt system. I have done my best to stand up for my CM sisters and myself. Yes, I have been DR’ed [issued disciplinary reports”] and “gave up” my privileges to take up for women who would spit on me if given a chance. I’ve asked nothing from them, I’ve only tried to show them that they must fight for their beliefs and happiness. I’ve wanted to show them that they do not have to be the label placed upon them—dumb ho, loser, etc—that they can achieve positive healthy goals even while locked in a cell 24/7. I wanted them to have a piece of my courage until they could find their own. Yes, I shouted about the unjustifiable psychological abuse they suffer—I shouted so that they could at least whisper of their own hurts in their own hearts… For this I have no regrets, and I will not apologize.
These aren’t ways that are clearly visible to those on the outside looking for instances of prisoner resistance. Still, her actions are forms of resistance to solitary confinement.