Conversations about prison typically focus on male prisoners. This is understandable, given that the vast majority of prisoners are men. But according to Victoria Law, the population of women in prison has been growing at an alarming rate. The number of women incarcerated grew by 108% between 1990 and 2000, while “The male prison population grew only 77% during that same period.” Victoria Law’s book Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women is a stellar introduction to the experiences of women inside American prisons. The book documents a litany of harms inflicted upon women and their families while they are incarcerated. Yet rather than simply presenting disturbing information about social problems, Victoria Law also documents how women in prison form communities and resist abuses.
Some of the most egregious abuses documented throughout the book relate to sexual violence. Victoria Law discusses the stories of many prisoners who were sexually assaulted. More importantly, she exposes the grotesquely inadequate institutional response to this sexual abuse. She quotes prison officials expressing their bias against believing prisoners who report sexual misconduct, and even discusses cases where guards violently retaliated against prisoners who reported sexual violence by guards.
Victoria Law also highlights the pernicious consequences that incarcerating mothers can have for their children. She tells of women separated from their families, only able to talk in closely monitored visits. Readers learn heartbreaking stories of women shackled while they give birth, and other indignities visited upon mothers. Those who claim to value families should understand the disastrous consequences mass incarceration has had for families, particularly when mothers are incarcerated.
The second edition of Resistance Behind Bars has one substantial advantage over the first. This edition features a section on transgender, intersex, and gender variant people in prison. Any examination of the role of gender in mass incarceration is incomplete if it solely considers the experience of cisgender women and men. Transgender women are frequently housed in men’s prisons, where they are subject to dire risks of rape and other violent abuse. Law discusses cases where guards consciously increase this risk, actively placing trans women in cells with sexually aggressive men. She also discusses how transgender men, butch lesbians, and gender non-conforming women have been segregated from the rest of the prison population and systematically stigmatized by guards. Those who do not fit neatly into the gender binary are difficult for top-down institutions like prisons to accommodate, and the book’s explanation of the violence and oppression visited on transgender inmates is vitally important.
One noteworthy feature of the book is Law’s skepticism of prison reforms promoted in the name of prisoners’ rights. She illustrates how counterproductive top-down legislative reforms can be with both contemporary and historical examples. For example, she explores how women’s prisons were first created in the 19th Century as a response to the abuse and violence women faced while incarcerated alongside men. Yet this seemingly humanitarian reform also paved the way for the state to send more women to prison. In the decade following the opening of the first women’s prison in Illinois in 1859, “the total number of women sentenced to prison tripled.” Similarly, Victoria Law exposes how the Prison Rape Elimination Act has been used to forcibly separate seemingly consensual queer couples in women’s prisons. These illustrations of how well-meaning legislative reforms can backfire on the very prisoners they are intended to help should serve an important cautionary role for aspiring prison reformers.
Libertarians and market anarchists should not be surprised to learn that top-down reforms of the criminal justice system tend to harm their intended beneficiaries. The law of unintended consequences is one economic principle libertarians consistently warn of as we oppose legislative and regulatory proposals from across the political spectrum. When the legislation deals with the state’s most violent and repressive functions, the unintended consequences can be disastrous. However, most libertarian writing on the law of unintended consequences employs reasoning drawn from market oriented economists, and thus may not be appealing to many left-leaning activists interested in advocating prison reform. This book, written by an intersectional feminist who grounds her analysis in the lived experiences of prisoners themselves, makes the unintended consequences personal and morally urgent to left-wing readers. Her critique of reform reads not as wonky economic analysis or stubborn ideological purism, but instead as humane concern for women most impacted by well-intended policies.
With this skepticism of reform, one might expect the book to leave readers’ hopes dashed. However, Victoria Law highlights the benefits of communities formed by prisoners themselves. Because of these stories, I felt hopeful while reading a book about heinous human rights abuses and the failures of top-down reforms. This is quite a feat on Law’s part. I did not leave this book feeling hopeless, but instead feeling hopeful about the potential for change from the bottom up. The book discusses many examples of mutual aid, grassroots political resistance, and other social cooperation among prisoners that helps them make prison life more bearable. Law also explores concrete ways that those of us outside prison walls can support prisoners, such as writing letters to them. Thus, her book highlights the possibilities of social change from the bottom up while also warning of the pitfalls of social change from the top down.
Resistance Behind Bars stands as a stellar illustration of anarchist principles. It shows the brutal violence of the state, and how this violence hurts families, undermines community, harms health, and exacerbates poverty and inequality. It also shows how attempts at top-down reform, even those intended to help the victims of state violence, tend to exacerbate these problems. At the same time, the book shows the vibrant possibilities of social cooperation from the bottom up, and how those oppressed by state violence can join together in mutual support. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in criminal justice, human rights, prisons, feminism, or anarchism.
Translations for this article:
- Italian, Resistenza Dietro le Sbarre.