«ABSTRACT Title of dissertation: FROM THE INSIDE OUT: WOMEN WRITERS BEHIND PRISON WALLS Donna L. Rowe, Doctor of Philosophy, 2004 Dissertation ...»
Title of dissertation: FROM THE INSIDE OUT: WOMEN WRITERS BEHIND
Donna L. Rowe, Doctor of Philosophy, 2004
Dissertation directed by: Professor John C. Caughey
Department of American Studies
This dissertation considers what women in prison, or women who have been
in prison, have to tell us, in oral testimony or in their writing, about the American
“prison experience.” This study shows how the interpretation of first person prison narratives provides important insights into patterns in the lives of women in their preprison, in prison, and post-prison experiences. It also explores the importance that creating narratives has for women prisoners’ lives.
This dissertation examines three kinds of prison narratives. The first involves texts produced and written by female prisoners and prison activists in a radical feminist underground prison newsletter published in Seattle, WA between 1976 and
1987. Secondly, oral narratives by two former prisoners involved in the production of that newsletter are presented. Finally, I discuss and interpret the prison poetry, memoir, and other narratives produced in a creative writing workshop series at the District of Columbia Detention Center between 1995 and 1996. Women writers in prison provide insights into situations, such as poverty and abuse, that brought them to prison, they discuss survival strategies in prison, and they offer recommendations for prison policy reform as it relates to their pre-prison, prison, and post-prison experiences.
The central questions to which I seek answers are how can we learn from exploring the autobiographical representations of women writers in prison, and what can we learn from the prison experience that assists us in understanding the needs of women in prison today? In addition to examining the characteristics and dynamics of the prison experience out of which the women are writing, this work both interprets what women prisoners have to say and seeks to assess the various meanings narration has for them.
The dissertation borrows theories and techniques from feminist theory, social justice theory, critical race theory, and oral history while offering an analysis of the current conditions of women’s incarceration in the United States. It employs the methods of ethnography, including participant observation, key informant interviews, oral history, and reflexivity to enter and describe the communities examined in this research. Life stories from prison writers and activists offer a continuity of themes and theories of development as prisoners attempt to re-enter the free world.
In particular, this work seeks to increase our understanding of women’s prison experiences as a means to a deeper understanding of how female prisoners make meaning out of the prison experience through writing and as a springboard for
Professor John Caughey, Chair Professor Bonnie Thornton Dill Professor Seung-kyung Kim Professor Mary Corbin Sies Professor Deborah Rosenfelt Copyright by
“There’s nothing to writing,” the columnist Red Smith once commented. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” For those of you who have come along on my journey, you are, I hope, nodding in agreement. The commitment to writing is enormous for those of us who undertake it. Writing can be a journey out or writing can be a tomb. The one thing all writers have in common, no matter where they write, is that we know about blood letting. And we know about healing.
I express my gratitude to the many who believed in this project and joined me on this journey.1 I am sincerely grateful to members of my dissertation committee who challenged me to continue my scholarship and make room for women’s voices.
I thank my chair John Caughey and committee members: Bonnie Thornton Dill, Seung-kyung Kim, Deborah Rosenfelt, and Mary Corbin Sies, who made the most extraordinary sacrifices on my behalf.
For the vision to tell the stories in the first place and the encouragement to collaborate and to listen, I thank Jacqueline Smith. Her courage and strength has, over these years, kept me on the path. Her tremendous fortitude was a model for me The research was facilitated in the early stages by financial support from a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, Institute on Violence, Culture, and Survival, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, Charlottesville, VA.
ii in my darkest hour, for I could never know how hard it was for her to be “still maintaining under the circumstances.” For taking the time to recollect their prison experiences and for their commitment to other women prisoners across the country, I thank Jane Potter and Shelly Baker. Thanks too to those associated in the past or present with women in prison who helped advance this research: Fr. Michael Bryant, Chaplain of the District of Columbia Detention Center and his assistants, Rev.
Manson and Sr. Alma.
For encouraging me to pursue this degree and having faith that I would complete it, I will be eternally grateful to my dear friends Barbara Shaw-Perry, Psyche Williams, Nina Roberts, Ariella Zeller, Bruni Hernández, Mary Dowcett, Sandi Gray-Terry, and Laura Nichols. For helping me move through the process with strength and clarity, I am forever grateful to Sudi Berg, who never questioned my ability to finish. For her assistance with editing and voice, I thank Melissa Capers.
To my mother Patricia A. Jones Rowe, yes I am finally a doctor! To my father, in spite of all the obstacles placed in my way, I did succeed in my own way and on my own terms. A little education does indeed go a long way. I am also thankful for my brother Bill Rowe and his partner Denise Koczcik who praised me when I needed it the most. Only you know what we struggled against to survive.
To Rick Gaynor, I say thank you for making me laugh and for being my lifelong friend; to his wife and my best friend Sophie, I am ever grateful for your love and sense of hope. I am so glad you were both there for me. Tom and Jami, thank you for sharing your home, your hearts, and your music with us. To Tiki, John, and
co-workers at the House of Ruth in Washington, DC, I appreciate your flexibility and professionalism during my work. Your support has meant a great deal to me.
To my clients, your courage will always be an inspiration. To my friends and colleagues in Washington, D.C., you helped me find myself and for that I am eternally grateful. Diste su corazón y lo tengo siempre conmigo. Es uno regalo por me alma, gracias.
For teaching me patience and showing me how to move forward toward a goal, I thank my mother-in-law Mary Elizabeth Foster Jackson and my father-in-law Warren Schneller Jackson, who literally made it possible for me to finish this project.
Finally, I especially wish to thank my son, Noah Nathaniel Jackson who has until now, never known a day when Mom wasn’t working on the dissertation. His love and energy has been unfailing. To my husband Tom Jackson, words cannot express what I feel in my heart for you as you walk along beside me. Without you, so many things in my life would not have been possible.
Never have I had such life altering experiences. Never have I been so thoroughly consumed by a subject, or by the people who have shared their lives with me. And looking back, I would not change one minute of this wonderful journey.
Appendix B Sample Writing Exercises II p. 222 Introduction: Positioning Prison Narratives in the Context of Women’s Incarceration “Never surrendering mentally to controversy, frustrations, or harsh conditions.
I’ll maneuver magnificently, having the courage to face enemies, Opposing trials, and tribulations. Only the strong will survive.” Jacqueline Smith, 1996, Former Prisoner at the District of Columbia Detention Center When I called the Chaplain’s office at the District of Columbia’s Detention Center in 1995 to ask if it would be interested in sponsoring me to conduct research on women’s prison writing by offering a writing workshop series to female prisoners, Father Bryant listened quietly to me and then asked, “Why do you want to teach creative writing to women at the jail?” His seemingly simple question was a multilayered inquiry into intentions and authenticity. He needed to protect his community from mal-intended outsiders; he is also wary of those who so readily want to volunteer.
In the years since then I have come to expect this type of question as I worked on this dissertation. The female writers I taught asked me to define my intentions, other research participants questioned me in order to protect themselves from exposure, and my friends and family have quizzed me time and again about what I was doing and why.
I wanted to teach creative writing in the DC jail in order to share voice with a population, women in prison that is expanding at unprecedented rates and yet remains largely invisible and unheard in our country. I wanted to teach creative writing in order to provide these women the additional tools to articulate their experience in ways that express truth and communicate meaningfully to themselves, their families, and communities. I wanted to create an avenue for women writers in prison to represent themselves in the literary arena as well. I wanted to teach creative writing to women in jail in order to add women’s voices to the canon of prison writing. I wanted to teach and research women writers to learn what they had to say about their experiences. Having been involved in research through the early 1990’s with women who had murdered abusive partners, I had begun to learn more about trauma and storytelling. I wanted to continue my research into women’s prison experiences to find a way to study this community further and to do something positive with a greater understanding of the problems they encountered.
One of my former creative writing students has just been released from a federal prison camp in Connecticut after being incarcerated for ten years. We corresponded regularly through those years, and she has been a great source of information for this project. In the process we have become good friends. Jackie challenged me to answer these questions, “How could one million women be locked up in the United States?” “Do they even know who we are?” “Do they listen to what we say?” “Do they read what we write?” Why does she want us to listen? As we will see, her questions fall into two categories, “do they know us?” and “do they listen?” This dissertation will explore these queries by seeking answers not from outsiders but directly from the women writers themselves.
As a researcher, I pose these questions: What do female prisoners have to tell us about the prison experience? How do female prisoners make sense out of their prison experiences through writing and other forms of narration? From the perspective of discourse, what are the implications of “listening to the prisoner?” What can we learn from exploring and expanding the autobiographical representations of women writers in prison? Simultaneously, what can we learn from the prison experience that assists us in understanding the publicly generated representations of women writers in prison? My study investigates these questions to increase our understanding of women’s prison experiences, as a means to a deeper understanding of how female prisoners make meaning out of the prison experience through writing, and as a springboard for considering prison policy change.
Overview of The Growth of the Female Inmate Population In just the last two decades the number of women being held in the nation’s prisons has increased eightfold. Each year 3.2 million women are arrested by the police, charged with a crime, removed from their communities, and taken to jail to await a trial or other disposition of their case. Even though most women who are arrested are released within a short time period, approximately 156,000 women are held prior to trial or as sentenced prisoners, representing more than a tripling of the female inmate population since 1985. Understanding the rationale and impact of mass incarceration requires that we look and consider the profile and the voices of women detained by the criminal justice system and the community conditions that
circumstances that led them to prison, what prison has been like, and their hopes for the future For most of the 20th century, the women’s prison population numbered between five to ten thousands (Calahan, 1986). By 1980, there were just over 12,000 women in U.S. state and federal prisons. By 1999, the number had reached 90,668.
As for the larger picture, in 2004, there are approximately 1 million women under criminal justice supervision. The rate of women’s imprisonment is also at an historic high, increasing from a low of 6 sentenced female inmates per 100,000 women in the United States in 1925 to 66 per 100,000 in 2000. In 2001, Texas led the nation with 12,714 women in prison, followed by California (11,432), Florida (4,019), and New York (3,423) (Beck & Karberg, 2001 5).2 It is important to note that the increase in women’s imprisonment is not simply a mirror image of what is happening to the numbers in male corrections. First, women’s share of total imprisonment has actually increased – more than doubling in the past three decades. At the turn of the twentieth century, women made up 4% of those imprisoned; by 1970, this had dropped to 3%. Women still accounted for only 3.9% of those in prison in 1980, but by 1999, women accounted for 6.7% of those in prison (Beck & Karberg, 2001, 5).