As Nancy Grant approaches her seventh week incarcerated for absolutely no reason, I want to introduce everyone to “The Well” which is published on www.salon.com, one of my personaly favorite websites, and at:
Why does the United States lead the world in per-capita incarceration of its population, with more than one in 100 Americans in jail or prison? And what special difficulties do incarcerated women face that male prisoners don’t?
Investigative journalist Silja Talvi examines these questions and more in Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, which earned the The National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s PASS literary award for 2007. Talvi provides plenty of statistics, and offers in-depth interviews with prisoners and guards to deliver a sensitive, thought-provoking look at the plight of women in the prison system.
Hosted by: David Adam Edelstein (davadam), Bruce Umbaugh (bumbaugh), Lisa Harris (lrph)
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 31 Mar 08 12:28
I'm pleased to introduce our next guest, Silja Talvi. Ms. Talvi is a full-time investigative journalist and essayist with credits in more than 75 publications, including The Nation, Salon and the Christian Science Monitor. In the fall of 2005, she became a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine. "Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System" (published by Seal Press, an imprint of Avalon/Perseus), is her first full-length non-fiction book. She describes herself as "thoroughly curious about other human beings on a daily basis" and says she is an "often cranky, but always passionate and deeply engaged human being." Leading the conversation is Jack King. Mr. King is a criminal defense lawyer, writer and author in Washington, DC, and the director of public affairs and communications for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDLs 12,000-plus direct members in 28 countries and 94 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling over 40,000 members include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness within the criminal justice system. He is admitted to practice in Washington, DC, and the U.S. Supreme Court. The views here are Mr. King's and do not represent policies or positions of the NACDL except where noted.
Jack King (gjk) Mon 31 Mar 08 18:41
You've written extensively on prisons in America, in your 2002 book Prison Nation, and as a senior editor for In These Times. As an introduction to our discussion of your latest book, Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, I'd like to posit, for argument's sake, the the people and politicians of the United States have gone quite mad. According to a recent report by a study group of the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 1 in 100 Americans is currently behind bars. The United States not only has the highest incarceration rate on the planet, but possibly the largest number of prisoners of any country on earth, population notwithstanding. Congress and the governments of the several states seem to think the solution to any deviant misbehavior is jail time. Before we get into the specific subject of women in prison, it seems to me that the U.S. prefers retribution to rehabilitation. Would you care to comment on incarceration as a corrective measure generally?
Silja Joanna Aller Talvi (sisu) Tue 1 Apr 08 01:50
It's a pleasure to be here, and I want to thank Cynthia for bringing me back to participating on the Well in a way I haven't for a long time. The Well was an incredibly essential, formative part of my academic and early writing career, before the stressors and unpredictable twists and turns of life took me away from a lot of the things I enjoyed most. So, that said, I also want to thank Jack for moderating this event. The question that you pose is a very broad one, with so many facets/aspects to it, that it's hard to sum up a response. Moreoever, the criminal justifce system isn't a cohesive one, as many of you know. Federal institutions are quite different from one another, as are state facilities, work-releases, rehabilitation/re-entry programs, jails, juvenile detention centers, etc. Often the approach of the institution is *so* dependent on the warden or supervisor that it's alarming to see that there is little or no continuity in approach once that person leaves--or is forced out for being too progressive-minded, as the case might be. In general, however, I would agree that the American inclination is toward a law-and-order society at odds with itself. On the one hand, there is tremendous outrage and vehemence directed at people who use or deal drugs, commit acts of violence and sexual assault in general, and people who act in aberrant or gender-role defiant ways--whether we're talking about female gangbangers or women who lash out at their abusers. Retribution is most definitely the aim there in sentencing and the conditions of confinement, speaking in general terms. On the other hand, ours is a society quite willing to look the other way when people in positions of power and/or a modicum of celebrity cache are caught doing something illegal. Similarly, DUIs resulting in serious injury or death of pedestrians or other drivers are treated with remarkably *light* sentences (in general), as are crimes involving the trafficking or pimping out of women, to give but a few examples. We are not consistent or fair in our sentencing policies, and our perspectives on *what* constitutes crime or criminal inclination/behavior are very skewed. I would say that they're alarming and quite bizarre, esp. when we're talking about drug addiction, prostitution, and petty crimes related to a person's mental state, lack of housing, and/or severe histories of abuse and lingering trauma. It is the latter category that I focus on the most in my work, w/r/t girls and women, most of whom are doing time on drug-related and non-violent offenses. To a far greater degree than men, women come into the system with histories of sexual, physical abuse, domestic violence, rape, and mental illness. The same is true for the prevalence of chronic illness, HIV, and hepatitis C. 1/3 of women coming into the criminal justice system (first, through city/county jails) were homeless when they were arrested. Lastly, I want to note that Women Behind Bars is a work of investigative journalism, and one where the women's stories and experiences are the primary emphasis. I am very well-versed in the statistics and sociological/academic studies related to the broader issue of incarceratio n in this country (and other countries, as well)--and I am more than happy to share this kind of material with you. But my work through federal, state prisons, as well as jails and juvenile detention centers, was intended to bring the voices of these individuals to the fore. If we are going to incarcerate some 203,000 women in this country, for a total of 1.3 million women under some form of correctional supervision, we need to know who they are. Moreover, we need to know how and why they ended up in the system, and how the experience of imprisonment changes their lives. Are we safer today because we lock up well over 2.3 million Americans? Are we being fiscally sensible? Does our drug war serve anything akin to its intended purpose? I would say 'no' on all of these fronts. To be clear, I do believe there is a place for confinement and isolation from the public. I do believe that there are individuals who should never be set free in society again because they have committed heinous crimes and hve no inkling toward rehabilitation, much less any measure of compassion/empathy for the people who they've harmed or killed. (Or for their families and loved ones.) Sociopathy really isn't curable, and i don't have a problem saying that. But these people are a very small segment of our prison population, something that is even more true for our female prison population. 98% of prisoners *will* be released eventually. Roughly 2/3 end up *back* in the system within a three-year timeframe. Many of those people are actually re- arrested within in hours, days, or weeks of release, and that is as true for women as it is for men. That said, is what we're doing vis a vis the punishment of crimes making any sense? Are we really ensuring the ostensibly desired result of lower crime rates, addiction recovery, and people who come out of the system *better* than when they went in? Absolutely not. I would love to hear from those of you, in particular, who have had a chance to look at the book, but I'm more than happy to talk with you all about any/all of the issues I address in Women Behind Bars. For more, please feel free to visit: www.womenbehindbars.org and http://www.sealpress.com/book.php?isbna=9781580051958 In tomorrow's post, I'll share some of my upcoming events and links to other sites w/ radio interviews and print articles about the book. I'm also excited to talk with other journalists about the research that went into the book, my techniques for reporting, my correspondence and in-person interviews with incarcerated females, and much more. (For that matter, I'm happy to be able to talk about any of the above with anyone who's interest ed in the process of writing a book like this, which took some 2 solid years of research, travel, long stretches of intensive immersion, and the emotional struggle that became a near-crippling part of writing this book. (BTW, I didn't write Prison Nation, but I was honored to be able to have two chapters in the book on sexual abuse behind bars, as well as the hidden epidemic of hep C in our nation's prisons. Paul Wright co-edited that book, and his latest is Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration (New Press: 2008). He and I will be presenting together at Elliott Bay, 730 pm, this Sunday. EB is in Seattle. Again, thank you for stopping by and for your interest in this book.
Jack King (gjk) Tue 1 Apr 08 03:35
You spent so much time and personal effort researching this book. Did you
know what you were getting into when you started this project?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 2 Apr 08 08:51
(NOTE: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to this conversation by emailing <firstname.lastname@example.org> -- please be sure to put "Women Behind Bars" in the subject line. Thanks!)
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Wed 2 Apr 08 09:17
One of the things that struck me when reading the book is the degree to which jails and prisons have become America's new mental health facilities. A cynic might say that we've solved the problems of the infamous "snake pit" asylums of the 19th and 20th centuries by criminalizing mental illness. Now we don't have to feel guilty about the psychotic babbling away in a dirty cell because after all they are a "criminal" and deserve whatever they get. If the measure of a civilization is how it treats its least fortunate members, we don't look so good.