Want to support incarcerated women? Don’t assume they’re damsels in distress

A stack of letters. (Flickr/Daniel & Sharon Burka)

A stack of letters. (Flickr/Daniel & Sharon Burka)

As you may have guessed by now, I write about prisons. My focus varies from prison conditions to prison organizing to the intersections between prison (in)justice and other issues, such as reproductive justice, but it boils down to this fact: I write about prisons. More often than not, I write about women’s prisons — what’s going on inside and what’s being done about these goings-on. As much as possible, I try to write about what women who have been most impacted — currently and formerly incarcerated women — are doing to challenge and change prison conditions and policies.

At least once a week, I receive a letter, if not several, from complete strangers who are currently incarcerated. Even though I generally write about women’s prison issues, some of these letters come from people in men’s prisons. (I use the term “people in men’s prisons” here to recognize that not every person in a men’s prison or jail identifies as male.) Given that nearly 90 percent of the 2.3 million people behind bars are in men’s jails and prisons, I’m not surprised. But what does surprise me is how frequently the letter writer, who has no connections with incarcerated women, tells me that he wants to start something that will empower and assist women behind bars. These letter writers seems to operate under the assumption that women in prison are simply sitting on their hands waiting to be rescued from the dismal conditions they encounter. Very rarely does the letter writer acknowledge that women can — and have — organized to challenge prison conditions and do not need rescuing.

I received one such letter today. The man had apparently read something that I had written, although he did not say which piece it was. Moved by the wrongs that women face, he explained in the letter that he wants to organize an event that will, in his words, be the start of an international women’s movement. He was writing to ask me to help him organize the event. Last week, another man wrote that he wanted to set up a group that specifically helps women in prison. He was reaching out to me to work with him to establish that group. Neither man was reaching out for suggestions on how he could reach women who are currently, or were formerly, incarcerated to lead these efforts. In fact, neither letter acknowledged that women have always been organizing and resisting prison conditions, frequently without assistance or even recognition from men in prison. Neither letter asked, “How can I and the men around me support the work that’s already being done by women inside?”

I am not going to single these two men out (hence the lack of details that might identify them). I’m sure they both meant well. But their letters reflects a widespread misconception among many working toward either prison reform or prison abolition — a mistaken belief that women are not already organizing. I’m not sure if people believe that women don’t care about challenging the horrific conditions that confront them or that they’re not capable of doing so, but whatever the cause, this misconception often leads to the idea that others, particularly men, have to act on behalf of women behind bars. Almost never do any of these unsolicited letters ask how the writer can support the organizing and leadership efforts of women.

At the end of last year, I wrote two pieces about women in solitary confinement. They were reprinted in the San Francisco Bay View, which is widely read by people in prison nationwide. One of the letters I received in response was from a man who has been in prison for more than a decade. The state in which he is imprisoned does not allow people in prison to correspond with each other, so he has had no contact with people in women’s prisons, and, since he never mentioned trans women, may never have been around any trans women who are out about their status. In his letter, he stated that had written several pieces that he wanted me to pass along to incarcerated women. He felt that they would be helpful for women behind bars to read. Nowhere in his letter did he ask, “What are women doing to organize and resist either prison conditions or the outside conditions that lead so many into prison?” Nowhere in his letter did he ask how he or any of the men around him could support the women I’d written about.

Overlooking women’s efforts, by the way, is not limited to men currently inside jails and prisons. Even men who have been out of prison for years and who are actively fighting for prison justice have a tendency to overlook women. I was recently on a panel with Glenn E. Martin, founder of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization working to include the voices of currently and formerly incarcerated people in policy discussions. During the question and answer section, he acknowledged: “I have to be honest: formerly incarcerated men have not done a great job of including formerly incarcerated women in our work.” If Martin, who has been challenging mass incarceration for years, publicly admits this problem, is it any wonder that men who have been stuck behind prison walls for years, if not decades, also cling to the false and outdated notion that women can’t advocate for themselves?

If you’ve read my previous columns here at Waging Nonviolence, you know that this myth isn’t true. From Yraida Guanipa’s hunger strike and clandestine efforts to keep incarcerated mothers connected to her children to the collective organizing of women in Alabama to challenge overcrowding, discrimination and sexual violence to advocating for the release of aging and infirm people, women have been resisting and organizing. In fact, the history of imprisoned women’s resistance began even before the establishment of the first separate women’s prison. But somehow this history (or herstory, if you will) remains fairly invisible.

Although I won’t deny that these letters irk me, I understand that most men inside prison don’t know anything about these herstories and thus may not realize that women aren’t in need of someone to set up an organization to come and rescue them. After all, if people on the outside overlook incarcerated women’s efforts, how can we expect people with little to no access to information to become aware of these efforts? But this reality doesn’t mean that I’m not going to write back to these men and let them know that women are already resisting and organizing and that, rather than try to start a group or organize an event to empower women in prison, they should put their energies into supporting women’s existing efforts and educating and encouraging the men around them to do the same.

And, of course, the lesson from these letters is not limited to those who work with people in prison, regardless of gender. If you’re doing social justice work, you need to consider how, instead of swooping in and trying to take hold of someone else’s struggle, you can reach out and ask, “How can we support you?” Listen to the answer. Ask more questions if you need to. And then act.

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