Reading Room





Sisters Inside:

Prisons and Social Control

Collective piece by staff, from Kinesis, published by the Vancouver Commission on the Status of Women

June 1987

The judicial/prison system most often comes up in feminist discussion in deciding how to deal with men who commit crimes against women. The urgency of ending violence against us has compelled women to implicitly support this system.

However, in doing this, we cut ourselves off from the struggles of women who are imprisoned. We also lose sight of our long-term goal of a society not based in coercion; a goal that requires the dismantling of the prison system. We need to remember how women's issues and prison issues are part of the same struggle.

Prison issues are important for feminists, both because individual women are being oppressed by prison and, in a wider context, because the judicial/prison system exists to support the larger power structure that oppresses us all.

Women in prison are fighting to maintain a sense of self within a system that isolates and degrades; one which attempts to teach submission to authority through the constant exercising of power, in both serious and petty ways, over prisoners. What is generated is not obedience but anger, and since a prisoner risks punishment such as being sent to segregation if she directs her anger at the system that's hurting her, that anger often gets directed inward or at other prisoners.

Because the most brutal methods of social control are directed at a society's most oppressed groups, the women most likely to be sent to jail [and prison] are poor and/or women of color. In North America a very high proportion are Native. That the great majority of prisoners are in for crimes against property shows the system's role in maintaining the economic order.

Prison is a type of violence which enforces a state's power over its citizens, in the same way that rape and battering enforce the power of men over women.

Since this kind of power by coercion is antithetical to feminism we need to make prison abolition part of our feminist analysis.

One implication of this is that we have to reevaluate the strategy of trying to have abusive men put in prison. For now, it's one of the only strategies available to protect women and children from particularly violent men. What other approach could be used remains a difficult question. However, this doesn't have to stop us from opposing the prison system as a whole; we can recognize that if we use the system to convict violent men, it is an unsatisfactory and short term solution.

What we have to abandon is trying to inject feminist values into an essentially patriarchal system. We've seen how our demands, even when clearly articulated, are twisted and used in the state's interests in our recent anti-pornography work.

We've implicitly supported the system by trying to change it using its own terms. Since the severity of the penalty for an action is supposed to express society's amount of disapproval for that action, feminists have pushed for stronger penalties for crimes against women as a way of increasing the expressed disapproval for these crimes. This doesn't work for several reasons.

First, the justice system is controlled through government by the economic elite. It therefore supports that elite's interests (retaining power) and will continue to reflect their values and not those of feminists.

An example of these values is a recent sentencing by Supreme Court Judge Samuel Toy. Finding a B.C. Man guilty of the rape and murder of a teenage woman, he sentenced him to fifteen years to be served concurrently with the sentence he had already received for the rape and murder of a second teenager. This same judge three years ago imposed a life sentence on political activist Ann Hansen for her part in actions with the Wimmin's Fire Brigade and Direct Action.

This raises another point. When we support the state's imprisonment of a rapist, we support the state's right to imprison, period. And this is used against us when we challenge the system.

In the last decade or so, women in prison have also faced the backlash against feminism. Previously, the court held women less responsible for our actions than it did men and thus women received shorter sentences. But this is one of the few places where disparity between women and men decreased quickly. One of the state's first responses to our demands for equal legal rights has been to hand out longer sentences to women.

Another problem is the whole approach of responding to someone's violent or irresponsible behavior with various degrees of punishment. It implies that revenge is the most important response to a wrong-doing, rather than supporting the victim or trying to prevent the behavior from happening again. It also suggests that people have to be coerced to behave responsibly.

Feminists must participate in the search for alternate ways of dealing with those who oppress. With the awareness that the judicial/prison system is not our ally in the long run, we'll be more reluctant to ask one part of the patriarchy to protect us from other parts.

Our other task is to learn about and support the struggles of prisoners. Women inside fight back and resist all the time. And although there are few methods of resistance open to prisoners some of them are: talking back to guards, breaking rules, destroying prison property participating in sit-ins, occupations, work or hunger strikes, and exposing brutality through the media and through lawsuits.

Support from the outside is a crucial factor in the success of prisoners' campaigns. The knowledge that people outside care about what's happening contributes to prisoners' strength and makes prison administrators respond much more quickly to demands.

We can express our support for particular campaigns against unfair court decisions or treatment of prisoners through letter writing, protest phone calls [and faxes], demonstrations and education campaigns in our communities. We can also work for reforms of the prison system, keeping in mind that this is an interim measure to abolishing prisons. This includes lobbying governments to fund more prison programs with as many options available to female as male prisoners and training in a variety of jobs.

On an ongoing basis, we need to strengthen connections with our sisters inside. We must recognize women prisoners' struggles as an essential part of our movement. We can do this by:

  • visiting women in prison when possible; meeting with individual women who want visits, organizing informational or skill-sharing workshops, musicians can play gigs at prisons and so on.

  • writing to women prisoners who request letters of support or correspondence.

  • sharing our resources; sending money to defense funds and prisoner support or action groups, donating books, musical instruments, art supplies to prisoners.

  • sharing information; sending periodicals free to prisoners, soliciting articles from prisoners and providing material support to prisoner publications.


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     Last Updated on Wednesday July 25, 2007.