Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System

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Investigative journalist, Silja J.A. Talvi, after years of intensive research, has written a disturbing portrait of the current state of incarcerated women in the United States. One of her main goals in writing this book, to give a voice to incarcerated women, is perhaps the very thing that sets this title apart from other works exploring the same theme. The fact that the expert testimonies you will read come not just from administrators, policy makers, and academics, but also from the incarcerated women themselves is an important one. As the author puts it, "... I did not want to produce yet another book that relies primarily on the writings and studies of inhabitants of the “free world,” as prisoners put it. Where appropriate, I do weave in expert findings and insights, but it is absolutely my contention that there are no individuals more insightful and informed about the realities of female incarceration than prisoners themselves." These are the voices that we’re unlikely to hear in crime reporting, or anywhere else for that matter.

This book is written in a style that is accessible to the layperson, free of academic and professional jargon, but it’s an incredibly difficult book to read: The stories told by inmates and their loved ones are heart-breaking, stomach-turning, enraging, but sometimes marked by hope.

Talvi is as thorough as one would hope an investigative journalist would be. She wrote this volume after conducting interviews with prisoners, their families, prisoner advocates, and correctional facility workers and administrators; touring correctional facilities in the U.S., Canada, Finland and the United Kingdom; and gathering available and relevant statistics. The picture that emerges is one of an increasing number of nonviolent, first-time offenders being incarcerated for lengths of time that will come to most as a shock. Many of these sentences are especially disquieting when laid out next to examples of relatively light sentences given to prison employees, for example, found guilty of sexually abusing female inmates under their "care.”

Even readers who believe that the main goal of incarceration is to punish and not to rehabilitate prisoners for successful reentry into society, will likely be horrified by the treatment that many women have faced behind bars in this country. Stories of women with untreated tumors, broken bones and debilitating illnesses and diseases, bleeding and crying in their cells for days before receiving what cursory medical treatment they are allowed seem almost too horrendous to be true.

Talvi does not stop, however, at providing a place where these habitually ignored women can be heard or at simply pulling back the curtain and giving the public a glimpse into the reality of this country’s prison system. She goes on to provide examples of some of the other practices that are available and to reveal the work of people who are working from both within and outside of the system to create more just and successful ways of dealing with issues of crime and punishment in the 21st century.

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