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Victoria Law mass incarceration
Illustration Callum Abbott

Busting the myths around mass incarceration and its impact on women

Victoria Law’s new book, Prisons Make Us Safer: And 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration, sheds light on how women in prison have their concerns, priorities, and existences ignored – here, she discusses what abolition in action looks like

As Black Lives Matter protests swept the world last summer, one rallying cry rang louder than the rest: ‘Defund the police’. Rising up against the violent, racist, transphobic, homophobic, and misognyistic institution that has abused its authoritative power time and time again, protesters began to challenge the disturbing norm of global mass incarceration, and called for an abolition of the system as we know it.

For journalist and author Victoria Law, this has been her focus for the last two decades. As well as helping women in prison develop their writing skills, Law has written several books, essays, and articles about the dangers of mass incarceration and the ways in which we can resist it. Her new book, Prisons Make Us Safer: And 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration, is no exception. In it, she dismantles 21 of the most persistent myths about prisons – many of which have been drilled into us from childhood. These include the myth that prisons offer rehabilitation; that race has nothing to do with mass incarceration; that those in prison don’t resist or organise; and that prisons are the only way to address violent crime.

“Even though prisons have failed to keep us safe, we as a society have been conditioned to turn to more policing, more prisons, and more punishment as a response to every social and political problem,” Law tells Dazed. “This shrinks our imagination so that we’re not thinking about other solutions other than locking people up in some way or another.”

Although conversations about police and prison abolition are arguably more widespread than ever before, one group is still left behind. Too often, women are forgotten when it comes to both conversations about mass incarceration, as well as tangible prison reforms. Women’s concerns, priorities, and existences are ignored, while their attempts to resist and organise behind bars are dismissed. In her book, Law explores why this is, discusses the ways in which trans women and women of colour are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system, and examines how women’s experiences of violence and trauma trap them in a “abuse-to-prison pipeline”.

“Women experience all the same abuses facing incarcerated men,” says Law, “but their gender allows the prison system – and a constellation of other institutions – to inflict additional injustices and violence on them.”

Here, Law discusses some of the myths that enable mass incarceration, why women are excluded from the conversation, and what police abolition would look like in reality.

Your book centres on the myths that enable mass incarceration. What makes these myths so dangerous?

Victoria Law: These myths emerge over time, and often serve to whip up fear and build support for more spending on policing and prisons (while cutting funds to other needed resources, such as housing, health care, education, and economic opportunities). Everyone wants to feel safe and free from the fear of violence and attack – many of the myths that prop up the system of mass incarceration play into these fears. One of the most widespread and enduring myths is that we need prisons to keep us safe(r). In the US, every child has been fed this myth from a young age, and it continues through adulthood via cop and crime shows, mainstream media, and politicians.

These myths justify the continuation of mass incarceration as a catch-all solution to all of society’s problems. If we don’t debunk these myths, then we end up either continuing down the same path of perpetual punishment (without any real safety), or else fall for proposed reforms that don’t address the root causes of problems nor ensure safety.

How can we identify and eradicate them?

Victoria Law: By learning more about mass incarceration and questioning commonly-repeated refrains justifying prisons and prison expansion. I realise that not everyone has the time or inclination to read, watch documentaries, or listen to endless podcasts detailing the history and political machinations behind mass incarceration, so I wanted my book to be an easy primer about mass incarceration – and to dispel the myths that I heard again and again.

“Even though prisons have failed to keep us safe, we as a society have been conditioned to turn to more policing, prisons, and punishment as a response to every social and political problem” – Victoria Law

As well as looking at mass incarceration more broadly, your book delves into the experiences of women in prison. Why are women so often excluded from conversations about mass incarceration?

Victoria Law: Women make up approximately 10 per cent of the US prison population. Until recently, their issues and experiences were largely ignored because they comprise such a small percentage of the country’s bloated jail and prison population. But, with approximately 200,000 women behind bars, even 10 per cent is a high number and should not be ignored. 

Women experience all the same abuses facing incarcerated men, but their gender allows the prison system – and a constellation of other institutions – to inflict additional injustices and violence on them. For instance, the majority of people in prison have children. When a father is imprisoned, he’s likely to have family members who will care for his children. He may not always see or hear from them, but he’s less likely to worry about losing them to foster care. When a mother is incarcerated, her children are five times more likely to end up in the foster care system. Until recently, however, navigating family court and custody issues were not considered prison issues because it wasn’t an issue that affected the majority (incarcerated fathers).

Can you tell me a little about the intersections between women’s histories of violence and trauma and their imprisonment?

Victoria Law: Among people incarcerated in women’s prisons, past abuse – family violence, sexual violence, and/or domestic violence – is so prevalent that we now have a term for it: the abuse-to-prison pipeline. Until recently, this was a largely ignored pathway. In the US, at least half of all women in prison report having experienced past physical or sexual abuse prior to their arrest and incarceration. We see the same in the UK, where 46 per cent of women in prison report having experienced domestic violence.

For women who have less access to resources – including resources to help them cope with and address past trauma, as well as resources that everyone needs, such as safe housing, nutritious food, and health care – the combination (of this and trauma or abuse) pushes them further along the pathway towards prison. This might take the form of defending themselves against abusive partners or ex-partners, or engaging in criminalised activities at the coercion of their abusive partners, or self-medicating using illegal drugs to cope with unaddressed trauma, which can lead to arrest and incarceration.

In your book, you talk about women resisting and organising while in prison. To what extent are they more inclined to do this than their male counterparts?

Victoria Law: Women aren’t more likely to resist and organise while in prison than their male counterparts, but their actions are less likely to be recognised as resistance or organising. For women, organising and resistance might look like helping other mothers navigate the legal paperwork around child custody. In some prisons, it’s also taken the form of contacting attorneys and organisations that can do ‘know-your-rights’ training and teach them how to navigate and advocate for themselves in the family court system. In some states, this has led to organising to pass laws that stop the countdown to parental termination simply because a parent is in prison. But because parenting is often not viewed as a prison issue, we tend to overlook those efforts when we’re talking about prison organising. Instead, ideas about organising often revolve around actions taken by men – riots, hunger strikes, and work strikes.

In what ways might the prison system fail women more than men?

Victoria Law: The prison system fails everyone. It throws people into a violent and chaotic atmosphere rife with racism and very little opportunity to do anything meaningful during their time behind bars. That said, there are gendered ways that imprisonment devastates women’s lives. Prisons replicate many of the same dynamics of abusive partners; not only do they separate people from their families and support system – however flawed those families and support systems might be – but in prison, people are told when to get up, when they are allowed to eat, shower, go outside, and see their families. If people misbehave, they are locked in solitary confinement. This kind of ultimate control is a hallmark of domestic violence, but is standard prison practice. Then there are the egregious abuses that occur within prison, including physical and sexual violence by staff and inadequate medical care.

“Trans women are more likely to be stopped, harassed, detained, and arrested than their cisgender counterparts. It’s a phenomenon so common that it’s called ‘walking while trans’” – Victoria Law

Victoria Law: Women of colour are disproportionately targeted by the criminal legal system. Trans women of colour are disproportionately targeted by police because of both their race and their gender identity; because they are trans, they are more likely to be stopped, harassed, detained, and arrested than their cisgender counterparts. It’s a phenomenon so common that it’s called “walking while trans”.

Many prisons are located in predominantly white rural communities. For many of the people who work in prisons, their only personal contact with people of colour is with those who are incarcerated. Many of them come to work with extremely racist ideas about people of colour, which manifests in so many different ways. It can look like staff believing that the person in the midst of a medical or mental health crisis is malingering. It can look like placing people in solitary confinement for minor behaviors. It definitely looks like not believing a woman who reports being sexually assaulted, especially when her assailant is a prison staffer.

The movements to defund or abolish the police have attracted global attention in recent years, particularly following the BLM protests last summer. What would police abolition look like in reality?

Victoria Law: If you want to look at abolition in action, look to your wealthier – and whiter – neighborhoods. You don’t have the police presence that’s so prevalent in poorer neighborhoods, (therefore you don’t have people) being targeted, harassed, surveilled, and killed by the police. At the same time, you also don’t have the young people in those neighborhoods being arrested for petty offenses. We also have to remember that, in the US, over half of all violent crimes are not reported to the police to begin with, so we already live in a society where police are not seen as purveyors of safety or an answer to violence.

I do believe that we can work towards a world where police can be abolished. We can start by demanding a defunding of the police and a redirection of those funds into the resources that communities need. Defunding needs to go hand-in-hand with allocating money to life-giving institutions. Putting our money, resources, and faith in policing and prisons has not kept us safer. What will make us safer is redirecting those resources to build stronger communities, support individuals and families, and create programs that address, rather than hide away from, underlying issues, preferably before they erupt into harm or violence. It’s a slow build, but one that is necessary if we want to live in a safer world.

Prisons Make Us Safer: And 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration is out now via Beacon Press