Week-on-week it seems that our texts and topics for scrutiny are so topical. Just days after discussing the movie Dead Man Walking, California made news as its death penalty process was upheld by a federal courts appeal.[i] Two days before we discussed Guantanamo Bay poetry, Paris was tragically attacked and the world debated international terrorism. G-Bay was similarly in the news at that time because the last British prisoner to be held there was released.[ii] This week, just as we were about to explore Wally Lamb’s collection of short stories by female prisoners, the Tory MP Philip Davies controversially announced that “more women should be sent to prison to make them equal with men”.[iii] Though Davies’s remarks unsurprisingly created a commotion, our group’s comments today (which sadly had no women present) reminds us there is still no consensus as to how to deal with increasing numbers of female prisoners.
Just as when we deliberated prison art, today’s discussion wasn’t always
rooted in America specifically. Nonetheless, according to gender research in the US, “Women are the fastest growing population in the US prison system, outstripping men in all 50 states”.[iv] Like their male counterparts, African American female prisoners are disproportionately represented. Equally shocking, it is estimated that 85-90% of all women inmates in the US have been victims of abuse (sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence) prior to their incarceration.[v] Such abuses formed the basis of a number of the stories in Lamb’s book, Couldn’t Keep it to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institute (2004).
Autobiographical information has been given a fictional twist in this collection of short stories. It was agreed that this approach was used so these female authors could “come to terms with it [abuse] in a different way and in control”. We debated whether the form of the short story had been deliberately encouraged by Lamb. I’m aware that there have been some interesting debates as to whether the short story is a form at whichwomen particular excel. The Nobel literature winner Alice Munro has suggested that the realities of women’s lives tend to lend themselves to the short story genre: “In 20 years, I’ve never had a day when I didn’t have to think about someone else’s needs. And this means the writing has to be fitted around it.”[vi] Though Monro was not acknowledging incarcerated women, the group felt short stories were simply more apt than poetry in this instance because there is “Too much to say [here] to put into a little poem”.
We also debated whether Lamb had consciously steered these women towards writing about their emotions in order to create more empathy for them. Russ noted that creative writing classes will often encourage participants to write about “what hurts” because “you will do your best writing about it because you care about it”. However Russ also attested to the difficulties of persuading male prisoners to bear their soul in group settings (like a writing class). It was noted that a large number of the authors in Lamb’s book were serving lengthy or life sentences – as detailed in their bios – which may make the process of editing and rewriting easier. But moreover, we wondered whether it were possible to generalise that female prisoners would be more likely than male inmates to readily offer up personal stories?
In fact, today’s group regularly raised questions which we could not necessarily answer. We were aware of the dangers of making sweeping generalisations between genders, yet queried whether the law is harder or easier on women. Should the law be more lenient for women with backgrounds of abuse? Is it more shocking to see a group of girls acting violent because it does not fit with society’s assumption that women are less likely to be aggressive than men? Is incarceration harder for women than men, particularly in light of a “traditional mothering instinct”? Is this why rates of suicide and self-harm are higher among female prisoners? Should male officers be permitted to serve in all-female prisons? We could offer no definitive answers to any of these questions, pointing towards the problems facing prison activists as they struggle to fight against soaring incarceration rates for women.
In the creative writing section today, Russ asked the group to convert a memory into fiction. He cited Mo’Shay’s powerful story in Lamb’s collection, querying whether it had been intentionally rewritten with an uplifting ending to counteract its distressing content. He asked the group to cast their minds back to aged 15, and to engage with their senses (writing down a song from that year; an item of clothing; a smell; a phrase; and, a food). They were asked to write about a specific incident from that era, but to rewrite it with an ending that they would have liked to have seen happen.
[i] Matt Ford, “California’s death penalty returns,” The Atlantic, 13 November 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/california-death-penalty-ruling/415716/ [accessed 24 November 2015].
[ii] Dominic Casciani, “Shaker Aamer: Last UK Guantanamo Bay detainee lands in Britain,” BBC News, 30 October 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34675324 [accessed 24 November 2015].
[iii] Jon Stone, “Tory MP Philip Davies says more women should be sent to prison,” The Independent, 20 November 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/tory-mp-philip-davies-says-more-women-should-be-sent-to-prison-to-achieve-equality-with-men-a6741556.html [accessed 24 November 2015].
[iv] “Women Prisoners,” The Clayman Institute for Gender Research (Stanford University), http://gender.stanford.edu/women-prisoners [accessed 24 November 2015].
[v] Julie Ajinkya, “Rethinking How to Address the Growing Female Prison Population,” Center for American Progress, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/news/2013/03/08/55787/rethinking-how-to-address-the-growing-female-prison-population/ [accessed 24 November 2015].
[vi] “Alice Munro on CBC Radio’s Morningside in 1978,” CBC Digital Archives, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/munro-on-morningside [accessed 24 November 2015].