The American Prison Newspaper collection, available on JSTOR, includes several newspapers from women’s facilities that can contribute to the feminist criminology conversation. Ranging from the 20th to 21st centuries, these newspapers are a place to get first person perspectives about what matters to women in prison, which include reflections about becoming a mother, poems about confinement, hope, and perseverance, and fantasy-like artwork.
Studying women’s incarceration can be a difficult task: the development of women’s facilities doesn’t follow the same historical timeline as men’s facilities and much of the discourse still centers on old debates about femininity and women’s so called ‘criminal’ behavior. As sociologist Nancy Lewis-Home explains, “women’s involvement in crime is analyzed according to the argument that ‘women’s crimes mirror women’s lives.’” Consequently, as NPR and others have pointed out, discussions about women’s incarceration often focus on the dynamics of power and powerlessness.
In a 1974 issue of Feminist Studies, Estelle B. Freedman, a historian and professor of U.S. History at Stanford University, provides a historical review of female correctional institutions in the United States from 1870-1900. In this review, she identifies early reformers including Elizabeth Fry and Mary Wistar alongside four factors that contributed to the origins of the women’s prison reform movement. Lucia Zedner, a legal scholar and professor of criminal justice at the University of Oxford, supplements Freedman’s reviews by describing and analyzing various theories of female criminality. Zedner ends her analysis by asserting that 20th century penal responses continue to suggest that “all women who offend are likely to be in some way psychologically disturbed.”
Utilizing primary sources that speak to directly to the experience of women’s incarceration, scholars have a new tool to study the phenomenon and its various intersections. Below is a list of women’s newspapers from the archive.
Women’s Prison Newspapers in American Prison Newspapers Collection
- Bidin’ Times – Salem, Oregon
- Hilihia – Kailua, Hawaii
- The Hill – Indianapolis, Indiana
- Hot Topics – Indianapolis, Indiana
- The Hour Glass – Niantic, Connecticut
- Issues in the Indiana Women’s Prison – Indianapolis, Indiana
- News from the Purdy Center for Women, Gig Harbor, Washington
- Our World – Indianapolis, Indiana
- Perceptions – Clinton, New Jersey
- The Rap Sheet – Salem, Oregon
- The Reflector – Shakopee, Minnesota
- Wahine Times – Kailua, Hawaii
Pregnancy and Motherhood
Guiding Questions: What challenges do pregnant women in prison face? What does mothering in prison look like?
- “The Hardship of Being a Long-Distance Parent”
- “Mothers, Jobs, and Prisons”
- “Honoring Our Mother” (special newspaper issue) by The Reflector
Additionally, students can watch Moms Behind Bars, a documentary (part 1 and part 2) about the “Wee Ones Program” at the Indiana Women’s Prisons. The documentary grapples with this question: should babies be allowed to live behind bars? According to the mothers and some prison staff, the answer is YES. Because this documentary is conducted at the Indiana Women’s Prison, it’d also be a great addition to studying the various prison newspapers that have been published at the prison: Hot Topics, Our World, and The Hill.
Guiding Questions: What do poems written by women in prison reveal about their response to being incarcerated? What are some recurring themes throughout the poems? How do incarcerated women use poetry to (re)shape their realities?
- “Misplaced Dreams” by Sandy Cowley
- “Don’t Quit” by Laurie Orta
- “Stand Up” by Hester E. Jackson
- “The Strategy” by FMJ
- “Justice in Prison” by FMJ
- “You’re Not Alone” by Della Robinson
- “What Prison Is” by Deelia
Addiction and Recovery
Guiding Questions: How do women in prison view their relationship with drugs/alcohol? To what extent does recovery impact self-esteem and well-being? How does recovery from drugs/alcohol allow women to connect and build community with one another while incarcerated? What does this connection and community building look like?
- Addicted Trap by Angie Mellilo
- When Addiction Becomes a Disease by Shannon McFadden and Susan McCullen
- Untitled by Kip McCrea
- Recovery Month (special newspaper issue) by The Reflector
Additional Resources to Contribute to Class Instruction
“Women and the Prison Industrial Complex.” by val cod. Off Our Backs, 2001
This one page article by valerie codd establishes the argument that the US War on Drugs negatively affected women of color just as much as it affected men of color. codd’s piece illustrates how women in a cycle of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse tend to get charged with “petty crimes that mark efforts for daily survival.”
Guiding Questions: What evidence does codd use to support her claims? How does Angela Davis define “the prison industrial complex”? What kinds of programming do the newspapers feature that aim to help women survive upon their release?
Incarcerated Women and Girls, The Sentencing Project.
This report by The Sentencing Project demonstrates why the United States is the leading country for the incarceration of women and girls. The report includes color coded graphics that demonstrate the number of women in state prisons, federal prisons, and jails. Furthermore, it breaks down how many women are further entangled in the criminal justice system through measures such as probation and parole.
Guiding Questions: How do incarceration rates differ across racial/ethnic categories? How have incarceration rates for women changed within the past 40 years? Which states have the highest incarceration rates for women and young girls? Which states have the lowest incarceration rates for women and young girls?
“Pregnancy in Prison.” by Marjorie Melville. Off Our Backs, 1972
melville’s piece is centered around the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island and is especially concerned with her experience of being pregnant while she was incarcerated. Elaborating on prison conditions and the quality of medical treatment, melville’s piece is accessible and detailed.
Guiding Questions: What were the conditions like in the prison where melville was? Compare and contrast melville’s experience alongside the other two women mentioned? What are the dangers of not receiving adequate prenatal care? Why might incarcerated mothers have such a strong desire to breastfeed?
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