by Karla Mantilla
Off Our Backs, Feb 2001
off our backs collective member Karla Mantilla interviewed Claudine O’Leary by phone regarding her work in a prison library in a Chicago jail.
oob: Tell me about your work with women prisoners.
co: I volunteered in a jail library called Windows to Freedom in Chicago. The library is open about 5 mornings a week, usually from 9 to 12. It was started back in 1996 by women who had a long history of very radical feminist organizing – it was a very feminist and very lesbian base of organizing that created this library. We offer some pretty radical books in the library partly because we have some pretty radical folks who volunteer and donate books. We offer selections that criticize the criminal justice industry as a whole, and many books that deal with racism. We have a whole women’s studies section that has all the classics, plus anything else that we’re able to find. We also have magazines, papers, other kinds of information about local resources in town.
We also offer workshops like apoetry writing workshop that is incredibly popular. It is impossible to keep enough poetry in there. The women love poetry and they write volumes and volumes of poetry. So they love programs where they learn how to write poetry and to share their poetry.
We also have a workshop on domestic violence which features a video about women who have killed their batterers. Not only are most of the women in the jail survivors of domestic violence, but it is not uncommon to have women there facing charges for having killed their batterer.
People are surprised that we’re able to carry so many lesbian books because, despite frowning on what they refer to as “bulldagging” in the jail, they don’t really monitor what we are giving out. We made our own decision that we are not handing out written or visual pornography, but that was our own call and not a jail requirement. Of course you can’t have books like How to Make a Bomb, or How to Pick a Lock, or anything like that.
oob: How long are women usually incarcerated in the jail?
co: There’s a lot of turnover – a person can be there only a few days. I would say that about 90% of the women there are waiting for trial because they couldn’t make bond. A woman can wait anywhere from a few months to more, but I knew plenty of women who had been there for a couple of years.
If you’re willing to plea bargain quickly, then you’ll get sentenced quickly – within 6 months. But if you stand and fight, if you say, “No, this is wrong,” or, “I want to go to court on this,” you can expect to wait a long time. And you can expect to get a much harsher sentence, because the criminal justice system is vindictive and they punish you if you decide to stick up for yourself.
No one ever sees a lawyer until 30 seconds before they see the judge because the public defenders are so overburdened. But they are very active in trying to talk people into plea bargaining. If everyone today asked for their constitutional right to a trial, the system would grind to a halt. There would be complete chaos – that would be a strategic action right there.
oob: Looking at the whole system from a radical feminist perspective, how did you see patriarchy, racism, and capitalism at work in structuring the women’s lives that you saw there, both inside and outside the jail.
co: No one should underestimate women in prison, thinking they don’t want to hear about feminist stuff. Of course, they are not going to relate to people talking about glass ceilings. But you talk about rape as being an act of war against women – they relate to that.
We have Phyllis Chesler’s book, Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness. I remember one woman who came up to me and pointed to the first word of the title and asked me what it meant. I said that’s when men think that they rule over everything. And she said, “Huh uh…, then I’ll take this book.” It’s important to translate what is talked about among women who identify as radical feminists into words that the women in the prison feel comfortable with – the ideas.
Within the jail, I think the overwhelming thing I saw was how much the women were treated like children. This happened on so many different levels. Not just the simple control of everything they do in their life – that is definitely thorough and throughout the entire jail. For example, they have to get up at 3 a.m. because that suits the jail schedule – but also what they’re going to eat, what they’re going to do – all of that is definitely structured.
But even more, the interactions I saw between the detainees and the officers were always like someone asking a parent for something. The detainees would go up to officers and lay their head on the officers’ shoulders, asking for a hug, saying, “You haven’t hugged me today,” and then “Can I have some pads now?” or “Can I have an extra orange?” The detainees would have to do things like that in order to get the most simple things. The officers are very temperamental – they’ll call the women horrendous names or they’ll give the women warm, encouraging words, but it’s never like speaking as an adult to an adult. It’s always like they’re speaking to a child.
oob: Do you think that is different in men’s jails?
co: It is well known that officers in the men’s division try to transfer into the women’s division because in the men’s division, you have to watch out that those guys are not going to try to kill you. Correctional officers, both male and female, who work at the men’s division are looking behind their back every minute of the day, because they figure that any one of those guys is fully capable of killing and currently or potentially planning to kill any one of the officers. You hear about officers getting physically assaulted all the time.
oob: In other words, male prisoners are not putting their head on the guard’s shoulders?
co: Oh no! No way, no how. Sometimes I’ll have conversations with officers and they’ll say “It’s more irritating here, because these girls here, they try to beg you, and it’s annoying.”
I would also say though that there are a number of women for whom this is how they get things in life, on the streets, and in jail. And they don’t look at this as being exceptionally bad. They look at it as what women do to get by. You beg, you cajole, you try to see if you can talk somebody into giving you things, and of course, for male officers, that also occasionally is going to mean sexual services. That’s notorious.
Many women sell themselves – and not for large amounts of money. A lot of women will talk about how hard it is in jail because they don’t get much out of selling themselves – maybe a piece of fried chicken or cigarettes. But because what they are worth is so much less in this setting, they end up having to do far more just to get small things. Officers definitely exploit that.
Plus, there’s just this whole level on which all parts of the jail are humiliating and degrading to women in general. And that starts with the strip search, when women are processed into the facility and stand in a room of 20-30 other women naked – sometimes with male inmates who are there cleaning watch the women being processed. You’re supposed to cough and lift up your blouse. You have to squat – all sorts of different things.
For anyone who comes into the jail, that’s their first process and for many women, that experience sticks with them the whole time. Many of them will talk about that as something that has caused them a lot of emotional distress, even after having been there many months.
Plus, obviously, word goes out about male officers who women avoid being alone with in an elevator, in a stairwell, etc. There are times when women will say, “I don’t even take a shower the whole time that guy is there, because he stands there and watches us.” They’re very open about that.
oob: And there’s very little they can do as far as complaints?
co: Yeah, very little.
oob: What would you say, in your experience, are the kinds of things the women would talk about as their biggest problems in their experience of being incarcerated and also in general?
co: A lot of women were really worried about where their children were. Here in Illinois, there’s a new mandate that says if your child is in state custody for more than 14 months with no foreseeable resolution to the situation, you can lose your rights permanently. So any woman who is facing more than a year’s time in jail is at risk for permanently losing her children.
Women also talk about the complete injustice of the system, and in particular, about the racism of the system. They express that, “They’re trying to kill us. They want us to die. They don’t care if we just sit here in jail. They don’t care about whole communities.” At times they’d wait to check us out to see if we were going to say, “Well, if you hadn’t done whatever, then you wouldn’t be here, so don’t complain because it’s your fault.” That’s what all the staff and the social workers say to the women.
oob: The social workers say that to them as well?
co: There were only two social workers there for a thousand women. The social workers can barely keep their heads on. There’s so much going on that all they can do is to barely hand out a few phone numbers and make a few referrals. If anyone was to try to say to them, “This is unfair,” a social worker, even a kind officer, or the different religious volunteers – anybody at the jail – the most likely response would be “If you were not straight [complying with the law], then it’s your fault. You messed up, you failed everyone in your life.”
And so one of the common things a lot of women say is, “I’ve failed, but I’m going to do it better next time. I’m not going to run in the streets. I’m just going to stay home and take care of my kids.” But those same women who may have said that to someone else will say, when they’re with each other, “I just can’t wait to get out of here so I can get high.” So they’re saying that because they think they’re supposed to say that. And that’s the line everybody feeds them – they’re supposed to take all the blame for everything that’s happened to them.
That comes about in two primary ways. One is that they do primarily AA-based addictions counseling for women dealing with drug use or drug abuse issues. The other way is through religion, which also stresses the fact that the women would not be there if they had not failed – not just as people – but as women: they failed as mothers, they failed as daughters. It’s a very common theme – all about personal responsibility – you messed up, you failed your children, your community, your parents, yourself, god! You failed god even!
oob: How are the religious volunteers that go to the jail?
co: I have some mixed opinions about them. Since my normal library day is Sunday, when I was there the jail was inundated with church volunteers. On one hand, I appreciated that for many women, being African American and from the African American culture, they found a great comfort in the music and being a part of that. They gain some strength from being able to hear from people they can relate to or who remind them of their family.
However, overall, I’d have to say that it was a very negative and destructive influence. I overheard, and was told directly at times by both the superintendent of the jail and the person who was responsible for the religious effort at the jail, that it was their firm belief that women would not stop the cycle of going in and out of jail unless they accepted Jesus as their personal saviour.
oob: As if that does anything to address the lack of material resources, or racism and sexism.
co: It makes me wonder whatever happened to the separation of church and state. They had a gospel fest every year there, and the women are mandated to come down. You can’t not go to this thing. Now in some respects, there are plenty of women who feel like, “Get me out, anything, whatever, entertain me, I don’t give a damn.” But these things are not the kinds of things that you can just sit and passively listen to. You have to participate or they’re thinking “Well, you’re going to hell.” And you’re going to be badgered by other women and by the officers. It’s really intense.
oob: And they’ve been inundated with all this blame.
co: Well, what an amazing thing to hear – after you’ve been told by so many different people that you are nothing, they hand you the religious thing. They say, “If you say that you love Jesus and if you say that you’re willing to give your life over to the lord, then you will be saved and everything will be washed clean.” Then if you start quoting the bible and talking about how you’ve got god in your life, then all the officers give you a lot of praise and you have a much easier time at the jail. And when you go to court, you can say, “Judge I have been saved,” and judges respond to that. Many of the women don’t follow that route, and they get a lot heavier sentences.
The other sad thing is that there’s so much internalized women-hatred in the jail. I’ve heard women saying, “Men stick together when they want to do something, but we women we never stick together.” For example, the jail changed the commissary company that sells things to detainees and the prices doubled – in jail, that’s really bad. I heard that the men banded together and refused to buy from the new commissary.
oob: What do you think stops women from banding together?
co: Part of it is socialization that carries in from the outside – women walk into the jail already not trusting other women. And women who commit certain criminal offenses and are caught up in gang culture or are dealing drugs don’t want to hang around with other women. They mistrust other women and they want to be one of the boys, one of the guys. They want to be taken seriously and that means not bonding with women. So you hear a lot of women saying “Goddammit, I hate being locked up with all these women!” They won’t even be mad about the fact that they’re locked up – it’s the fact that they’re locked up with other women!
And often the lesbian relationships that occur are very abusive. The role that one of the women will play will be an exaggerated male role reproduciing everything that you might see in a heterosexual relationship.
What’s interesting is that even though there are many women at the jail who would on the street identify with the certain gangs, generally speaking, that does not carry over at the jail, although it does with the men. Women tend to let it go – it’s more of a street thing. In the men’s division, they have to be extremely careful because they’ll have a major war on their hands if they were to accidentally put two gangs together.
Women are also more known for sharing things, for taking care of someone that they know, and helping a woman with no money. They are more likely to pull from the little that they have and give her some shampoo, make sure she has the right soap.
oob: So you see more caretaking going on among women than in men’s prisons?
co: Definitely. If somebody wants legal help, say, to write out a complaint, men will only do that for money. The men do the jailhouse lawyer thing, but they’ll make arrangements such as “I’ll write that for you, and you have your mom call my mom and give her $500 to put into my account.”
oob: That’s very interesting…yet there is still more solidarity among men?
co: Yes, I think that comes from the fact that the men are entering the jail with a degree of power that comes from a number of different sources, both from their continued affiliation with different street gangs (they know they’ve got people to rely on when they go into jail), and from the fact that they also know there is a certain degree of corruption that can be counted on. So they’ve learned schemes and how to work with them. Plus among men, it’s a badge of honor to say you went to jail – at least in certain communities – but for women, it’s not. Instead, women lose a lot of faith – even among their male gang members – they are not going to give them the kind of props that they give men.
oob: What role do you think abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, or sexual abuse plays in these women’s lives?
co: Studies of men show certainly a higher percentage than the general population of having been physically abused or sexually abused, but for women, the numbers are astronomical. Each one of the different studies shows that at least 75% of incarcerated women have been sexually abused.
So the norm at the jail is women who have been sexually abused and/or physically abused – women who have had repeated incidents starting with their families from when they were born. Many of the women are also products of the state foster care system where they were abused as very young children. The state foster care system itself even admits that a high percentage of children who are put into foster care will be sexually abused in the first year.
Another phenomenon of patriarchy in action in the jail is that many of the women are not facing their own charges, but are facing their own charges, but are facing charges that their boyfriend or their husband were facing. But the new practice is to charge everyone involved – they’re hoping that the woman is going to turn state’s evidence in exchange for a lesser sentence. But it is often the case that if they testify, their gang leader boyfriend will have them murdered, so they are in for some serious time.
There are volumes of research showing that women in prison and jail face enormously difficult issues such as previous abuse, and that in order to make different decisions with their lives, decisions that they themselves want to make, they not only need an incredible amount of support, they need the whole system to change.
oob: How have you dealt with seeing the humiliation that happens to the women, the injustice, with your feelings about all that? Have you ever felt the need to stand up for someone and has that been a problem?
co: A lot of radical feminist women question how it is possible to work within the system like that. When the volunteers get together, we talk about our experiences because we all walk away with some rage and a lot of frustration. I have wondered how I, who do not have a history of working well with authority figures, can do this work. And then I realized that if I’m not at least superficially nice to them, they will not bring women down to see us. So I learned how to be strategic and to see that this doesn’t mean anything about me, but this gets me access and that’s what is important – to see the bigger picture here.
But I tend to take my cues from the women themselves. There have been times when I wanted to say something, but I’m always looking to the women to see whether they want me to say something. I don’t want to make things worse for them. I get to leave – they have to stay.
But there have also been times when our presence there made a difference. Having a library in jail means there are community members in a place where they largely don’t like to have civilians. There are many times when we’ll hear officers say horrible things or threaten to beat someone up and they turn around and see us and they have to quickly change what they’re saying. They don’t want it to get out. Just our presence there made a difference.
There was one time when a woman was in the library and she was really sick. She asked us to get help. Now when you’re sick in jail, it’s not good because you have to go through so many people who are not doctors who get to tell you whether you’re sick enough. The first step is getting a corrections officer who is certified as a medical technician to decide whether you’re sick enough to qualify to see the nurse. Then you get an appointment with the nurse, and the nurse will decide whether you’re sick enough to see a doctor. And then the doctor decides whether you’re sick enough to require treatment.
So I had to go to find an officer who is a med tech and her response was, “Oh, she’s just dope sick.” “Dope sick” is a term that refers to when someone is coming off heroin or other drugs, they feel terrible; or it can also be when the quality of drugs is so inconsistent that they might make somebody sick; or it could be from swallowing drugs when the cops come in the hopes of getting away. My response to all of this is that the person is still sick. But there is no sympathy there for that.
So I said, “Look, she’s burning up.” But the med tech just went off on the woman, saying “Get your black ass up, motherfucker, get the hell up, I’m tired of this shit.” So I trumped her by playing the religion card. I said, “Is that what Jesus would do?” All the woman around said, “Oooohhh…, that’s right, Jesus would not leave this woman lying on the ground, etc.” And the med tech looked at me, but I had played the right card. What could she do? She was a good christian woman, so she had to go to find a medical doctor. So there have been opportunities where I have been able to use my position simply as a person from the outside to be able to help.
oob: What can other women do who are interested in supporting women in prison?
co: There are a few really awesome organizations that need support like the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, or in each area, there are local organizations – in Chicago, we have an organization called Chicago Legal Aid for Incarcerated Mothers.
Some of these programs have ways that you can participate directly. They meet immediate needs such as sending care packages, or driving someone’s children the hour and a half that it takes to get to the state prison to visit their mom.
They also have different legislative advocacy that they are trying to promote in their state. Here in Illinois, one of the things that we are working on is to change the rules about how they handle women who give birth. In many states, it is routine for women who are detained or incarcerated in jails and prisons to be shackled while giving birth. It is still rather common in this country. Those are the kind of lobbying and legislative initiatives that these organizations need a lot more support on. Because we are only building more jails, it is only getting worse, so there is a lot of work to do.
One of the main ways that small independent organizations have tried to support women in prison is through book programs, like Windows to Freedom, which is specific to one jail.
The Women’s Prison Book Project based in Minneapolis, MN, is a great organization that collects books and sends them out to women in state prisons and jails all over the country. They get about 300 requests a month. They are doing a lot of work so they need donations and support.
oob: Is there anything else you would like to add?
co: It is important to realize that women of color are 64% of the prison population and receive longer sentences for the same crime than white women or men of color. And women are the fastest growing prison population.
I think it is important to see all this as part of the backlash. Backlash happens in many different ways and this is part of the backlash that poor women and women of color are experiencing. It is so easy to talk about the backlash in terms of abortion, and that is important as well, but this is one area that significantly affects many poor women, disenfranchised women, and women of color.
c/o Arise Bookstore
2441 Lyndale Avenue, South
Minneapolis, MN 55405
Send used paperback books (officials think prisoners can use hardcover books as weapons). The most popular topics are issues around recovery, fiction, and nonfiction by people of color, abuse issues, health issues, and poetry. Books can be dropped off or mailed.
They also need money for donations. Make checks payable to Women’s Prison Book Project.