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Notes from the Unrepenitentiary

[Editor's Note: With this issue of PLN we introduce a new columnist, Laura Whitehorn, whose column will appear quarterly (February, May, August, and November). Laura is an anti-imperialist prisoner of war confined in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. When most people think of imprisonment, they reflexively form a mental image of male prisoners. A significant number of PLN readers, however, are women in state and federal prisons. We invited Laura to become a PLN columnist, in part, to give voice to the growing number of female prisoners in the U.S. We also hope that Laura's columns will raise the consciousness of all PLN readers to the plight of women prisoners, whose conditions of confinement and experiences of imprisonment are often more inhumane than that of male prisoners. Despite this, and despite the explosive growth in the population of female prisoners, they remain less visible than male prisoners. Along with John Midgeley's quarterly column, we now have a monthly guest columnist every month. Our third columnist will be Mumia Abu Jamal, whose first column will appear in the October issue.]

What does it mean that women are the fastest growing segment of the u.s. prison population? I won't make your eyes glaze over by reciting a string of statistics. If you are awake in this country today, you've seen the graphs and charts showing the ballooning numbers of women locked up -- for longer and longer sentences.

To those of us already in prison, this means major over-crowding. Here at FCI-Dublin, three women live, sardine-style, in each cell originally designed to hold one. Simultaneous with the drastic cutting back of any decent educational or recreational programs, it means our daily lives resemble a cramped, over-heated, rush-hour trip on an antiquated New York City subway train -- only you never arrive at your destination.

For most of the young women coming into the prison system, it means all hopes of a better future for themselves and their children are shattered. In the federal system, there are still only three women's prisons: Dublin, CA; Danbury, CT; and Tallahassee, FL. This means a woman may not be able to have a visit from her family and children for years on end, because she is hundreds or thousands of miles from home. Her family, already shouldering the financial burden of raising her children (if she has been lucky enough not to have her children taken by the state), is unlikely to have enough money to pay for a trip to visit. I don't know if men prisoners are aware that women in prison receive far fewer visits and a lot less support than men do.

For many of the younger women with long sentences, the option of having children is lost. A 21 year old imprisoned for a 20 yr sentence will have neither the energy nor the resources to bear and raise children when she is finally released. Most starkly, as Dr. Chinosole, activist/scholar teaching at San Francisco State University recently pointed out, the incarceration of massive numbers of Black and Latina women of child-bearing age means population control for those communities. No need for forced sterilization -- just lock the women up.

All of this has a big impact on society. Some basics: African-American and Latina women are the most likely to be those entering prison; Black women in particular come in facing long sentences. As we all know only too well, the government is quite happy with this situation. They created it, and both Congress and the President refused to adjust the disproportionate sentences for crack as opposed to powder cocaine.

So it goes without saying that the vast majority, proportionally, of women in prison are Black and Latina. Native American women are also imprisoned at rates far out of proportion to their numbers in the u.s. population. Those are the communities most sharply affected by the increased incarceration of women. When large numbers of women go to prison, the community -- and especially its ability to resist is undermined. When the women are removed -- especially the younger women, who tend to be most radical -- the backbone of the community is gone. Without the women, the culture, education, social fabric of the community is torn. The values of collectivity and cooperation are weakened.

All of this constitutes genocide: the erosion and destruction of the people, the life, the culture, the ability to resist, of a nation -- in this case, the New Afrikan or Black Nation, and the Mexicano, Puerto Rican, and other Latino nations colonized by the u.s. Dr. Mutulu Shakur Jalil Muntaquim, Sundiata Acoli, and other New Afrikan Prisoners of War have consistently shown how prisons in Amerikkka play a significant role in counterinsurgency and genocide. The rising numbers of women in prison means a qualitative heightening of this genocide.

Supporting women in prison, breaking the isolation between us and our communities, is an important link in the chain of resistance. And resistance is the only alternative to genocide.

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