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Notes from the Unrepenitentiary

Arecent issue of PLN called for articles and information from women prisoners. I hope women throughout the state and federal prison systems will respond to this request. If we are ever to change the hideous situations we face at the hands of the prosecutors, judges, and prisoncrats, we must speak up and we must speak for ourselves.

Who can understand and describe, as we can, the abusive ways we are kept in line? The issue of sexual abuse and harassment comes to light only when an incident occurs that is so outrageous that even the system can't get away with ignoring it. And that is rare.

But women prisoners know that the foundation for that abuse is laid everyday: when male guards patrol our housing units, where we have no privacy to change clothes, bathe, or use the bathroom. When male guards joke about doing strip searches in place of the women guards or when whey pat search us daily. When male guards yell at women prisoners (as they do all the time), raising the unspoken threat of violence, and often triggering memories of how a young girl was frightened and overpowered by an adult male who misused his authority to misuse her body. This is the daily reality of women in prison but no one will know if we don't tell them. If we don't tell it, no one will understand that sexual harassment and abuse are not aberrations. They are integral to the methods by which we are controlled and repressed in the prison system.

Who can understand, as we do, how many women are serving ridiculously long sentences because they were in a relationship with a man(usually older, more experienced) who dealt drugs? We live in a community with young women whose lives have been torn apart because they did not turn in their boyfriend/husband/father of their children, because they can't prove that they weren't involved in the sale of drugs or , if they can prove it, they were still found guilty of "aiding and abetting" because they paid the rent and the phone bill. This is an important part of the mandatory minimum tragedy that we women know intimately. Who will tell our stories if we don't?

Who else can describe as we can the prospect of living for years in a cell built for one but now "home" to three with no desk, no shelves, no room to turn around? Men prisoners have filed suit, protested, and written about the indignity of double-celling. We women are packed in like sardines, defying the safety inspectors' mandates and we are the one who must make it known.

Who better than us can tell what it is to see a child growing up only in photos, to hear that small voice only on the phone (if we can afford the call), asking why we're gone so long? In the federal system, there are only three (soon to be four) prisons for women: Danbury, CT; Tallahassee, FL; Dublin, CA; and, soon, Carswell, TX. To be sent 3,000 miles from one's children is not at all unusual. For the growing number of women in the system from Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean the visiting room is a foreign country twice over: They never see it. If we don't publicize these cruelties, who will?

Who besides us can tell the story of the waste that is federal time? Once a woman has her GED, there are precious few educational opportunities for her. We support and encourage one another, but obstacle after obstacle must be overcome in order to study and learn. We know what it's like to try to learn in our "library," stocked with encyclopedias printed before most of the women here were born. We know that community resources from the outside are not welcomed here, and that sympathetic people who try to come into the prison to speak, teach, share, learn have to possess mountains of will and determination (and patience!) to breach the wall. We must tell this tale, or it will remain untold.

We feel powerless. We are told every day that we are powerless. But that's a lie. As long as we have voices and one another, we hold our future in our control. We women prisoners have to speak, write, read, discuss and begin the process of change. PLN is a tool all prisoners need. It's the only place I know where reliable, current, useful information about all the laws affecting our lives as prisoners is available. Yet few women prisoners subscribe, and fewer still submit articles.

It's not a story on TV, a long-running soap opera. It's our story. Why are we waiting for someone else to write the script?

Postscript on another topic: In the aftermath of the NYPD attack on Harlem and black youth in the "million youth march," Guiliani's police have targeted black activists in NYC for harassment and arrest. At the same time, police in Decatur, Georgia attacked the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. I don't have sufficient details on this to make a more complete report. But I think we all need to be aware of this situation, and support the black comrades, communities and groups in any way we can. There have been important mobilizations and political activity by black groups all over the country in the last year. It's not a surprise that the government would try to stop this increasing resistance. It's imperative that all progressive forces act however we can to protest these police attacks.

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