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Book Review: Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison

by Paula C. Johnson, 339 pp. ,

New York Univiversity Press, 2003, hardcover

Review by Silja J.A. Talvi

Attention to African American women in prison is paid so rarely, and with so little depth, that Paula C. Johnson's Inner Lives stands as an invaluable contribution to the emerging modern genre of documentary prison literature.

As it stands, one-half of women serving time in prison in state prisons are African American. Behind that statistic lies the simple truth that most of those women have been abused, violated, pimped and/or undereducated by a public schooling system that seems to have largely abandoned even superficial interest in the advancement of low-income African American children. Could there be a more glaring example of the powerfully cruel intersections of classism, sexism and racism in our society than the disproportionate sentencing of Black women for mostly non-violent crimes?

Rather than answer the rhetorical question outright, Inner Lives makes this point through a brief (but solid) historical account of the biased treatment of lower-income Black women in the American criminal justice system.

With an understanding of the importance of oral narrative in African American feminist discourse, Johnson devotes the vast majority of her work to the stories of incarcerated African American women. The common themes that emerge from these recountings are telling and familiar: physical and sexual abuse, drug addiction, poverty and early motherhood.

But these stories are also as individual as the women who tell them are. In their lives and their struggles on the inside, each woman in Inner Lives demonstrates her own particular recipe for survival and the threads of hope that exist behind prison walls. Here are the voices of women who are able to refuse and resists the difficult hand dealt to them by virtue of their gender, skin color, and economic circumstance. Here, too, are the peculiar twists of fate that brought these women to the place they are today; some guilty, many innocent, and all deserving of a real chance at lives fully realized.

Silja J.A. Talvi is an award-winning Seattle-based journalist and staff writer for ColorsNW Magazine.

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