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Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, by Silja Talvi ;Seal Press, 359 pp. $15.95

Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, by Silja Talvi, Seal Press, 359 pp. $15.95

Reviewed by Alexis Paige

Silja J.A. Talvi’s new book, Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, is an important one. It is an exhaustively-researched book I wish to forcibly press into the hands of everyone I know. Women Behind Bars is not important in the sense that it belongs in the literary cannon, but in the sense that anyone who thinks she comprehends the dizzying permutations of the crisis of women in the American criminal justice system, is in for a rude awakening. She may well discover—as I did—that her awareness only scratches the surface of understanding the rabbit hole that incarcerated women are flushed down daily, and in droves. Men, too, certainly and in greater numbers face the punishing wrath and infuriating machinations of the criminal justice system, but here the focus is on the experience of prison unique to women. It is time we lock this issue onto our collective radar, and Talvi is one brave voice for saying, “one of the most profound indicators of a criminal justice system gone awry is the fact that we are incarcerating the most vulnerable members of our society en masse.”

As a woman who was once incarcerated, I believed I had been thoroughly schooled on the topic, but this book opened my eyes to the chronic and insidious horrors that women in prison face, many quite valiantly, and often for the length of their natural lives. Talvi is at her best synthesizing voluminous data with personal narratives, while also clarifying the seemingly infinite intersections of abuse, addiction, mental illness, gender and sexual identity bias, and the so-called war on drugs, just some of the factors that define an utterly broken machine. She delivers both the micro-and-macro picture of this crisis, which includes: guard-on-inmate abuse (physical and sexual); the failed strategy of discipline by means of a demeaning and punitive psychology—more of a psychosis really—both behind prison walls and within the courts; medical negligence and overt medical abuse; the “girlfriend problem”, a phenomenon in which women—often petty, bit players on the drug stage—are ensnared by a myopic drug-war policy; the excessive punishment ranges imposed on women who kill abusive men when overwhelming, yet ignored mitigating factors are present; living conditions characterized by squalor, high risk of disease/ infection (especially, dreaded MRSA), untenable temperatures, inadequate supplies (tampons and toilet paper, to name a few), and religious proselytization as an offensive substitute for appropriate drug and alcohol treatment.

Talvi masterfully conveys the extent to which cruel and unusual punishment is not the exception, but the rule, and how in the case of women, this standard exacts a peculiar price upon the prisoners themselves, upon their left-behind families, and upon the resources of a pyrrhic defeat system. By shining her light into every nook and cranny, Talvi ultimately convinces the reader that society can no longer afford to treat women in prison as a disposable and invisible population. Talvi performs this task with intensity, grace, kindness, and humility; in one poignant moment, she describes the predictably Spartan environs of a typical prisoner:

“The woman is huddled as far away from the cell window as possible. Every part of her little body is covered by a drab blanket, although she must, apparently, let her face peek out for count. I can’t tell how old she is. I don’t know anything about her, except her name, which I can’t ask her personal permission to use. Her thin mattress is pressed to the concrete floor. A sliver of shaded light filters into the room. A tray of uneaten food still sits in the corner. In that chilling moment, that woman somehow comes to represent every other huddled mass of a broken human being I’ve ever seen in a juvenile detention center, jail, or prison.”

A common thread in the experience of incarceration is a feeling of being utterly isolated, cut-off, forgotten by the outside world; it is a powerlessness too vast and abysmal to contemplate if you haven’t known it yourself. Talvi’s book gives me hope that someone is listening, and more importantly that someone is giving voice to the voiceless. She is one woman all women in prison can be grateful to have on their side. Women Behind Bars can be purchased from PLN. Ordering information is on page 45-46. [Editor’s Note: Silja Talvi is a member of PLN’s board of directors.]

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