Journalist Silja Talvi has written extensively on race, gender, and poverty for more than a decade, with a focus on the War on Drugs and the growth of the U.S. prison system. Her first book, Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, documents the sharp increase in the number of women in prison and how the penal system has dismally failed to adapt to their needs.
She will be reading from her book at the Elliott Bay Book Company on Sat., Nov. 17, at 2 p.m.
The United States leads the world as jailer of its citizens. Help us understand what that means.
We have 2.24 million people in prison. That's the size of a small country. What tends to help people picture it more clearly is that we have 732 people per 100,000 in prison, which is the highest per capita rate in the world. Altogether, we have 7 million under some form of correctional supervision, which amounts to roughly 1 in 32! This doesn't even not include people who are cycling through the jail system. Somebody, say, who's been picked up on drunk driving charges and puts up bail, or is let out on their own recognizance.
What is the logic of incarceration and who benefits?
That's a tough question to answer. It differs from state to state and sometimes county to county. Sometimes it's that if we arrest these people and lock them up, we're guaranteed more funding. In the case of New Mexico, it's private, for-profit prisons. They have the highest percentage of private prisons of any state in the nation, I lived there for awhile and couldn't believe how they were all in bed with each other. The politicians sometimes even come through as wardens and administrators of these prisons. Governor [Bill] Richardson himself, who is now a presidential candidate, has very strong ties to private prisons.
The argument for why we needed this escalation in mass incarceration was that violent crime would go down, and drug use would go down. Well, drug use keeps going up, and we certainly have some of the highest rates of drug use in the world. And now violent crime is ticking up again as we have the highest number of people in prison we've ever had. So it's not working.
I've heard that in California the prison guards' union is larger than the teachers' union.
Yeah, the CCPOA [California Correctional Peace Officers Association] is larger than the teachers' union, and they are also one of the most powerful unions in the country at this point. And they very, very much, even though they say they don't, influence legislation and the politicians too. Former Governor Gray Davis despite being a Democrat, had ties as close as those of Republican former Governor Pete Wilson. If the CCPOA said something, they did it, almost without exception.
If rehabilitation isn't the goal anymore, what is?
Well, there are different theories. Bruce Western at Harvard says we have a whole class of disposable people. They're unemployed. They're poor. They're out in our communities and they're too visible, and that it's an easy way to manipulate our unemployment rate. Once we throw them in prison, they're no longer unemployed or underemployed. I think that has a lot to do with it.
Edwards and Obama are talking about poverty, but I'd be willing to bet that they haven't said anything about the incarceration issue.
No, they're not talking about it. [Democratic U.S. Rep.] Chuck Rangel [of New York] and [California Senator] Maxine Waters have always talked about incarceration, but they are a very small minority. Most politicians who talk about law and order are trying to be the tough-on-crime candidates and they'll ride on that in many states. People think this has nothing to do with them. In that sense, we are all to blame.
Is this a third rail issue?
It's even worse than that. Civil rights organizations, with the exception of the Urban League, which has now begun to address it, do not consider it their issue. So, the NAACP -- and there are a bunch of folks that are not afraid to say it anymore -- isn't talking about the mass incarceration of African Americans. I think that the perception is, again, that "those people" make us look bad. It's way too controversial. It's easier to talk about, say, poverty.
When I teach my class on homelessness, I show graphs of the growth of the prison industry and of homeless sheltering, and the line is almost identical.
Bernard Harcourt at the University of Chicago just did this piece that got some New York Times coverage showing the direct correlation in the release of people from mental institutions and from community mental health organizations to the number of people who are in prison. And of course, the prison environment exacerbates even the mildest of mental illnesses.
What is driving the disproportional increase in women's incarceration?
What's driving it mostly has to do with the drug war. So women are being locked up for long periods of time on even minor possessions. The women's incarceration rate has grown 757 percent since 1977. Women are only about 8 percent of the people in prison, and in jails they're about 13 percent. But they used to be a tiny percentage.
They're being hit with charges that were originally designed for high-level drug traffickers and gangsters. And these are the federal conspiracy charges and they are being applied very broadly. Unfortunately, a conspiracy charge can send you to prison for 20 to 50 years.
We have no way of quantifying it, but part of what's happening is that women tend to snitch less. They're very worried about their partners or their loved ones. This is something we also see in domestic violence cases -- "Yes, he's beating the shit out of me, but I don't want him to get arrested" -- to the point where he's dragged off somewhere and the next day it'll be, "No, I don't want to press charges." Any cop will tell you how common that is.
This book must have been emotionally difficult.
It was. As a journalist, these women are my subjects. I am not supposed to be friends with them, but in truth I am. I am friends with women who are survivors. These are women who don't trust anyone on the outside, they have been screwed their whole lives. And to get letters from them and their family members saying you gave us this ray of hope, that someone is actually listening to me, that's a good feeling.
One of the most striking things for me about the book was how completely arbitrary and unaccountable power is within the incarceration system. What is it about that system that lends itself to that?
They have no independent oversight. I visited several prisons outside the U.S. In Finland there are these groups of people who just show up, who are they? They are in civilian clothes. These are the people who can show up unannounced, and check out what's going on. It's Her Majesty's Commission, which operates independently of Her Majesty's appointment, and then there are the civilian monitors. So they can go in any damn time they like, no advance warning or anything like that. Oversight. There are also wardens there, and there will be serious repercussions if there are lots of incidents of, let's say, sexual abuse. They lose their jobs.
Did you feel conflicted about arguing that institutions need to adapt to be better at jailing women?
No, because that's not what I'm arguing. I know that 1.3 million women are under some sort of correctional supervision, more than 200,000 locked up. I'm not going to see an immediate reduction, none of us are. It's going to take a long time. But in the meantime, we can't ignore women's specific needs.
Prisons are really defined by military-style barracks. You're not allowed the most basic comfort, like a soft, warm blanket from home. Depending on the prison, you usually can have no more two cards on the wall and a picture of your family or something. And for women, and I'm not saying that men don't want this, but these are the creature comforts that most of us need. I don't think it's an essentialist thing, necessarily, I think this is the way we are socialized in terms of how we make ourselves feel better in bad situations.
The other thing is that because of the military style, a lot of the bathrooms don't have any privacy, or if they do, men are allowed to enter there. What they have, they are called modesty curtains or doors. What happens is that when men walk in they can usually see the women's breasts, and certainly smell and hear what's going on. And for a woman that is tremendously shameful. Women talk about not even going to the bathroom or taking a shit for as long as they can hold out--for as long as they can. It sounds really gruesome, not being able to take a crap, but that's their reality. Among many other special needs that women have if they serve time--this is what we call "gender responsive strategies" in prison-- is that women absolutely need more privacy in bathrooms than most men do, including in showers and stalls.
Women in jail are given men's clothing, even in San Francisco, which is one of the most progressive cities as far as their incarceration standards. So, you walk in and they're wearing exactly what the men are wearing. They aren't given new clothes; they often smell like men's sweat. They get their own underwear, but even those are not new. Every single prisoner talked to me about this, they aren't given more than a few pads or tampons a week so women resort to using socks. I don't think people have any idea, well women would, how utterly disgusting you feel.
Institutions you visited in other countries were operated more humanely. What's the difference?
We see [prisoners] as throwaways. They're no longer viewed as members of our society and for all intents and purposes, in many cases, they're really not. They are behind the gates and we don't have to think about them. Even middle class Black folks, I hear it all the time: "Well, they fucked up." With variations from state to state, they are not allowed to vote. If they committed a drug crime, they are denied possibly state and certainly federal loans or grants for education. In most states you're not eligible for public housing unless you have been free and clear for several years. We are actually one of the few states you can get food stamps as a former felon. And on and on and on. So, when people come out, we are like, "Good luck, we don't care."
What are the institutional openings for reform?
I have been at enough conferences where I've actually heard professional officers and wardens finally talking about the fact that the state is allocating a tremendous amount of money for maintaining the prison system and arresting people. But they don't have enough money to fix up moldy bathrooms. And that they don't approve of a lot of these policies that are set in Olympia. They believe that women should have women's clothes. Some of that also is driven by the mental illness issue. I've heard this so many times. They're scared. They are like, "These people are sick, we don't know what to do. Why the hell are they in our care?" A lot of people who are demanding this change are Republicans that see that this is a fiscal problem that we have. It's sucking our money out of our states' pockets. Why aren't we seeing results? They're coming from a money standpoint, not a civil rights standpoint.
Is there a point when the institutional logic of prison expansion reaches a tipping point and collapses?
I think we have already seen that in several states where they are now actively talking about releasing nonviolent offenders. I think that tipping point is what we have all been waiting for. It's going to be a partial tipping point, varying from state to state. And it's largely going to be driven by the money issue. It is like the California thing: more prisons filled than schools built in the last two decades. It will come down to that. I don't think that most people care enough about prisoners' well-being, their humanity. They regard these people as throwaways.