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Gender Lockdown: New Yorker’s story on American prisons ignores the women in them

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April 3rd, 2009

By Guest Blogger Mikki Halpin

In this week’s New Yorker, writer Atul Gawande contributed a powerful piece about the use of solitary confinement in American prisons, titled “Hellhole: The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?”

The article does what The New Yorker does best—high-end investigative journalism, covering topics many of us don’t know about or think about in our daily lives. Unfortunately, it also does what The New Yorker, as well as other media outlets, does all too often—completely omits any gender issues germane to the story. In fact, although “Confronting Confinement,” the 2006 report from the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, says that women are the fastest growing prison population (a level of equality we don’t exactly want to reach), Gawande’s piece omits any mention of women at all. No mention of women prisoners. No mention of women guards. No women to be found anywhere.

“Hell Hole” does an excellent job of exposing the dangers of a system reliant on solitary confinement as a form of punishment. The ability to interact socially is profoundly connected to our sense of self. After a few months of isolation, prisoners begin to lose their minds—not a desirable outcome. There is ample evidence that solitary confinement is not effective at changing behavior. Gawande cites a study done by Craig Haney at the University of California that found rates of irrational anger were much higher among isolated prisoners than in the general population, writing “Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the totality of control and the extended absence of any opportunity for happiness or joy. Many prisoners in solitary become consumed with revenge fantasies.” Gawande also notes U.S. Navy P.O.W. research finding that resistance is a consistent and important coping strategy for those who are denied contact with others. Forcing prisoners into isolation amplifies their combativeness and psychological issues—the same issues that probably put them there in the first place.

But the issue of solitary confinement has special implications for women prisoners, who are subject to sexual abuse and assault from guards in both solitary and in the general population. I contacted Vikki Law, the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, who told me in an email:

“Solitary confinement is used as punishment for women who have either reported being sexually assaulted by staff, or who have been discovered to have ‘consensual relationships’ with staff members. (I put ‘consensual’ in quotation marks because, given the power dynamics in prison, especially the ability of guards and staff members to withhold services and/or provide small amenities, the relationship can never truly be consensual.)”

Law recounted the story of a prisoner and a guard who were caught having sex at a prison in Texas. The sergeant—who was in charge of the Safe Prisons Program at the facility—was transferred to a men’s prison. The woman was put in Administrative Segregation: solitary.

Gawande describes at length the solitary confinement experiences of two prisoners, Bobby Delello and Robert Felton, as well as that of Terry Anderson, the journalist who was held hostage by Hezbollah in Lebanon for seven years, often in isolation. He goes into detail about what they ate, how the communicated with other prisoners, their psychological torments and what happened to them when they were finally released. But he never gives a thought to what those experiences might be like for a woman.

Solitary confinement is different for women. They are more vulnerable to assault because they are isolated. Furthermore, there are additional humiliations and pressures. According to Vikki Law:

“Most female facilities have some form of ‘the hole.’ At California’s Valley State Prison for Women, the Special Housing Unit consists of eight-foot by six-foot cells with blacked-out windows where women are confined for 23 hours a day. Even in their cells, the women have no privacy—toilets are in full view of the cell door windows, guards can look through those windows at any time and male guards often watch the women in the showers. If the women complain, the guards turn off the water.”

I can’t fault Gawande’s writing—his piece is deeply researched and passionately, compellingly written—but his blind spot is dismaying, as is the thought that his editors didn’t challenge the story’s bias. Once again women are rendered invisible by incomplete reporting, and this journalistic gap affects not only us as readers but the women who ought to have been in the story as well. Pieces like this are intended to inform us but also to prod, to change the status quo. The New Yorker is widely read by powerful people. It’s possible that this article will result in real reform in our prison system. But would reform sparked by this piece address the needs of women prisoners? I am not hopeful. Gawande’s article may be reflecting an institutional bias in the national conversation about prison issues. After all, “Confronting Confinement,” one of the most influential studies about the dangers of incarceration, laments in its preface, “We would like to have learned more about how issues of safety and abuse play out differently for women prisoners than they do for men.”

I would like to have learned that, too.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: For more analysis of media coverage of women and prisons, see the archives of WIMN’s Voices blogger Silja J.A. Talvi, author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, and head of the Women Behind Bars Project.]

Guest Blogger Mikki Halpin is a writer in New York City. She is a contributing editor at Glamour magazine and writes the blog First Guns.

One Response to “Gender Lockdown: New Yorker’s story on American prisons ignores the women in them”

  1. koless09
    September 18th, 2015 00:08

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