WIMN’s Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND…

Silja J.A. Talvi

Silja J.A. Talvi is the author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press/Perseus: 2007). She is a full-time investigative journalist and essayist with credits in over 75 publications, including The Nation, In These Times and the Christian Science Monitor. Her articles on social issues--with a particular emphasis on criminal justice, ethnicity and gender--have garnered a total of 12 Society of Professional Journalists regional awards, as well as six national journalism awards for criminal justice and immigrant reporting. Women Behind Bars was the recipient of a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Literary Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

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Silja Talvi's Blog Introduction

Women, Media, AND... Criminal Justice & Prisons

Women who have come into contact with the criminal justice system rarely fare well in the eyes of the media, particularly when their alleged crimes include those of a sexual, violent, and/or drug-related nature. It is my contention that women who participate in these kinds of crimes are often subject to antiquated notions of what does (and does not) constitutes “ladylike” behavior, and are judged accordingly in the way that they—and their crimes—are represented in media.

To this day, a significant amount of media coverage relating to women and crime persists in depicting female criminals as both fascinating and scintillating--and therefore grist for the mill of sensationalized news coverage. Alternately, the coverage of these women is such that their behavior is viewed as shameful and/or beyond redemption, particularly when such women are perceived to have 'failed' in their traditional roles as pregnant women, mothers and wives.

Rarely are women being prosecuted in the criminal justice system portrayed as three-dimensional human being: foibles, failings, triumphs, complexities and all (though their failings certainly get their share of newsprint). Even those who are actually employed by the criminal justice system have a tough time being seen for the people that they are, forging new paths through some of the most male-dominated professions imaginable. Female prison employees, for instance, rarely make the news unless they've had sex with an inmate or tried to help them escape. But the realities of their lives are far more complex, as well, including the ever-present reality of trying to exist in one of the most entrenched old boys' clubs imaginable, and facing all-too-prevalent sexual harassment on the part of their male employers. Female police officers and attorneys fare only slightly better in such coverage, although they, too, face similar challenges in their professions.

But it is fair to say that no group of women in the criminal justice system is covered worse than those locked up in detention, jail or prison. Well over 220,000 of girls and women now sit in some form of captive detention (not including immigrant women in detention), constituting the fastest growing segment of the prison population--which stands at 2.24 million men and women alike. When incarceration, parole and probation are taken together, adult women under some form of correctional supervision adds up to an incredible number: 1.3 million! Despite the fact that their numbers are increasing year by year, females behind bars are barely a blip on the media radar.

In fact, women and girls are the fastest growing subset of persons being incarcerated in the U.S., something largely--although not exclusively--attributable to the drug war. What little we understand about these women should be a serious matter of conern. If our nation is willing to lock up so many women (and youth, immigrants, and men), why not strive to comprehend why we're doing so? Why not allocate resources to stem the ineffectual and short-sighted tide of recidivism (over 60% for women, within one year of release)? Shouldn't that be the role of media—to help us as members of society to understand even the most difficult or complex of subjects?

The reality is that women in prison face tremendous challenges and outright abuses, including grossly inadequate mental and physical health care, and rampant sexual abuse by male guards, some of whom use force—but most of whom use various forms of coercionto get what they want.

While media generally fail to notice the egregious treatment so many women receive in prison, there is a seemingly endless media fascination with wealthy and/or infamous women-gone-wrong; women like Martha Stewart, Aileen Wournos and Mary Kay LeTourneau immediately leap to mind. The role that the media could have in dispelling stereotypes and numerous misconceptions about these women's lives is, potentially, tremendous.

The Women, Media and Criminal Justice blog intends to delve into all of these intersecting issues, including skewed, biased and stereotype-perpetuating coverage, and antiquated notions of "fallen women'” and shifting definitions of “crime” and “criminal behavior” where juvenile and adult females are concerned. This blog also intends to give credit where credit is due: to recognize outstanding media coverage of the complex issues involved.

Silja Talvi's Biography

Silja J.A. Talvi a full-time journalist and essayist with credits in over 75 publications, including The Nation, Salon and the Christian Science Monitor. She is a Senior Editor at In These Timesmagazine. Her articles on gender, prison, and social issues have garnered a total of 12 Society of Professional Journalists regional awards. For the past three years, Silja has received the four top awards for criminal justice related magazine journalism from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Her work has appeared in numerous book anthologies, including Body Outlaws (Seal Press), Prison Nation (Routledge), The W Effect: Bush's War on Women (The Feminist Press), and the forthcoming Prison Profiteers (The New Press). She has been interviewed on several radio and television stations on subjects related to women, mass incarceration and privatization, Tasers and "non-lethal" technology, immigration, class and labor.

Silja was born in Helsinki, Finland, and raised in various locales in Finland until 1976, when her family moved to Sweden. From there, she arrived in Hollywood, California in 1977, and soon was immersed in many of the city's subcultural scenes. (Those experiences shaped her life in countless ways, as chronicled in this article written by Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Robert Jamieson, "Power of 'been there' helps girls in trouble.")

Silja comes from a long line of artistic and strong-willed women and men from many different cultures and countries. The hybrid nature of her ancestry led her to pursue multicultural sourcing and reporting as a constant in her work. Silja considers it essential to approach the concepts and subjects of her articles with respect, and to begin each story with an open and questioning mind. In this sense, she considers her profession to be a blessing: always learning about something new, constantly being exposed to different kinds of people, ideas, life experiences, and ways of looking at the world.

Silja earned a BA with Honors in Ethnic Studies in 1991 from Mills College, and an MA in Women Studies from San Francisco State University in 1993. She has been a full-time writer since 1996, reporting from areas as diverse as the San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley, New Mexico, Los Angeles, the Seattle/Puget Sound area, as well as Western and Eastern portions of Washington State. IShe is conversant in spoken and written Finnish, but English is her primary language.

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