The first time I walked onto the women’s prison yard in Chowchilla, California – a stark contrast to the men’s prison yards where I’d visited as a prison Chaplain for more than a decade – it struck me that although the situation of incarceration is the same – the experience from a visitor’s lens was drastically different. That first day at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)– seeing what I saw – feeling what I felt – has been influential in my drive to strengthen our community of women to support our mothers, daughters and sisters returning home.
For me, the personal preparation for entering a men’s prison or women’s prison is similar. I have “prison clothes”; black, white, gray, muted-toned extremely loose fitting clothing, comfortable shoes, no-wire bra because rumor has it that bra wires can be used to escape prison, no make-up, no jewelry, hair usually pulled back. This dress code is a combination of the prison system requirements, and because the majority of my work inside institutions has been as a Chaplain. Early on I made a personal choice to use my appearance to help set the boundaries for the spiritual relationship that I am entering into with people inside institutional settings. I have a mental/emotional process I walk myself through to set down all of the day-to-day responsibilities I hold and show up prepared to “be present” for the few hours I have with men and women inside to encapsulate everything they are feeling and experiencing, process it together, talk through some tools and opportunities for coping and healing, all while trying to just be humans together in a very inhumane setting. Then as quickly as we begin, our time together ends abruptly with no hugs allowed; just a handshake.
What I recognized that day walking into CCWF, was the palpable difference in energy from a men’s prison. When I walk onto a men’s prison yard, I recognize the emotional “suit of armor” that everyone, including me, carries. The officers are largely unpleasant and seemingly unhappy. They must wear at least 10lbs. of gear; vest, belt, pepper spray, taser, giant key rings, blunt force tools, etc. There is a sign that warns of the high voltage wires in the fencing and there are stories of birds and coyotes getting zapped by them. You know there is a “gunner” in the towers around the facility keeping an eye out and highly skilled in hitting their target at any given moment. The fear of getting caught in that moment of chaos you’re always hoping the black and white clothing will stand out to the shooter so you won’t be collateral damage if something goes down. Entering a men’s yard, every single person; guards and the people incarcerated are on high alert. Someone is doing pull-ups, 2 guys are playing handball, others are running the track over and over and over again like hamsters on a wheel. Two other guys are motivating each other to do 10 more burpees, a group of guys is hovering close together and talking. And everyone is keenly aware of what everyone else is doing. Always waiting and ready for something to go wrong. As if there is never a moment to just breathe, relax, be human. On guard 24/7, 365 days a year for decades.
Somewhere inside of me I understand all of that. I’ve learned to put on my own emotional protective gear. I’m not “a woman” when I enter a prison, I am a spiritual representative seeking to meet other spirits on a human journey in their inherent goodness…for but a moment in time. Sounds altruistic, I know, but it’s also self-protective. That day I marched onto the CCWF prison yard, protected and “armed”, I stopped in my tracks because what I was met with was not an equal amount of armor. I encountered prison officers who weren’t as anxious or angry as they were in the men’s institutions. They were people who seemed to appreciate visitors. Right away I saw a working garden off to the side with a group of women tending to it. Women were casually walking the track together, talking, occasionally laughing out loud, greeting each other with hugs. When I entered a sleeping unit, the women’s cells were decorated as best they could with family pictures and art. They “nested”. Even in prison. I wondered, briefly, “Do they know they’re in prison?” And the truth is even more eye-opening. They absolutely know they’re in prison, as much as the soldiers on the men’s yards do, but like me and my friends on the outside, they live in the world differently from the way that men do. And as a deeply oppressed population amongst deeply oppressed populations in systems of mass incarceration, they adapt to their pain and learn to disguise it behind a smile, a song, a blossoming garden.
We, as women, are communal beings. We establish the foundation of families and nurture the fibers of our communities. We internalize our pain and are more likely to harm ourselves than take our pain outward to harm others. The number of suicides in women’s prisons is painstakingly higher than in men’s prisons. Over 92% of women in prison have experienced sexual and/or physical assault in their lives. 80% of women who are incarcerated are mothers and the primary caretaker for their children and approximately 90% of women in prison who have been convicted of murdering someone close to them, were victims of abuse inflicted by their “victim”.
Women in prison create community inside because that is their/our life blood. We need to belong. We need connection and family. And when women return to their communities after incarceration, they desperately seek to re-establish their sense of family and community that they had prior to incarceration and the community that was their survival mechanism while inside. What they often come home to though, is a system of re-entry providers that mirrors the prison system: designed for and by men. Women’s reentry programming has primarily been an afterthought. Men’s re-entry programs will take funding and claim to have women’s re-entry services that are little more than taking their men’s programming guidelines, throwing in a female facilitator and claiming they support women returning home. It’s insufficient and ineffective in its approach to the unique needs of women, the sense of community we need and the sheer numbers of available opportunities for support, housing and training. Childcare? Transportation? Hygiene/medical care? Parenting/family reunification? Employment opportunities that aren’t in a warehouse or construction site? All insufficient.
We can do better. Women have had an increase of more than 700% in our prison population in California in the last 30 years. The impact on communities when women get incarcerated debilitates communities for generations. We, as women with an increasing amount of influence and power, need to step into the uncomfortable space of diversity and build bridges to re-establish and strengthen our entire community of women, where everyone belongs in the circle, and everyone knows their inherent value. Imagine the change we can create in the world, together.