Looking for Martha: The Mess Behind Bars

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The Alderson Federal Prison Camp i n
West Vi rginia looks to have solved the
problemthat has beset modern penal policy
for hundreds of years: recidivism. Its progressive
plan of image rehabilitation has
now set free a series of media spectacles
and millionaires-to-be in the last six
months. Prisons, politicians, and the public
have taken notice as legislation has been
introduced in 43 state legislatures as well as
the floor of U.S. Senate to start pilot programs
modeled after A l d e r s o n ’s program.
Janet S., awaiting her release at the end of
April, is one such inmate atAlderson that will
benefit from this new penal program. For the
last threemonths she has been immersed in an
exhaustive schedule of persona clinics and
strategic planning sessions designed to prepare
and celebrate her re-entry into society.
Each morning begins with a 90-minute
workout guided by a personal trainer, trimming
and tightening her physical appearance.
Afterwards, she heads straight into a conference
room for two hours of image maintenance
consultation. In the afternoon, Janet
spends sixty grueling minutes at the podium
fielding a rapid-fire succession of questions
from faux media followed by watching a
video of the performance. The tape is meticulously
critiqued and deconstructed by her
media coaches. An appointment with her
Freedom Day event planners ends her day
where everything from the menu, flowers,
fashion, and guest list are tweaked for the
upcoming celebration.
Janet has already received a dozen invitations
from mid-major corporations interested
in bringing her aboard; yet, many of the Fortune
100 are quietly waiting to gauge the heat
of her release before tendering a formal offer.
Nonetheless, Janet eagerly anticipates her
return to society.
In truth, the female prison population is
right where we left it: overcrowded, violent,
and wilting. Except for Martha Stewart, the
reality for the 100,000 women in U.S. prisons
stands in stark contrast to the exhibition
unfolded on television screens, magazine
covers and newsprint across the United
States that clamor over Stewart’s recent
release. The female prison population is
offered no such reward at the end of their
prison sentence.
Now it has been a comedic right of passage
for the last ten years to snicker and sneer
at Stewart – perhaps justified by the absurd
lifestyle she sells – while other criticism is
couched in the sexist rhetoric that surfaces
when discussions of female leadership occur.
Certainly, Stewart did not have to forfeit her
fortune when entering Alderson nor should
she be denied the right to return to the empire
she built. And can she really be faulted for
playing the appearance game that is now,
sadly, the only measure that matters in U.S.
culture. It is easy and ordinary to pick on
But, there is much to be considered and
learned from her event. Steffan Postaer, chief
creative officer for the ad agency Euro
RSCG, recently stated in the Chicago Tri –
bune that Stewart’s prison term was like “discovering
she has a tattoo…she now has street
cred; we like people with flaws.” The media
likes celebrities with flaws as it produces a
new cycle of feel-good, second-chance, overcoming-
the-odds story angles that we can
predictably expect in the coming months.
Stewart’s image will be reborn.
For the rest of the female prison population,
the stigma of “criminal” and “inmate”
will tragically follow and hinder them upon
exiting the penitentiary. Their “street cred”
will be a near-impossible
burden to overcome,
many of our fellow
citizens and returning
nearly two-thirds of
them to their home
away from home.
A quick glance at
the numbers should
sound familiar.
According to the
Bureau of Justice Statistics,
from 1977 to
2001, the female
prison population
increased 592 percent
from 12, 279 to
85,031. From 1990 to
2000, the annual growth rate for female
inmates was 7.6 percent (5.9 percent for male
inmates during the same period). Black
women are more than twice as likely as Hispanic
females and five times more likely than
white females to be in prison as of 2002, all of
which are predominantly in the lowest socioeconomic
status. There are an additional
550,000 women nationwide under court probation.
Of the 650,000 women currently under
the penal gaze, 85 percent are there for nonviolent
drug offenses. Yet, we know that nearly
99 percent of these women will return to socie
t y, what awaits them: a demonic rhetoric that
follows these women from the walls of prison
to the communities of this country.
The female drug user has historically and
hysterically been used as a figurative scapegoat
to blame for the breakdown of the
nuclear family. In 1926, Richmond Pearson
Hobson, renowned temperance advocate and
head of the World Narcotic Defense A s s o c i ation,
declared at a hearing before the House
Committee on Education, “addiction destroys
the seat of those very attributes upon which
all the institutions of freedom and civilization
must rest, and destroys its power of procreation.”
Since Harry Anslinger became chief
of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930
(the “opium vampire”), to William Bennett’s
term as drug czar in the 1980s (the “crack
mother”), the politics of perception has consistently
constructed a symbolic female drug
user as the greatest threat to the United States.
So, as millions were spent by the Nixon
administration to the billions now spent
under the Bush Administration in the modern
war on drugs, there has been a corresponding
increase in the incarceration of the population.
Between 1984 and 1999, the number of
defendants charged with a drug offense in
U.S. district courts increased almost 3%
a n n u a l l y. This continuous growth was
accompanied by the opening of over 600
state and 52 federal correctional facilities.
Many of these new facilities were needed for
the exploding female population, and corporate
America has responded.
As a California Department of Corrections
off i c i a l
explained, “there are
no seasonal fluctuations,
it is a non-polluting
industry, and in
many circumstances it
is virtually invisible
…if crime doesn’t
pay, punishment certainly
does.” For companies
like Corrections
Corp. and the
Geo Group, this
booming prison population
produces a
steady, new customer
base. By the end of
2004, Correction
Corp. stock was up
nearly 75 percent since the beginning of the
year and the Geo Group stock increased over
125 percent. “These are good growth stocks
and we think the earnings are going to continue
to keep growing,” said Don Hodges,
president of Hodges Capital Management.
But what are the hidden costs? Nearly 70
percent of female inmates at both state and
federal prisons have young children according
to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This
equates to at least 1.3 million children nationwide
who have a mother behind bars, states a
report by the Chicago Legal Advocacy for
Incarcerated Mothers organization. At the
time of imprisonment, nearly half of the
women ran single-parent households and
their children were sucked into child services
upon imprisonment. Although there are now
104 female prison facilities, a 47 percent
increase since 1990, the geography of most
of the penal facilities leave the inmate population
over 100 hundred miles away from
their children, extended family, and friends.
Thus, we are succeeding in breaking down
certain nuclear families. And with their family
unraveling on the outside, life inside provides
no relief.
In 2000, a report by Amnesty International
concluded that U.S. correctional “authorities
[routinely] failed to protect women from
sexual misconduct by correctional officers
and other staff: the misconduct included rape,
sexual relationships, sexual touching and
fondling, and without good reason, frequent,
prolonged, close-up and prurient viewing
during dressing, showering and use of toilet
facilities.” The few female inmates that
spoke out about their abuse suffered physical
reprisals from the guards and staff ultimately
producing a violent chilling effect throughout
the national prison population. Are we protecting
these women? There is no parity
across the states regarding custodial sexual
misconduct. Six states have no laws prohibiting
sexual relations between inmates and correctional
staff, four states make the inmate
criminally liable for engaging in sexual conduct,
and the law in 19 states does not cover
all forms of sexual abuse.
Tragedy and heartache in their suspended
life, horror and brutality in their everyday
life; the female prison population has been
ignored, again, during this opportunity provided
by the Martha Stewart Show. Instead,
the women return to their overcrowded cells
(average state prison is 8 percent overcapacity,
average federal prison is 33 percent overcapacity),
fearful of physical confrontation
by not only fellow inmates but the prison
staff as well, and given no prospect to prepare
for life on the outside. No educational
opportunities. No job skills training. No individualized
counseling. No adequate health
care. No network of support on the outside. It
becomes easier and easier to see why the
prison industry is most certainly a growth
Although we are a nation that professes a
belief in second chances, the reality for our
female prison population past and present is
not indicative of this mantra. Martha’s spectacle
aside, female prisoners are haunted by
their prison time. Housing, employment,
education, and childrearing are just a few
aspects where this shadow impedes their second
chance. But there is some hope. Congressman
Danny Davis of the seventh district
in Illinois and a bi-partisan coalition has
introduced the Second Chance Act of 2005
designed to help “ex-offenders successfully
reintegrate back into civilian life.” Representative
Davis stated during the announcement,
“No matter what, prevention, treatment,
rehabilitation and jobs are the cures for incarceration.
These men, women and children
still have to live in our communities and need
all of the help we can give them because
when we help them, we help ourselves.” This
legislation is only a beginning, but a necessary
beginning that moves the status quo
away from simply warehousing our prison
population in a labyrinth of violence and
hopelessness towards embracing the humanity
of emancipation.
Daniel Larson is a graduate
student at the University
of Illinois. His
interests include the
drug war and prison system
of the United States.

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