Women in Prison Tell It Like It Is

by War, Darcy K,  R, Karen,  R, Shannon
Off Our Backs,  Feb 2001
off our backs solicited the stories of women prisoners, asking them to tell their stories for publication. Here are some of their responses.

I am a woman. I am a battered woman. I am a battered woman incarcerated with a life sentence, no possibility of parole. In our society, being a battered woman is a life sentence anyway. I don't see the point of underscoring it by the courts.

A battered woman is sometimes faced with the choice of kill or be killed. If she gives up a life of physical, sexual, verbal and/or emotional abuse by her partner by killing him, she dooms herself to the same treatment by the "system." A battered woman is isolated from family and friends by her abuser; the system does the same thing. An abuser strips a woman of her identity and dignity; the system does the same thing.

Where I am incarcerated, "prison" is not a term I am allowed to use. "Correctional facility" is the politically correct term. Correction of what? My sense of self? My sense of identity? Of being a woman of worth? The love for my family and friends? My sense of sisterhood with all women? My sense of humanity?

I was brought in, asked questions like how many sexual partners I have had in my life, what my sexual orientation is--like these had anything to do with my crime. I was inspected naked and given a 10-gallon douche with one nurse and two guards standing around joking. I made it to general population only to discover that it is discouraged by the authorities to make friends or establish a sense of unity with my other incarcerated sisters. If a prisoner is a lesbian or bisexual, guards are on her back all the time--she cannot eat with or talk with the same woman often or she is called on the carpet and called a "sexual predator." Meanwhile, the other woman is threatened with loss of reputation, privileges, good-time, etc. They supposedly want us to express remorse for our crimes and "bad lifestyles"; take personal responsibility; "program" (i.e. do the self-help, 12-step, recovery options); become an assertive "stand-alone" woman. Well, if I express regret, I am "depressed" and must be medicated, or "weak" and need to "tuck it in." If I don't express remorse, I'm not "facing my issues" or I'm in "denial." If I stand up for my rights or the rights of my sisters, I'm not being assertive--I'm labeled a trouble-maker and retaliated against--or I'm being "codependent." There are no groups or long-term classes for battered women and/or sexual abuse survivors. I'm told to go to the once a week AA meeting or once a month NA or Al-Anon meeting. I am not an alcoholic nor a drug addict.

I cannot appropriately discuss my issues in these meetings. When I complain about the lack of programming for abuse survivors, I am told to quit acting like a "victim"--that I am taking a dysfunctional "victim stance." There is no counseling here. I have seen the psychologist and the psychiatrist approximately 6 times in 4 1/2 years. The first time I saw them was after I had already been here for 3 1/2 years. They diagnosed me with PTSD--Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had been diagnosed with PTSD before my arrest and incarceration but staff and counselors would not believe me. I was told I need weekly psychotherapy sessions. It doesn't happen. I am medicated to lethargy if I have symptoms and told to write book reports to send to the "counselors." As far as education, a woman can test for her G.E.D. here. Higher education is done on our own time and with our own money. Speaking of money, prisoners make anywhere from 33¢ per hour up to a maximum of $90 per month. It is impossible with these wages to save up for outside educational classes or housing upon release. It is impossible to send much money home to help support our children. Many women can't even pay off restitution and are burdened with this expense upon release. The jobs and training here include kitchen work, grounds maintenance work, housekeeping, sewing and low-level data entry--this training sets up a woman to be able to get a menial, minimum wage job with little hope for advance upon release. A woman is released and expected to make a living, support herself and her children and be a productive member of society with little help in the way of education or job skills training and with attendant discrimination. And don't forget that the federal welfare rolls are now closed to convicted felons. And they wonder why there is so much recidivism. We are doomed to repeat the cycle of poverty, limited opportunities and despair--leading many of us to hook up again with abusive men who can at least help pay bills.

But the worst is the revictimization while incarcerated, which further breaks a woman's spirit. We are incarcerated not AS punishment, but evidently for MORE punishment. We are isolated from family, friends, sponsors and other support systems by draconian visiting rules, outrageous long-distance phone fees, and the placement of women's institutions in rural, out-of-the way locales. Women are discouraged from helping each other. We are not allowed to touch each other even with a comforting pat on the back.

Every conversation is eavesdropped upon and subject to being recorded. Any sign of assertiveness, intelligence or unity is quashed by guards who fear empowered prisoners. Many guards find entertainment by scaring the abused women--pounding unnecessarily on doors, startling prisoners from behind, shining lights directly in faces, making strip-searches as humiliating and degrading as possible. Upon demand, I have had to dig a used tampon out of the trashcan for inspection by a guard. And we are threatened daily with repercussions for not conforming. We can be given disciplinary write-ups for any reason; sent to the "hole"; and subjected to sexual harassment, molestation and even assault. And who do we have to complain to--how do we let outside people know without more retaliation? Our phone conversations and mail are monitored, recorded and copied.

There is little encouragement or positive affirmation here--little incentive to keep trying. If one prisoner breaks a rule, all the women are punished. Morale is at a rock-bottom low. Many women choose to quietly give up and give in. I myself sometimes wonder if I should have stayed with my abuser. Even if he had succeeded in killing me, my life sentence would be done.

Darcy K. War Bonnett

My earliest memory in life is when I was six years old and lived with my father who is an abuser and an alcoholic. I have an older brother and a younger sister who lived with us. My memories of my father are of him beating someone or something, and yelling obscenities in drunken fits. Seems like the only time we saw him was at night when he would bring some female home from the bar. They would argue and he would hit her until she gave up or passed out from the beating or passed out drunk. Then my father would tire of her and find us kids and start in on us. I never remember my father saying "I love you" or holding us, just the beatings (with a coat hanger or fly swatter).

By age seven I had learned how to cook, clean, and take care of my brother and sister as if I were their mother. I had no idea where my mother was or why she wasn't with us or if she was even alive. My father never talked about her and we weren't allowed to ask questions about her or about anything of importance. I do remember telling classmates that my mother couldn't come to "Mother-Daughter Day" because she was Lucille Ball; that's the only person I could think of who would be too important to be with her children.

When my father wasn't beating us he was berating us. I grew up believing I was nothing and would never be anything but a punching bag. My father started leaving us alone a lot--a day here, two there, a week. I tried my best to take care of my brother and sister, even begging for food when necessary. When I was around eight years old the school called our father complaining about our cleanliness. So my father came home and got us and took us to a friend of his (a bar owner). She gave us haircuts; it was pretty close to a crew cut. I couldn't face my classmates. I couldn't explain or escape their jokes about my hair.

I think it was at that point when I shut down and accepted what I believed was fate--a life of pain that I couldn't control. I immersed myself into the care of my brother and sister. The beatings from my father got so bad that I would lie awake at night listening for him to come home. When I'd hear him come in, we would run out the back door to escape the bodily abuse, but never got far enough away to be able to get our screaming, cussing, drunk father out of our heads. Soon it came to be just the three of us that mattered to me. At the age of ten, after my father had been gone for a week, a woman and a man we had never seen before pulled up in a brand new shiny red convertible. We were in awe of the car. The woman asked if we wanted to go get ice cream--of course we did. We left that trailer that day and never went back. The woman was our mother and the man was her brother. We asked no questions, as we had been taught not to. (My father had kidnapped us when I was six years old). At that point all the responsibilities I had been carrying were taken away from me. I was told to go play like the rest of the kids; I wasn't expected to take care of my brother and sister anymore. Yet I thought that was what I was meant to do in life, so now I felt I wasn't needed or loved anymore.

Consequently, the first man that came along who needed me to do things for him I fell in love with. I got pregnant and was married at the age of 14. I had another baby at age 18. I divorced my husband after nine years of marriage because he never treated me the way I saw my father treat all the women he brought home. That's what I believed love to be. After the divorce I was afraid to be alone, so I immersed myself in my work, holding several jobs at once. I told myself it was to give the kids all the brand name jeans, shoes, toys, etc. While I was working so much, I left the kids at my uncle's house. Sometimes I would come get them at two in the morning, after I got off work. My uncle and I agreed that I shouldn't do that to the kids, so I started leaving them there even more. I started hanging around the drug crowd. One day I came to get the kids and my uncle wouldn't let me have them. After that, I gave up on them and myself.

I met a man I thought to be a wonderful person, loaded with money and not afraid to voice his opinion. At first I didn't know where the money was coming from. I didn't care because here was someone giving me drugs--drugs that made me forget all the pain. I moved in with him and found out he was getting the money illegally, but I thought that as long as I wasn't involved in it, I wasn't breaking the law. This man turned out to be just like my father--booze, drugs, and an abuser.

After one month of living with him, the beatings began. First it was just with his hands, but later, it escalated to knives and guns. I've been stabbed, pistol-whipped, and even used as a shield while someone else shot at him. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get away from him.

Now convicted of Conspiracy to Manufacture Amphetamine, I am away from him. I am also away from my kids and my family, for 19.7 years (235 months) with no parole. I served the first six years of my sentence trying to forget all the abuse. Nightmares wouldn't let me forget. In 1996 my daughter came to see me (my children and I have a good relationship). As I hugged her, she winced; her boyfriend had pushed her down. We both cried a lot that day, but I couldn't even help her because I couldn't help myself. Shortly after that I requested Abuse Counseling. I worked on myself until I could talk about it and not be ashamed, or being afraid of being put down because I "let him beat me." Fortunately, my daughter got out of that relationship--she broke the cycle of abuse. I now have a very close relationship with my daughter.

Since 1997, I have been an active participant in the "SHARE Program" (Sharing Hope About Recovery Experiences). As a group we go out into the community speaking to female teenagers who are either in trouble or heading in that direction. We visit abuse shelters, schools and colleges, and sometimes they also come to the prison. I am a completely different, stronger, and more educated person now. My goal is to continue to help others, whether it be from prison or in the free world. My release date is September 2005, and I am more at peace with myself now than I have ever been.

Deborah Bounds

I believe the physical and sexual abuse I suffered as a child played a major role in my original sentence. In fact, when my probation officer was conducting a pre-sentence investigation on me, his main topic was the horrific abuse I endured as a child and also as an adult by the hands of the same man. I would estimate that three quarters or more of the population here have been either physically, emotionally, sexually or mentally abused or a combination of the four at least once in their lives. I know from personal experience that any type of abuse leaves a scar so deep that the healing process is long and hard.

In my sentence from 1995, I was very much made an example of. I was in an intimate relationship with a seventeen year-old female. I truly loved her. Everything was all well and good until I stopped paying her mother's rent for her. I found out the money I was giving her mother for rent was going towards drugs and taverns. So I stopped giving her mother the money and that's when she informed the police that I was in an intimate relationship with her minor daughter. By the time I was arrested and sentenced, the woman I was in a relationship with was nineteen years old. I was charged with sexual assault of a minor times three and she was seventeen years old. They made it sound as if I was having sex with little children! During my sentencing, the judge stated that homosexual relations disgust him and he doesn't understand how I could bring myself to such a level. I told him that I have known that I was a lesbian since I was fourteen years old, he's not going to change my sexuality by putting me in a prison with over 300 women in it. He gave me three sentences of five years in prison to run at the same time. Now I have to register as a sex offender every time I move to a different community. I'm the one who's disgusted!

Women's prisons in Wisconsin differ from men's in a couple of ways. For one, men stick together when the system tries to take something away from them. Women just let it happen and then complain about it. Women don't stand up for our rights. Also, women in Wisconsin are offered no winter shoes or boots. We get two-dollar white "Keds" that fall apart within a couple of weeks of wear. The men are issued boots and tennis shoes.

Karen R. Paese

My unit at TCI prison in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin was built to house perhaps 85 in a safe and decent fashion. When I first came to TCI in 1985 there were maybe 200 women in my unit. Now there are close to 700. Women are packed together like mares in a hot, stifling cement stable. The overcrowding had gotten so ridiculous that public areas and storage closets have been turned into dorms.

I refused to sit around and just complain about the unfairness of some of the rules and the truly dehumanizing conditions. But something about women who protest bothers many people. Women prisoners are notorious for complaining amongst themselves or for writing paper complaints to the administration, which are useless in getting changes within the prison system. If you suggest that everyone stick together and engage in non-violent protest together, they will run to the nearest guard and say "she's inciting us to riot." And before you can blink, you're handcuffed and led away to spend a lot of solitary confinement time. Been there, done that. My first 11 years here were spent mostly in some form of segregated lock-up. If we had stood together, perhaps TCI would be different. But women who protest are looked down upon, while male prisoners who protest are considered heroes by the other inmates.

Don't assume that abuses of prisoners and misuses of prison funds can only happen in some Third World country. Contact Amnesty International and your local and state government. Demand a thorough investigation of every women's correctional facility in the country. We have no voice because we have no vote, and we aren't allowed to speak openly with the media.

lois landis

I am a 28 year old mother, presently incarcerated. I was married to my now 7-year-old daughter's father when I was 20 years old. This marriage ended after two years of extreme physical abuse by this man. Several years after my divorce I became involved with the father of my twins, now 2½ years old. This choice of partner, Earl, proved to be a mistake.

My relationship with Earl deteriorated because of his physical abuse of my children and mental abuse to me. Since Earl refused to leave, I tried numerous times, in many different ways, through many different agencies, to have Earl removed from my home and keep my children safe from him. State Police were called a number of times, only to come and take Earl to the property edge and let him out, where he would just return from. I even placed an anonymous referral with the Child Protective Services after one of several acts of abuse against my oldest daughter. To my amazement, when Earl denied the abuse occurred, and my daughter denied the abuse occurred (please understand my daughter feared this man), no investigation took place. Instead I was told, "Everyone gets angry. However, this agency has neither the time, nor the tolerance to have referrals made out of revenge." If I made another "false" referral, the charges I was claiming would revert to me, and I would be prosecuted. The chance for help was hopeless. I gave up. It became clear to me it would be easier to live with Earl than to become involved in any further battles to have him removed from my home.

In December of 97 Earl was awarded visitation rights with his 5-year old daughter, Sue (a pseudonym). One evening, while Sue was in my home on a court ordered visitation with her father, Earl asked Sue what she wanted to eat. Sue told him, a hamburger from McDonald's. Everyone else ordered nuggets. When Earl brought the food back from McDonald's, Sue decided she would rather have nuggets. My daughter and I offered to share our nuggets with Sue. Earl refused to permit Sue to have the nuggets. He asked Sue why she would not eat the hamburger, over and over again. Sometimes Sue would answer, "I don't know." Earl slapped her, saying "That's not good enough." When Sue wouldn't answer he still slapped her. I kept telling him to stop, stop it, let her alone. I finally screamed at him, "STOP SLAPPING HER AND LET HER ALONE, YOU ARE NOT GOING TO GET SUFFICIENT ANSWERS FROM A 5 YEAR OLD!" When I said that he became outraged. He threw his hands in the air and brought them back down on Sue's chest, pushing her backward into a dresser, causing her to strike her head on the dresser. Earl then went outside.

The next morning Sue had diarrhea. She was returning from the bathroom when she fell. She seemed to have passed out. I called Earl and told him there was something wrong with Sue. He came home but he refused to take her to the hospital. He told me Sue had a history of this behavior. She had been treated in the hospital for this behavior, and was diagnosed as being depressed. He told me this child was not any of my concern. I could not force Earl to take Sue to the hospital. I was afraid of causing him to become outraged as he had the evening before. The next morning Sue was still ill. I told Earl, "if you don't take this baby to the hospital I am going to call the police." He agreed to take her if I would go along with him, telling that the bruises on Sue's face were from a fall. At this time I would have agreed to almost anything to get this child medical attention.

The doctor at the hospital explained that Sue had swelling and bleeding around her brain. The police asked me if the child had fallen or received a hard blow to the injured area of her head. I then told the police about Earl pushing Sue into the dresser. Earl confessed to pushing Sue and causing her injury. Two days later I was arrested because I didn't call 911. I did what I thought I could do, both legally and without triggering Earl's outrageous behavior. I was appointed an attorney by the court. I had no money to retain a private attorney. It is plain to me, now, that my attorney did not want to defend me. This is why I am incarcerated. My three children are in foster care. Sue has permanent physical damage.