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Ms. Magazine
Sunday, November 11th, 2007
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Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System

by Silja J. A. Talvi

No Humans Involved?

A review by Joy James

NHI, or no humans involved, is police jargon for the morgue remains of women prostitutes and African Americans. It's no accident that the phrase, which neatly expresses our society's flippancy toward suffering borne by the socalled underclass, sports a hip acronym. Language can reveal the carelessness and cruelty of a culture that strips people of human rights, particularly when they are caught up in the criminal justice system.

Investigative reporter Silja Talvi focuses on the dehumanization of women behind bars in her new book, though she also tells of our nation's dramatic expansion of its prison system, and the political opportunism, profiteering, rampant stereotypes and misguided policies that support that expansion. But given the stories of struggle and dignity culled from Talvi's interviews with about 100 imprisoned girls and women, it's hard to dismiss their humanity.

Not uncommonly, these women receive brutal treatment along with their sentences: rape and prostitution rings administered by guards, life-threatening "health care," overmedication (what some women refer to as "chemical handcuffs") and confinement in "control" units -- small, soundproof cubicles without natural air, sunlight, reading material or human contact -- that leads to mental breakdowns. In the war on drugs, addicted pregnant women are incarcerated despite the lack of funding for rehabilitation programs, while inside some prisons mental-health counseling is turned over to untrained Christian fundamentalists. Talvi describes how our nation's punitive political and social mandates, as well as our racial and class biases, have created a "penal democracy."

With over 2 million people locked up, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our jails and prisons now hold more than 200,000 women, most convicted of nonviolent offenses, and since 2000 the percentage of women in prison has increased at double the rate of men. Like their male counterparts, Latinas, African American and Native American women are incarcerated in disproportion to their numbers in society.

Caught in a corrupt criminal-justice system that tends to penalize the darker-skinned and less affluent, women prisoners receive additional discipline for acting aggressively or failing to be "ladylike." Yet before being incarcerated, they, like most women, functioned more as prey than predator. They're typically undereducated, impoverished and survivors of sexual or physical trauma; they self-medicate and derive some income through illicit drugs; and they voluntarily -- or involuntarily -- protect male kin or acquaintances engaged in the drug trade. They receive harsh sentences for providing that protection.

Like mirrors in a house of horrors, the women in Talvi's book reflect the distorted collective flaws of our society: violence, addiction, poverty, pervasive low self-esteem and families trapped in chronic financial and emotional crises. "I believe that incarcerated females are the most misunderstood population in the vast U.S. incarceration system," she writes. These girls and women are neither saints nor demons. They are human beings, despite what politicalor police-speak would tell us.

Joy James is the McCoy Presidential Professor of Africana Studies and professor of political science at Williams College. She is editor of several anthologies on incarceration and author of Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics.

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