Bibliobitch: “Inside this Place Not Of It” Goes Inside Women's Prisons

bibliobitch logo the cover of Inside This Place Not Of It. It features a scene from prison, five black women wearing white jumpsuits and orange hats. The stand single file and face a white female office in a blue uniform. Even though they are standing in subordination, there is dignity in the way they hold themselves.

Inside This Place, Not of It: Stories from Women's Prisons is the ninth book in the Voice of Witness series, which carries the Studs Turkel torch by using oral history to share stories from the margins of America. Inside This Place has thirteen accounts from people who have been—and several who remain—incarcerated in women's prisons. Editors Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman and a team of nineteen interviewers conducted over seventy interviews with thirty individuals over the course of ten months.

Before you even dig into the narrators' troubling stories, the statistics in the introduction will make you sick: Nearly half the women in prison are women of color, 34% are black. In 1977, 11,000 women were in prison; twenty years later that number had increased almost tenfold. Eighty percent of women in prison are the primary caretakers of children. Many common threads emerge from the stories: the dehumanization that begins the second you're booked, sexual and psychological abuse by prison staff, the pain of being separated from family (and the regulatory barriers that make it worse—one prisoner lost her visitation rights for having a Motrin she wasn't supposed to).

By far the biggest commonality was not just the lack of adequate healthcare, but medical treatment that actually harmed prisoners. Irma was misdiagnosed with HIV, and suffered toxic effects from the medication she was given. Sheri, a mother, received surgery to remove ovarian cysts, only to learn she was given a ovarectomy—effectively sterilized. She says, “I noticed that a lot of African American women were going into prison in their fertile child-producing years, and coming back with these partial hysterectomies, complete hysterectomies, abnormal cells. I noticed that it was a pattern.” Olivia gave birth in shackles, and was forced to have a C-Section. Her pregnancy was induced early because her due date fell over a holiday weekend.

In the forward, Michelle Alexander (professor, civil rights advocate, and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) speaks to how the staggering amount of men behind bars now (American imprisons a quarter of the world's prisoners) means that women in prison are often an afterthought when it comes to discussions around incarceration. Through the narratives of this book, many issues unique to women in prison (reproductive justice, maternity rights, cross-gender supervision) are given due attention directly from the women who lived it. Charlie Morningstar, a trans man incarcerated in a women's prison, talks about the traumatizing effects of the court and prison's misgendering of him, and the challenges of being gender-nonconforming in prison.

Unfortunately, in a book about women and prison, there were no accounts from trans women, who are some of the most vulnerable inmates (they are often housed in men's prisons, since prisons tend to group you by your genitals, not your gender). It also lacked stories of women living without legal status in the United States, who are also brutalized at the hands of the justice system (although it looks like the Voice of Witness book, Underground America, might explore more of this). The editors recognize the limitations of the project to begin with in the introduction.

It's deeply important to hear the stories from women who have been to prison, but also to recognize the systems and power structures that allow atrocious violations to occur to people. An appendix in the back of Inside This Place helps fill in some of the facts behind how our legal system disenfranchises women in prison. That rapist guard who was simply transferred instead of brought to justice himself? He's among the 15% of corrections staff who have abused inmates and get to keep their job (only 42% are prosecuted, 23% arrested, and 3% convicted). It also includes a helpful glossary and resources for readers to get involved with prison activism. Michelle Alexander writes in the introduction, “The women in the pages that follow—mothers, daughters, sisters, wives—will tell you stories that are nearly unbearable to read, and yet their courage, dignity, and perseverance compel us to imagine how their lives would be different—how we would be different—if we responded to their experience with genuine care, compassion, and concern.”

These are only thirteen stories out of over 100,000 women under the criminal justice system today. Just this week in California, a bill that would limit the shackling of pregnant women in prison was vetoed by Governor Edmund Brown. Inside This Place, Not of It, available for pre-order, is only one way to become informed about, and begin to fight against, the human rights abuses taking place daily in the United States, but it's one place to start.

Previously: Who Is Ana Mendieta?… Now at BitchMart!, The Beginners

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

Salting the wound (or,

Salting the wound (or, perhaps more accurately, continually poking the wound to keep it open and possibly infect it) is the fact that attempts to explain the horrible abuses that go on within the judicial system are often met with a response of "So what? Isn't that the point?" It's overt, and it's explicit, and it's shameless. Quite the contrary; I can't count the number of people I've met who literally think that this is a feature, not a bug, and that the criminal justice system would be less effective - less just, even - without the ever-present threat of human rights abuses around every corner. The whole thing terrifies me.

I'm so glad that y'all are

I'm so glad that y'all are reviewing this book. I teach incarcerated women in Texas and while the jail where I teach is humane by the standards of the U.S. criminal justice system, it sickens me to see how many women are there who would be better served by community based sentences or drug counseling or therapy or job training or job placement or education or anything other than incarceration. We neglect women and their children, and then lock them up when they fail in a system that was designed to work against them. I would love to see more feminist sites discuss incarceration and criminal justice because it affects us all, often much more than we realize.

Heather's Story: "Her Letters from Prison"

I (Heather Heaton) am recommending my new ebook ("Her Letters from Prison") as a motivational resource for reading pleasure, review, contemplation, and comment. My ebook will validate your inquisitive doubts about what goes on in women’s prisons; it can justify the efforts spent toward ministries to women’s prisons; and it can be an inspirational (tell-it-like-it-is) resource for drug rehab/prevention programs. The book is non-fiction inspirational Christian romance (It is what it is!); and the original letters (with prison art) are included as images for authenticity. You can go to and purchase “Her Letters from Prison”, Parts 1 and 2.

If you don’t happen to own a Kindle, Nook, or some other eReader device, then download the FREE Adobe Digital Editions software to your computer to read the “epub” version of my ebook as purchased from Smashwords. Multiple versions of my ebook are available on Smashwords.

I am a 34 year old college student trying to better my life, in spite of the baggage I carry from my previous life. To date, I have been quite successful in accomplishing this goal; and I will use the proceeds from the book to help support myself. My picture is posted, with my book descriptions, at Smashwords.

My recently published ebook is entitled ("Her Letters from Prison: Part 1 & Part 2", by Heather Heaton). The ebook was published at Smashwords ( A brief description of the ebook follows:
1. Breanna tells the true story of her experiences in prison through her letters to her friend Heath. This is a story of survival and a quest to make a better life. The letters describe the daily shocking events of prison life involving drugs, sex, utter devastation and humiliation, anger, hopelessness, despair, and finally happiness and hope.

2. Breanna's "truth" stands still even as the world around her trembles and burns! Bad things do happen to good people; and Breanna is the perfect example of this truth.

3. Breanna's inner strengths and principles eventually win out over the corruption and evil that surrounds her. With God's help, Breanna survives the horrible experiences of prison life and regains her self-confidence and hope for a better life.

4. "Breanna" was an inmate at Tutwiler Women's Prison from 2007 to 2009.

5. "Breanna" benefitted from women's prison ministries and the LIFE Tech-Wetumpka state-funded self-help program.

The Introduction page of the ebook follows:

The story you are about to read is true. Unfortunately, it’s my story; and the truth is often much more intriguing than fiction. I have had to deal with this story (this situation) for more than the past ten years. I started living out this story with all the hopes and dreams of most (if not all) young American girls; and I will finish this story by realizing most of those hopes and dreams, even though they have been interrupted for a time (in prison) that seems like time and time again. Through it all, I have managed to learn some life lessons that I hope to give to you; and I am hoping that you can pick up on these lessons earlier in life than I have done. I should have learned these lessons long ago. If I had learned these lessons long ago, I assure you that I would not have written the material you are now reading. My hope is that nobody else has to endure what I have endured learning life lessons that should be given to youngsters and adolescents early in life by the ones who truly love them. But here again, there are probably other youngsters and adolescents, much like me, who will have to learn these life lessons painfully for themselves, the hard way – by experiencing them first hand. Well, if you continue to read my story, here’s what you will experience – drugs, sex, violence, prison, utter devastation/humiliation, anger, hopelessness, despair, and finally happiness and hope!

If you don’t take me seriously and you follow in my path, you are going to experience false hope and disillusionment! You are going to experience broken trusts, by those whom you trusted most! You are going to experience pain and agony that brings you to the brink of self-destruction! You will lose your freedom! You will lose the right to think for yourself and to make your own decisions! You will lose your sense of self-worth and self-dignity! You are going to lose your ability to support yourself! You are going to lose your self-confidence! You are going to be victimized; and you can do little to avoid this! You will struggle and struggle and struggle just to get yourself back onto an even keel! But if you can ever manage to muster a tremendous mountain of stubbornness and determination, and if you can begin to think better of yourself, you will be able to recover most, but not all, of your ability to manage your own affairs while regaining some of your self-confidence and feeling of self-worth. I am just about to accomplish this in my life! Being just about able to accomplish this in my life is what has led me to (it has allowed me to) share my story with you. At first, I didn’t think I could ever share my story with anyone. But, I really don’t want you to actually share (live through) my experiences, even if you think you can handle it. Just read this story and do something positive in your own life.

Note: Names have been changed to protect each individual's privacy.

This work is dedicated to Valrise Bendolf (Clay County Dept. of Corrections Holding Facility), Jackie Ratliff (Kilby – Montgomery Womens’ Facility), Fawn Romie/Mr. Roberts/Gary Parsons (Life Tech) and all of Mr. Robert’s little roses that he so diligently cultivated. For all their good works, these people saved my life!

I hope that you find this ebook both interesting and helpful.

Heather Heaton

Customer/Reader Review of “Her Letters from Prison”
Heather, ever since you first contacted me about your ebooks (and when I received them) I have been giving them traction. At least two women on my case load checked them out, (like a library card so I would get them back) and were very moved by the content. I haven’t had another problem with their behavior since they read them. So…I know they are working. They should be required reading, ordered by a Judge before women are sentenced to probation, so that they would fully understand the consequences of their behavior. The coverage by The Prison Art Coalition blog is very good news both for Heather and for those that will read her story.

They (“Her Letters from Prison: Parts 1 & 2) should be used as text books for the next Life Tech facility for Women!!! I wish I had some pull for money to build a better one. I pray for it.

Gary Parsons
Parole Officer
State of Alabama – Board of Pardons & Parole

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