The title of this post may be a bit lofty for the content, but I want to share in this public forum an observation from my summer class that I have been reflecting on over the past several months. One of my grad students and I co-taught a one-week course this summer (40 contact hours over 5 days) on “Inside Perspectives: Exploring Gender, Power, and Programs in Oregon Prisons.” Of our five class days, we were able to spend one full day in Oregon’s only prison for women and another full day in a medium-security prison for men. In both cases, we spent a substantial amount of the day interacting with long-term prisoners, and we also spoke with correctional officers, counselors, and chaplains, and were able to tour both institutions. We learned a lot about the available programming for men vs. women in state prisons, and we heard about both frustrations and small victories in each facility.
One of the things that was most striking to me was the conversation with a group of female lifers. The women, the students, the chaplains, and the instructors (including me) were all sitting in a circle, coming together in the larger group to ask questions and hear different perspectives after spending time in the morning in small group discussions and sharing prison brown bag lunches. The testimonials that have stuck with me came after the chaplain – who was clearly well-loved and respected by the women in the group – gave a prompt: “Prison saved my life because…”
Approximately ten different women responded with their stories: “Prison saved my life because…” As anyone who has studied gender and crime might suspect, many of these women were entangled in very abusive relationships when they were in the community, and the perception was that the violence they were experiencing would have only continued to escalate until they were killed by their partners/associates or possibly driven to take their own lives. One of the older women succinctly – and honestly – rephrased the prompt to explain that her going to prison may or may not have saved her life, but it likely saved the lives of others in the community.
The thread of this conversation was striking to a number of us, made much more so by the fact that – even when given a similar prompt – not one of the men in the medium-security prison credited prison with saving his life. I have heard men in prison make such assertions in other settings, but it was a stark contrast to have such a large percentage of the women claim that prison saved their lives, while not one of the men made this claim.
In all cases, there was consensus that prisons are overused and the sentences are much longer than is necessary for whatever growth and rehabilitation may take place in the prison setting.
It has now been several months since these conversations took place, and I remain intrigued and troubled by this gender difference in understanding the meaning(s) of prison for the women and men inside the walls.