For twelve years, retired University of Michigan–Dearborn professor of sociology Lora Bex Lempert co-sponsored a National Lifers of America chapter at a women’s prison. She coordinated college-level courses for the women there, taking a special interest in women doing life sentences. That led to a 20-year research project as she interviewed and befriended 72 women and heard their stories. Lempert put that research into a new book, Women Doing Life: Gender, Punishment, and the Struggle for Identity (NYU Press, 2016).
“We know well over 85-percent of women in prison have been in abusive relationships,” Lempert says. “There is violence in their families of origin, sexual violence, violence in their intimate partner relationships. Not everybody has all of them, but many women have some of these factors in their lives. There’s a woman in the book, and I’m paraphrasing, but she told me: ‘My mother prepared me for my abuser, and my abuser prepared me for prison.’”
Women Doing Life tells the stories of incarcerated women, how they came to prison, how they make a life behind bars, and how their crimes differ from those of their male counterparts.
“The story that the women tell is that then, 'Lora fell in love with us,'” Lempert says. “I’ve come to embrace that story myself, because I have come to love many of these women.”
Lempert says the United States is still the nation that incarcerates more people than any other in the world. “That includes Russia in the gulag, that includes China.” She attributes this to the “tough on crime” movement in the U.S., and to the expansion of felony incarcerations for what used to be prosecuted as misdemeanors. She says moving juveniles into the adult prison system is also a factor.
“We incarcerate children as young as 14 on life sentences,” Lempert says. “Since the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles can no longer be sentenced to life, some states have gone to sentencing children to 80- or 90-year sentences, which is essentially a life sentence.”
Lempert says fixing the problem will involve looking at its root causes, such as social inequality, poor availability of education, dysfunctional neighborhoods, and police brutality toward minorities. She says some people who are poor and poorly educated, especially women with children, are forced into crime to support their families when they run out of other options.
“These are not the kingpins,” Lempert says. “The women in prison on drug charges are by and large on the lower end of the drug distribution system.”
Lempert also addresses the effects on a community when women are incarcerated and separated from their families. “Women are often the social glue that holds a community together.”
When men go to prison, families usually remain together under the care of the women. But when women are incarcerated, she says, children often end up in the foster care system and siblings are separated.
Lempert says people should demand that the issue of incarceration be included in political campaigns.
“When we elect people to public office, we need to ask them what their position is on incarceration, on diversion, on restorative justice,” she says. “If they are ‘do the crime, do the time’ people, these are simplistic answers, and they are not people we should be supporting.”
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