Conference Review: ‘Women’s Transatlantic Prison Activism since 1960,’ the Rothermere American Institute, the University of Oxford, June 7, 2019.

The interdisciplinary ‘Women’s Transatlantic Prison Activism since 1960’ conference was hosted by Emma Day and Olivia Wright at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford. The day-long conference explored a range of topics related to women’s incarceration, such as the often-overlooked history of women’s organising efforts within prison and especially art, print, and visual culture as forms of activism.

Writer and prison abolitionist Victoria Law delivered the keynote lecture on insights that can be drawn between the similarities of women’s incarceration in the United States and the United Kingdom. Despite their vastly different population sizes, around half of women imprisoned in both countries report having experienced intimate-partner or sexual violence and suffer under the many constraints placed on childbearing and rearing while incarcerated. Law’s talk commented on the current state and future directions of transnational anti-carceral organizing. She made important distinctions between traditional criminal justice reforms that perpetuate the logic of prisons and ‘non-reformist reforms’ that are designed to defund, decarcerate, and dismantle the existing system. She also challenged the popular conception of ‘non-violent’ offences as being most deserving of reform efforts and attention, when the legal distinction between ‘violent’ and ‘nonviolent’ offences is far from straightforward. Moreover, the prioritisation of ‘non-violent offenders’ ignores the many women who have been convicted of violent offences for acting in self-defence in fear for their lives. 

Law described the successful organising efforts of the group Women on the Rise to pressure city officials to close a 17-story county jail in Atlanta, which originally opened just before the city hosted the 1996 Olympics. Marilynn Winn and Tatiana Lima of Women on the Rise worked alongside other organisations to first address the reasons people were sent to the county jail by ‘banning the box,’ decriminalising marijuana possession, eliminating the use of cash bail, and ending the city’s contract with ICE, all of which helped to render its intended function obsolete. Atlanta is now deciding how to convert the building into a community space, mirroring similar discussions in London over the fate of the site of the now defunct HMP Holloway. Until its closure in 2016, Holloway was the largest women’s prison in Western Europe. Erika Flowers described her involvement in the ongoing process of imagining new and generative uses for the site of the former prison and her vision for its new life as a women’s centre and affordable housing unit. She also presented art from her Prison Postcard Project, which detailed her everyday experiences at HMP Holloway within the historic context of its final year of operation.

Eleanor Careless (University of Sussex) examined what artistic representations of HMP Holloway from those imprisoned within it can reveal about the particular carceral logics of women’s prisons themselves. She researched the poems of Anna Mendelssohn, who was incarcerated at HMP Holloway during the transitional period of the 1970s. Her poems provide new insights into the lived experience of the women who witnessed and were subjected to the prison’s departure from an era of “therapeutic optimism” where (specifically white) women’s deviant behavior was pathologised and treated with a regime of compulsory domesticity. Mendelssohn’s work demonstrates how women’s prisons can act as a ‘gross caricature’ of gender norms in the outside world by mirroring and amplifying the violent enforcement of the role of ‘women as caregivers.’ When women break the law, Careless posited that their behaviour is considered a ‘double deviation of the norms of both society and gender’ and therefore meaningfully different from the intended purpose and conceptualisations of men’s incarceration.

Marzia D’Amico (University of Oxford) explored similar themes in an Italian context with her account of the feminist retelling of Cinderella staged by women incarcerated in Rome in 1978. The play, written and directed by Patrizia Vicinelli during her incarceration, explored the ways in which incarceration is situated within a larger context of patriarchal systems of power, and suggested that solidarity between women is a valuable way to divest from reliance upon such systems (or survive within them).

These works showcase the suffering of individuals under punitive ‘rehabilitation’ efforts premised on the reinforcement of gender norms. As Careless mentioned in her paper, however, implicit within all of these accounts is the question of which women the state deemed worthy or capable of ‘rehabilitation’ in the first place. Angela Charles’ (Open University) work on Black women in UK prisons meaningfully contributed to this conversation by reminding conference attendees of the inseparability of race from gender in the types of discrimination incarcerated women face. She described the ‘double disadvantage’ experienced by Black women in a system where racism compounds sexism in a way that amplifies punishment and restricts access to services that are catered to the ‘rehabilitation’ of white women. Charles illustrated this point with the example of a prison hairdressing program that alienated Black women by only offering training skills for non-Black hair. She posits that the concept of intersectionality is helpful for understanding the way that interlocking identities inform women’s varying experiences of the criminal-legal system.

Haiyun Zhang(National Taiwan University) expanded on the importance of intersectionality by demonstrating the ineffectiveness of juvenile detention to meet the particular needs of young women and girls, particularly with respect to the re-entry process. Her research suggests that the burden to re-entry can be exacerbated by youth and the lack of attention paid to the specific experiences of incarcerated children. Jasmine Irwin’s (Queen’s University) research on the utility of a rights-based framework (versus needs- or obligation-based alternatives) provided an important complement to Zhang’s work by raising questions about the function and purpose of imprisonment itself. Her presentation explored the efficacy and purpose of rights-based discourse when ‘the forfeiture of rights is not the byproduct, but rather the foundational premise’ of the penal system. Her presentation focused on North American theorists and Canadian examples, but it was also noted that the vital questions she posed are ones inherent to all carceral systems.

Gzorgy Toth (University of Stirling) explored a different manifestation of the transatlantic theme by researching examples of international acts of solidarity with the incarcerated, such as the Million Roses for Angela Davis solidarity campaign in 1971 and other such efforts across Europe to support Black and Indigenous political prisoners in the US. He studied both the effect that these solidarity campaigns had on bolstering defence teams and ensuring early release as well as the wide-ranging motivations behind these Europeans’ involvement, from critiques of American imperial power to fetishising co-optations of Native American and Black culture.

There were many points of convergence and insights to be gained from addressing the topic of transatlantic women’s prison activism across disciplines, approaches, and life experiences. The conference also proved how important it is to study women’s prison activism at all, when this work is all too often erased or not studied as a meaningful category of its own within larger conversations on prison organising and resistance efforts. There were particularly fruitful exchanges between specialists in the humanities and arts, the social sciences, and practitioners, who often do not have the ability to work with each other in an interdisciplinary way. While the American criminal-legal system has greatly influenced the world’s carceral systems, it has also provided some key examples and models of resistance to prisons as well. In turn, prison activism in the United States has also been shaped and supported by solidarity efforts in other countries. More broadly, it is important to pay attention to the intertwined nature of penal systems internationally because while they are most often studied in isolation, we must always remember that incarceration is a distinctly global phenomenon. 

In light of the similarities found across women’s prison activism transatlantically, the conference highlighted the importance of sharing stories of success and failures within the movement to be of use to others in similar contexts, all while building community and discovering sometimes surprising connections. The day also presented the opportunity to think carefully about language in order to question and challenge some of the tired tropes often used within discussions of criminal justice. Moreover, the conference evidenced how much can be learned when those with experience of the criminal-legal system are centered within academic discussions of women’s prison activism.

About Grace Watkins

Grace Watkins is a DPhil candidate in US History at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the history of American campus police.
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