The Magazine

A Woman's Place

'At the very bottom rung of criminal society [are] the women.'

Jun 4, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 36 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A World Apart

Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars

by Cristina Rathbone

Random House, 304 pp., $14.95

Before I began to write for a living, I practiced law, mostly criminal law. During the three years I spent loitering in rundown courtrooms and filthy jail visiting rooms, where I often had to clear my chair of gum, discarded half-candy bars, and hairs from the comb of the previous occupant before I could sit down, I learned a great deal about criminal society. My clients lived in a world that exactly mirrored the law-abiding world in its clearly marked social hierarchies and firm punishments for transgressions. Except that the criminals' world was stripped of all the civility, generosity, kindness, honesty, fairness, affection, and pity that characterize the lives of the rest of us, even if only intermittently.

Other people existed to be exploited; the weak to be consumed by the strong.

At the very bottom rung of criminal society were the women. Their purpose was to be used--for sex, of course, but also for laundry, paycheck and welfare-check cash, stashing weapons, hauling drugs, prostitution proceeds, and whatever other advantage could be taken of their looks and their seemingly bottomless capacity for fantasizing that the men in their lives loved and would take care of them. There were no feminist fictions about the equality or supposed similarity of the sexes. When women got caught and convicted, their boyfriends typically disappeared. It was not unusual for a female prison inmate to have absolutely no visitors, ever.

One of the virtues of Cristina Rathbone's book, the fruit of a series of interviews over four years with several women at two Massachusetts prisons, is that she understands very well, if for the wrong reasons, that women lawbreakers are "startlingly unlike" their aggressive male counterparts (hence her title, A World Apart). Rathbone writes: "Predominantly incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related offenses, they are frequently mere accessories to their crimes: girlfriends, wives, or lovers of drug dealers. . . . Almost all have serious drug problems themselves, and about half are victims of domestic abuse."

This strikes me as true enough. The problem is that Rathbone seems not to understand why any of these women might be in prison, much less why they might belong there. In her view, those who commit "nonviolent" crimes like the women she interviews should be somewhere else (where, exactly, she does not specify). But what counts as nonviolent? Driving the getaway car for your boyfriend's robber ies? Helping your boyfriend commit a cold-blooded murder of an old man? Standing by while your husband beats your son black and blue, starting at age three, because you are too high on crack cocaine to notice or care? Dealing the crack whose use will inevitably lead to more battered children--and battered women as well? These are all incidents from the lives of the women whom Rathbone interviews.

Rathbone represents a certain kind of highly educated romantic who imagines, à la Michel Foucault, that prisons exist not so much to punish wrongdoing or deter crime as to define social boundaries. It's "locking up society's most marginal citizens," punishing prostitutes and drug mules for "having sex and getting high."

Rathbone hesitates to take a standard prison tour at one of the institutions she writes about, the maximum security facility at Framingham, because that might amount to conceding the "legitimacy" of the state penal system. She informs the reader that she disbelieves in "respecting authority" and admires the "glee of self-assertion and inner swagger" that one of the inmates, 22-year-old "Julie" (the names are invented), in for armed robbery after a series of heroin-soaked heists with her boyfriend, feels about breaking prison rules, especially prohibitions against having sex with male guards.

(Thanks to sex-discrimination lawsuits, correctional officers of the opposite gender, monitoring even one's most intimate activities, are nowadays commonplace in U.S. prisons for both men and women.)

Indeed, Rathbone does not seem to understand why prisons have rules--such as bans on possessing silverware in your cell or corresponding with inmates at other institutions--and she deems all of them equally arbitrary. One of the women she interviews, Charlene, agreed to smuggle cocaine in her clothes in return for $10,000 and a weekend at a fancy beach hotel in Jamaica. That was something I "would have considered doing myself when I was in my teens," Rathbone writes. Good thing she didn't. Charlene got caught at the airport and sent up for 15 years under Massachusetts's tough mandatory-sentencing laws for drug crimes.