I recently read Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System by Silja J. A. Talvi. Most people aren’t interested in what happens once “justice” has taken over and the criminal is placed behind bars. When questioned, some believe prisoners deserve whatever miserable treatment they receive. Others think prisoners are treated like royalty, with cable TV and free college educations. But few prisoners have the luxury of being Martha Stewart, with cameras and media surrounding and supporting them.
The majority of people don’t give prisons much thought because they don’t believe that what happens inside effects them. This line of thinking couldn’t be more wrong. Most people, men and women, in prison will eventually get out. When that happens, they bring with them whatever they learned behind those prison walls. Their treatment inside shapes who they become when they are released.
I’ve read a lot about prison systems but this is the first book I’ve read specifically about women’s prisons and their treatment behind bars. I was appalled. For instance:
James Collins, the (now former) director of the Texas Prison System, illegally pushed through a $33 million, five-year backroom deal so that VitaPro would become the “meat staple” of the Texas State Prison System. He introduced this new food as a “meat substitute” in a Texas women’s prison.
VitaPro makes dog food.
Countless prisoners complained of nausea, diarrhea and stomach cramps. Their complaints were ignored. The smell in the cafeteria on days when this “meat substitute” was cooked was, according to prisoners, horrible. Eventually the illnesses became too severe to ignore. Word leaked out. An investigation took place. Prisoners were being fed dog food in what became known as the VitaPro Scandal.
When this scandal was finally uncovered, James Collins left the prison system and went to work for Vita-Pro. Charges were brought. A jury convicted Collins but a Federal judge overturned that conviction.
Women are dying painful, needless deaths because health issues specific to women are not understood by prison staff. They go ignored, untreated, until it’s too late.
Then there is the sexual abuse. These women are given no privacy, yet they are often guarded by men. They are not allowed to hang a curtain over their cell door’s window or shield themselves in any way while using their toilets. Many of these women endured horrible sexual and physical abuse prior to their arrests. Now they are held captive by men who often taunt them and sometimes abuse them. These are prison guards whose salaries our tax dollars pay, within a prison that our tax dollars support.
Silja J. A. Talvi, a journalist and the author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, went into various prisons, spoke to many women and saw their conditions firsthand. Her writing style is not stilted and dry like some nonfiction books can be. With Talvi’s writing, it’s like sitting with a friend, listening to a story – a horrible but important story.
Check out Talvi’s book. If her stories move you at all, use your voice and say so.