Jail Bait

Article by Anna Clark, Illustrated by Omar Lee, appeared in issue Home & Away; published in 2004; filed under Film; tagged criminal justice, fantasy, media, prison reform, race, stereotypes.
Rethinking Images of Incarcerated Women

It is not my pleasure to remind anyone of the 2001 teen flick Sugar & Spice. Teetering between the black humor of Heathers and the girly glitz of Clueless, it achieves the success of neither, and I bring it up now only because of a single scene.

The movie follows a group of cheerleaders who decide to rob a bank in order to finance their ­captain's unexpected pregnancy. But when watching old crime flicks for how-tos on grand larceny proves insufficient, the cheerleaders visit a state prison for some face-to-face advice from one girl's incarcerated mother.

In the prison's waiting room, a hefty, lip-smacking inmate maneuvers her mop between the legs of pretty, pregnant Diane and leers at the unsuspecting group: "Them some sweet skirts y'got there." The scene is played for maximum laughs: Naive cheerleaders find themselves in a den of sex-hungry criminals—but the criminals are women, so it's funny! You know, instead of scary! A short time later, the girls visit with other inmates for tips on pulling off the heist, and encounter a further litany of stereotypes—dry-haired, chain-smoking women who make veiled references to turning tricks and killing men. As slapstick as the film is intended to be, the scene is noteworthy simply because, as one of the few images of incarcerated women in mainstream media, it bears an unusually heavy burden. Unlike other frequently caricatured images in film—like, say, cheerleaders—movie audiences can't always weigh the portrayal of a female inmate with a real-life counterpart for accuracy.

Prisons keep these real women separate and invisible from the public. Meanwhile, news organizations are much more likely to sensationalize individual crimes than to examine the truth behind the 182,000 women incarcerated in the U.S. So stereo­types go unchallenged by serious news analysis, and the public image of women in prison is at the mercy of pop culture dreck like Sugar & Spice, whose mocking portrayals settle in as the basis for dangerous assumptions. It doesn't sound like a big deal—after all, it's just a stupid movie, right?—but misleading pop culture images have dire consequences for real-life incarcerated women. These cheap images aren't going to inspire anyone to take action to confront the laws, policies, and people who make life hell for women serving time.

Doll houses and birdcages

The lineage of women-in-prison movies is a seedy one, with a B-movie record marked by girls-gone-bad storylines that extends at least as far back as the 1950s. Titillating titles like Caged (1950), Girls in Prison (1956), Caged Heat (1974) and its 1994 update, Caged Heat II: Stripped of Freedom, and Amazon Jail (1982) cater to viewers' voyeuristic impulses. These tales of vulnerable young things navigating a harsh prison are largely vehicles for money shot–style images that are the films' raison d'être: a roomful of women being hosed down by their sadistic warden as punishment ­(1971's The Big Doll House), say, or a young reform-school inmate gang-raped with a plunger by her roommates (1974's Born Innocent). Such exploitation films are no longer being produced in great numbers, but the women-in-prison fan base is large and active, as illustrated by the many websites devoted to chronicling the genre, often highlighting particularly sexual or violent scenes.

More recent versions of the women-in-prison movie have tended toward a different kind of fantasy. For instance, much of the 2002 film Chicago is set in a women's prison and, unlike its sleazy predecessors, it doesn't make sexuality the lure of its story. But notwithstanding the real-life murderer Roxie Hart, who inspired the original stage script, the conniving vixens that headline Chicago aren't meant to exemplify actual inmates. As a musical, it's clearly set apart from reality. The same idea applies to Brokedown Palace (1999), in which a pair of naive American girls are tossed into a Thai prison. Though the film is based loosely on the true experiences of Americans incarcerated abroad, it's still an overblown, slightly absurd Hollywood take on such a scenario. Both movies are clearly fantastical, and the audience is expected to suspend disbelief and enjoy a good story.

More serious takes include Stranger Inside (2001), an HBO movie that makes female-female relationships the central part of the storyline, rather than a laughable or seedy side plot. The movie develops characters into something beyond stereotypes, urging audiences to relate to imprisoned women. Filmmaker Cheryl Dunye did her homework before making this movie, even workshopping the script with inmates in Minneapolis and San Diego (see "Cheryl Dunye," no. 16).

Dunye's respect for the voices of real women is admirable, and exactly what the genre needs in order to counter the false images that have long been its foundation. Nonetheless, Stranger Inside still has problems. Despite the movie's efforts to humanize its characters, it's not able to fully move beyond the predictable types, offering us characters like reforming gang girl Shadow, tough-as-nails Mama Cass, and pregnant Tanya.

Joanne Archibald, a formerly incarcerated woman who now works as advocacy director at Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM), spoke with Dunye during the making of Stranger Inside and, while she liked Dunye's attitude toward her subject, felt that, in the end, the movie suffered from too many distortions. In particular, Archibald criticized the use of violence in the script. "[The characters] were stabbing and beating [each other] all the time," Archibald says. "People have the idea that women in prison are mostly murderers, or at least very violent people, and this movie underlined that." She adds, "I felt like the dialogue was realistic, and workshopping [the script] helped that, but the level of violence was not normal for a women's prison. I don't know if it was the group of people [Dunye] talked with, or what. My personal feeling was that it was an HBO thing." (Given HBO's "realistic" prison soap Oz—which, in its six-season run, averaged at least one inmate death per episode—this conclusion isn't far-fetched.)

This overemphasis on violence is all too common. According to prison-reform organization the Sentencing Project, women are much more likely to be incarcerated for drug or property crimes (57 percent) than for violent crimes (31 percent). But popular culture persists in imagining female inmates as a bloodthirsty bunch.

This cultural predisposition toward emphasizing the relatively small percentage of women serving time for violent crimes is the one notable failing of the otherwise excellent 2003 PBS documentary, What I Want My Words to Do to You: Voices from Inside a Women's Maximum-Security Prison. The film spotlights playwright Eve Ensler's creative-writing workshop at New York's Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and showcases the work of 15 workshop participants, with its narrative structured around various descriptive exercises, such as "Describe the facts of your crime." The film is most moving when documenting the group discussions that follow each woman's sharing of her story. These moments are intercut with footage of actors—among them Glenn Close and Marisa Tomei—discussing the women's writing in low-key rehearsals. The film's climax comes when the actors read the women's writing onstage before an audience of prison inmates.

Like Dunye, Ensler (and the filmmakers she worked with, Madeleine Gavin, Judith Katz, and Gary Sunshine) has a sincere compassion for incarcerated women. Ensler personally selected the women for her workshop; according to the website, she sought "a cross-section of women who I thought would benefit from a group…. They had seeking spirits, they wanted to reckon with their deeds. And they were visionary women, women who had a sense of the future." The film gives context to its subjects' crimes, something that is often missing from sensationalized news reports. And most important—despite the professional readings—the women largely speak for themselves. We see them laugh together, support each other, and articulate the injustices they've known. The women in Ensler's workshop are people PBS audiences can find common ground with—an important point considering our culture easily labels its prison population with words like "predator" and "monster," encouraging us to dehumanize them. Further­more, PBS developed an excellent website for the film that offers resources for further education on prison issues.

Unfortunately, nearly all of the "visionary women" featured in the film had been convicted of murder. Though this is at least partly due to the fact that in a maximum-security institution like Bedford Hills, inmates are more likely to have been convicted of violent crimes, included in Ensler's efforts to depict the women in all their humanity is a tacit affirmation of the too-common assumption that most incarcerated women are violent.

Invisible women

There's a small number of films that are neither seedy, fantastic, nor especially serious depictions of women in prison: Freeway, Fun, Last Dance, White Oleander, and the '70s tv drama Within These Walls are several of note. There are also other cultural efforts to bring the stories of incarcerated women to the general public, such as the Medea Project, a theater company founded in 1989 that uses dramatic performance to give female inmates an outlet for their stories and experiences (see "Broad Way," no. 17).

But despite these steps in the right direction, outside of exploitation films men still dominate the pop culture imag­ination of prisons. Prison stories—whether they're told in a movie, a tv show, or a magazine article—usually feature men. If asked to imagine a prison, most of us will flash to the gloomy stone we remember from The Shaw­shank Redemption, or the foggy decrepitude of Escape from Alcatraz. If asked to picture a prisoner, we might think of Sean Penn's wiry, chain-smoking death-row inmate in Dead Man Walking. These are the heavyweights of the prison genre, and they have loads of company. How the public imagines prisons is in large part owed to these films, as well as Papillon, Murder in the First, Face/Off, The Green Mile, and even Stir Crazy.

Since America's incarceration boom began more than two decades ago, there has been a steady flow of male prison stories, but not a corresponding rise in female prison stories. This is true despite the fact that, since 1980, the number of women in prison has increased at nearly double the rate for men, and despite the increasing attention paid to abuses within women's correctional facilities.

This relative invisibility is even more dangerous than inaccurate popular culture images. While the problems with women-in-prison movies have serious consequences for the public imagination, there is no excuse for them to bear the weight they do. News organizations need to do their part in telling the truth about incarcerated women.

Despite the two million people behind bars in this country—not to mention the families and the 600,000 prison employees directly affected by the system—prisons and prisoners receive relatively little news attention. Politicians typically only reference prisons when advocating get-tough-on-crime legislation, and even then the news media rarely delve into the ramifications of the proposed policies. For instance, the sevenfold increase in the number of incarcerated women in the past two decades is clearly connected to policies such as California's three-strikes law, which is the harshest and most widely used law in the country (it carries a mandatory life sentence for anyone convicted of three felonies, ranging from homicide to drug possession to mail theft). But even when news organizations do attempt to cover prisoners' issues, the story is often deeply sensationalized.

Racist stereotypes and assumptions about incarcerated women also come into play in media coverage: CLAIM's Archibald has found, for instance, that it's much more common for a dark-skinned woman to have an unseemly mug shot accompany news coverage of her crime; white women, by contrast, tend to either have more flattering photos or no photos at all. Coverage also generally lacks complexity. Santha McTaggart, who was formerly incarcerated at Western Wayne Correctional Facility in Plymouth, Michigan, has a laundry list of other issues the news never seems to get to—for example, the complexity of sexual relationships between inmates and corrections officers. While abuse is certainly prevalent, she says, the issue is more complicated; for example, sometimes women pursue such relationships in order to gain a more powerful place in the "society of captives" (a term coined by Gresham Sykes in his influential book of the same name).

Fortunately, there are measures at work to improve media coverage. Organizations like CLAIM facilitate voluntary workshops for arrested women that train them to work with the media that covers their case. Participants are videotaped, and the class discusses how the woman presented herself and her case. The point is for women convicted of crimes to deal with the media more affirmatively: not to lie, but not to feel forced to answer invasive questions either—and to give a full and accurate picture of her situation to help news audiences identify with her.

Martha Stewart's recent incarceration in a minimum-security West Virginia prison has made prison life a trendy subject in the news-and-culture sphere, though to say it's elevated the discourse would be inaccurate—Stewart's prison sentence has yielded many more tiresome jokes about cell decorating and eucalyptus-scented shower trysts than it has serious discussions of social justice and prison reform. "The public is not getting the message about women in prison," says Luveichie Anderson, who is incarcerated at Western Wayne. "If they were getting the message then the system wouldn't be the way [it is]. Some laws could be changed, but no one cares."

The lack of cultural language about women in prison translates into a de facto acceptance of the state of women's prison experiences today. But without public awareness of prison conditions and prisoners' issues, injustices can easily go unchecked, especially since inmates, who are in a severely constrained environment, have few opportunities to protect themselves.

When the public is misled about incarcerated women, it becomes easy for them to vote for standard "tough on crime" policies, like California's three-strikes law and New York's Rockefeller drug laws, that do little more than crowd prisons with nonviolent offenders, male and female alike. The public is responsible for electing the officials who determine state budgets and corrections policies—and therefore we are indirectly responsible for deciding whether or not incarcerated women have the right to jobs that pay more than small change, to maintain their parental rights, and to job training and education.

If female prisoners were represented more accurately in the media, the public would surely be more inclined to pressure politicians to pay attention to a population that is all too easy to ignore. A complacent public that isn't spurred to ask questions—of politicians or of one ­another—is also more likely to tacitly accept the fundamental philosophy that prisons are the best means of ­punishment. In a country with the dubious honor of incarcerating 25 percent of the entire world's prison population (according to William Alexander, founder of the Prison Creative Arts Project and an English professor at the University of Michigan), it's easy to forget that incarceration was considered a revolutionary concept when the first two prisons opened in the United States in the 1820s.

In a world that's becoming increasingly economically dependent on the prison-industrial system, alternatives to the current state of prisons are rarely imagined; in a twisted way, many people's livelihoods depend on putting other people behind bars. But through active pressure, we have the power to change this. Organizations like CLAIM, the Prison Creative Arts Project (full disclosure: I used to work for the group), the Sentencing Project, Amnesty International, and the Justice Policy Institute are working to push the truth of incarcerated women through the white noise of sensationalized crime and into the public's mind. As media consumers, we can support these efforts with more letters to the editor protesting traditional media approaches to women-in-prison and crime stories—and lauding those rare examples of sensitive, nuanced coverage. We can pressure media outlets to be aware of the particular issues surrounding incarcerated women, including motherhood and domestic violence. And most of all, we need to listen to the concerns of incarcerated women—because they need us. As Santha McTaggart puts it, what inmates want is "some people to relay what we are saying. We need someone to listen and to take us seriously."

Anna Clark writes from her favorite corner of Michigan.

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