“Prison helps to manage class society. That is, it helps to control, contain, and legitimize
poverty, ” said Christian Parenti, Professor of Sociology at New College of California
during “With/Out Walls: Incarceration, Control, Education,” a two-day conference in April
presented by CUNY’s Center for the Study of Women and Society and the College and Community
Fellowship (CCF), a CUNY-based program for formerly incarcerated women. The conference, cosponsored
by CLAGS, brought together scholars, activists, and community members for two intense
days of information, analysis, and rabble-rousing on the prison boom in America, where 25 percent of
the world’s prisoners are currently incarcerated. Speakers included law professors, sociologists, former
prisoners, poets, community organizers, and non-profit service providers addressing such topics as how
people can transition out of prison into meaningful and productive lives; the economics of the prison
industry; technologies of control; and alternatives to incarceration.
Parenti offered a Marxist analysis of the burgeoning industry, arguing that the recession of the late
1970s and early 1980s, anti-union clampdowns, and Reagan’s cuts to federal funding for housing,
welfare, and education all contributed to growing unrest among workers that threatened the social order
and moneyed classes. In response, Parenti argued, the government expanded the prison-industrial
complex, using the “war on drugs” and mandatory sentencing guidelines, which increased the flow of
poor and minority workers into the system. In the economic boom of the ’90s, high profits and high
productivity in a tight labor market were maintained by the continuation of that trend while the removal of
drug rehabilitation, job training, and educational programs from prisons complicated inmates’ transition
to freedom and increased parole violation and recidivism, ensuring that the prison population would
continue to grow.
Thus, Parenti maintained, over the last two decades, macroeconomic health was restored through
mass poverty and the creation of a prison-industrial complex with twice the population it had in the early
’70s: today it is approaching 2 million.
The runaway prison industry and the punitive denial of benefits to ex-offenders has had especially
harsh effects on women, currently the fastest growing segment of the prison population, said Beth E.
Richie, Professor of Criminal Justice, Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
For instance, she explained, laws targeted at ex-inmates deny them access to more than 700 social
services. The low-income women most in need of these services are the very ones who end up in the
justice system. Welfare and public housing, for example, denied to those who have felony drug
convictions, are used primarily by low-income women and their families. Meanwhile, people with records
are barred from the jobs that make up the employment base of low-income women— home health aide,
nursing home attendant, and child care worker. Programs for victims may not provide services to
“offenders” and, at times, do background checks on people calling for emergency assistance. But, said
Richie, 80 percent of incarcerated women are victims of some form of abuse—sexual, physical, or
A panel called “Re/Constructing Intimacy and Sexuality,” organized by CLAGS, brought the voices
of women who have felt the brunt of these policies to the fore, and looked especially at ways women
create intimacy and express sexuality while incarcerated. CCF participants Awilda Gonzalez and
Barbara Jimperson spoke eloquently of the ways they forged family bonds in prison with other inmates
to create systems of support and survival. Along with SUNY Binghamton scholar Juanita Diaz-Cotto
and moderator Amber Hollibaugh, they described, too, how lesbians and bisexual women face
particular challenges in prison, as guards often treat them in disdainful and abusive ways, sometimes
even segregating them from the general population or forcing them to wear different colored uniforms,
denying them visitation, or confining them to the prison’s psychiatric ward. In some prisons, staff
members may repeatedly write up lesbian inmates, unnecessarily search them or force them to watch
while their partner is searched, call them names, interrogate them about their sex lives, even beat or
rape them. When women do engage in sexual activity, against the rules or no, they are denied the
information and materials necessary to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
Meanwhile, lesbians are often denied access to the job and education programs available to other
inmates as some organizations that run these programs deny them service or expect them to change
their sexual orientations. This is particularly true of but not limited to religious organizations.
The four panelists noted that the prison rights movement has not consistently embraced LGTBQ
issues — and that the mainstream gay and lesbian movement has not taken on prison issues. As
Hollibaugh pointed out, the gay rights movement’s disassociation from the growing prison rights
movement is related to its failure to address class and to deal with the issues that disproportionately
concern poor and working-class people, including those who are lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer.
The connection between poverty and incarceration was brought home in CLAGS’s second offering
to the conference, a screening of “Nuyorican Dream,” introduced by CUNY grad student Manolo
Guzmán and followed by a Q&Awith filmmaker Laurie Collyer. The film follows five years in the life of a
Puerto Rican family in New York — one of whose sons is a successful teacher and also gay — as they
struggle against poverty, drug addiction, and incarceration.
Another conference panelist, Todd R. Clear, Distinguished Professor of Law and Political Science
at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, talked about the repercussions of the current system
that wreaks vengeance — not justice — on families like the one profiled in Collyer’s film. Americans must
alter our conversations about prison issues so that we talk not just about controlling crime and
punishing criminals but also about improving communities and preventing criminal situations, he
insisted. We must find alternatives to the large scale incarceration of our nation’s poor minorities.
Melinda Barton is a graduate student of Journalism at New York University.