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Women in Prison: let's bring back the vision of Miriam Van Waters

An old perspective renewed
An old perspective renewed
Peggy Reskin

The number of women in prison is increasing exponentially, with no plan to improve or encourage conditions that would benefit society or the women imprisoned. Orange is the New Black, the popular Netflix series, has brought public awareness to the subject recently. Ella Baker Center asks the question "Women in prison who leave children and families that need their care, and return with less ability to meet the conditions they face after prison-is this the best we can do for women?" Ella Baker for their work in prison reform through Books not Bars has recently been awarded Google's Bay Area Impact Challenge, with Executive Director Zachary Norris being granted a Prime Movers Fellowship. Reform in prison, however, needs a revision by all of society to evaluate the cost of the facilities and the cost of the loss of the people as well as efforts made to support their return to lives. The families have little or no support throughout their incarceration, or upon their return, and the women have less confidence to manage the difficulties they will face in restarting their lives. What can be done, what must be done is the question by those of us who support and contribute to the work of Ella Baker in Oakland?

Prison reform history brings up the name of Miriam Van Waters, and represents a direction that bears the possibility of a new vision as recognized by Stanford professor, Estelle Freedman. Consider that prison reform has been the fundamental call to action for feminists since 1848 when two women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott and their husbands, Quakers, who started a movement to change the conditions and circumstances under which people were imprisoned. That is considered to be the first wave of feminism by Estelle Freedman who describes the feminism of that time to be "religiously motivated white middle class women in the late 19th Century" Their vision was to provide for prisoners the possibility of redemption, maternal rather than punitive, nurturing rather than destructive to the prisoners. Men and women together in abusive and squalor were the conditions they witnessed, and their intention was not only to improve those conditions but to provide the means by which these people could be redeemed and returned to society. What they got was segregation of women who were taken out of the prisons and placed in a separate facility, a limited piece of what they had envisioned. Dr. Freedman in her book Feminism, Sexuality and Politics describes the origins and strategies of women's activism ranging from prison reform through the waves of feminism from 1848 to present. The goal for feminism has always been, she claims in the historical context of social change to not only empower women but to transform all American culture. Based on the "idealism of the 60's, the feminist politics of the 70's that infiltrated and shook the ground in academia and social life, the basis for the 2nd wave of feminism was established." But then she discovered the work of Miriam Van Waters, a very powerful visionary and prison director.

Miriam Van Waters brought groundwork to significant reform and accomplished a great deal in her role in the Massachusetts State Reform for women's prisons in the 1940's. Van Waters sought redemptive and educational rather than punitive measures and her work as Director of the women's prisons became known nationally for taking "involuntary confinement to a place of voluntary community" within the prisons. Framingham Prison had nurseries for the children, gardening, art and skill trainings for the women and an atmosphere of growth and nurturing. Dr. Freedman reports that students from Vassar, Smith, Wellesley sought to intern at these prisons which was considered the hallmark of social welfare advance.

What happened to those efforts by feminists, by people in society who wanted to see the transformation that had been aspired to is a question for social researchers and feminists like Estelle Freedman, and is the question of our time that must be answered. Just a few come to mind. Internships and volunteering at prisons for both men and women could be of benefit not only to the prisoners but to students in and just out of college who get credits on their college loans would be a possibility. Universities and colleges could bring into their curriculum structured participation in the prisons for credits. A buddy system for the women in prison, additional family support through the churches who look for places of need and want is another possibility.

There are many possibilities, but we know for sure that the Ella Baker Center and their committed following have their eye on the prize of valuing the lives of those in prison. They have bills they are presenting this week in Sacramento to the state legislation to advance the conditions in prisons, and potential for change. For all who see the problem, there are many places to go to offer your care, your participation and inspiration to prison reform, and Books Not Bars has that information.

Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

510 428-3939

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