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Is Violence Against Women In Prison a Fixable Problem?

Arizona’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in the nation, in no small part because of explosive growth in the incarceration of women and their outsized incarceration rate in Arizona compared to the national average.

So, Arizona State University was a fitting venue for a Jan. 26 panel discussion with three authors focused on how women get treated in prison and whether the system can even be reformed.

In a system that itself perpetuates violence, the types of resistance that often get covered by the media, such as hunger strikes and work stoppages, are different from what incarcerated women do to resist, said Victoria Law, author of “Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.”

Law said resistance by women can include sharing health care products, warning other incarcerated women about sexually abusive guards and organizing support groups behind bars.

“If we look at this through a gender-neutral lens of thinking, that we should only be looking at what’s happening to the majority of people or people in men’s prisons, we miss out on many of the issues that are nuanced,” Law said.

One issue for women in prison, health care, rose in prominence in Arizona in early January when The Arizona Republic reported that the Arizona Department of Corrections had induced the labor of pregnant prisoners against their will.

Another speaker, Valena Beety, noted that the state will seek input from formerly

incarcerated people in its review of such problems.

“I will say that Governor [Katie] Hobbs has just announced there’s going to be an oversight commission that’s going to include directly impacted individuals, and this is valuable. But, we also know that prisons have been violent, dangerous and unhealthy places since they were first created,” said Beety, a professor of law at ASU and author of “Manifesting Justice: Wrongly Convicted Women Reclaim Their Rights.”

That history and systemic flaw makes prison reform impossible, said the third speaker, Leigh Goodmark, author of “Imperfect Victims: Criminalized Survivors and the Promise of Abolition Feminism.”

“This is not a system that can be reformed, because the system is operating exactly the way the system is designed to operate, and particularly in the context of criminalized survivors,” Goodmark said.

Research published by The Appeal in 2020 said that of those women and girls jailed for murder or manslaughter, at least 30 percent “...were protecting themselves or a loved one from physical or sexual violence.”

Goodmark said her book is about how victims of violence are punished by the U.S.’s criminal legal system, and it argued that “the only politics and practice that is going to prevent survivors from being criminalized is abolition feminism.”

By abolition feminism, she means supporting the abolition of the “carceral system” entirely and opposing “gender-informed” prisons, because prisons are “trauma-inducing institutions” and cannot be “trauma-informed.”

“Understand what the state is doing in your name. If you care about people subject to abuse, if you care about people who have experienced gender-based violence who are being criminalized, understand what this system is doing, and then think about how to undo it,” Goodmark said.

Law, Beety and Goodmark spoke to more than 20 attendees at the Beus Center for Law and Society at ASU.

The book talk, which was organized by the Academy for Justice at ASU, served as a prelude to a symposium on Jan. 27 about new strategies to combat wrongful convictions.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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