The Prisonification of Indian Women

by Stormy Ogden
In the warmth of my fantasy
I awake to the cold gray walls
Of my reality

These words echoed in my mind as the Judge read the sentence, “Ms Ogden, you are to be sentenced for a period of 5 years to be served at the California Rehabilitation Center located in Norco.” My reality is becoming devastatingly more common among the women of the United States. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population especially in California, which now has the distinction of having the most women prisoners in the nation. Historically, the most brutal methods of social control are directed at a society’s most oppressed groups. And the most brutal form of social control in the United States is the state and federal prison system. The ones that are most likely to be sent to jail and prison are the poor and/or women of color. In North America a very high proportion of these people are American Indians.
The number of American Indian prisoners, especially the women, is nearly impossible to obtain. The major reason is the prison classification system that in the majority of prisons classifies prisoners as White, Black, Hispanic, or Other.

Located outside the door to my room was a small white 8×5 card that listed my last name, Ogden, my state number, W-20170, and my classification, Other. Every morning as I left for my job assignment, I would cross out Other and write AI. Then each afternoon when I returned for count there would be a new card with Other written on it. This went on for a few days when finally the CO approached me, “next time, Ogden, it will be a write up and a loss of good time.” That next morning, before going to work, I found a permanent laundry marker, tore the card off the wall, and wrote on the wall, American Indian.

Women in prison are fighting to maintain a sense of self within a system that isolates and degrades, a system that is designed to punish. But, for the American Indian woman, we must also fight for our identity.
I write this as a California Indian woman, a tribal woman of Yokuts and Pomo ancestry. I also write as an ex-prisoner of the state of California and a survivor of colonization by the European powers. The history of colonization is a tragic one from the time of European contact to the present day.
The colonizers brought with them two tools of mass destruction, the bottle and the bible, both which were forced upon the Native people. The outcome was the erosion of peoples’ language, culture, life-ways, religion, land base and lives. Their traditional ways of behavior and conduct became illegal. With increased attacks on Indian sovereignty and culture, imprisonment became the government principal means of intimidation and punishment. As stated by Professor Luana Ross in her book: Inventing the Savage: the Social Construction of Native American Criminality “Through various procedures, state and federal governments defined Native Americans as ‘deviant’ and ‘criminal.'”
Almost every aspect of life of Indian people has been subjected to the unrestricted jurisdiction of the United States. The history of relations between Indian nations and the United States has been marked by oppressive laws and policies designed to undermine the sovereignty of Indian nations and to weaken their culture. These laws were geared towards the total annihilation and then assimilation of Indian people into the mainstream dominant society. Native people have been imprisoned in many different forms, such as, Military forts, Missions, Reservations, Boarding schools, and now the State and Federal prisons. These can only be instruments of racism and a form of social control.
The criminalization and imprisonment of Native people can be interpreted as yet another attempt to control Indian lands and the ongoing attempt to deny Indian sovereignty, as we see by the alarming number of Native people that are being locked up on their own ancestral homelands. No Native person can ever forget that his or her homeland was taken and that they live in poverty on the margin of society, desperately fighting to hold on to their traditional ways of life. Keeping this in mind, it can be said that the Prison Industrial Complex was built right through the lives and the ancestral lands of the Indigenous people of this continent.