Editorial: Divisions in prison?

Divide and conquer. It is an age-old tactic often used by those in power to keep the oppressed from exerting or even realizing their own power. It affects most women on the inside. The most prominent are divisions based on race. But any differences are exploited to divide the women: type of crime, length of sentence, disabilities, faith, national origin, sexuality, etc.
Guards intentionally seed such division by, for example, blaming their own arbitrary behavior on the woman they would like to have other women turn against. We have heard of instances when a woman was placed in a cell where the guards knew she would be beaten up. Charisse Shumate stated on numerous occasions that the guards told women “thank Shumate” when they refused to address health care complaints. (Charisse Shumate was a lead plaintiff in a suit against CDC for lack of medical care.) Such strategies are designed to create animosity among women.
Other forms of this strategy divide women inside from outside support. Mail delays, phone access limitations, not to mention ruinous costs, visiting regulations and changes in quarterly packages, create enormous and frustrating obstacles for families and friends of prisoners. When women lose custody of their children, often to the foster care system, it is a major way of dividing them from their loved ones and devastating the families and communities as well as the women.
Dividing women prisoners from each other and from society is a much bigger problem than simply making life more difficult for them in prison. Once women prisoners return to life on the outside they are marginalized from participating in their own communities. This includes being discriminated against in getting jobs, education, housing, proper health care, as well as voting.
The way in which prison issues are addressed in the media also prevents any natural alliances between women on the inside and those on the outside. Laws such as “Three Strikes and You’re Out” and cutbacks in vital programs that assist women prisoners with education and child care, won support among California voters and legislators precisely because the local and national news hype up fear of crime that makes these policies seem necessary even though they are clearly ineffective.
Women prisoners have had to overcome the many divide-and-conquer tactics on the part of prison authorities in order to get their concerns addressed. This issue of The Fire Inside deals with the problems women inside face in gaining strength in unity. It also deals with the ways in which they try overcome that divisive strategy and succeed. Their work, along with their sisters on the outside, is a true testament to the power of solidarity in the face of overwhelming odds.