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Vulnerable Populations: Agency, Identity, and Incarcerated Women

In nonprofits that provide social services, we like to classify and index groups of people as if we are scientists. There’s at-risk, high need, barrier to whatever, specific needs, people with disabilities, under-represented, and on and on. We might as well just group everyone as people who might need some stuff for some good reasons. But it would be hard to write about that in grant applications.

My focus is working with incarcerated women, a vulnerable population. Incarcerated people are thought to be especially vulnerable because of their lack of freedom and the near impossibility of making their voices heard outside of facility walls. (I’ll be using the term “incarcerated women” and variations thereof instead of “inmate,” “prisoner,” “convict” or “offender,” because of the dehumanizing aspects of those labels. For more info, read Tina Reynolds’ “Glossary of Terms” in Interrupted Life.) Incarcerated women are thought to be even more vulnerable than men because many of their crimes are related to substance abuse, which stems from severe and repeated trauma in their lives, such as sexual, emotional and physical abuse and domestic violence.

Every time I think the statistics are too grim, that I’m over-generalizing by passing on this information, I talk to another incarcerated woman who tells me a story that humanizes and confirms the numbers. And then she tells me that her breakfast that morning at the jail was white rice, two sugar packets and some sausage. Texas, you are my homeland and I love you, but white rice? For breakfast? With sugar? That is diabetes in a bowl.

That’s heavy stuff – the numbers, the sorrow, the rage, the rice – so what on earth do you do with it when you walk into a jail classroom full of women?

I run a small nonprofit, Conspire Theatre that leads theatre and creative writing workshops with incarcerated women in central Texas, mostly in the Travis County Correctional Complex just south of Austin. We spend a good portion of our time together laughing and making funny shapes with our bodies, so much so that at times I almost forget where we are and why I’m there. We’re a group of women having fun together. The women in my class have said the same thing: “We can stop worrying while we’re in this class. We can get outside of our heads. This is a space for reaching beyond.”

All this leaves me with many questions – how do I reconcile all of the facts and statistics with real people? It is very easy to call incarcerated women victims and slide into an unexamined, smarmy good feeling about all of it. “Oh my,” people say, “what good work you do. How lucky they are to have you. How ever do you do it?” And that creeps me out. These women are not sad hurt bunnies that I’m feeding blueberries to; they’re individuals who hold me to a high standard, and give me constant feedback on my class and our activities. Jesus, the thought of pitying any of these women makes me cringe.

The other way this conversation can go is, “Prisoners? Why would you want to work with them? What about all the people they’ve hurt? Why aren’t you working with the victims of their crimes? People like that deserve what they get – they’ve made their own choices, now they can deal with the consequences.” As much as hearing or reading this sentiment really, really pisses me off, I can also see the beauty in thinking that every single person has total agency over his or her own life. We all have choices, right? If people just made healthy choices, their lives would be fine! Put the Fruit Loops down! Stop printing fake checks! Step away from the drugs!

That idea is so pervasive that I even slip into it in the Conspire promotional video and say “we help women learn to make better choices in their own lives.” It’s this nonprofit speak that appeals to funders. Everyone wants to frame everything as a matter of healthy or unhealthy choices. Some of this is because I’m working in the United States, where we’re hot for individual freedom and tend to believe that one person can be bigger than the system. I think many of the women in the jail (and I’ll include myself in this) think that the oppressive forces in today’s world don’t really apply to us. We know there’s unfairness and discontent and draconian drug laws and misogyny and racism and a wage gap, but those don’t define our lives. We will rise above those things, and don’t come to us with some holier-than-thou attitude telling us we can’t.

So, if victimhood is one side and total agency resides on the other, what does the space in-between look like? I’ve been thinking it’s a balancing act, that I must somehow sprint from one side to the other in order to keep the seesaw level, but it may be a both/and embrace. The gray area must encompass both ideas: yes, many incarcerated women have been traumatized, abused and forced into situations over which they had very little control, AND many of the women have hurt others in some way through violence or theft or addiction.

These two ideas can be difficult to hold simultaneously. For a long time I didn’t ask or investigate why the women were at the jail because I did not want to know. When I did find out, through conversation with jail staff, that knowledge could unsettle me. Two years in, I still don’t ask. But I don’t go out of my way to avoid learning about it either. When discussions get personal in class or women want to talk about their charges, I don’t shy away from it anymore.

The women can surprise me with how they talk about themselves.  I’ve never heard anyone say, “I’m an inmate,” or “I’m an incarcerated woman.”  There are self-identified hippies, hustlers, writers, musicians, teachers and most of all, mothers.  Most of the women in my classes for the past 2 years have been mothers, and that identity seems the most important to many.  Whatever else has gone on in their lives, many women speak longingly of their children.  For several months in 2010, my class was full of gay women who proudly declared their sexualities in group games and exercises.  Since the officers at the jail only address the women by their last names, keeping their first names and nicknames intact also seems important.  Being incarcerated takes away women’s identities in many ways, so women find ways to assert themselves. I try to let my classroom be a space where women can explore these identities without retribution, although we all know that sometimes what we uncover in there can’t leave the room. That’s one of our class agreements: “No using anything that happens in class against anyone else later on.”  For all the stories I’ve heard and women I’ve met, I’ve never met a woman who calls herself a prisoner.

The core of it is being able to see people in their entirety, something that gets harder and harder to do in our polarized, hate-everyone-else-and-leave-death-threats-on-the-internet culture. I get it: I hate people too and I really hate when they say stupid shit that’s cruel and unfair. I also think that I might have a good time with some of them in a theatre workshop – even the most obnoxious Men’s Rights guys on the internet could probably be somewhat absorbed into my drama circle of love (that is NOT a euphemism), if only they could stop calling my husband a white knight. When we see person as his/her/zir label — inmate, feminist, at-risk, asshole troll commenter, victim, perpetrator — we give up the compassion that follows accepting complexity, and settle for that righteous, certain feeling. I don’t ever want that directed at the incarcerated women I work with, or anyone I care about, or anyone at all. (Except Rick Perry. That guy is the THE WORST).

Like I mentioned earlier, we do it in social services too. The at-risk determination can turn a person into a walking need. The vulnerable population moniker, while helpful when making sure that incarcerated women aren’t exploited, erases the strength and beauty I see in my class every week. I’m trying to make connections between incarcerated and non-incarcerated women so we can all learn a bit more about each other, and find ways to make this world a more bearable place.

Katherine Craft is a playwright, theatre maker, educator and lifelong feminist.  She runs Conspire Theatre, which is currently raising funds to expand its programming to include women in Maximum Security at the Travis County Correctional Complex. Go here for more info and to watch a super fine video about Conspire’s work.

5 Comments

  1. ourlipsbend wrote:

    Thanks for this post. You’ve made me start thinking a bit differently/more openly about a part of the population I don’t consider enough.

    But FYI: please fix your links! I keep getting linked to nowhere when I click on them (except for your name, that one’s a-ok). :(

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Permalink
  2. j. cruel wrote:

    I just watched Iron Jawed Angels for the first time. Not only did it give me a renewed sense of the awesomeness of the suffragettes but it made me much more interested in the plight of incarcerated women. I’m an adjunct professor of political thought and it made me wonder if any of the prisons in my state have educational programs where I could be of some service.

    Does anyone know how one goes about getting involved in these programs?

    Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Jenny wrote:

    Have you checked out this yet?

    Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Permalink
  4. Katherine Craft wrote:

    @OURLIPSBEND – The links should be fixed now! Thanks for the tip and sorry about the delay.

    @J CRUEL – In my case, I did a lot of online research and contacted the activist groups in my area to see what they knew about programming. I would also recommend learning what jails and prisons are in your area on the state and county level, and contacting them directly to ask. Through networking, I was able to get in touch with the Social Services Program Coordinator at the Travis County jail, who invited me in with enthusiasm and has been a big support ever since. I know that this isn’t always the case – other people I know who work in this field have been met with hostility. For this reason, I think it’s good to try and find a group that already has access. What city/state are you in?

    @JENNY – I hadn’t checked out that particular YouTube channel but I have read some about the detrimental effects of solitary confinement and the rise of the supermax. It’s all horrible, chilling stuff. Thanks for the info.

    Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  5. Finisterre wrote:

    That was the most beautiful piece of writing I’ve read in a while. I’m glad I’ve read it just as I’m about to go to bed, because it was thought-provoking too.

    I love the bit about thinking that misogyny doesn’t apply to us. It rang so true, and is so at odds with the ‘victim mentality’ feminists are so often accused of.

    Thank you, Katherine.

    Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Permalink