Women’s History Month: Amplifying Oral Histories from Women’s Prisons

For Women’s History Month this March, Voice of Witness is featuring Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons, a book in our oral history series.

Through eye-opening personal narratives, the book shares the experiences of women who have spent varying amounts of time in prison in the United States, revealing egregious human rights violations. The narrators were often sentenced to time in prison by an unjust legal system designed to target those already marginalized.

In their own words, the women in Inside This Place, Not of It recount their lives leading up to incarceration and their experiences inside—ranging from forced sterilization and shackling during childbirth, to physical and sexual abuse by prison staff. Together, their testimonies illustrate the harrowing struggles for survival that women in prison must endure. As narrator Olivia Hamilton shared:

My medical treatment in prison was cruel, degrading, and shameful. Being shackled, being forced to have that c-section—it was the worst feeling, mentally and emotionally, that I have ever been through.

With an incarcerated population of over 2 million, a number higher than any in the world, the United States has a prison system marked by extreme abuses of power and a general lack of oversight. Although there are more men in prison than women, the abuse taking place in male prisons has been better documented. Women are, more often than not, jailed for non-violent offenses, and about 80% of women serving time in prison in the US are primary caregivers of children. Women of color are particularly over represented in women’s prison populations, and, as the oral histories in Inside This Place, Not of It illustrate, are often subjected to immense cruelty and abuse.

The introduction to the book makes the important distinction that a majority of the abuse suffered by women prisoners comes not from other prisoners, but from the guards. Often, women have experienced emotional or physical abuse prior to being jailed, and are therefore less likely to report abuse suffered during their stay. Women’s prisons are also usually geographically isolated, leading to further lack of oversight. 

Inside This Place, Not of It, edited by Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman, features thirteen oral histories, including narratives from:

  • ANNA JACOBS, who repeatedly warned prison guards about a suicidal cellmate, but the guards refused to take any action. After the woman killed herself, Anna was retaliated against and intimidated when she tried to tell investigators about the guards’ refusal to prevent the death.
  • IRMA RODRIGUEZ, who spent years believing her health and life were in danger, being aggressively treated with a variety of medications for disease she never had. Only once she was released from prison did her doctors inform her that the incompetent prison medical bureaucracy had misdiagnosed her with HIV.
  • TERI HANCOCK, who was sentenced to 16 – 50 years for aiding and abetting a robbery when she was only 17. Teri was raped at the age of 19 by a prison guard. The abuse continued for more than three years with the knowledge and assistance of other guards.

During Women’s History Month, it’s vital to uplift the truths about women’s experiences in prisons and share their oral histories in order to expose injustice, build solidarity, and inspire action toward a more caring society.

Order a copy of Inside This Place, Not of It and access the corresponding free lesson plans.

Hear what thought-leaders say about this collection:

These are personal narratives not only of suffering, but of human dignity and survival against all the odds. Hope flickers, even through recollections of painful childhoods, poverty, and domestic and institutional abuse. It is this hope that allows us to envision a way out, a path toward a more forgiving, compassionate, and caring society.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow

Inside This Place, Not of It is essential reading for anyone interested in the stories of women who compel us to see their humanity, tenacity, and value as people… Their voices insist that the civil and human rights abuses that take place daily behind the walls of our prisons and jails must be out in the open to be recognized and remedied.

Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black

Inside This Place, Not of It brings home the vulnerability of people held captive by those who have the power to abuse them… This kind of publishing work is vital to record the lives of people who seldom have public platforms from which to tell their stories.

Ashley Lucas, Director of the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan

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