Books

Horrific Peek into Women's Prisons Finds: "Sisters, Fighting For Our Lives Together'

New book offers a horrific peek behind the walls of US prisons and reveals the human rights violations suffered by women in confinement.

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Inside This Place, Not of It, followed by a Q&A with the editors Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi.

Sheri Dwight, 35, was interviewed in a small, empty park in Inglewood, California. As she shared the details of her story, she frequently looked over her shoulder to scan the other benches, ever vigilant from her years in prison. Sheri was seventeen when she met her husband, and their marriage quickly deteriorated into mental and physical violence. A year into the marriage, Sheri shot and killed her husband, and was sentenced to fifteen years in a California state prison. During her time inside, she was diagnosed with ovarian cysts, and agreed to have them removed via a cystectomy. Then, for the following five years, Sheri found herself unable to menstruate, and experienced menopause-like symptoms. An investigation led by the legal nonprofit Justice Now revealed that the surgeon who had performed Sheri's cystectomy had also given her an oophorectomy without her knowledge or consent. Sheri has been home for a year, and is working to rebuild her life and help other survivors of domestic violence.

I got to Chowchilla in 1997, when I was twenty-one years old. Up in prison, I learned a lot. If you don't have any street smarts, you learn some. You learn to read body language a mile away. I can tell by the shift in the atmosphere if something ain't right. Like, sometimes we'll sit here talking and all of a sudden it gets quiet, and you'll start looking around, because you know there's a fight about to break out.

There were four thousand women there. Eight women to a room, thirty-two rooms in each building, four buildings on each yard. I knew a lot of people there, from school and from fighting their cases with me in county. That's where the bond is built. Nowadays I watch a lot of war movies and I can see a lot of what I went through in prison; it's the same thing. You have a band of brothers, a band of sisters. It was more settled than in county jail. Jail is more like, Please God, help me get out of this situation. I don't wanna be here. But once you get to prison you've already gone through that process and you have a settling in. Then it's like, Please God, give me the strength to go through this situation. I don't wanna die here.

I had a crew that was between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, and they all came in facing thirty-five to life, fifty-five to life, life without the possibility of parole. They became my sisters. We were fighting for our lives together. Nowadays, when I see some of those girls out on the street, I get so excited. I don't even get that excited when I see family members I haven't seen in years. But when we see each other, it's like, "What do you need?" We'd do anything for each other. The shirt come off your back, the shoes come off your feet, the money comes out of the purse. You say, "Come on girl, I got $5, let's go to McDonald's! At least we can get two hamburgers, two fries, and share some cookies."

I think it was in 1999, when I was twenty-two years old, that I started having a lot of abdominal pain and heavy menstrual cycles. I knew that something was wrong. The cramping that I was having was just, oh my god. Not only was I in a lot of pain, but I was also having periods in between periods. I went to the gynecologist to see if something was going on, and he began to run a series of tests, a lot of different pap smears. One of the pap smears came back showing that I had abnormal cells. I went through more tests to figure out what was causing the abnormal cells, then more pap smears, ultrasounds, pelvic exams.

All this testing took about a year and a half. During that whole time I was having pain, abnormal menstrual cycles, and heavy bleeding. One ultrasound came back, and it said that I had two ovarian cysts, one on each ovary. The diagnosis was that it was probably caused from endometriosis. I didn't know what that was, but the gynecologist told me it was blood that had been circulated back out from the uterus to the fallopian tubes to the outer walls, and had collected itself. He said there would just be a simple procedure, that I would simply have the cysts removed and also have a cone biopsy because of the abnormal cells.With the cone biopsy, they would see if I had cancer or not. He said that, according to the cell readings, I was basically in the very early stages of cervical cancer.

That gynecologist was the only one we had at the prison. With all four thousand women, if there was anything wrong, you'd go and see him. Usually you form some type of relationship with your doctor, but that's not how it was there. It's more like, "Number X, lay down here, put your legs up in the stirrups." There is no getting to know you or your needs and wants. The gynecologist referred me to a surgeon at the local hospital outside the prison. I had to wait a few more months for the pre-op so we could discuss what the treatments were going to be.

The surgeon explained to me that he was going to be doing a surgery to remove the cysts, and that he was going to be doing a cone biopsy on me to find out whether or not I had cervical cancer. Based on the findings, if any forms of cancer were found within my cervix or in my uterine wall, then I would be looking ata hysterectomy or a partial hysterectomy. So I was basically consenting to the fact that if they had found cancer, they had the permission to remove part or all of my uterus.The doctors said that the cystectomy was a simple procedure. They would cut, remove, and deflate the cysts. I was pretty comfortable and confident about the ovarian part of it, but I was very concerned and a little scared concerning the uterus part of it because the cancer was my main focus.

There is a lot of debate as to what happened to me when I woke up out of surgery, but I do remember bits and pieces. I do remember asking what happened to me, and they told me I'd just had a cone biopsy and a removal of the cysts. There was another girl in the hospital room recovering with me. She'd overheard some things that were going on, and she was a little bit more alert than I was. She said, "I believe that you had the same surgery as me, a full hysterectomy." But that wasn't what the doctors told me.

After the surgery, I started having pain in my back and going through these hot flash symptoms. I would be sweating, my heart would be beating fast, I couldn't sleep. Mentally I had started tripping. Then I hit depression, and I sunk into it real quick. I didn't know these were symptoms of menopause. At the time the doctors told me it was all in my head. They said, "There is nothing wrong with you, go back to your cell." But those doctors were going by my hospital discharge papers, so it's really not their fault. They're not pushed to go a little deeper. They've got four thousand other women to see. Prison is overpopulated, overcrowded, and they don't want to pay the money for enough medical staff. So during a medical visit it's like, "Okay, well, you don't have anything, I don't see anything, I'll order a blood test and see where your hormones are at, if they're high or low. See you in two months."

I never got my period again after that surgery. For the next few years, I was still asking at the prison why I didn't have my menstrual cycle. I was told that sometimes these things just happen, that maybe my body shut down or went through shock, or that maybe the trauma of the surgery caused surgical menopause. All the discharge papers from the hospital said was that I'd had a cystectomy, one on one ovary this size, one on the other ovary that size, and that a cone biopsy had been done. I was waiting and hoping for my cycle to start back again, waiting for my body to kickstart. But my body was really shutting down, and I couldn't understand why.

I didn't learn what happened until four or five years later, when an organization called Justice Now started looking into my case. Through their investigation, I finally found out that, during the surgery, the surgeon had cut off the blood supply to my ovaries, killing them instantly. Instead of trying other techniques, or offering me alternative measures to go about this procedure, he'd just gone in and just snap, left me with no ovaries. Then after the cone biopsy, he'd sewed me up and never talked to me about it at all. He never sat on the side of my bed and actually took the time to tell me what procedure had been performed on me and why. Before the surgery he'd even asked me if I wanted to have more children. I'd said, "Yeah, I'm hoping to find somebody one day who loves me. I didn't get a chance to raise my other sons, so I want the chance for a family again." He didn't listen to me.

Q&A With the Editors

The editors, Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi, joined AlterNet to discuss some of the issues raised by the book.

IDA HARTMANN: First I'm curious to hear your thoughts behind the title Inside the Place, Not of It.

ROBIN LEVI: We really struggled to find a title that was not trite, but evocative of what we had heard. This title comes from a poem written by a woman inside prison.

AYELET WALDMAN: The most astonishing thing to us was how the narrators in the book, and the many other women we spoke to, managed, despite dealing with soul-crushing abuse and violence, to maintain their dignity and to help one another. That's what the title honors.

HARTMANN: The 13 women featured in this book are the human faces behind the fact that women are the largest growing population in American prisons. Why is that so?

WALDMAN: In a nutshell, the war on drugs. In our mania against any and all drugs, we have enacted a myriad of draconian sentencing laws that put low level, nonviolent offenders in jail for decades, sometimes even life. We've prevented judges from considering anything beyond the quantity of drugs in making their sentences.

LEVI: Our equally misguided "get tough on crime" policies also share part of the blame. Felony murder means that if you are involved in a crime (including drug dealing) at any level, including driving a car or taking a telephone call that leads to a death, you are on the hook for murder. The California Three Strikes legislation means that after two violent felonies (and trust me, the definition for violent felony is very broad) any offense, including a petty offense will get a life sentence. These regulations put people in prison with life sentences for becoming involved inadvertently in a terrible situation.

WALDMAN: We've become a horrifyingly retributive nation that uses prison as a punishment. Prison rape? Fine with us, because prison should be horrible. Surely the majority of Americans don't feel this way. So why do we let the ugliest minority dictate our prison policy?

HARTMANN: Speaking of prison rape, the book reveals a string of occurrences and coins sexual harassment in prisons "America's most open secret." How widespread do you estimate the issue is?

LEVI: While the level of sexual abuse in prisons has decreased since the 1990s, it is still astronomical. There is not a single state where it does not occur, although some states are better than others. In the worst states the guards rape the women with impunity, in the better states the abuse occurs through rampant privacy violations and "relationships" whereby women exchange sex for food, shampoo, phone calls and visits with children.

HARTMANN: Many of the women featured in the book are now released from prison. What are some of the difficulties they face in trying to reestablish a life outside of prison?

WALDMAN: We do our best in America to make sure people's lives are so miserable when they come out of prison, that recidivism is all but inevitable. We prevent many from getting college loans or housing assistance. We don't take care of the PTSD and the health issues that we caused. We toss them out, and when they end up homeless and committing crimes to live, we're shocked, shocked!

LEVI: In addition, there is a wide array of laws that limit the ability of people coming out prison, especially those with drug offenses, to succeed. There are laws prohibiting people with drug offenses from receiving food stamps, public housing and access to educational loans. Then there are laws restricting voting, access to jobs, etc. And our health system and community services do not provide any support for the mental and physical damage these women have experienced. And, like Ayelet said, they end up self-medicating with drugs, just like they did before and they end up in prison, just like they did before.

HARTMANN: These stories are devastating reading. What is it important that we face the reality of these women?

WALDMAN: The women in this volume represent millions of people incarcerated in this country on your behalf. Supposedly, they are in jail and prison to protect you, and thus anything done to them is done in your name. You have a responsibility as a citizen and as a human to at least know about it.

LEVI: All of us need to hear about these women's lives, the sexual and physical abuse they have experienced, the terrible relationships they have gotten involved in, the horrific abuses they experience in prison, and the enormous strength that they show in the face of this adversity. It will make you think differently next time you read the paper.

Ida Hartmann is a student of anthropology at the University of Copenhagen and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley.