Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi have created a book that is nothing short of extraordinary: Inside This Place, Not Of It, is a collection of narratives from women who are inside prison, or who recently got out. It's powerful, important and it does what the best books do--it changed you. I'm so honored to have both Ayelet and Robin here to talk about this powerful book.
Where did the idea for this book come about? What made you decide to make this a narrative project (which, by the way, is a brilliant idea) and how did you get access to these women?
Ayelet: The oral history Voice of Witness series founded by Dave Eggers and Lola Vollen is remarkable. Each book illuminates a different human rights crises around the world. They've done books on exonerated death row prisoners, on undocumented workers, on Burma, on Sudan. I found the series so exciting, illuminating, tragic that I knew right away that I wanted to do a book on women in prison. Robin and I have known each other ever since she came as a guest lecturer to a class I taught at the law school at the University of California at Berkeley on the drug war to talk about the effect of the drug war on women, and I immediately knew that this book could not happen without her.
Robin: I was thrilled when Ayelet approached me about doing this book. Despite the fact that the population in women's prisons is skyrocketing, there is very little discussion of who is going there and why and even less about the abuses they face when in prison. For me and my organization, this seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity to highlight the experiences of these women (and men) in their voices. And we were particularly pleased to do it through the oral narrative that allowed us to look at their whole lives, not just the abuse and to have it in their voices. So often, those of us in the social justice world only get to talk about the abuse, not all the abuses leading up to it or the strength that allows people to survive the abuse. If they do, as we well know, some don't survive.
How did the prison officials and the guards feel about this book?
Ayelet: Basically, we had to do our interviews under the radar for the most part. Robin? You tell Caroline how we snuck in places, how we got in in CA, etc.
Robin: While putting this book together, Ayelet and I learned in great detail the wide array of obstacles that the prison system puts in place to prevent the voices of people in prison from being heard. It is extremely difficult to get inside prisons, unless you are an attorney, and we were getting information on matters of a legal nature and even then it can be difficult. Once in the prisons there are many restrictions on recording equipment, some states on allow some antediluvian technologies, which involve surfing Ebay to procure, others allow nothing, meaning that the interviewer is trying to interview a person about the harrowing details of her life, while madly scribbling to take it all down verbatim. It is not surprising that the one state where we tried to do that, we were unable to use that narrative. And then in very few states you can actually use a digital recorder. And other methods of communication are even more difficult, even if doing this type interview via phone wasn't already ridiculous, the 10 -minute time restrictions on calls combined with the exorbitant rates made it impossible. Even writing was difficult. In Colorado we sent lined paper and a self-addressed stamped envelope to one woman as a courtesy so she could write us back. The paper and envelope were confiscated and she was told that if we did that again, the letter would be thrown away. This is why Ayelet and I stepped back from our original choice to only interview people inside prison and decided to include recently released women.
How were the narratives recorded? Did you need to build trust or would women eager to tell their stories? It must have been incredible healing for these women to tell their stories, but more importantly to actually be heard. I'm reminded of one of the lines, "What saved me was that someone cared."
Ayelet: Again, Robin can talk so eloquently about this...but I"ll say one thing. We were blessed with the assistance of one of the narrators, who is also a member of the board of directors of Justice Now. Teresa helped us train our interviewers, and without her we never would have understood how much we were asking of these women, how traumatizing it can be to open your heart so completely, to revisit trauma, and then to return to the grim reality of prison. To say she made us sensitive to their pain is to belittle how much we learned from her. Teresa is such a brave woman, and such an inspiration.
Robin: Sadly, I will not be eloquent, but I will do my best. Well, as I said the narratives were recorded in the only way the prisons would allow us to. For the narratives that were done outside the prison, we used a digital device which obviously made things easier for both the interviewer and interviewee. But that said, building trust was vital and we had a lot of help to make that happen. First, my organization, Justice Now, has a long history working in the CA prison system so we had a lot of good will built up there. Second, our first narrator, Theresa Martinez, which is her real name, really stepped up to do an amazing job of letting us know what is was like and telling us ways that we could support the narrators both during and after the interviews. She then trained the crew of people interviewing folks and created an advice sheet to use for doing interviews particularly in prison, where there is no formal support system to go to after reliving all of this trauma. That sheet is now being used at the Yale Human Rights Clinic in their work unrelated to the book. When we were reaching out to other states, the good reputation of Justice Now helped us to access other narrators and in some cases other attorneys or advocates vouched for the fact that we would be respectful during the process and would use the information with respect. But the thing that was really amazing was that so many were willing to put themselves through this process, to relive these abuses, because they wanted to make a difference. They were so emotionally giving. So many more women wanted to participate that we couldn't access either because they were inaccessible or involved in litigation so their attorneys would not let them participate. And I do think, especially with Theresa's work that they found it healing. Several of our narrators are really looking forward to doing advocacy on this book. Olivia Hamilton is going to work on anti-shackling initiatives in Georgia, Sheri Dwight is working with anti-domestic violence organizations in LA. They gain strength from telling their story and having it heard. But that does not mean that it is now easy. After the book was released, Theresa spoke publicly for the first time as herself and she broke down in tears, which she almost never does when doing public speaking, but we talked later and we felt it was part of, "Okay this is really it. Its out there." Sheri said, "Did I really say all that? Well I did and it’s true, so print it." It’s healing and scary. They are my heroes.
It's fascinating to me that women who got out, wanted to help the ones who were still in.
Ayelet: That's the most amazing thing to me, too. We're so used to thinking of prison as this dangerous place full of dangerous people. But in women's prisons, at least, the danger doesn't come from the women. It comes from the guards, the wardens, the medical "professionals." The women by and large don't harm one another. They support one another. They lean on each other. Their sense of community is utterly inspiring.
Robin: That really struck me too. All the women who were out wanted to do something to help people still inside and or people who were recently released. In fact, many of the people who are still inside are working hard to support people inside the prison. This speaks to this enormous sense of community inside prison. It is amazing. It also speaks to the fact that these narrators are by and large the strong ones. They have survived and come out the other side. They are strong enough to share their experiences in the hopes of positive change. They are the leaders. Sadly, as I said before, not everyone survives.
One woman says that "I learned who I am because I was stripped of everything," which is very, very powerful. And what I got from these narratives is that hope does not die.
Ayelet: Isn't that amazing? In this country we have tried so hard to destroy the hope of people in prison -- we strip away their basic dignity, we treat them so cruelly -- and yet they manage despite our best efforts to maintain optimism. How is that even possible?
Robin: Hope doesn’t really die. They create this amazing supportive community, they make pecan pie and even thanksgiving feasts with these macgyver-like ovens. They help each other overcome these abuses and drug addictions. Humans, along with an amazing capacity for evil, also have an amazing capacity to for love and through that to survive. At least that's my opinion.
Writing a book always changes a writer--and I can't imagine that putting together this book did not change you in some significant ways, because I know that reading it certainly changed me. Can you discuss this?
Ayelet: It's sounds so lame to say that I try to appreciate my blessings .... but it's true. Whenever I think of Teresa, for example, I am reminded that here is a woman who despite everything is so generous, so sweet. How dare I ever complain?
Robin: It’s true, doing this work I always been aware of how lucky I am. But this book has re-emphasized it, in such a human way. As a person doing this work on a day to day basis, it has made me view the statistics I spout differently. I also said that more than 2/3 of people inside women's prisons had experienced sexual or domestic abuse, but now when I say it I can think of the different, awful ways that they were abused. In many it makes it harder to be that rational spouter of facts, but so much more important.
These narratives are harrowing, upsetting, unfathomable. What can average people do to help these women?
Ayelet: We have a section in the back of the book that tells you where to go, what to do. Mostly, it's a matter of letting those in power know that we as a society will not tolerate this any longer. We won't accept a prison industrial complex that harms so many people, and makes us less safe, rather than more.
Robin: I do think the first thing is to go to our what you can do section and see if there is a particular issue that you want to pursue, send a letter about, volunteer or support work on. We give resources and suggestions for challenging the high number of women in prison, shackling during labor, high cost of telephone costs, family separation, child sexual abuse, etc. But also, as Ayelet says, we really need to take these women to heart and through our everyday activities, our voting, our volunteer work make sure that decision makers know that we must change our criminal justice system. That we need to put money into communities and rather than prisons, because while working on this book it struck me that as a society we break these women and then as a response we throw them away into prison. We must make sure that our narrators great gift of telling their lives is not in vain.
I'd like to ask Robin about Justice Now, which is trying to build a movement to challenge violence and imprisonment. Can you elaborate on this please? What kinds of things are being done and what is the most effective?
Robin: Justice Now has been trying to build a movement to challenge violence and imprisonment for more than a decade. As you can imagine it has been slow going. We do this through partnering with people inside women's prisons on advocacy and through leadership development. We have three main divisions: direct service, human rights and campaign. Direct service works to help people in the here and now, especially those with child custody issues and serious medical issues. They also work to put together advocacy/information sheets for people inside. Through this program we have been able to help people who have less than 6 months to live or are permanently incapacitated get released from prison, under the California compassionate release law. The human rights program conducts research to inform decision-makers and the public what is really going on inside prison. The Human Rights Division produced "Inside this Place," and other reports/ law review articles on safe motherhood and destruction of reproductive justice inside prison. The campaign division works to support initiatives to reduce the number of people in prison and to oppose that increase funding for prisons. This division expanded the compassionate release to include permanently incapacitated people.
All of our work is done in partnership with the people inside the prison and with our substantial intern contingent, and this is our leadership development because we train future leaders. In many ways, I feel that the leadership development aspect is our most successful part of our work. Many of our former interns have gone on to become activists and as for the people in prison, they also have become advocates and have gained strength from the experience. Theresa, Victoria Sanchez and Charlie Morningstar are active with our organization.
Are you in touch with any of these women now?
Robin: Absolutely. I think we are in touch with most of the narrators. A few have disappeared back into their demons, but most have not. Many email me and they are all very, very excited and pleased about the book and hoping to be part of advocacy. We are drafting op-eds with four of the narrators, one of whom will be working on anti-shackling legislation in Georgia and one of them will be joining in May at a conference at UC-Irvine. In a month or so, I will send them a letter updating them on what is happening with the book. I am hopeful that this will be the start of a long term relationship.