The Awful Truth About Women’s Lives in Prison

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prison provides a chilling glimpse of the human rights abuses suffered by women in U.S. prisons.  The book is essentially a set of edited interview transcripts, with each chapter providing a first-person account of a different currently or formerly incarcerated woman. What these narrators reveal about their lives will cause readers to shudder at the myriad physical, sexual, and psychological abuses they have endured.

The book’s editors, Robin Levi (Human Rights director of Justice Now) and Ayelet Waldman (best-selling author and essayist), used their combined expertise in advocacy and prose styling to knit together intellectually compelling and emotive testimonies from the more than 70 interviews they conducted with women who have endured imprisonment.  The book makes for a captivating read, but far more than that, it illuminates several major forms of injustice which characterize these women’s lives.

The level of healthcare provided to U.S. prisoners is not merely inadequate; it often constitutes torture. One woman in this book was given a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent–an incident that hearkens back to our nation’s troubled history of sterilizing African American and Puerto Rican women.  Other humiliating and potentially life-threatening instances of medical neglect and harm inflicted by guards and medical professionals pepper the life stories of the women in this book. Women prisoners have been forced to give birth while shackled to hospital beds and given unnecessary C-sections, only to have their children taken from them within days of their births.  One incident in the book describes a hugely pregnant woman who is forced to bend over while naked and display her anus and vagina to guards during a strip search; because of her enormous belly, she struggled for several minutes to stand up again after this humiliation, and rather than offering to help her regain her balance, the guards mocked her. Despite her many attempts to seek medical help in prison, another woman’s diabetes went untreated for so long that she nearly died.

It is a horrible thing for the uninsured and under-insured outside prisons to struggle (and often fail) to receive adequate health care. Compounding this with incarceration adds a new level of terror. The incarcerated face their medical problems in a place where they are cut off from family and friends, who often do not receive word of their loved ones’ illnesses or injuries until the prisoners are well enough to contact them or have died.  Prisoners cannot seek a second opinion about their medical care and do not always have access to their medical records. They cannot advocate for themselves, and concerned parties in the free world must have uncommon knowledge and resources to be able to even attempt to advocate for incarcerated patients.

The fact that a large percentage of women [PDF] endured sexual and/or physical abuse prior to their incarceration seldom seems to be absorbed by the general public or those who work in the criminal justice system.  The personal accounts in this book provide a solid emotional and intellectual grounding for lay readers and criminal-justice experts alike to understand the contexts of the crimes women commit and the social forces which propel the poor life choices that land them in prison.

The likelihood that incarcerated people will be raped seems to be taken as an accepted fact by the general public in the U.S., as evidenced by the abundance of prison rape jokes which appear to crop up in even the most innocuous of places. I can only supposed that this dire reality for many prisoners seems humorous to people only when the folks making and responding to these jokes fail to see prisoners as human beings.  Inside This Place, Not of It brings home the vulnerability of people held captive by those who have the power to abuse them, often over the course of many years.

This book is the latest edition in McSweeney’s Press’s nonprofit Voice of Witness series, which uses oral histories to address social injustice and human rights crises. This kind of publishing work is vital to record the lives of people who seldom have public platforms from which to tell their stories.

Reprinted with permission from Razor Wire Women.


  1. constance kosuda says:

    I have testified as an advocate before the Nevada Legislature concerning these and other abuses endured in the Women’s Prison, which I visited in the presence of Assemblyman Munford.

    What was I met with? Not so vague accusations of “lying” to the Legislature, and veiled threats –

    even tho’ I had stated I was a retired attorney, and an officer of the court, and was relating what Assy. Munford and I had been told by several female inmates.

    In my opinion, the “vested interests” who lie without shame are the many many employees of the Dept. of Corrections, and Probation and Parole – who like to refer to all inmates as the “worst of the worse.”

    Truly disgraceful, and it just goes on.

  2. Jen Deerinwater says:

    I feel the need to add that our government has a long history of sterilizing Native American women, as well as African American and Puerto Rican women. There have been numerous cases of coerced and forced sterilization in government operated Indian hospitals. Native peoples also have a long history of our children being taken from us and placed in “boarding schools” where they suffered physical and sexual abuse. Women of indigenous decent have long been victims of the judicial system through the criminalizing of their ethnicity and gender. While I’m horrified at the atrocities that incarcerated women face it is important that we as feminists do not amplify the situation by denying the herstory and realities of all women.

  3. I was incarcerated in Michigan for over 5 1/2 year. As a medical professional, former Air Force officer, and human rights activist, I was horrified at the lack of medical care and poor mental health care. With a documented history of a disabling, extremely painful muscle disease, I was refused Flexeril (muscle relaxant) for 5 long months. I was unable to perform my job and my work in horticulture class. Ice was rarely available, and some units banned the use of moist heat (damp towel in a plastic bag heated in the microwave). At the same time, with diagnoses of anxiety, PTSD, depression and psychotic episodes that were controlled, I was forced into the mental health “hospital” (little shop of horrors) at the prison. I was forced on multiple medications that made me almost comatose for weeks. It was only at this time that I received Flexeril, and within 2 short weeks, my muscle disease calmed down. But I was forced to endure 2 1/2 months of the “hospital”. I witnessed a woman die due to lack of care while in there. When I was finally released back into the general population, I was forced to take overdoses of antipsychotics for the next 2 years, which left me in a dizzy stupor. The doctors refused to alter the doses and medications approprately, even in light of my documented history of chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, which leaves me with cognitive impairments such as brain fog. Myself and the nurse prisoners ran a “clinic” on the yard, where we examined prisoners and made recommendations. We had an underground system for the distribution of critically necessary antibiotics, which were almost never dispensed by the medical clinic. I documented dozens of cases of medical neglect and secretly got them to the Detroit Free Press editorial writer Jeff Gerritt, who did a 2-year long exposee about the health care issue in Michigan prisons. His work and an exposee by the TV show “60 Minutes”, as well as the work of a federal judge, eventually forced the governor to order MDOC to contract with a different HMO. But at the time there were only 2 HMO’s in the US who serve prisons, and the second was not much better than the first. A woman had abdominal pain for months. It was misdiagnosed as a gallbladder problem, constipation and finally kidney stones. She was given nothing for pain. Finally, in excrutiating agony one day, she went by wheelchair to the clinic. Nurses gave her a little cup and told her to pee out the kidney stone. This kidney stone turnred out to be a baby boy!! In addition to the medical problems, the fact is that most of the women incarcerated, including myself, have sustained prolonged abuse. Mental health diseases run rampant. But the social workers and therapists try to build us up, and after our sessions we go back to the units and the guards and other inmates tear you to shreds. We see the therapist maybe once a month, but the guards and other inmates 24/7. Surviving prison while suffering mental and physical health challenges is quite an accomplishment. Unfortunately, many dear sweet souls cannot endure, and take their own life. It was only in the Summer of 2011 that the Michigan womens prison, Huron Valley Complex in Ypsilanti, instituted “bunky contracts” in response to skyrocketing suicides and attempts. This allows prisoners to share their cell with a roommate of their choice. Prisoners had been asking for these for years, but the MDOC refused to budge. It took many deaths, often by hanging, to change policy. But real change will only come when concerned citizens take a closer look at the prison industrial complex, social and economic factors, and human and financial costs of incarceration. Michigan, for example, incarcerates more people than all of the seven surrounding states, despite being the state with the 2nd to worst financial situation in the nation. There is no allowance for “good time”, and 30% of the prisoners are held beyond their earliest release date for no good reason. Scare tactics are the typical ammunition of politicians. And no legislator wants to be perceived as “soft on crime.” This is why the battered women’s clemency project, the suggestion of creating mental health courts and other ideas of reform are stalled. The American Friends Service Committee and CURE are excellent organizations advocating for prison reform. Please help them with volunteering and funding issues.

  4. Lisa Sparks says:

    My sister is a chronic pain patirnt and is currently in jail facing several years in a female prison . I am concerned about her health and whats going to happen to her when she’s sentenced. I was hoping there may be a better place for her and now my hopes are tarnished! What can a person like me do to help inmates with chronic health problems?

  5. Hi, I have recently started a blog of my Wife’s journey in the CA Department of Corrections. The blog info is directly from my Wife. I really like the fact that you are shedding light on “women’s prisons”. My wife suffers from depression and is being housed with all levels of inmates. I am very concerned about her survival. Please take the time to read about her battle: .

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