inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #0 of 58: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 31 Mar 08 12:28
I'm pleased to introduce our next guest, Silja Talvi.

Ms. Talvi is a full-time investigative journalist and essayist with credits
in more than 75 publications, including The Nation, Salon and the Christian
Science Monitor. In the fall of 2005, she became a Senior Editor at In These
Times magazine. "Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison
System" (published by Seal Press, an imprint of Avalon/Perseus), is her
first full-length non-fiction book.

She describes herself as "thoroughly curious about other human beings on a
daily basis" and says she is an "often cranky, but always passionate and
deeply engaged human being."

Leading the conversation is Jack King.

Mr. King is a criminal defense lawyer, writer and author in Washington, DC,
and the director of public affairs and communications for the National
Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  A professional bar association
founded in 1958, NACDLs 12,000-plus direct members in 28 countries  and 94
state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling over 40,000
members  include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders,
military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving
fairness within the criminal justice system. He is admitted to practice in
Washington, DC, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The views here are Mr. King's and do not represent policies or positions of
the NACDL except where noted.
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #1 of 58: Jack King (gjk) Mon 31 Mar 08 18:41
You've written extensively on prisons in America, in your 2002 book
Prison Nation, and as a senior editor for In These Times.

As an introduction to our discussion of your latest book, Women Behind
Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, I'd like to
posit, for argument's sake, the the people and politicians of the
United States have gone quite mad.

According to a recent report by a study group of the Pew Charitable
Trusts, more than 1 in 100 Americans is currently behind bars. The
United States not only has the highest incarceration rate on the
planet, but possibly the largest number of prisoners of any country on
earth, population notwithstanding.  Congress and the governments of the
several states seem to think the solution to any deviant misbehavior
is jail time.  

Before we get into the specific subject of women in prison, it seems
to me that the U.S. prefers retribution to rehabilitation. Would you
care to comment on incarceration as a corrective measure generally?  
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #2 of 58: Silja Joanna Aller Talvi (sisu) Tue 1 Apr 08 01:50

It's a pleasure to be here, and I want to thank Cynthia for bringing me back
to participating on the Well in a way I haven't for a long time. The Well
was an incredibly essential, formative part of my academic and early writing
career, before the stressors and unpredictable twists and turns of life took
me away from a lot of the things I enjoyed most.

So, that said, I also want to thank Jack for moderating this event.

The question that you pose is a very broad one, with so many facets/aspects
to it, that it's hard to sum up a response. Moreoever, the criminal justifce
system isn't a cohesive one, as many of you know. Federal institutions are
quite different from one another, as are state facilities, work-releases,
rehabilitation/re-entry programs, jails, juvenile detention centers, etc.
Often the approach of the institution is *so* dependent on the warden or
supervisor that it's alarming to see that there is little or no continuity
in approach once that person leaves--or is forced out for being too
progressive-minded, as the case might be.

In general, however, I would agree that the American inclination is toward a
law-and-order society at odds with itself. On the one hand, there is
tremendous outrage and vehemence directed at people who use or deal drugs,
commit acts of violence and sexual assault in general, and people who act in
aberrant or gender-role defiant ways--whether we're talking about female
gangbangers or women who lash out at their abusers.

Retribution is most definitely the aim there in sentencing and the
conditions of confinement, speaking in general terms.

On the other hand, ours is a society quite willing to look the other way
when people in positions of power and/or a modicum of celebrity cache are
caught doing something illegal. Similarly, DUIs resulting in serious injury
or death of pedestrians or other drivers are treated with remarkably *light*
sentences (in general), as are crimes involving the trafficking or pimping
out of women, to give but a few examples.

We are not consistent or fair in our sentencing policies, and our
perspectives on *what* constitutes crime or criminal inclination/behavior
are very skewed. I would say that they're alarming and quite bizarre, esp.
when we're talking about drug addiction, prostitution, and petty crimes
related to a person's mental state, lack of housing, and/or severe histories
of abuse and lingering trauma.

It is the latter category that I focus on the most in my work, w/r/t girls
and women, most of whom are doing time on drug-related and non-violent
offenses. To a far greater degree than men, women come into the system with
histories of sexual, physical abuse, domestic violence, rape, and mental
illness. The same is true for the prevalence of chronic illness, HIV, and
hepatitis C. 1/3 of women coming into the criminal justice system (first,
through city/county jails) were homeless when they were arrested.

Lastly, I want to note that Women Behind Bars is a work of investigative
journalism, and one where the women's stories and experiences are the
primary emphasis. I am very well-versed in the statistics and
sociological/academic studies related to the broader issue of incarceratio
n in this country (and other countries, as well)--and I am more than happy
to share this kind of material with you. But my work through federal, state
prisons, as well as jails and juvenile detention centers, was intended to
bring the voices of these individuals to the fore.

If we are going to incarcerate some 203,000 women in this country, for a
total of 1.3 million women under some form of correctional supervision, we
need to know who they are.

Moreover, we need to know how and why they ended up in the system, and how
the experience of imprisonment changes their lives.

Are we safer today because we lock up well over 2.3 million Americans? Are
we being fiscally sensible? Does our drug war serve anything akin to its
intended purpose? I would say 'no' on all of these fronts.

To be clear, I do believe there is a place for confinement and isolation
from the public. I do believe that there are individuals who should never be
set free in society again because they have committed heinous crimes and hve
no inkling toward rehabilitation, much less any measure of
compassion/empathy for the people who they've harmed or killed. (Or for
their families and loved ones.) Sociopathy really isn't curable, and i don't
have a problem saying that.

But these people are a very small segment of our prison population,
something that is even more true for our female prison population. 98% of
prisoners *will* be released eventually. Roughly 2/3 end up *back* in the
system within a three-year timeframe. Many of those people are actually re-
arrested within in hours, days, or weeks of release, and that is as true for
women as it is for men.

That said, is what we're doing vis a vis the punishment of crimes making any
sense? Are we really ensuring the ostensibly desired result of lower crime
rates, addiction recovery, and people who come out of the system *better*
than when they went in? Absolutely not.

I would love to hear from those of you, in particular, who have had a chance
to look at the book, but I'm more than happy to talk with you all about
any/all of the issues I address in Women Behind Bars.

For more, please feel free to visit:


In tomorrow's post, I'll share some of my upcoming events and links to other
sites w/ radio interviews and print articles about the book.

I'm also excited to talk with other journalists about the research that went
into the book, my techniques for reporting, my correspondence and in-person
interviews with incarcerated females, and much more. (For that matter, I'm
happy to be able to talk about any of the above with anyone who's interest
ed in the process of writing a book like this, which took some 2 solid years
of research, travel, long stretches of intensive immersion, and the
emotional struggle that became a near-crippling part of writing this book.

(BTW, I didn't write Prison Nation, but I was honored to be able to have two
chapters in the book on sexual abuse behind bars, as well as the hidden
epidemic of hep C in our nation's prisons. Paul Wright co-edited that book,
and his latest is Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration
(New Press: 2008). He and I will be presenting together at Elliott Bay, 730
pm, this Sunday. EB is in Seattle.

Again, thank you for stopping by and for your interest in this book.
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #3 of 58: Jack King (gjk) Tue 1 Apr 08 03:35

You spent so much time and personal effort researching this book. Did you
know what you were getting into when you started this project?
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #4 of 58: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 2 Apr 08 08:51

(NOTE: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to
this conversation by emailing <> -- please be sure to put
"Women Behind Bars" in the subject line. Thanks!)
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #5 of 58: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Wed 2 Apr 08 09:17
One of the things that struck me when reading the book is the degree
to which jails and prisons have become America's new mental health
facilities.  A cynic might say that we've solved the problems of the
infamous "snake pit" asylums of the 19th and 20th centuries by
criminalizing mental illness.  Now we don't have to feel guilty about
the psychotic babbling away in a dirty cell because after all they are
a "criminal" and deserve whatever they get.  

If the measure of a civilization is how it treats its least fortunate
members, we don't look so good.
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #6 of 58: Ed Ward (captward) Wed 2 Apr 08 09:22
As a journalist myself, I'm interested in knowing how you filtered
your interviews. (Note: I haven't read the book.)

What I mean is, everyone knows that the prisons are 100% filled with
people who are innocent -- at least when you talk to them. They all got
a raw deal, they all shouldn't be there...and I can't imagine gender
makes a huge difference here. That said, I imagine a lot of these women
really are serving heavier sentences than make sense and some may,
indeed, be innocent. 

How do you evaluate the statements these women made to you for
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #7 of 58: My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Wed 2 Apr 08 10:06
(fwiw, i have not read the book)

I was wondering to what extent the women talked about their roles as
parents, if they were parents.  If so, what kinds of things did they say?  i
work with a program that tries to make sure that homeless school-aged
children are able to enroll and attend public schools and it seems like a
persistent portion of the kids we work with have parents that are
incarcerated.  I'm not working with the judicial system and I don't have a
clear idea how they deal with the children of convicted criminals prior to
incarceration.  From my anecdotal perspective, it doesn't seem like the
judicial system deals with the kids of convicted criminals at all before
they send the parents of to jail.

anyways i was curious about the stories these women have about being moms,
their chidlren, and being in prison.
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #8 of 58: Cogito? (robertflink) Wed 2 Apr 08 10:11
How are conditions in the society in general reflected in prison?  

I'm thinking of changes in the role of women in the work place,
economic changes, social program changes, entertainment, family
concepts, fads, age of majority, etc..  

Any information about how other societies handle matters?  ITR, It
would be good to have reports of experience as well as what is in the
official  propaganda.
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #9 of 58: Silja Joanna Aller Talvi (sisu) Wed 2 Apr 08 11:38

Wow, what a fantastic range of questions! I'm honored to be here, as I said,
and to be able to discuss the book with you on this level.

So, let me take those questions on, one at a time.

First, let me post these links for those of you who *haven't* had a chance
to read the book, in particular, b/c they'll give you some context and
general information about the issues I discuss. Those of you who *have* read
the book should still find all manner of things of interest!

Oh, and here's the blurb about the event tonight at Elliott Bay, as well:

I want to extend a warm invitation to those of you who live in the Puget
Sound area to attend a special, joint reading at Elliott Bay Books next
Wednesday, April 2nd, at 7:30 p.m. I'll be joining Paul Wright, the
founder/editor of Prison Legal News, and the co-editor of yet another
powerful anthology, Prison Profiteers: Who Benefits from Mass Incarceration
(The New Press, 2008). We'll be reading from that book, and I'll select
another portion from my book to tie in with our discussion. Paul's got a
genius of a legal/analytical mind, and it's always a pleasure to be able to
listen to him speak  It should be a lively, interactive event:
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #10 of 58: Silja Joanna Aller Talvi (sisu) Wed 2 Apr 08 11:40

Paul Wright and I were interviewed recently about these subjects on Weekday,
a regular program of Seattle's NPR-affiliate, KUOW. This is an hour-long
program, and it's a very well-produced one, with many callers who were
formerly incarcerated speaking about their experiences:


Mike McCormick of KEXP also put up a video feed on YouTube of our most
recent radio interview about the mass incarceration craze, why girls and
women commit crime, alternatives to incarceration, and the myriad facets of
the drug war (in it, I tell the story of a woman snorting cocaine at the
Westlake Center--got your attention?).
        Disclaimer: this is what I look like at an hour of the morning when
no person in their right mind should be awake. Or at least that's my excuse.


Earlier this month, I was honored to find out that my book received the
National Council on Crime and Delinquency's PASS literary award for 2007.
The PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) awards honor the media's success
and vital role in illuminating the people and programs that illuminate the
root causes of crime. Founded in 1907, the NCCD is the nation's oldest
private organization working to attain responsive and effective criminal
justice, juvenile justice, and child welfare systems.

The Women Behind Bars Project now has 501(c)3 status, thanks to Seattle's
Center for Social Justice. The WBB Project exists to bring a variety of
communities (including former prisoners, civil and women's rights groups,
and various kinds of criminal justice organizations) together though
readings, debates, benefits, and special events. Our goal is to get people
thinking about the reasons for--and possible solutions to reverse--the rapid
growth rate of U.S. female incarceration specifically, and mass imprisonment
in general. The project has started to be able to mail the first couple
dozen books (out of 300 total) to prisoners and their families who cannot
afford the book, as well as prison and juvenile detention libraries.
        Our site has been updated with all kinds of information: book
reviews, radio interview links, media and resource links, and information
about how you can get involved. Please check it out if you have a chance.
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #11 of 58: Silja Joanna Aller Talvi (sisu) Wed 2 Apr 08 11:54

Ah, that's enough for now. I excerpted those from an e-newsletter I put out
from time to time, and the only other one I
want to share for now is this one from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

OK, onward.

I had a very good idea of the scope of the work I was about to engage in
when I signed the book contract and started up my research. For one thing, I
had already amassed a few thousand articles, studies, books, what have you,
on this topic as a whole. I had written several articles that were expanded
and rewritten as chapters (the God Pod chapter, the Women Loving Women
chapter, and Criminalizing Motherhood, to be specific).

I had a general sense of where the book was going to take me w/ my travels,
although I didn't expect to get into the largest federal prison complex in
the US, in Coleman, Florida. Conversely, I *did* expect to get into FCI
Dublin, there in the SF Bay Area. It turned out that they were the only
facility to outright deny me access, based on unexplained "security"
reasons. That "security" thing is completely bogus. A bunch of bullshit. I
pass every security check--no misdemeanors, no felonies, no family members
in prison (yes, the latter can count against you). My juvie record had been

These days, any prison can get away with denying media access by claiming
"security" risk. It's an affront to a free, open society that any publicly-
funded institution would be able to deny the media (or, for that matter, I
would argue that the public at large, within reason) access to visit
prisoners, or to tour a facility.

So, back to the original question.

I expected hard work. I steeled myself for the emotional weight of it all,
thinking that my decade of work in this field would see me through.

On that count, I was entirely incorrect. This book nearly broke me,
emotionally. To be honest, I'm still recovering. The things that I
witnessed, and that I read on a daily basis from girls and women who were
corresponding with me in that fashion, were so horrifying and wrenching that
I started reading those letters in bars, where I could have a drink at my
side while I poured through them.

I amassed over a thousand letters from about 400 prisoners. 100 of those
women ended up in the book in one form or another.

All of that would have been bad enough. In May 2006, my partner was
sentenced to two years in prison for a non-violent drug offense (ecstasy, to
be specific). And that's where this book turned from an intense process to a
level of immersion into the world of prisons I never imagined.
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #12 of 58: Silja Joanna Aller Talvi (sisu) Wed 2 Apr 08 12:01

On the latter, there's another link from the NPR affiliate here in Seattle
worth sharing. I wasn't going to 'come out' about all that until I realized
that there was something I could do to bring voice to the experiences of
people whose loved ones are doing time.
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #13 of 58: Silja Joanna Aller Talvi (sisu) Wed 2 Apr 08 12:29

Prisons are our public mental hospitals. The sheriff of the L.A. County Jail
system--the nation's largest--has gone on record talking about their jails
as the largest public mental health facility in the U.S.

Among women, roughly three-quarters have a mental health disorder of some
kind, at a higher rate than their male counterparts. The women who report
the highest rates of mental illness are actually Euro-American women.

One of the things that's impossible to erase from one's mind is the
experience of walking into a control unit, a.ka. a "supermax," a "security
housing unit," an "intensive management unit."

In the one I visited in California, in Valley State Prison for Women, I had
to choke back feelings of panic and nausea. Women were screaming, non-stop,
some ranting expletives, and others just not making sense at all. Other
women hid in the corner of their cells, under blankets, or pressed against
plexiglass windows, drooling from the meds that they were placed on.

An adjacent room held the "therapy cages," which are literal cages with
metal stools. There are three or four of them alongside one another, facing
a video monitor. A social worker comes in there to conduct "therapy," which
usually involves watching a movie. The one they had just watched was the one
about Sandra Bullock as an alcoholic in treatment. I can't remember the name
of it just now ...

Were these women the "worst of the worst," as the prison called them?
Hardly. Most women were actually in on non-serious infractions, including
talking back to guards, spitting on the ground, and, of course, using drugs
in prison. (Heroin is the #1 most available drug in California prisons right
now, from what prisoners tell me.)

A few were were in for fighting.

From what I could tell, most were very mentally ill. But the SHU itself is
enough to cause decompensation in a very brief period of time. (See the work
by Dr. Terry Kupers, "Prison Madness," for some of the best research on this
topic.) I myself would probably last only a few days without starting to
exhibit serious emotional problems. Hallucination is the first thing to
happen, usually, because there is no normal stimulus. Lights are never
turned off (and they are very bright). Non-stop screaming. No human touch.
Three showers a week, to which the women are led in leg and arm chains,
leashed while they are "escorted" (pushed along) by 2-3 guards.

The guards assigned to work in these conditions are usually the ones deemed
tough enough to handle constant stress. The problem is that they are usually
the least able to discern any difference between a woman in a full-blown
mental crisis, and a woman who genuinely poses a threat.

Moreoever, these guards deride the women, openly. They act like zoo keepers,
and are armed to the teeth.

Mind you, I say all of this with full recognition of the fact that there are
some truly effective/responsible guards working in some women's
institutions. But they're never in places like this: the torture chambers we
call control units. Many of the tactics and methods of incarceration/control
used in our supermaxes, I should add, were exported to Abu Ghraib and
Guantanamo, etc. The hooding? That's what we do here. Punishing people who
self-mutilate is something done here and abroad.

I attended an American Correctional Association conference (an undercover
assignment) back in 2005. The former wardens and assoc. wardens reporting
back from Abu Ghraib openly acknowledged the honing of techniques that they
had instituted or learned here in the U.S. in control units.

One of the pictures they showed in a gruesome slide show was that of an
Iraqi prisoner bleeding from self-inflicted cuts across his chest. He was
dripping with blood, his expression one of sheer agony.

The commentary on the image, from the former correctional administrator, was
that everybody in the audience must know what they're seeing: it
's a way for prisoners to just get some "attention."

Let me excerpt a section next from "Prison Profiteers," the book we're
talking about tonight in Seattle.
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #14 of 58: Silja Joanna Aller Talvi (sisu) Wed 2 Apr 08 12:36

From p.122 of my chapter in that book, itself adapted from a cover story for
In These Times:

"One workshop--
"Intensive Medical Management: How to Handle Prisoners Who Self-Mutilate,
Slime, Starve, Spit and Scratch"--featured footage of a nonviolent paranoid
schizophrenic prisoner in Utah forcibly extracted from his cell and then
tied down to a restraint chair. After being strapped down naked for 16
hours, the prisoner died.

The session was facilitated by Todd Wilcox, the medical director of the Salt
Lake County Metro Jail, who used the imagery as an example of how to avoid
costly litigation. "Don't get personal with this," Wilcox said. "It's just

He reminded the audience how important it is to sever the "emotional leash"
that guards and nurses can form with prisoners. He also referred to some
mentally ill prisoners with Axis II disorders as :the people we
affectionately call 'the assholes.'"

And with that, dear Wellperns, I have to go prep for the reading tonight. If
you're up here and coming, pls. introduce yourself at the event.

I haven't forgotten about the other questions, either ... re: the issue of
claims of innocence, let me just say this. The vast majority of women did
not claim innocence. Far from it. Women were very quick to admit to their
crimes, although those crimes were not always the ones they were sentenced
for. This was true for women who had committed violent and non-violent
crimes. For more, for those of you who have the book:

see xviii-xix
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #15 of 58: Jack King (gjk) Wed 2 Apr 08 13:32
Wow.  I was going to ask you about "special housing units" for women
later on, but <mcdee>'s post (#5 above) about how prisons are the new
Bedlams and your post, Silja, about the cages, made me think back to
not too many years ago when I visited a SHU at Lorton Reformatory,
Washington DC's old prison farm.  

They had various kinds of SHUs, mostly solitary, but the unit that
sticks out in my mind was the unit for young men supposedly without
mental problems.  It was in a big brick building, like a warehouse or
former factory or possibly the former dairy barn, in which a
"cellblock" completely made of chainlink fence was in the middle, about
two dozen cages, in two rows of 12.  The prisoners were kept there
with buckets for water and waste in their underwear, just briefs or
boxers.  And they could have communicated by yelling or whispering, but
they didn't. They just sat on the concrete floor, completely

It seems to me that this kind of "correction" as bad as it would be on
young men, would be especially degrading for women.  Have you ever
seen anything like that?  What's the worst kind of confinement for
women that you've witnessed?

(Note to <robertflink> in post #8 above -- Chapter 11, "International
Lockup," of Ms Talvi's book, "Women Behind Bars" discusses her visits
to several women's prisons in Canada, the U.K. and her birth country
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #16 of 58: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 3 Apr 08 07:02
One thought I had while reading the book is whether it is possible to
address the problems discussed without de-escalating the War On Some
Drugs.  I'm think not.

On a much more philosophical level, there's also a connection between
the way we treasure winners in this society and our need to condemn and
punish ever-increasing masses of losers.  Merle Haggard, a guy who
ought to know, alluded in one of his more recent songs to watching
"COPS" and seeing people's failures treated as entertainment.  We have
become indescribably mean as a society.

I'm the first person to say that there are people in this world who
need to be locked up basically forever, sometimes even women and
children.  Like the 14-year-old boy who shot and killed the owner of
the milk store down the block from me when I lived in a slum
neighborhood in Providence, RI.  I think he got about 10 bucks from the
cash register.  I'm sure there's a sad story there, but at some point
I just don't want to hear it.

But it should not be a capital crime to be hapless or mentally ill or
drug addicted or some combination of the above and not too bright.  Or
have a boyfriend who's dealing drugs.

I grew up in the euphoric early 60s, when we seemed to believe that a
few well-intentioned laws could sweep social problems away.  For the
last generation, we seem to have decided that we can punish our way out
of social problems.  And if it doesn't work, the answer is more
punishment for more people.  We feel superior to the Dickensian era,
when poverty itself was treated as a crime, but to me it seems like our
21st century society is just a veneer on the same sort of barbarity.

And with those cheery thoughts, I should get back to work.
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #17 of 58: Maria Rosales (rosmar) Fri 4 Apr 08 12:08
Welcome, Silja! I'm glad you are here.

Like <mcdee>, while I was reading your book I thought a lot about the
"War on Drugs."  But also about the enforcement of gender roles.  You
talked very eloquently about the ways that women are punished for
violations of gender roles.  That being seen as a "good mother," as
"docile," etc., were helpful when women were being sentenced, for
example, while being seen as impure in any way made women more likely
to get harsh sentences.  And that this enforcement of gender roles
continued in prison, as well.

The harshness and the obviousness of these types of enforcement were
interesting to me.  I also thought you did a superb job of dealing with
the complexities of the ways that race intersects with gender.

I'm curious about your claim that women are more likely to have come
into prisons with histories of abuse or mental illness than men are. 
You gave a lot of examples of women coming into prison after suffering
domestic violence, abuses of multiple sorts while they were
prostitutes, etc., but I don't remember seeing any statistics about the
percentage of men who come into prison with a history of being abused
or mentally ill.  Do you know what the difference in the percentages

(I'm curious partly because so many of the men that I know who ended
up in prison were abused, and I know the problems of arguing from
anecdotal evidence.)
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #18 of 58: Mrs. Bigby Hind (jessica) Fri 4 Apr 08 12:14
Hi, Silja! I've been tearing through your book, which I think is a testament
to your clear, lucid writing and the compelling stories you're telling -- a
non-fiction sociological study isn't normally what I'd consider a page-

Not only does it let us in to the particular experiences of incarcerated
women, it's also a very good overview of a number of issues, particularly
the War on Drugs and matters relating to health care and the justice system
more generally.

I'm interested in hearing more about your process in writing this book, how
you gained access to your subjects, and also how you gained their trust so
that they would share their stories so openly with you. Were you able to
achieve the same level of access to policymakers, corrections officers,
prison administrators, and the like?
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #19 of 58: Silja Joanna Aller Talvi (sisu) Fri 4 Apr 08 13:23
Hi all,

It's so nice to hear from so many of you who have really taken the
time to dig into this work. It's not an easy read, to be sure. I'm glad
that the way in which it's written is resonating with people. 

Gaining trust. It is a blessing to gain the trust of people who don't
want to extend that to anyone around them, much less a journalist
seeking to tell a story. 

Here's the thing: I don't put myself out there as someone looking to
make a buck, as someone fishing for sensational material, or as someone
who pretends to be an expert in other people's lives. 

I approach people with humility. I don't try to catch them off guard,
or jump on them in the kind of way that you see "reporters" yelling
during news conferences. I spend a lot of time listening. 

I'm also not naive. I've lived a rough life of my own, and I have an
attuned lie/bullshit-detector. I'm very intuitive, empathic, and
extremely sensitive to nuances in people's body language and speech
fluctuations. My friends say that I'm a "psychic" from time to time,
and there's some truth to that, although I don't particularly like the
word. All of this is great for being a reporter, but it makes daily
life a bit of a challenge. People will sit next to me on the bus, at a
bar, what have you, and start spilling aspects of their lives--dark
aspects, untold aspects--because I have a certain kind of energy, I
think, that makes them *know* that they can trust me. 

If it all sounds like a bunch of hot air, well, I can see why. But
it's something that I think a lot of us on this particular edge of the
profession have in common. We don't have a way of explaining it well.
That's about the best I can do, for now.

Being around prisoners, I don't have to act tough, because I am. I
don't front, I don't act, I don't adopt slang or body language that
isn't my own, Nor do I have to pretend to be compassionate and gentle,
because I am. I embody all of those things and so it's not hard for me
to see that in prisoners, in people on the street, in people living at
the margins of society.

I always speak out against "othering," which is to say this notion
that "we" are that different from "the other." (There are notable
exceptions, of course. The Green River Killer isn't a man with whom I
have anything in common--at least not anything that I've ever come up
with.) As a side note, the case of the 14-year-old mentioned is a more
difficult one. You shouldn't have to hear that story, no. But sending
an adolescent away for life (or sentencing them to death) is something
that no other country does, and there's a reason *why* other countries
do. Adolescent psychology, mental disability/retardation, severe abuse
at the hands of parents or authority figures, and many other variables
do need to be considered, eventually, if for no other reason than to
grasp why *any* 14-year-old would commit a crime of such a horrific
nature. My guess is that there's a lot more there than a kid with a

I'm skipping around quite a bit. Sorry about that.

It's in my nature as a journalist and a relentless observer of human
behavior (and human society in general) to try to understand *why*
people do the things they do. To try to understand the common threads
that weave through people's lives, and to sit in thought (or in person)
with the most uncomfortable realities and life experiences imaginable.
In doing so, I seek to understand what kind of intervention makes a
difference with some people, while that same intervention doesn't work
for others. And so on. 

But this isn't a job I'd wish on anyone else. Sometimes, I don't even
wish it on my own self.

Back to the process of this book and investigative reporting in
general. When necessary, I poke and prod, and that becomes particularly
important when, say, I can sense that officials/administrators are
trying to cloak facts, spin events, deny access to information. I think
of the process as what they're trying to do to paint black walls pink.
I have to chip away at the paint or, better yet, I have to try to get
at the wall before the next brush stroke is applied. 
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #20 of 58: Silja Joanna Aller Talvi (sisu) Fri 4 Apr 08 13:52
To answer the earlier question, women present rates of abuse and
mental illness at far higher rates than men, across the board. But this
should not be interpreted to mean that men *don't* present those
common threads, either.

As has become quite evident, mental illness is *very* prevalent among
jail and prison populations as a whole. In jails, those percentages are
even higher. Various correctional administrators will put those
percentages at 30-60% for the men; 40-75% for the women. This is such a
difficult thing to measure, so there's a reason for that wide range
... there's *self-reporting* and then there's *diagnosis.* And the
potential fallibility of both. 

Abuse histories are very high with women, as I demonstrate in this
book. According to one national study (BJS), 1/3 of women in state
prisons said that they were raped before they were locked up, compared
with 3% of men. 

Sadly, men in prison are far, far more likely to be sexually assaulted
by fellow inmates than women are by fellow inmates. Rape in men's
prisons is a horrible thing, and I know several men who have lived
through the experience and been absolutely traumatized for life. The
"don''t drop the soap" jokes are just hideous. There's nothing funny
about rape. Period. I think that kind of "humor" is just sickening. 

According to another  national study, 57% of women in state prisons,
and 40% of women in federal prisons, report prior physical/sexual abuse
before incarceration. These are numbers that are FAR above those of
women in the "free world." 

We don't actually have good numbers on male prisoners in this regard,
because they are studied less vis a vis abuse trauma--and because they
are *less likely* to be honest about such trauma, and/or don't view
what they went through *as abuse*. Now, the latter also applies to
women, to some degree, which is why statistics only give us an idea of
what we're looking at in our prison population. 

I talked to one young woman a few months ago who had done time in
severe juvenile detention lock-up conditions (isolation for a
half-year, etc.)., and who was now working as a stripper in a high-end
Las Vegas club. She had been regularly molested by her grandfather and
her uncle. For her, it wasn't abuse. It was what they *needed* from
her, and what she was willing to trade in order to be "protected" by
them and not do more time in juvenile detention.

This kind of thing is utterly heartbreaking to me. She didn't even
recognize that she had been raped, molested. She had just survived. And
what she now experiences at the hands of men with lots of money is
"voluntary." Adults are free to make their own choices, sex work
included in that, but this was a woman who also thought that the male
guardians/relatives were justified in molesting and raping her because,
after all, they were providing her with shelter, food to eat,
clothing, and "protection."

This is a woman who is very unlikely to ever make sound decisions for
herself without serious and prolonged psychological intervention. And
were it not for the fact that she fits the bill of what a Vegas
stripper should look like, she'd likely be another woman in jail or
prison, doing time. The most jarring realization I had around that was
that she would probably have achieved a higher level of insight into
her abuse there (if she were doing a long bid and in with women who
inevitably start to process their life histories around each other if
they're given the opportunity to do so), than in the world in which she
now lives. 

Jack, would you be so kind as to sum up the remaining questions I
haven't answered yet? I don't want to overlook any of them. 
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #21 of 58: Silja Joanna Aller Talvi (sisu) Fri 4 Apr 08 13:58
Oh, I do want to add that mcdee's point about failure-as-entertainment
is very, very true. I bemoan the meanness of it all. The Germans said
it best: it's "schadenfreude." (Taking joy in the misery of others.)

I do quite a bit of pop culture analysis in this book, as well, to
demonstrate not only the prevalence of this sentiment, but the
particular way in which a woman who "falls from grace" is often
demonized and made a subject of lurid fascination in our media.
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #22 of 58: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Fri 4 Apr 08 22:52
mental illness is a big problem in Idaho prisons as well; the state
just budgeted $70 million for a secure mental health facility, but as
legislators pointed out, it's still a big building with bars and guards
on it.

another big problem here is drugs, particularly meth. A horrendous
number of people in prisons, and I can dig up the figures if you wish,
have drug problems.

inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #23 of 58: Mrs. Bigby Hind (jessica) Sat 5 Apr 08 07:10
Silja, my copy of the book seems to have been misprinted and I am missing
most of "Women Who Kill," all of "Women Loving Women," and most of "God
Pod." Is there any way you might have these chapters available in a form
that could be emailed?
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #24 of 58: Jack King (gjk) Sat 5 Apr 08 11:07
Silja, you covered many of the questions above.  Here are a few more
that people might be interested in.

One thing about your book is that you introduce a subject or emphasize
a point with statistics which are illustrated with individual stories.
 In #17 above, <rosmar> asks:

“I don't remember seeing any statistics about the
percentage of men who come into prison with a history of being abused
or mentally ill.  Do you know what the difference in the percentages

(I'm curious partly because so many of the men that I know who ended
up in prison were abused, and I know the problems of arguing from
anecdotal evidence.)”

And I know how you want to talk about how you did your research. 
Trust me when I say it is very frustrating for a criminal defense
lawyer to visit a client in prison.  Prison administrators don’t seem
to recognize the right to counsel, unlike jailers who deal with accused
persons.  When representing a person post-conviction, often I had to
write many letters to the warden or chief administrator because the
lower-level correctional staff just would give me the run-around on a
prison visit appointment with a client.  The bullshit can be
incredible.  I went to one prison where nobody on the staff that day
could remember ever arranging or seeing a lawyer visit; fortunately I
had a letter from a senior officer. 

So I too am interested in the question <Jessica> asked in #18:

“I'm interested in hearing more about your process in writing this
book, how you gained access to your subjects, and also how you gained
their trust sothat they would share their stories so openly with you.
Were you able to achieve the same level of access to policymakers,
corrections officers, prison administrators, and the like?”

<Jessica> also had a more pressing question, regarding the misprinting
of her book, but one that would be of interest to many who have not
yet read it, which was, is there any way to read some of it online (or
obtain chapters by e-mail)?
inkwell.vue.324 : Silja Talvi, "Women Behind Bars"
permalink #25 of 58: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 5 Apr 08 15:33
Right.  Mine was actually mis-printed too, but I was
characteristically too polite to mention it.


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