Imprisoned by Our Literature: Black Women and Incarceration

By Iresha Picot, sent to us per email. It was also published on the blog Quirky Black Girls

In 2010, I became a collective member of a non-profit prison book program. For the last twenty-two years, the program has been sending literature/books to people incarcerated. One of my responsibilities at this program is to work directly with the women’s book request from a Pennsylvanian Woman’s state prison.

I immediately noticed the difference in the book requests from the women at this prison versus the men, who make up the bulk of our overall letters. The men would request materials on everything from black radicalism, vocational studies, and for GED prep books. The ones, who were not as literate, requested dictionaries, so they could teach themselves how to read (mainly inspired by Malcolm Little [X] and his quest for knowledge).

And the Women? With the occasional gardening and self¬-help book, they were mainly requesting Urban Fiction. Letter after letter, Black Women were making requests for “hood books”; with titles such as ‘Gangster Wife” and “Thongs on Fire”. Why weren’t they requesting protest literature too? Where were their dictionaries or Kaplan book requests? It did not take long, to see that Triple Crown Publishing replaced the Blackness of Third World Publishing and the writings by women of color of the Kitchen Table Press.

I conveyed my feelings to another collective member at the organization, who shrugged and replied, “Maybe that is their reality?” I refused to believe that one type of book made up anyone’s reality; especially Black Women. Perhaps a very small slice, but definitely not a whole. As I would process these letters, and send these packages off, I knew in the pit of my Black Women soul that these Women were being sold cheap with these books. Urban fiction is cool, but what else? With the support of the organization (and financial backing), I created “Everyday Use: A Woman’s Literary Insurgency”. It was a collection of writings put together of Black Women Writers. From Sister Souljah to Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde to bell hooks; this 235-page booklet dripped with the Black Gospel of Black Women Writers. Sistas were getting the prophecy of love, self-esteem, motherhood and the erotica. With every request for a “hood book”, “Everyday Use” was sent alongside their request. Black Women were writing back, stating that they were being introduced to these writers for the first time. They were passing it on to their cell mates and even one woman wrote me and told me that she had sent her booklet home to her daughter, because “she needs it, she needs to read what these Sistas are saying…”.

We were creating a literary community behind those walls.

As soon as we started, it ended. Booklets were being returned. I called the mailroom at the prison. No response. Everyday for about two weeks, I called that prison, and after much harassing on my part, a letter was sent to me, stating that the prison decided that photocopies were not being allowed in the prison. Just like that, they issued a new rule, and blocked our booklet from going through. I wanted to fight this decision on a bigger level, but I knew that this would put all requests in jeopardy from sending future book requests to that prison (a couple of years ago, they rejected our books, because there was too much tape on the packages!). Once again, these prisons win (although in my heart, the forty or so booklets that made it in have lit some Black Woman’s fire!).

I write this essay, so the world can understand that these prisons are not in the interest of the people receiving information for self/communal reliance. They will always prefer a book called “G-Spot” as opposed to “Sisters of the Yams: Black Women and Self-Recovery”. A: “Lick Me All Over” as oppose to a “Use of the Erotica”.

Malcolm X once said, “The ability to read awoke inside of me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.” If we leave it up to the prisons, they would prefer that we keep the minds of our women in death.

Iresha Picot, M.Ed, is a Prison Abolishionist currently living in Philly. You can reach her

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Black Incarcerated Mothers

by Iresha Picot on Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 6:28pm received via Email and published with permission.

Last weekend, I was supposed to have presented at the Fourth Annual Regional Build “Supreme Mathematics: Black Woman, Man, Child.” However, due to time constraints, I had to leave before the presentation got under way. I was pretty bummed about that because I wanted to share such important information to the people about my topic “Black Incarcerated Mothers”. Below is my presentation.

Peace. As a local organizer/activists in Philadelphia, most of my work is centered around prisoner issues. This consist of demanding the release of political prisoners, with the MOVE organization as a supporter to free the MOVE 9–nine MOVE members, going on their thirty-third consecutive year of incarceration or fighting to keep Bro. Mumia alive, as a member of the International Concern Family and Friends of Mumia Abu Jamal (ICFFMAJ). I also work in supporting our politicized prisoners in resisting on the inside, against this corrupt system with the Human Rights Coalition and sending literature to prisoners in the mid-Atlantic region as a collective member with the Books through Bars program. This summer, I was asked to write a curriculum on Women Prisoners with the Books through Bars’ service learning program that we do with local high school students who come to volunteer. As I was conducting research, I came across the statement that “Black Women are the fastest growing population in prison”. So much so, that they are outnumbering Black men in terms of the numbers of physical entry to prison. I immediately thought “well, if Black Women are usually the caretakers of our youth, and they are the fastest growing population in prison, then who are taking care of the babies?”

For anyone who may not be brushed up on this serious issue, Black and Latina Women make up 67% of Women in prison; with Black Women going to prison three times more likely than Latina Women, and six times more likely than White Women. Eighty-thousand of these Women are mothers, leaving two-hundred thousand children under the age of eighteen without mothers to care for them.

What these statistics do not tell you about, are the children and family, incarcerated mothers have to leave behind. I made it my quest to devour all of the information that I could get on this topic, because I noticed how skewed the work that I have done around prison issues, have been. This has mainly been around black male prisoners (besides the relationship that I have with the three MOVE women who make up the MOVE 9). As I was reading (and there was little to be read, because no one is writing about this), I came across narratives of Sistas continually going to prison on conspiracy charges, where they are judged guilty of the same crimes as their boyfriends or lovers, just because they lived with them and “benefited” from drug money income, or have either partaken in carrying guns, putting apartments and cars in their name for these men. Prosecutors, often try to force women to testify against their husbands, brothers, or family members with threats of harsh charges and long sentences. Many times, these Women uphold the “no snitching” code and they are sentence as harshly as the men who commit the actual crimes.

When these women are arrested, they are usually arrested at home in front of their children, with 2 out of 5 Black children witnessing their mother’s arrest. Very few police departments allow Women to call anyone to care for their children, so Women are often carted off to jail not knowing what will happen to their children. How can you advocate for the placement of your child(ren), behind bars, with limited resources? In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Family Act, made it legal to snatch incarcerated mother’s children away from them, removing all maternal rights, if the child was in foster care for 15 of the 22 months the mother was incarcerated! Under this act, you cannot even call or write to your own child and therefore become a stranger to your own children. There are currently twenty-five states that have this act on the books! Also, court appointed attorneys rarely disclose this information to the mothers or other challenges that are bought about from being a convicted felon and a mother. One story I read about while doing research was about a mother who pleaded guilty to a drug felony charge that involved her children’s father. For a lesser prison sentence she plead guilty, but the attorney failed to tell her that by pleading guilty and having a permanent record, that it would prevent her from certain governmental assistance and student loans for upward mobility. Therefore making the re-entry extremely challenging in terms of taking care of your children once release with a felony.

Even if Black Women can get kinship to care for their children during their incarceration, the system makes it hard for Black Mothers to parent behind bars. Many Women state prisons (including Pennsylvanian) have only one or two prisons in the entire state, and they are usually hundreds of miles away from urban cities. Visiting is difficult for most families travelling long distances and many are dependent on public transportation even for families living in the general vicinity. This is also true from mothers in county jails. Some county prisons only allow three children on the visiting lists per year. So if a mother has more than three children, she has to choose which children she could see that year.

That is why if we are serious about restoring equilibrium back together with the Black Family: Man, Woman, and Child, we have to take on this issue of Black MOTHERS being the fastest growing population in prison as a serious one! There is a stigma around mothers when they go to prison that we do not uphold with fathers when they are incarcerated, which is “she must not have been a good mother”. Which from the literature that I have read, most Black Women go to prison by committing acts of crime so their children could SURVIVE. Furthermore, Black children are always connected to the mother and with a barrier such as prison destroying that connection, it leaves room for anger and abandonment to arise that tears at this relationship. This system has no care about this issue, but as a community, we have to take it on as one of the more important ones, because without the mother to provide direction/care/love for the babies, then who will?

Let’s rally around this issue for the sake of Black children.

For the sake of the Black Woman.

For the sake of the Black family.

Now that’s Supreme Mathematics!