Voice of Witness

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by Ayelet Waldman

Among the myriad things I'm working on right now (the aforementioned novel, a law-based TV pilot, a musical, a follow up to Bad Mother, a desperate attempt to lose 15 pounds), is a book in the Voice of Witness series. Founded by Dave Eggers (in his spare time, when he's not founding a nation-wide nonprofit tutoring, writing, and publishing organization for children in economically disadvantaged communities, founding schools and community centers in the Sudan, and writing some of the best novels I've ever read in my life), the series uses the medium of oral history to depict human rights crises around the globe. The volume I'm co-editing, with Robin Levi of Justice Now, a human rights organization for women in prison, and Rebecca Silbert, a former Federal Public Defender, is a collection of narratives from imprisoned and formerly imprisoned women across the U.S. who have suffered violations of their human rights.

It's hardly news to the readers of this blog that the United States has among the highest incarceration rates of any country in the world, and that people in prison in this country are routinely subjected to physical, sexual and mental abuse. While abuse in male prisons is well-documented, women in prison suffer in relative anonymity. This disparity is problematic since, because women's prisons are generally more geographically isolated and thus less subject to outside oversight, women in prison are in many cases more vulnerable to rights violations. Worse, because of their histories of sexual and physical abuse, women in prison are both more likely to suffer serious health consequences and less likely to complain of abuses within the system. They are also predominantly incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

Due to the increased prosecution of drug offenses and other low level crimes, the dismantling of the nation's mental healthcare system, the trend toward imposing long prison sentences, and the popularity of three strikes legislation, women in the United States are incarcerated at a rate 8 times that of 32 years ago. And, approximately two thirds of these women are the primary caretakers of minor children.

This system is in perennial violation of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the Senate in 1992. Prison management structures and policies, rehabilitative programming and information technology and health care systems fall far below international standards. (I know, I know. Here in a America we resent even the notion that we should comply with any kind of "international standard," but what's going on in women's prison's is shameful.) Worse, on the rare occasions when women in prison try to demand adequate treatment, they are dismissed and often penalized for trying to make their voices heard.

Just the simple project of getting into prison to interview our narrators can be a nightmare. The clothing rules alone are absurd. Most people who regularly go to visit people in prison develop a "prison-friendly wardrobe" complete with sports bra (no underwires allowed!). And then there's the saga of the recording equipment. The few states that even permit recorders have draconian rules about what type and brand of equipment is permitted. We've got people trolling ebay for acceptable recorders because, in this digital age, the dinosaur analog equipment that the prisons allow has become collectible.

But despite the challenges, our incredible interviewers are traveling all over the country, recording and transcribing stories that will, I promise, blow your mind. One of the brave narrators who came forward to tell her story lived for more than a decade with a false HIV diagnosis, confirmed and reconfirmed by incompetent prison health workers. Another had her ovaries removed in her very early twenties, without her consent or knowledge (they told her that they'd taken off a cyst), finding out only years later that she would never be able to have another child. Another woman was allowed to nearly die of diabetes and liver failure with barely a symbolic amount of medical treatment. We've heard many stories about women being shackled while they were in labor, about sexual violence. We've talked to women who had their parental rights terminated after they were imprisoned for relatively minor offenses.

I hope that the book, once it's complete, will be as riveting and useful as its predecessors in the series.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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