New book tells stories of women prisoners

February 23, 2006, vol. 35, no. 4
By Marianne Meadahl

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For decades, Karlene Faith has studied the circumstances around a harsh reality - that prison populations are disproportionately made up of oppressed minority groups.

Since the 1960s, the retired criminology professor has studied prisons in North America and beyond, focusing for many years on the lives of women prisoners. Her early work led her to Muslim-filled prisons in Eritrea (Africa) and to prisons in California, where black populations remain "seriously over-represented" and where today, more than 11,000 women are imprisoned.

The figure is startling when compared with Canada, which has approximately the same population as California (more than 30 million). Although it has a different system, about 350 women in Canada are serving time in federal prisons.

Through her work, Faith uncovered stories ranging from the tragic to the uplifting. Her new book, 13 Women: Parables from Prison, features first-person accounts of some of these women, spanning 35 years. Faith's book is the SFU bookstore's book of the month.

"Most women prisoners share a history of poverty, racism or violence directed against them from a young age," notes Faith. In 2005, nearly 200,000 women were being held in North American prisons and jails.

Faith set out to "humanize and personalize" those who are labelled as criminals. "A lot of women end up in prison almost by default," she says. "They've not been able to pull their lives together and they end up as victims, then criminals."

Women prisoners commit only 10-15 per cent of violent crimes, Faith notes. "Even in these cases, it's not useful to respond to the majority of their crimes by locking them up."

Among those featured in Faith's book are Canadians Ann Hansen, a member of the infamous Squamish Five, convicted for her role in the 1982 bombing of a Vancouver Island power plant, and environmentalist Betty Krawczyk, a "high-spirited woman" who puts herself in the path of logging trucks to protect B.C. forests.

Faith also shares the tragic story of a young, overexhausted mother who was unintentionally involved in the death of her stepson, and a California woman in the 1960s whose six-month sentence for impaired driving stretched to five years, after the 300-pound woman failed to lose 100 pounds - a condition of her release.

"When I first began my research, the uses of prisons to control political minorities was a fairly unacknowledged problem, but now, more than 30 years later, it's more commonly observed," says Faith, who once told a class of students they would fare better by embezzling money (given a 20 per cent chance of going to prison) compared with robbing a bank (resulting in an 80 per cent chance of being locked up).

"The reality is that lawbreakers are not treated equally, and little has changed in terms of filling our prisons with people who have the fewest resources."

While the book draws attention to injustice, Faith says its main purpose is simply to share interesting stories. "These are stories about resilience, facing the world bravely - and learning lessons," she adds.

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