We sit in the bull pen. We are
all black. All restless. And we are all freezing. When we ask, the matron
tells us that the heating system cannot be adjusted. All of us, with the
exception of a woman, tall and gaunt, who looks naked and ravished, have
refused the bologna sandwiches. The rest of us sit drinking bitter, syrupy
tea. The tall, fortyish woman, with sloping shoulders, moves her head back and
forth to the beat of a private tune while she takes small, tentative bites out
a bologna sandwich. Someone asks her what she’s in for. Matter of factly, she
says, “They say I killed some nigga. But how could I have when I’m buried down
in South Carolina?” Everybody’s face gets busy exchanging looks. A short,
stout young woman wearing men’s pants and men’s shoes says, “Buried in South
Carolina?” “Yeah,” says the tall woman. “South Carolina, that’s where I’m
buried. You don’t know that? You don’t know shit, do you? This ain’t me. This
ain’t me.” She kept repeating, “This ain’t me” until she had eaten all the
bologna sandwiches. Then she brushed off the crumbs and withdrew, head moving
again, back into that world where only she could hear her private tune.
Lucille comes to my tier to ask me how much time a “C” felony conviction
carries. I know, but i cannot say the words. I tell her i will look it up and
bring the sentence charts for her to see. I know that she has just been
convicted of manslaughter in the second degree. I also know that she can be
sentenced up to fifteen years. I knew from what she had told me before that
the District Attorney was willing to plea bargain: Five years probation in
exchange for a guilty plea a lesser charge.
Her lawyer felt that she had a case: specifically, medical records which would
prove that she had suffered repeated physical injuries as the result of
beatings by the deceased and, as a result of those beatings, on the night of
her arrest her arm was mutilated (she must still wear a brace on it) and one
of her ears was partially severed in addition to other substantial injuries
Her lawyer felt that her testimony, when she took the stand in her own
defense, would establish the fact that not only had she been repeatedly beaten
by the deceased, but that on the night in question he told her he would kill
her, viciously beat her and mauled her with a knife. But there is no self
defense in the state of New York.
The District Attorney made a big deal of the fact that she drank. And the
jury, affected by t.v. racism, “law and order”, petrified by crime and
unimpressed with Lucille as a “responsible citizen,” convicted her. And i was
the one who had to tell her that she was facing fifteen years in prison while
we both silently wondered what would happen to the four teenage children that
she had raised almost single-handedly.
Spikey has short time, and it is evident, the day before she is to be
released, that she does not want to go home. She comes to the Bing
(Administrative Segregation) because she has received an infraction for
fighting. Sitting in front of her cage and talking to her i realize that the
fight was a desperate, last ditch effort in hope that the prison would take
away her “good days.” She is in her late thirties. Her hands are swollen.
Enormous. There are huge, open sores on her legs. She has about ten teeth
left. And her entire body is scarred and ashen. She has been on drugs about
twenty years. Her veins have collapsed. She has fibrosis epilepsy and edema.
She has not seen her three children in about eight years. She is ashamed to
contact home because she robbed and abused her mother so many times.
When we talk it is around the Christmas holidays and she tells me about her
bad luck. She tells me that she has spent the last four Christmases in jail
and tells me how happy she is to be going home. But i know that she has no
where to go and that the only “friends” she has in the world are here in jail.
She tells me that the only regret she has about leaving is that she won’t be
singing in the choir at Christmas. As i talk to her i wonder if she will be
back. I tell her good bye and wish her luck. Six days later, through the
prison grapevine, i hear that she is back. Just in time for the Christmas
We are at sick call. We are waiting on wooden benches in a beige and orange
room to see the doctor. Two young women who look only mildly battered by life
sit wearing pastel dresses and pointy-toed state shoes. (Wearing “state” is
often a sign that the wearer probably cannot afford to buy sneakers in
commissary.) The two are talking about how well they were doing on the street.
Eavesdropping, i find out that they both have fine “old men” that love the
mess out of them. I find out that their men dress fly and wear some baad
clothes and so do they. One has 40 pairs of shoes while the other has 100
skirts. One has 2 suede and 5 leather coats. The other has 7 suede's and 3
leathers. One has 3 mink coats, a silver fox and a leopard. The other has 2
minks, a fox jacket, a floor length fox and a chinchilla. One has 4 diamond
rings and the other has 5. One lives in a duplex with a sunken tub and a
sunken living room with a water fall. The other describes a mansion with a
revolving living room. I’m relieved when my name is called. I had been sitting
there feeling very, very sad.
There are no criminals here at Riker’s Island Correctional Institution for
Women, (New York), only victims. Most of the women (over 95%) are black and
Puerto Rican. Many were abused children. Most have been abused by men and all
have been abused by “the system.”
There are no big time gangsters here, no premeditated mass murderers, no
godmothers. There are no big time dope dealers, no kidnappers, no Watergate
women. There are virtually no women here charged with white collar crimes like
embezzling or fraud. Most of the women have drug related cases. Many are
charged as accessories to crimes committed by men. The major crimes that women
here are charged with are prostitution, pick-pocketing, shop lifting, robbery
and drugs. Women who have prostitution cases or who are doing “fine” time make
up a substantial part of the short term population. The women see stealing or
hustling as necessary for the survival of themselves or their children because
jobs are scarce and welfare is impossible to live on. One thing is clear:
amerikan capitalism is in no way threatened by the women in prison on Riker’s
One gets the impression, when first coming to Riker’s Island that the
architects conceived of it as a prison modelled after a juvenile center. In
the areas where visitors usually pass there is plenty of glass and plenty of
plants and flowers. The cell blocks consist of two long corridors with cells
on each side connected by a watch room where the guards are stationed, called
a bubble. Each corridor has a day room with a t.v., tables, multi-colored
chairs, a stove that doesn’t work and a refrigerator. There’s a utility room
with a sink and a washer and dryer that do not work.
Instead of bars the cells have doors which are painted bright, optimistic
colors with slim glass observation panels. The doors are controlled
electronically by the guards in the bubble. The cells are called rooms by
everybody. They are furnished with a cot, a closet, a desk, a chair, a plastic
upholstered headboard that opens for storage, a small book case, a mirror, a
sink and a toilet. The prison distributes brightly colored bedspreads and
throw rugs for a homey effect. There is a school area, a gym, a carpeted
auditorium, two inmate cafeterias and outside recreation areas that are used
during the summer months only.
The guards have successfully convinced most of the women that Riker’s Island
is a country club. They say that it is a playhouse compared to some other
prisons (especially male): a statement whose partial veracity is not
predicated upon the humanity of correction officials at Riker’s Island, but,
rather, by contrast to the unbelievably barbaric conditions of other prisons.
Many women are convinced that they are, somehow, “getting over.” Some go so
far as to reason that because they are not doing hard time, they are i really
This image is further reinforced the pseudo-motherly attitude many of the
guards; a deception which all too often successfully reverts women children.
The guards call the women inmates by their first names. The women address the
guards either as Officer, Mis --- or by nicknames, (Teddy Bear, Spanky, Aunt
Louise, Squeeze, Sarge, Black Beauty, Nutty Mahogany, etc.). Frequently, when
a woman returns to Riker’s she will make the rounds, gleefully embracing her
favorite guard: the prodigal daughter returns.
If two women are having a debate about any given topic the argument will often
be resolved by “asking the officer.” The guards are forever telling the women
to “grow up,” to “act like ladies,” to “behave” and to be “good girls.” If an
inmate is breaking some minor rule like coming to say “hi” to her friend on
another floor or locking in a few minutes late, a guard will say, jokingly,
“don’t let me have to come down there and beat your butt.” It is not unusual
to hear a guard tell a woman, “what you need is a good spanking.” The tone is
often motherly, “didn’t I tell you, young lady, to…”; or, “you know better
than that”; or, “that’s a good girl.” And the women respond accordingly. Some
guards and inmates “play” together. One officer’s favorite “game” is taking
off her belt and chasing her “girls” down the hall with it, smacking them on
But beneath the motherly veneer, the reality of guard life is every present.
Most of the guards are black, usually from working class, upward bound, civil
service oriented backgrounds. They identify with the middle class, have middle
class values and are extremely materialistic. They are not the most
intelligent women in the world and many are extremely limited.
Most are aware that there is no justice in the amerikan judicial system and
that blacks and Puerto Ricans are discriminated against in every facet of
amerikan life. But, at the same time, they are convinced that the system is
somehow “lenient.” To them, the women in prison are “losers” who don’t have
enough sense to stay out of jail. Most believe in the boot strap theory -
anybody can “make it” if they try hard enough. They congratulate themselves on
their great accomplishments. In contrast to themselves they see the inmate as
ignorant, uncultured, self-destructive, weak-minded and stupid. They ignore
the fact that their dubious accomplishments are not based on superior
intelligence or effort, but only on chance and a civil service list.
Many guards hate and feel trapped by their jobs. The guard is exposed to a
certain amount of abuse from co-workers, from the brass as well as from
inmates, ass kissing, robotizing and mandatory overtime. (It is common
practice for guards to work a double shift at least once a week.) But no
matter how much they hate the military structure, the infighting, the ugliness
of their tasks, they are very aware of how close they are to the welfare
lines. If they were not working as guards most would be underpaid or
unemployed. Many would miss the feeling of superiority and power as much as
they would miss the money, especially the cruel, sadistic ones.
The guards are usually defensive about their jobs and indicate by their
behavior that they are not at all free from guilt. They repeatedly,
compulsively say, as if to convince themselves, “This is a job just like any
other job.” The more they say it the more preposterous it seems.
The major topic of conversation here is drugs. Eighty percent of inmates have
used drugs when they were in the street. Getting high is usually the first
thing a woman says she’s going to do when she gets out. In prison, as on the
streets, an escapist culture prevails. At least 50 percent of the prison
population take some form of psychotropic drug. Elaborate schemes to obtain
contraband drugs are always in the works.
Days are spent in pleasant distractions: soap operas, prison love affairs,
card playing and game playing. A tiny minority are seriously involved in
academic pursuits or the learning of skills. An even smaller minority attempt
to study available law books. There are no jail house lawyers and most of the
women lack knowledge of even the most rudimentary legal procedures. When asked
what happened in court, or, what their lawyers said, they either don’t know or
don’t remember. Feeling totally helpless and totally railroaded a woman will
curse out her lawyer or the judge with little knowledge of what is being done
or of what should be done. Most plead guilty, whether they are guilty or not.
The few who do go to trial usually have lawyers appointed by the state and
usually are convicted.
Here, the word lesbian seldom, if ever, is mentioned. Most, if not all, of the
homosexual relationships here involve role playing. The majority of
relationships are either asexual or semi-sexual. The absence of sexual
consummation is only partially explained by prison prohibition against any
kind of sexual behavior. Basically the women are not looking for sex. They are
looking for love, for concern and companionship. For relief from the
overwhelming sense of isolation and solitude that pervades each of us.
Women who are “aggressive” or who play the masculine roles are referred to as
butches, bulldaggers or stud broads. They are always in demand because they
are always in the minority. Women who are “passive,” or who play feminine
roles are referred to as fems. The butch-fem relationships are often
oppressive, resembling the most oppressive, exploitative aspect of a sexist
society. It is typical to hear butches threatening fems with physical violence
and it is not uncommon for butches to actually beat their “women.” Some
butches consider themselves pimps and go with the women who have the most
commissary, the most contraband or the best outside connections. They feel
they are a class above ordinary women which entitles them to “respect.” They
dictate to fems what they are to do and many insist the fems wash, iron, sew
and clean their cells for them. A butch will refer to another butch as “man.”
A butch who is well liked is known as “one of the fellas” by her peers.
Once in prison changes in roles are common. Many women who are strictly
heterosexual in the street become butch in prison. “Fems” often create butches
by convincing an inmate that she would make a “cute butch.” About 80 percent
of the prison population engage in some form of homosexual relationship.
Almost all follow negative, stereotypic male/ female role models.
There is no connection between the women’s movement and lesbianism. Most of
the women at Riker’s Island have no idea what feminism is, let alone
lesbianism. Feminism, the women’s liberation movement and the gay liberation
movement are worlds away from women at Riker’s.
The black liberation struggle is equally removed from the lives of women at
Riker’s. While they verbalize acute recognition that amerika is a racist
country where the poor are treated like dirt they, nevertheless, feel
responsible for the filth of their lives. The air at Riker’s is permeated with
self-hatred. Many women bear marks on their arms, legs and wrists from suicide
attempts or self-mutilation. They speak about themselves in self-deprecating
terms. They consider themselves failures.
While most women contend that whitey is responsible for their oppression they
do not examine the cause or source of that oppression. There is no sense of
class struggle. They have no sense of communism, no definition of it, but they
consider it a bad thing. They do not want to destroy Rockefella. They want to
be like him. Nicky Barnes, a major dope seller, is discussed with reverence.
When he was convicted practically everyone was sad. Many gave speeches about
how kind, smart and generous he was; no one spoke about the sale of drugs to
Politicians are considered liars and crooks. The police are hated. Yet, during
cop and robber movies, some cheer loudly for the cops. One woman pasted
photographs of Farrah Fawcett Majors all over her cell because she “is a baad
police bitch.” Kojak and Barretta get their share of admiration.
A striking difference between women and men prisoners at Riker’s Island is the
absence of revolutionary rhetoric among the women. We have no study groups. We
have no revolutionary literature around. There are no groups of militants
attempting to “get their heads together.” The women at Riker’s seem vaguely
aware of what a revolution is but generally regard it as an impossible dream.
Not at all practical.
While men in prison struggle to maintain their manhood there is no comparable
struggle by women to preserve their womanhood. One frequently hears women say,
“Put a bunch of bitches together and you’ve got nothin but trouble”; and,
“Women don’t stick together, that’s why we don’t have nothin.” Men prisoners
constantly refer to each other as brother. Women prisoners rarely refer to
each other as sister. Instead, “bitch” and “whore” are the common terms of
reference. Women, however, are much kinder to each other than men, and any
form of violence other than a fist fight is virtually unknown. Rape, murder
and stabbings at the women’s prison are non-existent.
For many, prison is not that much different from the street. It is, for some,
a place to rest and recuperate. For the prostitute prison is a vacation from
turning tricks in the rain and snow. A vacation from brutal pimps. Prison for
the addict is a place to get clean, get medical work done and gain weight.
Often, when the habit becomes too expensive, the addict gets herself busted,
(usually subconsciously) so she can get back in shape, leave with a clean
system ready to start all over again. One woman claims that for a month or two
every year she either goes jail or to the crazy house to get away from her
For many the cells are not much different from the tenements, the shooting
galleries and the welfare hotels they live in on the street. Sick call is no
different from the clinic or the hospital emergency room. The fights are the
same except they are less dangerous. The police are the same. The poverty is
the same. The alienation is the same. The racism is the same. The sexism is
the same. The drugs are the same and the system is the same. Riker’s and is
just another institution. In childhood school was their prison, or youth
houses or reform schools or children shelters or foster homes or mental
hospitals or drug programs and they see all institutions as indifferent to
their needs, yet necessary to their survival.
The women at Riker’s Island come there from places like Harlem, Brownsville,
Bedford-Stuyvesant, South Bronx and South Jamaica. They come from places where
dreams have been abandoned like the buildings. Where there is no more sense of
community. Where neighborhoods are transient. Where isolated people run from
one fire trap to another. The cities have removed us from our strengths, from
our roots, from our traditions. They have taken away our gardens and our sweet
potato pies and given us McDonald’s. They have become our prisons, locking us
into the futility and decay of pissy hallways that lead nowhere. They have
alienated us from each other and made us fear each other. They have given us
dope and television as a culture.
There are no politicians to trust. No roads to follow. No popular progressive
culture to relate to. There are no new deals, no more promises of golden
streets and no place else to migrate. My sisters in the streets, like my
sisters at Riker’s Island, see no way out. “Where can I go?”, said a woman on
the day she was going home. “If there’s nothing to believe in,” she said, “I
can’t do nothin except try to find cloud nine.”
What of our Past? What of our History? What of our Future?
I can imagine the pain and the strength of my great great grandmothers who
were slaves and my great great grandmothers who were Cherokee Indians trapped
on reservations. I remembered my great grandmother who walked every where
rather than sit in the back of the bus. I think about North Carolina and my
home town and i remember the women of my grandmother’s generation: strong,
fierce women who could stop you with a look out the corners of their eyes.
Women who walked with majesty; who could wring a chicken’s neck and scale a
fish. Who could pick cotton, plant a garden and sew without a pattern. Women
who boiled clothes white in big black cauldrons and who hummed work songs and
lullabys. Women who visited the elderly, made soup for the sick and shortnin
bread for the babies.
Women who delivered babies, searched for healing roots and brewed medicines.
Women who darned sox and chopped wood and laid bricks. Women who could swim
rivers and shoot the head off a snake. Women who took passionate
responsibility for their children and for their neighbors’ children too.
The women in my grandmother’s generation made giving an art form. “Here, gal,
take this pot of collards to Sister Sue”; “Take this bag of pecans to school
for the teacher”; “Stay here while I go tend Mister Johnson’s leg.” Every
child in the neighborhood ate in their kitchens. They called each other sister
because of feeling rather than as the result of a movement. They supported
each other through the lean times, sharing the little they had.
The women of my grandmother’s generation in my home town trained their
daughters for womanhood. They taught them to give respect and to demand
respect. They taught their daughters how to churn butter; how to use elbow
grease. They taught their daughters to respect the strength of their bodies,
to lift boulders and how to kill a hog; what to do for colic, how to break a
fever and how to make a poultice, patchwork quilts, plait hair and how to hum
and sing. They taught their daughters to take care, to take charge and to take
responsibility. They would not tolerate a “lazy heifer” or a “gal with her
head in the clouds.” Their daughters had to learn how to get their lessons,
how to survive, how to be strong. The women of my grandmother’s generation
were the glue that held family and the community together. They were the
backbone of the church. And of the school. They regarded outside institutions
with dislike and distrust. They were determined that their children should
survive and they were committed to a better future.
I think about my sisters in the movement. I remember the days when, draped in
African garb, we rejected our foremothers and ourselves as castrators. We did
penance for robbing the brother of his manhood, as if we were the oppressor. I
remember the days of the Panther Party when we were “moderately liberated.”
When we were allowed to wear pants and expected to pick up the gun. The days
when we gave doe-eyed looks to our leaders The days when we worked like dogs
and struggled desperately for the respect which they struggled desperately not
to give us. I remember the black history classes that did mention women and
the posters of our “leaders” where women were conspicuously absent We visited
our sisters who bore the complete responsibility of the children while the
Brotha was doing his thing. Or had moved on to bigger and better things. I
Most of us rejected the white women’s movement. Miss ann was still Miss ann to
us whether she burned her bras or not. We could not muster sympathy for the
fact that she was trapped in her mansion and oppressed by her husband. We
were, and still are, in a much more terrible jail. We knew that our
experiences as black women were completely different from those of our sisters
in the white women’s movement. And we had no desire to sit in some
consciousness raising group with white women and bare our souls.
Women can never be free in a country that is not free. We can never be
liberated in a country where the institutions that control our lives are
oppressive. We can never be free while our men are oppressed. Or while the
amerikan government and amerikan capitalism remain intact.
But it is imperative to our struggle that we build a strong black women’s
movement. It is imperative that we, as black women, talk about the experiences
that shaped us; that we assess our strengths and weaknesses and define our own
history. It is imperative that we discuss positive ways to teach and socialize
The poison and pollution of capitalist cities is choking us. We need the
strong medicine of our foremothers to make us well again. We need their
medicines to give us strength to fight and the drive to win. Under the
guidance of Harriet Tubman and Fannie Lou Hamer and all of our foremothers,
let us rebuild a sense of community. Let us rebuild the culture of giving and
carry on the tradition of fierce determination to move on closer to freedom.
Assata Shakur / Joanne Chesimard
published in The Black Scholar, April 1978