Women Doing Life

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An interview with Lora Lempert

Lora Bex Lempert is the author of Women Doing Life: Gender, Punishment and the Struggle for Identity, published in 2016 by New York University Press. For over twenty years, she was a co-sponsor of the National Lifers of America Chapter 1014 at a women’s correctional facility in Michigan and the coordinator of college-level courses at that facility. Lora spoke by phone with Western Friend on November 27, 2017. The following text contains edited excerpts from a transcript of that interview. To read the full transcript, see: westernfriend.org/media/women-doing-life-unabridged

Western Friend: Thanks for talking with me today. Have you been a member of San Francisco Meeting for a while?

Lora Lempert: I’m not actually a member. But I have been attending since I moved back to San Francisco in December 2014, when I retired. Before that, I attended Ann Arbor Meeting, which is actually how I got into prison work. I was teaching at the University of Michigan,  Dearborn. My original doctoral research was about violence against women, and one of my friends from the Quaker meeting, Isabelle Yingling, invited me to speak with the women in the local prison about violence against women – because we know that 85% of women in prison have been in violent relationships of one sort or another. And when I went in, well . . . the story the women tell, and it’s true in many ways, is that “Lora fell in love with us.” Then AFSC got some funding for a class inside, and they asked me to teach it. The first course I taught inside was Women’s Studies.

WF:  How did you get into your dissertation area – violence against women?

LL:  I did that in San Francisco. That was in the 1980s. I was a volunteer at La Casa de Las Madres, and I was reading about women in abusive relationships. The mainstream narrative at that time was, essentially: “They like being abused. They are dependent. They have low self-esteem. They have ‘learned helplessness.’” It was just nonsense. When you actually worked with these women, and you saw what survivors they were, how strategic they were in managing their lives and their children, and trying to keep violence at bay . . . Much of the real story is that women don’t want to leave their relationships; they are invested in their partners and their relationships; but they want their partners’ abusive behaviors to change.

I could see that the research getting published was ridiculous, but nobody would listen to me because I didn’t have the credentials. So I began with a master’s degree, and then I went to UCSF and wrote my dissertation on the help-seeking processes of abused women.

WF:  Do you feel that this work is about justice?

LL:  Absolutely. In the first place, I’ve always thought that education in general is about justice, that knowledge is power. The more you know about something, or the more you know period, the more power you have to understand systems. I’m a sociologist, so my view is that if you understand systems, you can figure out how to navigate them.

And I also know – and this is from reading authors like Huey Newton and George Jackson – that the people who are harmed the least by prison experiences are the ones who have developed an analysis of power in social structures. When people have an analysis like that, they don’t tend to personalize the harm done to them. They don’t look at a harmful experience and spend all their time thinking, “What is wrong with me?” Instead, they ask, “Why did I make that choice?”Cover of book: Women Doing Life, by Lora Lempert

I’m not absolving anyone of poor choices. But it’s really important to be able to ask, “How did I make this choice in the context of the choices that were available to me?” That is an especially important understanding in mitigating the damages of prison.

WF:  Talk more about that. Identity formation seems like a major focus of your research.

LL:  So . . . When I give presentations to groups, I always start off by asking people to think about something they’ve done that they are ashamed of (and we have all done things we are ashamed of). So sit with your shameful thing for a minute, and then think about how you would feel if everyone in this room knew what you had done. Few of us would want others to know. Then think about this: What if every time anyone interacted you, that shameful thing would always be the first thing that came up? That is precisely what happens in prison. Once you have been in prison, the crime that you went in for is the life event that defines you. Whatever you did, and particularly if what you did is kill somebody, that moment in time becomes who you are every second of the rest of your life.

People in prison are not monsters. I do believe that about 5% of people in prison should never hit the street again. 5% should never, ever be let out. But our country incarcerates more people than any other country on the planet. It just doesn’t make sense.

Right now, the vast majority of people who come out of our prisons come out more damaged than when they went in. They have been in there for years. So the question is: Do we want people coming out better or worse than they were when they went in? Right now, we’re producing people who come out worse, many of them. And then we’re sending them back to the same communities where their choices were so truncated that they made the bad choices that sent them in. So we are creating a more violent society, not a less violent society, by the way we are handling people who make mistakes and commit crimes. We are creating a more violence society with our prisons, not less violent. And the recidivism rate is close to 70%. If you had a business that had a 70% failure rate, you’d close it. You wouldn’t throw more money at it.

WF:  People say that prisons are basically modern-day slavery. And now we’ve got private prisons, where recidivism is a cash cow.

LL:  Yeah, it’s incredibly depressing. That’s why I think the fortitude of the men and women inside is just so incredibly remarkable and touching.

 WF:  So what have you learned about ways that people inside hold onto and develop their sense of humanity and self?

LL:  It’s a process. As I describe in the book, when you initially go into prison, you have to learn how to be a prisoner. Nobody is born knowing that. The prison teaches you very quickly – how to be a number and not a person, how to follow instructions and not get in trouble.

After you learn how to be a prisoner, you are released into “the mix,” the general population, and you have to learn how you fit into that. How to not get taken advantage of? How to maintain your dignity? You have to learn to negotiate the informal culture of prison life. Sometimes you get lucky and somebody takes you under their wing. Sometimes you have to do it on your own.

And then, somewhere between seven and nine years in – and the women have pointed out to me that this is usually when all your appeals have failed – you are faced with a realization: “I have this life ahead of me that’s going to be the same day over and over for the rest of my life. How am I going to do this?” Some women go, “I’m cool in the mix. I’m just staying here. I got this worked out.” They accept the conditions of the prisons and their truncated lives.

Other women make a choice to say, “If this is my life, I’m going to make it the best life I can inside here. I’m not going to let my mind rot. I’m not going to let my body fall apart.” To do that, they need to establish a counter-narrative. They need a narrative that challenges the one the prison imposes on them and society inflicts on them. That counter-narrative is essentially, “I am not a monster. I am good person who made some mistakes. I can learn how to I forgive myself and how to forgive others who helped me fail.” So they develop a way of viewing themselves in the world that isn’t defined by the prison or society, but a way of defining themselves by knowing how to realize what’s right, by sorting out their responsibility in the crime, and what they do and do not have control over.

I don’t know anybody who walked away from their crime absolving themselves. They are all remorseful, and not just because they are in prison. They are very aware of the damage to their victims, their own families, and their communities. We can’t just throw them away.

WF:  There was chapter in your book about religion. Is there a common role for religion inside?

LL:  Well, you know the saying: “There are no atheists in fox holes.” A lot of men and women inside “come to Jesus” in some form, or become Muslims. For a lot of the women, I would say they are “spiritual” more than “religious,” because they don’t necessarily belong to established religions. Many of them will go to Bible study, and many will do devotionals, but many just kind of sit with God and talk with Him. They seem to relate to God like the good father or the best boyfriend. God is someone who will protect you.

And in many ways, God is the only entity that is forgiving. You don’t find forgiveness from society. You certainly don’t get it from any officers, and often not from your own family. But God will forgive you. So women inside establish what they call a personal relationship with God. And it’s not only because God is all-forgiving. It’s also because your relationship with God occurs in internal spaces. It is not something that the prison can take away from you. They can take away almost anything, but they can’t take away your conversations with God.

WF:  It reminds me of things I’ve heard about how important it is for a kid to have one adult in their life who they can use as a kind of an anchor.

LL:  I agree with that. I’ve long argued that we lose kids because they don’t have anybody who can hold a vision for them – a vision of a life that’s different from the life they are living. Someone to tell them, “I can see you doing X, Y, or Z in the future, and I believe you can get there.” If they don’t have somebody like that, they can crack.

And I think that also makes a difference in prison – whether you hook up with people who believe you can be more. Life inside is so circumscribed. You are bouncing against walls all the time. You have no place to go, you are stuck, and anyone can charge you with non-compliance at any time. Any staff or officer can charge you. And the remediation process – the people who decide about clearing any charges – is also run by staff and officers. So you are vulnerable all the time.

When you are incarcerated for life, that vulnerability
is a “death by incarceration.” It’s inhumane. It’s absolutely inhumane.

And it isn’t somebody else who is doing this. We are citizens of this country. We are responsible for this.

WF:  And somehow we are benefiting from it.

LL:  Yeah. We have to challenge that. We have to recognize our complicity in it. We have to lean on legislators to change it. Get on your legislators and ask them what their positions are concerning mass incarceration. And if they don’t have a position, don’t vote for them. Or if they have a bad position, don’t vote for them. Or if you get those surveys from candidates . . . I get those surveys constantly, and they never mention incarceration, so I always write it on there. I let candidates know that until they speak to me about the things that are important to me, they cannot count on my vote.

WF:  What are your highest priorities for changes?

LL:  The women have a lot of solutions that they want to see happen. Their issues are often tweaks that would improve the system, rather than the sort of institutional, structural changes I want to see. But the changes they want would make their lives more livable.

One thing they want, which is very important to them, is to institute visits with their minor children. They worked out this whole way of using Department of Corrections transport vans to pick the kids up once a month; the kids could come in for a whole day. Because if their kids are in foster care or living with extended family members, those people don’t have to bring the kids into prison for visits, which is bad for the kids and it’s bad for the mothers. It’s important to the survival of both children and mothers that they get to see each other.

WF:  And what systemic changes would you like to see?

LL:  First, we need to reduce the power of prosecutors, who are like God in this system, because they can do anything they want. And what they do is overcharge. They will charge you with ten things for one crime because that increases the odds that they can get you on something. So that would be one of the first things I would change. And I think the mandatory minimum sentencing laws have absolutely got to go. And I think for-profit prisons have got to go.

And we need to fix the way felony murders are charged. As it is now, everyone present during the commission a felony, like a robbery when somebody gets killed, everyone involved gets sentenced to life. The story is so common among women inside: You are out with your boyfriend, and he stops at a Seven-Eleven to get a beer. You are sitting in the car, and he decides while he’s in the store to rip the place off. There’s a struggle, and the gun goes off, and the guy behind the counter dies. Your boyfriend rushes into the car and says, “Hey, let’s get out of here.” And you drive away with him. When that happens, you are going to be charged with felony murder as an accessory. You are going to do life in prison. That is just patently unfair. You can’t know what your boyfriend was thinking. You can’t know what someone else’s intentions are. So that’s a set of laws that has got to be changed. And that came from the women.

WF:  Can you recommend organizations that are working for these kinds of changes?

LL:  The big ones are The Sentencing Project and The Southern Poverty Law Center.

And often, the most progressive legislation is coming out of the states. I mean, even places like Oklahoma are trying to figure this out, because imprisonment is so costly. There are no moral imperatives here; it’s about money, the bottom line. People are doing some really good local work on how to reduce prison populations, how to provide alternatives to sentencing, that kind of thing. We have to make structural changes so we aren’t losing whole generations of people. 

WF:  Well, on that cheery note. Thank You. 

LL:  I need to go back to my prison friends to get cheered up.  ~~~