Voice of Witness, Inside This Place, Not Of It, provides a series of narratives based on interviews with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. The book personalizes the background stories of women in prison, their experiences within walls, and their difficulties upon release.
The editing is graceful, light-handed, and almost invisible, making the stories ring true and fresh, as if the reader is sitting in the room with the speaker. Most of the time, the editors' hand is only seen in a helpful introductory paragraph, and the quality and sensitivity of the interviews themselves shines through the stories. There is something very genuine about some women's willingness to discuss the offense that brought them to prison, and others' reluctance to elaborate on the more difficult parts.
A few common themes emerge. So many of these stories begin with familial neglect and abuse, set in a general environment of deprivation and discrimination. The balance between being a product of one's environment and having personal responsibility for one's actions is delicate, but many of the interviewed women are very thoughtful and reflective, and provide a nuanced understanding of their actions in the context in which they were committed.
The two most alarming aspects of the narratives, for me, involved seldom-highlighted aspects of women's imprisonment. The first is the truly shoddy health care system. Shocking stories of giving birth while shackled and being separated from one's baby, receiving a mistaken HIV diagnosis that remained uncorrected for years (and treatment for it), having one's diabetes untreated and undiagnosed, callous carelessness about the possibility that an inmate might lose all her teeth, repeat themselves throughout the book.
The other aspect is the frequency with which sexual abuse by guards occurs in the prison environment. Many women report sex with guards under physical coercion or lack of choices, and for many of them, speaking up and complaining entails harsh retaliation and isolation from the prison staff as well as the inmates. Popular culture tends to focus on rape and sexual assault among inmates. It would appear that assault and exploitation on the part of staff requires much more serious and urgent attention.
The book also includes a series of great appendices, providing solid, readable information about topics such as the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), health care issues, and the incidence of prison rape. I can't recommend this enough as a great, honest window into lives seldom discussed publicly.