[Readers, please welcome Katherine Craft to Hay Ladies! She’s an Austin-dwelling activist who runs a badass theatre program for incarcerated women. In this guest post, she talks about why Texas’ “Don’t Mess” image shouldn’t be a point of pride if we’re to be inclusive, compassionate and feminist.]
I had an epiphany reading Lonesome Dove about a month ago. I’m Texas born and raised (South Dallas, whaaat?) but for some reason, our punitive criminal justice system never made much since to me. I was raised in a feminist, moon-worshiping household, went to Dallas’ Arts Magnet high school, and ran around with a bunch of artsy-fartsy people, many of whom have gone into social services. My first ‘real’ job was at the emergency youth shelter my mom runs. If all of my friends are always hugging in the street and decrying the massive prison explosion under the governorships of both Bush and Perry, why isn’t the rest of Texas?
Then boom, Lonesome Dove. There’s the sequence where Jake gets himself all caught up with a bad crew and they steal some horses, and then Captain McCall and Gus track ’em down and they hang them all from a tree, even Jake! Even their good buddy from years back! Doesn’t matter that he just kind of moseyed into this gang out of bad luck and laziness, and then couldn’t get out because he thought they might kill him (like they killed all these other people) – they hung him too. As Willie Nelson sings, “For you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman / for tryin’ to steal your horse.” Because horse theft was a capital crime – get your horse stolen in the wilds of Texas and you’re a dead woman. Justice for it was brutal and punitive.
And we love that! “Don’t mess with Texas” may have started as an anti-littering campaign but it might as well be our national slogan. We’re tough, we’re frontiersmen and cowboys and vaqueros. We don’t take shit from nobody, and we grow up reciting the Texas pledge in classrooms across the state (“I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas…”). We have the right to defend our property with deadly force and the Texas Senate passed a bill this spring that would have allowed for concealed carry of weapons on college campuses. When we place the Texas prison system in that context, the “hang ’em high” mentality makes more sense, even if it does give me hives.
I run a small, sponsored nonprofit called Conspire Theatre (part of the Austin Creative Alliance) which “offers a healing and empowering experience to incarcerated and marginalized women through the mediums of theatre and creative writing.” Our approach is the complete opposite of how much of Texas likes its incarceration: we’re compassionate, open-minded and hopeful. We create a space within the jail where women are respected as human beings, and where their ideas and experiences are honored. Why do we do we work this way and more importantly for this post, how does it tie into Texas feminism or feminism in general?
Like Jake in Lonesome Dove, most incarcerated people face the assumption that they deserve to be punished. We conclude that if someone is locked up, she harmed someone in some way. Even though we feel sorry for Jake, we also see that he had it coming. It is easy to fight for women, for women of color, for at-risk youth, for people with disabilities, for transgendered individuals and for the rights of the LGBTQ community – they are all good people who need support. If jails and prisons are for bad people, who wants to speak out for them? We’re always calling for George Bush, for Rick Perry, for all sorts of horrible CEOs, politicians and world leaders to be imprisoned – how can we then advocate for the rights of other people locked into those places?
Lemme throw some facts at you. A: most of the women who pass through the system have committed non-violent offenses, B: many of their offenses stem from using both legal and illicit substances as coping mechanisms from trauma brought on by abuse and/or domestic violence, and C: the feminization of poverty keeps many low-income women from resources like education, jobs with living wages, and health care that could transform their lives. These histories of victimization and trauma strongly affect women’s pathways into incarceration. Scholar Caroline DeHart says, “Overtness of force upon the women [in prison] ranged from psychological pressure, to provocation, to child corruption, to intimidation or threats, to beatings or physical force. In most instances, it is arguable that the offense would not have occurred had it not been for the direct influence of some sort of victimization.” And I’m not a fan of the V word but it gets the point across. I have spoken with many women in my classes whose personal narratives reflect this but I want to acknowledge that this is not every incarcerated woman’s experience; they are all individuals with their own stories and lives.
So what if incarcerated women aren’t bad people? What if they’re people who deserve compassion and respect? What if progressives who feel passionately about all sorts of great causes focused some of that energy on the criminal justice system? We exist and we’re out here working in all the ways we can, but we need issues around incarceration and criminal justice to be more than a niche interest. Mothers and caretakers are being taken from their communities to serve sentences which give them little to no education on how they could change their lives. While they’re gone, their children stay with relatives or get sent to foster care. If an incarcerated woman is pregnant and gives birth while imprisoned, she’s given from a few minutes to a few days with her new baby before the child is taken away. We have created a new class of women who can’t get food stamps because they have a drug felony, and can’t find a job because of a conviction on their records. I know many white, middle class women who have committed offenses similar to the women I meet in the jail like drug use, possession, shoplifting and drunk driving who are lucky enough not to get pulled over or when they are, have access to a good lawyer.
Incarcerated women are not bad women any more than free women are. In our current lock ’em up system, we all face the possibility of joining their ranks and when we do, we want to know that other women have our backs.
Some programs are trying to serve incarcerated women’s specific needs – my theatre class is part of a larger program at the Travis County Correctional Complex called PRIDE (People Respecting the Inherent Dignity in Everyone) that offers courses on parenting, domestic violence awareness and life skills such as money management and job readiness. A pilot program in Houston’s Harris County has set up a specialty court for child prostitutes that directs them into services instead of incarceration. A program in the Dallas County jail called Resolana operates in a way similar to PRIDE, with more arts-based programming.
All of this great, but we can’t enact systemic change until we let go of the idea that punishing people makes us great Texans. We’re a bloodthirsty state, but we’re also smack dab in the middle of the Bible belt. I wouldn’t call myself a Christian, but I am pretty invested in Jesus’ radical ideas of forgiveness and love; maybe all of churches around the state could remember that part of the Bible. Feminists are great at deconstructing the many ways that certain things are awful – let’s bring some of that rhetoric and fire to issues of incarceration. Let’s include incarcerated women when we’re talking about women’s rights and the multiplicity of challenges that women face in today’s world. Quit celebrating a punitive system, and encourage great Texans to show great compassion.