For the 113,000 women incarcerated in state and federal prisons, one DIY zine has proven to be an invaluable lifeline and creative outlet. We spoke to its publisher, Victoria Law.
Before Orange Is The New Black, women were seldom the focus when most people thought about prison. While the Netflix show opened a door for many to start thinking about the stories of the 113,000 women in state and federal prisons, it wasn't the only creative endeavor to discuss the issue. In 2003, a group of female prisoners incarcerated in Oregon noticed the absence of women's experiences in prison literature. They reached out to prison abolitionist and writer Victoria Law and asked her to be their outside publisher for a new zine. Several hundred fliers calling for submissions later, Tenacious: Art & Writings by Women in Prison was conceived.
"Women in prison have been told their lives don't matter, their words don't matter, and no matter what they say or do, nothing is going to change," Law, the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Behind Incarcerated Women, says. "To be able to have their stories and their words matter is an important step to realizing that they are able to enact change."
Law has formed long-lasting relationships with women in prison across the US, thanks to a paper she wrote while at university. She became privy to the truth about the realities of incarcerated life, as well as what the women risk (loss of prisoner rights, sentence extensions, and solitary confinement) by speaking out about what truly matters to them: medical care, access to children, and sexual abuse.
"Tenacious allows the women to tell their stories in their own voices; it's not me," she explains. The zine, which is about to publish its 36th issue, is sent from New York to women's prisons across the US, reaching as far as Alaska. Once it arrives, it is passed from woman to woman. "It is a way to connect. They see it is not just them and it is not just their specific prison, but it is a systematic problem."
Last year, Barack Obama promised to address systematic problems with the US prison system with proposed drug reform. But drug crime hardly figures when you read and listen to incarcerated women's stories. In state prisons alone, there are 34,000 women incarcerated for violent crimes versus 29,400 women incarcerated for drug crime in state and federal prisons. Where are the reforms for this larger group?
Tenacious #32 with an image by Rachel Galindo, a formerly incarcerated artist. The cover features Dessie Woods, an African-American woman who was imprisoned in the 1970s for shooting and killing a white man who tried to rape her. The #33 cover features an illustration from Paula Sutherland, a Native American woman incarcerated in Oklahoma.
The truth is, change for women in prison cannot be considered the sole responsibility of the prison system or politicians. Law believes it is only achievable when regular people listen and believe the stories of female prisoners, donating and helping to coordinate the ongoing fight for reform. "Changes happen because women inside and women who get out of prison talk about their experiences. Tenacious is another step. It helps raise awareness where people may have never thought of it before. Someone might read it and say, 'How can I get more involved where I am?'"
Women inside prison are also fighting the criminal justice system by setting up groups such as Families For Justice As Healing, speaking out and, according to Law, "not sitting on their hands."
Small outlets like Tenacious continue to promise the hope of change. "People are looking at prison issues," Law says, "and are able to say, 'If there are men in prison, what about the women? What about trans women?' I am hopeful."
Shawneen Buck's poem and illustration were published in Tenacious #31.
Tabita Swords was published in Tenacious #31.
Nicky Riley's "Survival Story" was published in Tenacious #33.
In Ghana, girls as young as ten leave their homes to work as porters in markets, where they are vulnerable to sexual abuse and unplanned pregnancy. One organization is working to help by providing access to reproductive care.Oct 22, 2016
The actress and former porn star discusses her new clothing line, combating child prostitution, and what happened when she met the Republican nominee.Oct 22, 2016
'Everything to do with Jean Batten is gendered.'Oct 21, 2016
The stigma against trans men's health, coupled with misinformation, makes attaining adequate care incredibly difficult. We talked to trans guys and leading health experts to unpack the status of this under-researched issue.Oct 21, 2016
While some states, like California and New Jersey, include accurate abortion information in high school sex education programs, the majority of states do not mandate that schools address the topic—and some even ban discussion entirely.Oct 21, 2016
Brittany Mostiller, the director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, is working to make sure reproductive rights aren't just for those who can afford it.Oct 21, 2016
Echoing statements from her previous debates, Hillary Clinton continues to defend Muslim-Americans while also making many feel as though their status as good Americans depends on how much information they can provide to counter extremism.Oct 21, 2016
Joanne Sally had to leave her job as a teacher after a scandal erupted over her topless photos. Now she has teamed up with artist Simon Fujiwara on a video installation that explores fame and the slipperiness of identity.Oct 21, 2016
A long-awaited report examining sexual assault on UK campuses has just been published. But will the overhauled guidelines revolutionize how we deal with the problem of sexual assault?Oct 21, 2016
For centuries, people have been obsessed with stories about virginity loss. We talked to an expert about why this is—and how the typical deflowering narratives are changing.Oct 20, 2016