Culture & Conversation Human Rights

New Book Explores the Overlooked History of Feminist Anti-Prison Activism

Victoria Law

Connecting the fights against gendered violence and mass incarceration isn’t new. But you wouldn't know it from most writing on the subject.

Marissa Alexander. Bresha Meadows. Cyntoia Brown. Cherelle Baldwin.

All four are Black women or girls who were arrested and prosecuted after defending themselves. All four faced decades in prison. All four were freed as a result of organizing and activism.

Connecting the fights against gendered violence and mass incarceration, as groups did for these four women, isn’t new. But histories of prison justice and anti-prison organizing have often focused on men behind bars; histories of organizing against gendered violence frequently focus on feminists’ calls for increased policing, prosecution, and incarceration with scant attention and analysis paid to the devastating effects this has on communities of color—and safety for women in marginalized communities.

In All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence, Emily Thuma shows that these two movements weren’t always at odds with each other and at times, were connected in organizing and defense campaigns. Thuma, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, chronicles some of the 1970s groups that centered in their organizing in women who had been criminalized. She describes movements to support women of color prosecuted for defending themselves against sexual assault, disrupting (and ultimately stopping) the expansion of women’s prison units, supporting women in prison, and creating their own means and methods of safety that did not rely on the police or prison systems.

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Thuma spoke with Rewire.News about some of these stories, their absence from (many) feminist histories, and what lessons they can hold for anti-prison and anti-violence organizers today.

Rewire.News: Why did you write this book? What absences were you seeing from the history of anti-violence and other movements?

Emily Thuma: I first became interested in studying feminist anti-violence activism and the carceral state when I was working at an organization in Seattle called Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA). This was in the early 2000s, and CARA was part of a growing constellation of groups that were organizing at the intersections of interpersonal and state violence. These groups were increasingly connected through two groundbreaking national organizations: Critical Resistance (CR) and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. CR and INCITE! helped to amplify a conversation—led by feminists of color—about the need for the anti-prison movement to reckon with gender violence and the need for the feminist anti-violence movement to reckon with its relationship to mass incarceration.

By the time I began the research for this book years later, new scholarship had offered powerful accounts of the making of carceral feminism—or as Beth Richie puts it in her incredible book Arrested Justice, how anti-violence activists “won the mainstream, but lost the movement” by adopting a law-and-order response to interpersonal violence. I wanted to know about what pushback there had been, the alternative visions and practices, and what was happening in the spaces between more visible movements. I was also interested in finding out more about the kinds of organizing that happened inside and around women’s prisons in that period—since, as your own book so importantly points out, people in women’s prisons are often sidelined in conversations and histories of resistance to incarceration. I wanted to understand how these different kinds of anti-violence organizing had interacted with and shaped each other.  

Rewire.News: Why don’t we know about this alternative history of feminism and the carceral state?

ET: Across the 1980s and 1990s, domestic and sexual violence organizations became increasingly intertwined with law enforcement and prosecutors, and policymaking around gender violence grew increasingly punitive.

A good example is the proliferation of mandatory arrest laws, which require police to make an arrest when responding to a domestic violence call. INCITE! and CR note in their 2001 statement on gender violence and the prison-industrial complex that this policy had produced harmful outcomes, especially for racialized, poor, queer, and undocumented women. These outcomes also included many instances in which police arrested the abused person in addition to the abusive partner.

In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and VAWA really tripled down on hitching anti-gender violence to carceral expansion. It was part of a massive crime bill that allocated almost $10 billion for prison construction, expanded three-strikes sentencing (which mandated a life sentence for anyone convicted of a third serious violent or drug felony in federal court), and the use of the death penalty for federal crimes. The bill also ended government funding for postsecondary education in prisons, among other things. And the overwhelming majority of VAWA funding, then and now, went into programs to encourage arrests and prosecutions.

So, criminalized survivors of gender violence—criminalized for self-defense, or for their survival strategies under increasing economic inequality, or for harms their abusive partner committed—were increasingly marginalized from this mainstreaming anti-violence movement.

Rewire.News: In 1974, Joan Little, a 20-year-old Black woman in North Carolina’s Beaufort County Jail, killed the 62-year-old white jail guard who raped her. Her act—and subsequent trial—raised the issues around sexual assault, race, and self-defense. Looking back, it seems like her case drew national attention and support, but you note that only six of the 150 people on the Raleigh Rape Crisis mailing list (at the time) responded positively to a mailer about supporting Joan Little. That reminds me of the silence of many contemporary DV organizations around Marissa Alexander. One domestic violence advocate later said that, since they rely on the prosecutor’s office to prosecute abusive partners, they were reluctant to get involved with Alexander’s defense campaign. How does reliance on carceral feminism block support for abuse survivors criminalized for self-defense?

ET: One parallel between the Free Marissa Now mobilization and the Free Joan Little movement is that rape crisis centers (RCCs) and domestic violence agencies were not the organizations that incubated these defense campaigns. In both cases, grassroots racial, gender, and prison justice activists—particularly Black women organizers—built broad coalitions and alliances to free these women.

The fact that RCCs weren’t the hub of defense work in the 1970s was partly due to the incredible demands of doing direct service work on a shoestring budget. But there were definitely situations in which RCCs that accepted criminal justice funding, or worked with local police to improve how they treated women who reported rape, were hesitant to endorse campaigns for criminalized survivors because these campaigns indicted the state for perpetrating and enabling racialized and gendered violence.

The important exception was the Washington, D.C. Rape Crisis Center, which notably was led by radical Black women in the mid-to-late 1970s and didn’t accept criminal justice funding. As I show in the last chapter of the book, the DC-RCC was on the frontlines of making the connections between state violence and interpersonal violence.

Rewire.News: What can today’s organizers learn from campaigns in the 1970s against the “prison/psychiatric state,” which your second chapter examines?

ET: The 1976-1978 campaign to “Stop the Violent Unit” in Massachusetts was a campaign led by a group called the Coalition to Stop Institutional Violence (CSIV). The coalition formed to successfully defeat a proposal to build a center for so-called violent women prisoners at one of Massachusetts’ large state-run locked mental hospitals. CSIV argued that the unit would be used against those who protested prison abuses, and that women of color and lesbian women would be especially targeted since they were already seen as threatening and dangerous. The campaign in Massachusetts was part of a broader resistance to what CSIV called the “prison/psychiatric state”—activists in California, West Virginia, New York, and elsewhere were also engaged in fights against behavior modification units for women prisoners. CSIV used this term to name the ways in which psychiatric diagnoses and treatment operated as tools of racialized and gendered social control in prisons, and to analyze structural similarities between psychiatric institutions and prisons.

I think this campaign will resonate with organizers today who are contending with criminal justice reforms that reframe jails and prisons as mental health facilities, or otherwise promise what the late Rose Braz (co-founder of Critical Resistance) called kinder, gentler cages. And it points to the importance of making connections between different forms of institutionalization. I also think this campaign is a strong example of the transformative power of coalition building. Not only because the alliance achieved a policy win, but because activists from multiple movements—including feminist, mental patients’ liberation, and prison movements—were transformed through the process of studying and struggling together.

Rewire.News: What was the importance of women’s prison newsletters in the 1970s? Today, when more and more media is digital rather than print, what has that shift meant for inside/outside communications and organizing?

ET: As I try to show in the book, newsletters like No More Cages and Through the Looking Glass challenged the isolation that prisons rely on. Radical print media that featured the writings of people in women’s prisons played an important role in the building of a women’s prison movement and the development of an anti-carceral feminist agenda. They provided a forum for incarcerated activists and their allies to exchange ideas and strategies, and to generate support for one another’s organizing efforts. And they allowed many people who would never meet face-to-face to participate in a shared political culture. Despite the waning of print journalism, anti-prison movements continue to prioritize print activism, including both letter-writing programs and media production, for many of these same reasons. Social movement organizations such as CR, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, TGI Justice, Survived and Punished, and Black & Pink all prioritize these strategies that help build political communities across walls and ensure that incarcerated people’s experiences and analyses are directly informing their organizing work.

Rewire.News: Speaking of print, talk about your process of digging through archives to find these materials. What was the most surprising or exciting discovery?

ET: I think the most compelling discovery for me was just how intensely contested state appropriation of anti-violence work was in the 1970s, and also the number and range of examples of anti-carceral feminist organizing I came across. For every campaign or organization I spotlight in the book, there were a half-dozen more I found out about in radical print media and various archives and private collections. As I hope the book shows, the question of whether and how to align with the criminal legal system was a major fault line among anti-violence activists in the 1970s. For those who helped develop anti-carceral feminist politics, anti-prison activism was anti-violence-against women activism, and vice versa.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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