Within the next months, Massachusetts’ legislators are expected to consider an amendment mandating that “Strip searches of inmates, including the videotaping thereof, shall not be conducted by or in the immediate vicinity of a correction officer or other employee of the opposite sex, except under an emergency or otherwise urgent situation.” Massachusetts Bill H.3444, An Act relative to searches of female inmates, comes in the wake of a successful lawsuit filed in 2011 against Sheriff Michael J. Ashe and Assistant Superintendent Patricia Murphy of the Western Massachusetts Regional Correctional Center in Chicopee. This lawsuit was filed on behalf of Debra Baggett and 178 former and current women detainees at the Chicopee Jail. As Jean Troustine explains, the defendants brought evidence showing that over a period of less than two years 273 strip searches had been videotaped, all of women, mostly by men who supposedly did not look.

The proposed law is certainly a step in the right direction. However, allowing the presence of an officer or employee of the opposite sex under an (undefined) “emergency or otherwise urgent situation” leaves the door open for subjective assessments of “emergencies” (for example, the inmate appears upset – a reaction that I’d expect to be fairly common when faced with a strip search) or bureaucratically based “urgencies” (for example, no officers of the matching gender happen to be available.)

Strip searches ostensibly are carried out in order to prevent contraband from entering prisons, yet reports cast serious doubts on the effectiveness of strip searches in that matter. In fact, evidence indicates that the majority of contraband is brought into prisons by prison employees rather than by inmates. Even if a strip search uncovers a bag of heroin or cocaine hidden on the body, that bag is likely to be a drop in the bucket against the background of the larger market of drugs smuggled in by employees. In other words, even if strip searches could be justified in terms of uncovering contraband (which, in fact, strip searches rarely uncover), to the extent that I have been able to see hard data on the matter, the amount of the uncovered contraband cannot justify this practice. In fact, no one really knows how effective strip searches are at keeping contraband out of prisons which is why I urge the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (and the rest of the country, for that matter) to document every strip search: the specific reason for conducting it and what exactly – if anything – the search uncovered.

National studies have found that strip searches often are conducted to establish power more than for real expectations of finding contraband . According to Deborah L. Macgregor, in an article published in the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, women are particularly targeted for these displays of power. It is not uncommon for prison guards to use children as pawns to coerce women to participate in a strip search. For example, women may be threatened with not being permitted to see their children if they fail to cooperate. “Prison and police officers are vested with the power and responsibility to do acts which, if done outside of work hours, would be crimes of sexual assault. If a person does not ‘consent’ to being stripped naked by these officers, force can lawfully be used to do it,” according to Amanda George in the Australian Institute of Criminology.  George cites women’s accounts of strip searches: “We are strip searched after every visit. We are naked, told to bend over, touch our toes, spread our cheeks. If we’ve got our period we have to take the tampon out in front of them. It’s degrading and humiliating. When we do urines it’s even worse, we piss in a bottle in front of them. If we can’t or won’t we lose visits for three weeks.”

Justice Marshall has described a strip search as “one of the most grievous offenses against personal dignity and common decency.” These searches create “feelings of ‘deep degradation and terror'” and instill psychological reactions that “can be likened to those of rape victims.” The punitive nature of strip-searching is particularly egregious in light of the fact that approximately one third of women incarcerated in Massachusetts have not been convicted of a crime. Rather, they are in jail or prison awaiting trial, typically because they are not able to pay relatively small sums of bail money.

The coercive nature of prison exacerbates the humiliation of strip searches. An estimated 70% of women drawn into the correctional system have experienced physical or sexual violence, and in many cases that includes childhood sexual abuse. Prison procedures requiring the removal of clothing and intimate touching of an inmate’s body are especially traumatizing for women who have suffered abuse in the past. Responses to perceived threats can include alienation, withdrawal, fighting back, extreme outbursts, worsening of psychiatric symptoms or physical health problems, self-injury or suicide attempts, and increased substance use. In the prison context, these behaviors can lead to further punishment, including solitary confinement, and can easily be construed as an “emergency” meriting the presence of opposite sex officers at the strip search.

According to testimony provided by Carmen Guhn-Knight (August 7, 2015) based on interviews with sixty women who were videotaped while undergoing strip searches at the Chicopee Jail in western Massachusetts, “Women with histories of sexual abuse told me of their heightened sensitivity to having their naked bodies video-recorded. They said they returned to their communities re-traumatized, and in some cases with PTSD due to being recorded during strip searches.” Guhn-Knight shares some of the reactions she heard from these women: “Do we have to have the videotape? I don’t want to be videotaped naked. I don’t want to be filmed naked… I don’t want the camera on me.” “Is this going to end up on YouTube? … I’m being filmed while everything’s off? I’m naked being filmed.” “I’m not going to get stripped in front of a camera, that’s pornography.” “[You] take someone’s dignity and then do it again with a camera.” According to Guhn-Knight, “Despite their complaints, these women had no choice in the matter; they eventually removed their clothing themselves or were restrained while an officer removed their clothing.”

While the proposed amendment addresses the gender of the person holding the camera, it does not address the broader problem of video-taping strip searches overall. The taping of strip-searches is ostensibly for the protection of the prisoner; that is, having a record may prevent or at least document abuse during the search. However, the preservation of the tapes opens the door for grievous violations of privacy. In a country in which viewing on-line pornography is widespread (and sometimes unavoidable when unrequested porn sites pop up on screens), women inmates have good reason to fear that the tapes of strip searches may be misused for pornographic entertainment. Doubling down on the harm of the practice of videotaping strip searches, research shows that men who watch pornography are more likely to voice attitudes supporting violence against women and to display dominance and aggression (including choking, gagging and insulting name-calling) toward women while engaging in sexual activity.

Based on my reading of the scholarly literature as well as on my own research with formerly incarcerated women, I believe that the proposed amendment does not go far enough to protect women or men from the pain, humiliation and human rights violations associated with strip searches. I suggest that the law be amended to (1) disallow routine strip searches (2) permit strip searches only in situations when there is clearly defined and documented reason to suspect that the inmate is hiding contraband on his or her body (3) clearly inform all prison staff that strip searches may not be used as a form of punishment or discipline, and institute sanctions against staff who order or participate in strip searches in other than situations where there is clearly defined and documented reason for the search (4) disallow all strip searches by opposite sex officers and employees (5) cease video-taping of strip searches (6) immediately discard all existing video-tapes of strip searches.

For background on Elizabeth’s murder please read Eulogy for Elizabeth.

Nearly a year after she was murdered by a man against whom she had taken out a restraining order, the newspapers have uncovered a bit more of what happened.

The day before she was murdered she called the police with a request that they get her former boyfriend out of her apartment. She told them she had taken out a restraining order against him. According to the press, “When the two officers arrived, they failed to make the simple computer check that would have confirmed the restraining order she told them she had against him, and should have led to his arrest. They took [him] to a detox facility instead.” He came back the next day (allegedly) and battered her to death.

I can’t know what was going through the minds of the officers when they ignored Elizabeth’s plea for help, when they chose not to believe that she had filed a restraining order against the man she wanted out of her apartment. I can only guess that in their minds she was one more drunk, one more loser, one more woman who doesn’t deserve respect because she has been homeless or incarcerated.

While the Boston police may have invested a great deal of time and effort into educating officers about intimate partner violence, they certainly dropped the ball this time. “Police records show [one of the two responding officers] has had 22 internal and citizen complaints filed against him for use of force, disrespectful treatment, and conduct unbecoming. … [The other officer] has three complaints on his record. … He was the subject of a 2006 lawsuit after he led a car chase that left a 15-year-old boy dead in Roslindale.” Yet according to the Patrolmen’s Association attorney, they are “outstanding officers” who, when responding to Elizabeth’s call, did “the best they could in this situation.”

I could be snarky and say that I’d hate to see the worst they could do in this situation. On second thought, that’s not being snarky – it’s simply stating the truth.

Elizabeth – I still have your picture on my desk. I still hear your classic Boston-accent voice telling me — less than a month before you were murdered in your apartment — how grateful you were for finally having a home after two decades of shelters and the streets. I don’t believe in an eye for an eye, that’s not the kind of justice I’ll seek for you. But I will seek justice.

“What Churches Don’t Get About Ministering to Marginalized Women” – By Jennifer L. Hollis

Originally published in Sojourners 10-12-2015

See the full article here:

“One of the things that most saddens me in conversations with criminalized and marginalized women is the absence of any sort of philosophy or theology — what I call cultural scripts — for making sense out of their suffering,” sociologist Dr. Susan Sered explained to my church earlier this year. …

Faith communities must address unmet needs for meaning and community in the lives of people who suffer. Too focused on the symptoms of structural social inequalities, churches set up soup kitchens or food pantries, whose irregular schedules force poor and homeless Americans to run around among a variety of different organizations in order to be able to eat and feed their families every day. This process covers up the lack of a real safety net in our public policies instead of challenging those policies. And when a church or nonprofit gives, and poor Americans receive, the relationship makes a social — and implicitly moral — distinction between the haves and the have-nots, between the people who serve, and the people who are served. …


Many of the classes and programs in which women participate (voluntarily or not) teach them that in order to ‘recover’ they must take responsibility for their own problems, stop blaming others, extricate themselves from ‘co-dependent relationships,’ and learn to ‘do me’ rather than giving themselves to others. “This message undermines traits such as generosity and sympathy which women may most value in themselves,” Sered told me. “It distracts attention from the social violence that sends so many women into the institutional circuit to begin with, and negates the possibility of finding meaning in suffering.”

Sered believes that faith communities, especially churches, have a radical opportunity to do something different: help these women make meaning out of their suffering. “At least as a Jewish outsider looking in, it seems to me that the power of Jesus’ preaching as well as his horrific death is that suffering has cosmic meaning, that it has identifiable causes, and that those who have suffered the most can have the most to offer other people,” said Sered.

Continue reading at: https://sojo.net/articles/what-churches-dont-get-about-ministering-marginalized-women#sthash.KEFWJpow.dpuf


(Thank you to Lois Ahrens for bringing the pink handcuffs to my attention.)

Each October, as national breast cancer month rolls around, I find myself fluctuating between pink-nausea and pink-rage. The pink ribbon extravaganza, a month-long consumer fest that turns women’s suffering into cold hard cash makes the absence of a national commitment to identifying and eliminating the environmental causes of breast cancer seem that much worse. The sanitized cuteness of pink-ribboned teddy bears makes the slash and burn treatments of the bio-medical cancer industry feel all the more painful. And the pink-painted messages praising “strength” and “optimism” reinforce the “holistic sickening” at the core of many of the complimentary and alternative healing modalities that “explain” breast cancer in terms of poor lifestyle choices, suppressed anger, or denial of one’s true femininity.

This year I’ve collected a few of the new (or at least new to me) egregious efforts to commodify, to normalize, to exploit — and to “cutefy” — breast cancer. Click here and here for more serious analyses. And as always, to learn more about “pinkwashing” and to support the work of Breast Cancer Action, click here.

As you can see in the feature photo, the pinkwashing Olympics have their new champion: the police department of Greenfield, Massachusetts announced on Facebook that for the month of October, they’ll be using pink handcuffs. Officers will also sport pins reading “Arrest Breast Cancer.” Because there’s no problem you can’t solve that way.

The news of this very well-intentioned, probably, gesture comes via CBS Boston and also the department’s own exuberant press release:

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. While most people are aware of breast cancer, many forget to take the steps to have a plan to detect the disease in its early stages and encourage others to do the same.

Many of our community members, including some of our own friends and family members, have been affected by breast or other types of cancer.

Officers of the Greenfield Police Department have “gone pink” in order to raise awareness for the disease! All of our officers have changed their collar pins, which were blue and white state seals to pink and white pins which states “ARREST BREAST CANCER – UNLOCK THE CURE” surrounding a pink ribbon and a pair of handcuffs. Some of our officers have even replaced their on duty silver handcuffs with pink ones and will be using them during the course of their work day.

Help us ARREST BREAST CANCER by spreading the word and by making your own early detection plan.


Remember: when placing a suspect in a light chokehold or frisking them against a vehicle, always ask if they’ve performed a monthly breast self-exam. There’s no awareness like the kind that takes hold in the back of a squad car.

In this era of stop and frisk, rising rates of incarceration among women and continued sexual abuse of women in prison it’s hard to get excited about a pink police car. “In 2006, a Department of Justice (DOJ) study found that women in prison are at significantly greater risk for cancer than their male counterparts. Out of every 10,000 incarcerated women, 831 had cancer, compared to 108 per 10,000 men.” According to the Department of Justice there are over 1,000 incarcerated women who either have or have had breast cancer. To learn more about  the suffering of “breast cancer behind bars” click here.

Pinkwashing has also expanded in the usual commercial way:


(Image courtesy of the Shultz Shoes Website.)

Just what every woman needs to stay healthy: Pink stilettos. Perhaps the message is: Don’t worry about dying of breast cancer when you can kill yourself running for the train in pretty pink shoes.


(Image courtesy of the Hard Rock Hotel Website.)

This year the Hard Rock Hotels are offering “Pink Rooms” with pink bed sheets and an option to purchase pink bathrobes. The activists among us will be relieved to know that we can stop organizing, lobbying, researching and lecturing. All we need to do to eliminate breast cancer is “Get into bed” and “relax for the cause.”  And in case you’re more of a “party for the cause” than a “relax for the cause” kind of gal, Hard Rock Hotels have you covered as well. Who knew that pink margaritas prevent (or is it cure?) breast cancer?


Pink ribbon and other cause marketing can mask conflicts of interest, like when companies promote the idea of cancer research but also manufacture ,disseminate, or sell products that contain toxic or carcinogenic ingredients. I’ve recently seen dry cleaning companies jumping on the Pinktober bandwagon:


(Image Courtesy of Westportnow.com)

What this and similar ads leave out is that PERC, the solvent used in most dry-cleaning, is a known carcinogen.


(Image Courtesy of Glamour.com)

Recent studies also show the harmful effects of working in a nail salon surrounded by fumes from chemicals in nail polish and yet companies are selling nail polish to “promote breast cancer awareness.”

And finally, to take away the sour tastes in our mouths (whether caused by chemo or by pinkwashing): Nothing promotes the health and wellness of women quite like sugar filled candies with cute little pink ribbons all over them.


(Image courtesy of orientaltrading.com)



We Can Do Better

While spending on breast cancer detection and treatment continues to increase, funding for prevention – for learning about the causes of breast cancer – is far less marketable. In past years my home state, the Massachusetts legislature failed to fund research on potential carcinogenic impacts of chemical exposure despite clear findings that there are specific communities in Massachusetts with particularly high rates of breast cancer.

As for me, I’ll skip the pink bathrobes, candy, nail polish and (hopefully) police cars, and spend my money on real research into breast cancer prevention. For more on the Silent Spring Institute click here.

Thank you to Robin Yang and Ashely Rose Difraia for help with this post.

Click here and here for previous updates.

For women who struggle with homelessness, summer can be a bit of a reprieve. Because outdoor sleeping is a realistic possibility (unlike during the long Boston winters when they are stuck in overcrowded shelters with strict bedtimes, wake-up times and a plethora of rules) they may feel a bit less constrained, a bit more free.

Low income mothers who are hard pressed to arrange activities for their kids when schools are closed and temperatures are high often find summer to be challenging. Without a car or financial resources, July and August can seem unbearably long in hot urban apartments, especially when their children beg them to take them to water parks and on other expensive and inaccessible outings.

For women who are trying to arrange housing, welfare or other services, summer is a frustrating time in which social service employees are out of the office and paperwork gets stuck in the bureaucratic mill.

Here are early September 2015 updates on the women of Can’t Catch a Break.

Andrea: She still has her apartment but she gave up her job at the beauty supply store because they only gave her 2 days / week of work and she needs something to do the other days. This decision was taken back in the spring when a friend told her that she might be able to help Andrea get a job as a personal care assistant. At the time I asked Andrea whether she needs certification and a background check for this job. (Neither is simple in light of her prison record.) She told me that she has the certification but it turned out that she meant that she has the application to apply for certification but that she hadn’t yet filled it out. She was waiting for the friend to come over and help her with it (Andrea’s literacy is limited.) Andrea was not clear on what this kind of job entails – for example, whether she’d be working in a nursing home or for private clients, but she liked the idea that it pays $15 / hour and that she can work more hours.

By mid-July she had not made any progress and was unhappily unemployed.

Later in the summer Andrea was much happier. She’d recently heard about a “ladies drop-in place” where she now goes regularly and “hangs out with the people there.” She particularly likes that the women themselves plan day trips and activities, and the people who run the place help them with transportation. In the last few weeks they’d been to the museum, zoo and a water park. The volunteers who work there serve lunch daily and “they keep the place very clean.”

When we last spoke Andrea let me know that she was still with her long-term boyfriend but is unhappy that he takes but does not give. “I want a man who will take care of me and who wants a better life and to do things.” But her biggest complaint is loneliness: “I’m alone. No one comes to see me.”


Ashley: Ashley’s life today is as good as it gets. She is married to a wonderful man who works steadily at a highly skilled job. They have a child (absolutely adorable) who is welcomed and loved by flocks of grandparents, aunts and uncles. Ashley stopped working to be a stay-at-home Mom, and both she and the baby are thriving.

Carly is such a pleasant and easy conversationalist. Even though she is the youngest woman in the project, when we get together I often find myself telling her my problems before we even get around to talking about her life!

Carly’s has had some ups and down over the past half year. She had a job for a few weeks at a supermarket but was fired for getting into a fight with another employee. The final straw was when the co-worker called her “the n word” (in reference to Carly’s African American friends) and then referred to a black customer as a “monkey.” Having spent her teen-age years in foster care with a black family whom she still thinks of as her family, “I won’t put up with people using the ‘n word.”

She then landed a job working at a hotel but developed severe respiratory problems, most likely from the fumes of the cleaning supplies. She spent over a week in the hospital during which time doctors performed a slew of tests. Carly was told that the hole in her heart (she was born with a heart murmur) had grown and was now causing problems. “But then at church the Holy Spirit came on me and gave me the gift of being able to see [sense] things that are hidden from most people.” And, when she went back for a check the doctor said the hole in her heart closed. In the meantime she was fired from the hotel.

Since then nearly all of Carly’s attention and conversation is about the Holy Spirit. She can “see” Satan and knows when bad spirits are in people. Carly says that she feels empowered by this, but at the same time she is worried about spiritual warfare, believing that to be the reason why there have been so many obstacles in her life and why and bad things continue to happen to her.

Daisy’s life has settled down significantly. It is a great tribute to Daisy that her children graduated college and have good, professional jobs and solid, healthy relationships. And now that her children are adults, they are able to help her hold onto some level of stability and look out for their mom while maintaining boundaries that allow them not to burn out on Daisy’s endless needs.

Daisy is still living in a room that her daughter found for her in a rooming house in a suburb outside of Boston. While the living arrangements are minimal (shared kitchen and bathroom), they are far safer and saner than the homeless shelters where Daisy had stayed for nearly a decade. Her children also arranged for her to continue in an out-patient day program that picks her up in a van four times / week and brings her to a social center for disabled adults. Though there are few activities or enrichments at the center, Daisy enjoys playing bingo and talking to other people.

When the center is closed (three days / week plus holidays) Daisy is alone and isolated. On cold, snowy winter days and on hot, humid summer days she is essentially trapped in her room – it’s quite a long walk on a steep hill to get anywhere from her house.

I recently took her out to lunch for her birthday and she cleaned herself up and dressed nicely for our date. But she seemed very sleepy, most likely, she said, because of her medication. She has been drinking less and has not been in trouble with police for drinking outside for quite a while. But on the downside, the borders of her life are very constraining and when the social center is closed she often does not exchange a word with another human being for days on end.

For more on Daisy see Outcast Island.

Elizabeth: See Eulogy for Elizabeth.

Francesca: The ups and downs continue. Last spring she ended things with Joey, went to detox (again), and moved in with a friend whom she has helped out with childcare in the past. She enjoyed the domestic scene for a while but then began to feel sick. At the hospital she was told that, “I have an inflammation around my kidneys which caused some muscles around my kidneys to tear; I have a virus and fever and need to go home on bed rest.”

A few months later she met a new man and moved in with him and his family in a somewhat rural town without easy access to Boston. She embraced the domestic life and the opportunities to cook and clean and help care for his grandchildren. Her own grandchildren came to visit several times and she loved being part of a big family.

This man treats her well – he is not an addict and not violent – but her does have a busy life with work and hobbies of his own. So, after some time Francesca started to feel restless and isolated and now circulates among her son’s apartment, her friend’s apartment and her boyfriend’s house.

Her stated goal for the summer was to confront her fears and make choices for how she wants to live her life.

For more on Francesca see The Bitch at the Welfare Office.

Ginger has been having a hard time since her mother died. She misses her all the time and feels that the center of her life is no longer there. She spent part of the winter and spring in Florida with her brother and then moved back to Boston where she stayed on the streets and with various relatives. She was involved in a volatile relationship with a man – a relationship that involved a few police interventions and quite a few break-ups and reconciliations, as well as at least one incident in which her attempt to throw something at him ended up with her injuring herself.

She knows that it’s not good for her to keep moving around (Florida to MA) because of a man and that “I need to do me.” In the late spring she rented a room in an apartment and seemed settled. But after less than two months she moved out because the person she was renting a room from brought in people who were smoking crack and one time Ginger came home and found a man in her bed. Homeless again, she spent the summer “sleeping here and there.” The last time we spoke she had moved back to Florida.

Isabella’s two big concerns are housing and her step-son who has been in and out of juvenile detention. These two concerns are intertwined: When she and her husband lost custody of his son they also lost their eligibility for family housing. The last time I spoke with her (June) the three of them were staying with a friend. Her husband and step-son were sharing a futon and she was sleeping on a love seat with her feet dangling off the end.

Isabella is capable of working: She is bright and has solid work experience. But between the demanding hours of the methadone clinic (she has to go to the clinic every morning for her dose and she has to stay for group therapy several times a week) and the endless search for a solution to their housing problems she has not even been able to look for a job.

For more, see: Failure by Design: Isabella’s Experiences with Social Services.

Joy: In the spring Joy seemed to be in good shape. Her daughter (who is in her father’s custody) was seriously ill and Joy’s parents allowed her to stay in the hospital with her daughter. Joy was up to the task and her parents were confident that she was not using drugs.

Then, “I relapsed.” With no place to live, she spent some time in an abandoned trailer and then hooked up with a young couple who owned a car and had an apartment. “They’d sit in the car and I’d go out and do my thing [prostitution] and buy drugs and we’d split everything three ways.” She understood that they were exploiting her but didn’t see any other options. In the meantime she had failed to show up in court on an old charge and a warrant was issued for her.

In the late spring she called me from the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. She had tried to kill herself. Joy told me that she was found in the woods (near where Linda was murdered) by someone she’d known many years ago. He called an ambulance and the paramedics had to work for 45 minutes to save her. She was taken to a hospital and then released her after a few days. She then went to the police and said she would kill herself again if they couldn’t place her in a treatment program. They took her to a different hospital’s psych ward where the staff would try to find a long-term bed for her. They didn’t, and in a week she was back out on the streets.

Over the summer two of her front teeth rotted out. We talked about how she always looked after her teeth and I reminded her how the first time we met she attributed her survival to always having a toothbrush and toothpaste even when she was on the streets. I asked her what changed. She said she basically has given up.

For more on Joy’s adventures in psych wards and rehab see, Alternatives to Incarceration: Be Careful What You Wish For.

Kahtia: Things have been rough for Kahtia. She’s been struggling with depression and anxiety, and spent a week on a psychiatric ward in the early spring. But Kahtia is one of the few women to have a truly helpful caseworker who assisted her in getting back on her feet. In April I met her at a soup kitchen where she helps serve lunch and clean up as well as eating her own lunch. She liked the structure this gave to her day while her children were in school. However, during her hospital stay her meds were switched to a new anti-anxiety drug and a heavy-duty anti-psychotic. As a consequence, when we talked she was struggling with intense drowsiness – literally falling asleep with her fork halfway to her mouth. She explained that both medications cause drowsiness and the interaction causes more drowsiness. For the first time in years she did not appear to be well groomed: Her nails were dirty and unkempt; her shirt was dirty; she had some crumbs around her mouth. Her children, however, were clean and appropriately dressed and Kahtia was able to pull herself together to pick them up and school and cook real dinners for them every day.

When we spoke in the spring Kahtia was particularly upset over appearing drowsy because if she “nods” at the methadone clinic they won’t give her the dose (that happened earlier this week) because they assume she is using drugs (even though they have the paperwork about her meds.) She felt (and I agreed) that she needed to talk this over with a doctor who knows her and all of her med history. She tried to call her own doctor but no appointment was available for a few weeks.

By the end of the summer things had deteriorated even more. The head counselor at the children’s day camp called DFS (child welfare services) to report that Kahtia often seemed high in the morning at 7:30 when she dropped her off. Kahtia explained to me and to DFS that she takes psychiatric medication which leaves her groggy in the morning but she is not high. Indeed, her urine is tested regularly at the methadone clinic and she has not used illicit drugs. In any case, the children were taken away and placed into foster care. Kahtia is devastated. And while she can see the children once each week and speak with them on the phone daily, they will start the school year in a different district (where the foster family lives) rather than return to their friends and teachers.

Read about Kahtia’s reflections on sex work here.

Vanessa spent most of the winter and spring in residential programs for treating substance abuse. These stints were broken up by several episodes of her leaving (and not being permitted to return) or her being kicked out for breaking rules or “relapsing.” Each time she ended up on the street in tears and frustrated at the barriers to getting back into a program. Even when she finds a placement, each time she has to “start all over” with detox and then waiting for a longer term bed in a rehab facility.

The last time I tried to call I couldn’t get in touch with Vanessa. Her cell phone number was disconnected. And, after many years of being a stalwart support, Vanessa’s mother is ill and told me that, “I don’t know where she is. I can’t deal with her. I’m too tired. I can’t deal with the aggravation.”





Last month Amnesty International came out in support for “the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.” The reasons make sense: Decriminalization will eliminate the jail time and fines that punish (mostly) women for trying to make a living; it will give sex workers access to the health care and services that other kinds of workers benefit from; and it will allow sex workers to turn to the police for protection without fear that they themselves will be arrested. Amnesty International rightly asks, “How can we reduce the threat of violence to sex workers? What can be done to ensure their access to medical care and help prevent HIV? And how can discrimination and social marginalization that put sex workers at increased risk of abuse be stopped?”

But then I looked a bit more closely and two little words made me sit up for a double-take: “all aspects”? Seriously? An organization that I deeply respect has called for the decriminalization of pimping and procuring? Apparently, yes, for the reason that anti-pimp laws have been used to arrest sex workers who share a working space. Does that happen frequently enough to justify decriminalizing all pimping and procuring? It turns out that the answer is no – these laws are not used against sex workers anywhere near as often as they are used against actual pimps and procurers.

I took another look at the statement, and this time noticed a preemptive argument that, I would guess, was written to fend off attacks from people — like me — who would not be so thrilled with across-the-board decriminalization: “These questions about health, safety and equality under the law, are more important than any moral objection to the nature of sex work.” Oh no! My colleagues at Amnesty International could not possibly have used one of the cheapest tricks in the rhetorical arsenal — creating a straw man (“moral objection to the nature of sex work”) in order to imply that the only reason someone might disagree with blanket decriminalization is because of “moral objections” — a kind of objection that, in the current political climate, conjures up right-to-lifers, the Christian right, and other other enemies of human rights! Didn’t they understand that people – like me- might disagree for other reasons entirely?

The Question of Consent: Context Always Matters

Having spent ten years engaged in research and friendship with marginalized and criminalized women in Massachusetts – most of whom have exchanged sex for money at some point in their lives, I am most troubled by the words “consensual sex work.” Amnesty clarifies that they are not calling for the decriminalization of human trafficking or of people who force children or women into sex work. But this glosses over inherent problems in identifying any particular sex work situation as truly consensual.

Kahtia [not her real name], a woman I’ve known through many ups and downs, recalls with some pride a short-lived glamorous career as a prostitute and drug dealer in up-scale New York City clubs. Within a short time, however, “I became my own best  [drug] customer and had to go to the streets to make money for drugs.” Street level prostitution was not so glamorous. She learned to become totally numb and dissociate herself during sex. Kahtia demonstrates this by tipping her head back, closing her eyes, and dropping her jaw open. “It was just…wait for him to finish and give me the money.”

Was this “consensual”? One could argue that it was: She initially chose high-paying sex work and drug dealing (exactly the kind of “consensual” sex work Amnesty likely had in mind), and even the subsequent sex work could be seen as a choice she made in order to support her wish to use drugs. But, looking even further back:

Kahtia’s earliest memories are of Sunday dinners at the home of her Irish maternal grandparents. The clan, including Kahtia’s mother and white half-sister, would be seated around the family table. Kahtia and her brother – children of an African-American man — were told to eat in the hallway: Their dark skin color was not welcome at the dinner table. An under-the-radar heroin addict, Kahtia’s mother supported her own habit by shooting up Kahtia and her brother with drugs and receiving money from the men she invited to rape them. Kahtia remembers her father as a good but weak man (he was an alcoholic). She also remembers being told she exhibited “unruly behavior” due to which she was removed from home and placed into a residential program for “problem kids”. Child Welfare Services did not believe Kahtia’s stories of abuse, and she was sent home on weekends where the rapes continued. By the time she was ten Kahtia decided that anywhere she went would be better than home, so she ran away. Living on the streets as a very young girl, Kahtia encountered what she considers to be her first bit of good luck: She was adopted by a powerful gang. Emoting pride, Kahtia recounts how the gang leader heard of “the girl who kept a razor blade hidden inside her mouth” in order to defend herself, and supported her in her initial forays into drug dealing and upscale prostitution.

The details vary, but the broad outlines of abuse, time in juvenile institutions, an initially helpful older man, fear, anxiety and drug use are present in the experiences of nearly every woman I know who has ever worked in prostitution, even for a brief time.

One might be tempted to say that for at least some women, paid sex work constitutes disengagement from or resistance against traditional patriarchal practices of marriage — at least they are getting paid for what other women may be compelled to do for free. Marjolein van der Veen, a feminist economist, suggests that prostitution “opens up possibilities for commodification as a site for new economic alternatives of producing commodities in noncapitalist class structures.” Jane Scoular, a legal scholar, much along the lines of the Amnesty International statement, similarly argues that that there is nothing inherently harmful in sex work. Rather, the problem for women lies in specific temporal settings in which sex work is criminalized, marginalized and stigmatized.

While these contentions may have some intellectual merit, in my many conversations and interactions with Massachusetts women who have worked in prostitution I have never glimpsed even a hint that it’s possible to extract a neutral commercial exchange (sex for money) from the real life worlds of women who are poor, sick, homeless, abused, and / or trafficked. These contentions, as Rutgers University professor Barbara Foley writes, “tragically disregards the oppression that forces women into prostitution.” Indeed, every one of the women I know says, in one way or another, that working in prostitution, compared to even the worst marriages and lousiest jobs at fast-food joints, is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

The Gazer and the Gazed

The women I have met make it clear that unwanted, repeated bodily penetration is not equal to other paid or unpaid labor. In order to work in prostitution they must disengage the self, “go numb.” Sex work – by its very nature — transforms the body into an object to be gazed at rather than a subject with the power to gaze. Olivia (pseudonym), a former stripper interviewed by law professor Jody Raphael, recounts her experiences working in a peep show: “I know how the animals in the zoo must feel as people walk by gazing at them.” Raphael, who interviewed Olivia over a period of many months, understood that Olivia dealt with this work, “By disassociation through alcohol and drugs, and through the fantasies of pretending she was someone else, Olivia left her true self behind. While in stripping, Olivia never used her real name.”

Raphael’s observations illuminate that problematic word in Amnesty International’s position — consensual. As Rachel Moran, an author and advocate who was pulled into the sex trade when she was fifteen years old writes, “I know from what I’ve lived and witnessed that prostitution cannot be disentangled from coercion.”

True consent, as understood by every university and hospital ethics committee in the country, requires explicit acknowledgment of the inherent power differential between the researcher and the study subject – between the gazer and the gazed. While messy and complicated everyday life is not the same as a controlled research setting, informed consent standards that reflect decades of legal, philosophical and ethical consideration point to the difficulties in assessing sex work as consensual. Informed consent standards adopted in the wake of Nazi medical experimentation and other blatant human rights abuses require that all possible risks be clearly spelled out and understood by the study subject; it requires the subject to be fully physically and mentally competent to give authentic consent; it makes explicit that the subject is free to end the encounter with no explanation and with no penalty at any time; it spells out to whom the subject can report problems with the study or the researcher; and — of particularly great relevance here – it disallows the researcher to offer payment or other forms of compensation that can be construed as unduly pressuring the subject into agreeing to the study.

By these standards, and in light of the real life experiences of most sex workers, decriminalizing all aspects of “consensual” prostitution, is likely to turn out to be, as Rachel Moran writes, “[I]n the name of human rights [a way to] decriminalize violations of those rights, on a global scale.”

For a deeper discussion of these issues see Susan Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk. 2011. “Gender Overdetermination and Resistance: The Case of Criminalized Women.”   Feminist Theory 12(3): 317-333.



In a previous post I warned about what I call “fake” education; that is, education that drills students in self-blame and a sense of failure and that disguises the sources of power that perpetuate inequalities. My argument was NOT a call to eliminate access to educational programs until we perfect curricula and pedagogy, but rather a cautionary note based on conversations I’ve had with criminalized women in Boston over the past decade. Let me be clear, as one long-time educator wrote to me, “Without the commitment to access, any reform in the content or delivery of education won’t matter.”

Rev. Vivian Nixon, Executive Director of the College and Community Fellowship and Co-Founder of the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, has kindly allowed me to re-post her insightful thoughts on these issues. You can read the full post here. I’ve re-printed excerpts below. I urge you to read the full article.

Let’s Get Real: Prison Is No Place for Elitism

“It’s incredibly important to pay close attention to quality education on the inside. Having been inside myself — a high school graduate stuck in a prison with no post-secondary options — I argue that any attempt to create broader access to programming would be welcomed by those who currently have no educational alternatives. …”

“It would be wonderful if everyone qualified for Bard Prison Initiative or other intense liberal arts programs, but we know that many will not. Those who do not qualify for a Bard-caliber program could easily do well in a less rigorous community college program. Furthermore, not everyone has an interest in the contemplative life. Some just want to learn how to be a Computer Technician or gain some other marketable skill because they feel it’s their best chance of escaping lifelong poverty.

“That option should be readily available. If one of education’s main concerns is helping students forge a sense of individuality, introspection and self-determination, then the choice to limit educational programs in prison as an attempt to “do what’s best for them” proves antithetical to our ultimate goals. Just as students on the outside participate in educational programs of all levels, incarcerated students should also have a wide range of options — every program should not be exclusive. While quality must not be ignored, we should agree on what we mean by “quality” and not confuse it for elitism. …”

“The practical role of education in helping those incarcerated escape the cycles of marginalization, crime and poverty is as large as its transformative ability to foster critical thought, self-reflection and a stronger sense of self for those in the classroom. When we account for the irrefutable correlation between lack of education and rates of imprisonment, we must take every opportunity we can to provide educational programming for those who need it most. That means a wide range of programs, broader financial aid eligibility and a persistent, long-term commitment to improving educational access for all.”

I’d like to thank the many friends and colleagues who commented on the “Knowledge is Power” post. Stay tuned for additional posts on this very important topic.

Expanding access to higher education has been in the news recently. First, the Obama administration announced a plan making state and federal prisoners eligible for Pell grants, arguing that education can play a role in facilitating post-release employment. Second, Hillary Clinton joined the other Democratic Party candidates in calling for substantial federal spending aimed at making college affordable, declaring that, “To raise wages, there is no better investment we can make than in education.”

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science,  “Ideally, a liberal education produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds.” The devil, of course, is not so much as in the details as in the hands of those who have the power to shape institutions and enforce policies. In our far-from-ideal world, the follow-up sentence to the Association’s declaration probably should read something like this (my words): “In reality, most contemporary educational institutions and programs emphasize obedient classroom behavior, rote learning, standardized test-taking that validates only a narrow range of knowledge, self-blame for failure, and a few potentially marketable skills that will prepare future workers to contribute to the profits of private industry.”

The Boston-area criminalized women I have come to know have participated in myriad educational programs as school children and teenagers (where they entered the infamous school-to-prison pipeline) and as adults both inside and outside of prison (hardly an ideal setting for encouraging open-minded, critical thinking). Overwhelmingly, these educational programs share two aims: (1)To encourage the women to admit that they are flawed and diseased; (2)To push the women into the most low-paying job sectors.

Tonya, a Black woman in her mid-thirties recalls her education program in prison: “I felt that I couldn’t pass the GED so fuck it. I’m defective. I took it five times.” This sentiment is one that Tonya has repeated a number of times. For instance, a few years after I first met her she was thrilled to be accepted into a Culinary Arts training program arranged by a local homeless organization. But after a few weeks she complained, “I am not happy. We – the students – are just being used as cheap labor. We’re not learning anything. We spend the day chopping piles of meat and vegetables. They ‘pay’ us $8 an hour. We work 50 hours a week but they only pay us for 46 hours because it’s ‘education.’ The education part? We’re supposed to write a plan for a meal that we would cater. If I could cater a meal it would be soul food but the teacher wants us to make meals that white people like.” A few weeks after that conversation Tonya finished the program only to learn that in order to get a restaurant job she would need to pay $185 to obtain a “safe service” certificate.  She didn’t have the money. “I feel like a loser,” she said.
Tonya’s experience of being used as cheap labor in the guise of a training program is common. Other women I know have been “trained” by being handed a broom and sent off to clean offices or hotel rooms. Paid under minimum wage, they are let go when the “training” is over and replaced by other “trainees.” In many cases, these programs are required by drug court judges or by parole officers as proof of “rehabilitation.” As Tonya has learned the hard way, being sentenced to menial labor that does not pay a living wage is often the prelude or post-script to a prison sentence.

We like to say that “knowledge is power,” but, unfortunately, the thrust of a great deal of contemporary American education has less to do with helping students understand who actually holds the political and economic power in our grossly unequal society, and more to do with drilling students in the notion that they personally are responsible for their own failure to take control of their lives, make the “right” contacts, excel at exams, land jobs, and stay out of jail. That kind of “knowledge” disempowers; it obscures who profits from the status quo; and it keeps individuals focused on their own failures rather than on the structural conditions of poverty, racism and gendered violence that sentence the majority of Americans to be “losers”.

As new educational opportunities may be opening up for criminalized and for low income students, and as teachers and professors (like myself) prepare to go back to school, it’s a good time for educators to give some serious thought to what we actually are teaching our students. Are we merely telling them that ‘knowledge is power’ or are we clarifying that much of the knowledge we are imparting has been accumulated and validated by sources of power with vested interests in maintaining that power? Are we encouraging them to speak truth to power: to discover the truths that shape their lives, to identify who really does (and does not) hold the power in our world, and to speak loudly so that those in power will listen? If we are not doing these things, we are allowing our educational programs to add propellant to school-to-prison pipelines.

The ideas for this post grew out of the Education session at the Free Her conference organized by Families for Justice as Healing.

I’d like to thank expert educator Vivian Troen for helping me think through these issues.



During the first week of August 2015, newspapers reported that the White House is drafting an executive order requiring federal contractors to provide their employees with at least seven days of paid leave per year for illness or to care for family members. The notion that workers are are flesh-and-blood human beings who sometimes get sick, sometimes need to care for family members who are sick, and often cannot absorb the loss of salary while they are sick should be pretty self-evident. And, one would assume, acknowledgment of basic human rights should be sufficient reason to require employers to provide their workers with at least some paid sick leave. Yet, within days of reports of this seemingly modest policy move, industry leaders have made it clear that they will oppose this executive order in court; that they will do their best to dilute it’s provisions; and they will do their best to ensure that it applies to as few workers as possible.

Fortunately, despite harumphing out of Washington that paid sick leave would kill job growth, interfere with the free market and turn American workers into sniveling babies, a number of states have gone ahead and passed paid sick leave ballots or legislation. I’ve re-posted here an essay on the critical importance of paid sick leave that I wrote right after the 2014 elections. Continue reading