At some point in the mid-1980s, I attended a feminist presenter's discussion of the sexist, racist, and sexualized representations of incarcerated women in film. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the presenter's name. But I never forgot her identification and discussion of the film Caged Heat. This 1974 film, written and directed by Jonathan Demme for New World Pictures, was Demme's directorial debut and was followed by a number of mainstream films. The poster advertising Demme's original Caged Heat 1 can be easily located on the Internet and shows five barely clothed, racially diverse women in suggestive poses and the words: "Women's Prison USA--Rape, Riot, and Revenge!" and "White Hot Desires Melting Cold Prison Steel!"
When women's and girls' offending and incarceration have not been sensationalized, sexualized, raced, and classed, they have largely been invisible. Notable exceptions are the mid-1990s documentaries Defending Our Lives (1994) and We Are Not Who You Think We Are (1993).2 Defending Our Lives (still a classic and an Academy Award winner) interviewed women incarcerated for killing their abusers, and We Are Not Who You Think We Are interviewed incarcerated women about their traumatic childhoods. In the past few years, three gripping and excellent documentaries have been made about girls' and women's encounters with the criminal legal system and incarceration. Girl Trouble (2004) is perhaps the grittiest, following three teenage girls in San Francisco over a four-year period as they engage with the Center for Young Women's Development (CYWD), a peer-run organization for girls who have been in the juvenile "justice" system, and includes their encounters with the CYWD, their lawyers, judges, and families. Girls on the Wall (2009), with the terrific subtitle "The True Story of a Lockdown Musical," focuses on three teenaged girls in the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville (near Chicago), a maximum security institution for girls, as they help take part with other incarcerated Warrenville girls in writing and performing a musical about their lives. Finally, Mothers of Bedford (2011) is a film about a program for incarcerated mothers in the Bedford Correctional Facility in New York and follows five women. This powerful documentary examines pregnant women who are allowed to keep their babies in the prison, as well as women with children on the outside, most frequently being raised by the incarcerated women's mothers (the children's grandmothers). Thus, the label "mothers of Bedford" applies almost as much to the mothers/grandmothers outside the facility as the mothers and children inside.
These three recent documentaries have a number of similarities, all of which add to the remarkable contributions they provide in not only helping viewers gain a better understanding of offending women and girls, but in increasing advocacy for these incredibly marginalized and invisible members of society. First, all three documentaries are filmed through a feminist lens and give the women and girls faces, names, and most of all, humanity and life; this is done by following their traumatic entries into the criminal legal system, their experiences while involved with the system, and in some cases, their lives after they have left incarceration. Second, these films are effective at not stereotyping, and the women's and girls' ethnicities and offenses are diverse. Third, each film includes a focus on an individual woman whose activism and dedication made a difference for girls and women tangled in the criminal legal system. Finally, and in some ways most significantly, given the devastatingly minimal commitment to female offenders (other than incarcerating them) by the government, media, and others, all three of these documentaries offer hope and communicate the potential power of effective programs.
Girl Trouble (2004) was inspired by Lateefah Simon, who has since garnered a prestigious McArthur Foundation "Genius" Fellowship for her work with girls. At the age of fifteen, Simon joined the Center for Young Women's Development (CYWD) in San Francisco to teach street teens about HIV, and at age nineteen she became CYWD's executive director, a position she held for over a decade. Girls on the Wall was inspired by Meade Palidofsky's advocacy for girls incarcerated in Warrenville. Palidofsky ("Ms. P" to the incarcerated girls), artistic director of Storycatchers Theatre, believed and found that incarcerated girls could find some healing through writing and performing a musical about their own lives. Finally, Mothers of Bedford was inspired by The Children's Center at Bedford program, started by Sister Elaine Roulet. Simon, Palidofsky, and Roulet are interviewed throughout the films and show the viewer the power of an individual to make social and legal change.
Serendipitously, I met at least one of the advocates, filmmakers, or subjects involved with the criminal legal system from each of these three films in the fall of 2010; when contacted to write this review shortly thereafter, I was ecstatic. At the annual meeting of the National Association of Women Judges in San Francisco I watched Girl Trouble, followed by a panel with producer-director Lexi Leban, Lateefah Simon, and former "girl in trouble" Stephanie Sabini, currently employed in civil rights work in California. At this same conference, filmmaker Jenifer McShane provided an almost-final version of Mothers of Bedford, followed by an intimate question-and-answer period with a small group of attendees. Finally, at the 2010 International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies annual meeting in Montreal, I saw some more recent film clips of the musicals that Palidofsky produced with incarcerated girls, and spent a considerable amount of time with her afterwards discussing her work. Each exemplifies the potential of feminist social and legal change by seemingly everyday women. Their films, following women and girl offenders over time, provide an accurate measure of success, since it is not clear from the beginning for either the filmmakers or viewers whether the programs will help. But they all do.
These films would be excellent to use in more specific courses on women and crime; prisons and jail; race, class and crime; but also in more general courses such as introduction to criminal justice, introduction to sociology, and introduction to women and gender studies. I can also imagine them being useful in law school courses on women and the law or children and the law. Two recent books that would be useful to assign with any of these films include Inside this Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women's Prisons3 and Orange is the New Black.4 A shorter reading is a great article on incarcerated mothers' coping with separation from their children by Katarzyna Celinska and Jane A. Siegel.5
Joanne Belknap, a Sociology professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, has won numerous research, teaching, and service awards. She is currently working on the fourth edition of her book, The Invisible Woman: Gender, Crime, and Justice, and a large study on the trauma and mental illness histories of women in jail.
1 Other exploitation films of incarcerated women used the words "caged heat" in the title but were not affiliated with Demme or his original film.
2 Defending our Lives (dir. Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich; Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Documentary Films, 1993); We are Not Who You Think We Are (dir. Tracy Huling and Robin Smith; Washington, DC: Video Action Films, 1993).
3 Robin Levi & Ayelet Waldman, eds., Inside this Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women's Prison (San Francisco, CA: McSweeney's, 2011).
4 Piper Kerman, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Spiegel & Grau, 2010).
5 Katarzyna Celinska and Jane A. Siegel,"Mothers in Trouble: Coping with Actual or Pending Separation from Children due to Incarceration," The Prison Journal 90, issue 4 (2010):447-74.