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?
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."