March 29, 2012 | Law and Justice
Woman of the Week: Robin Levi
Robin Levi advocates on behalf of women in prison. She also helps them share their stories in their own words.
By Anna Louie Sussman
NEW YORK CITY -- As a staff attorney in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch in the mid-1990’s, Robin Levi found herself working on a groundbreaking report on women in state prisons. Now the human rights director of Justice Now, a non-profit that focuses exclusively on the needs of female prisoners, Levi’s long experience with this population has become tragically timely: women are now the fastest-growing demographic within the American prison system.
Yet in spite of their rising numbers, few of their stories reach the outside world. Working with the writer Ayelet Waldman, Levi collected and edited oral narratives from dozens of women inside of and recently released from prisons across the country. These stories are the subject of the book “Inside This Place, Not of It,” published last year by Voices of Witness. She spoke to Women in the World Foundation about why women are filling America’s prisons like never before, and what might bring about change.
You’ve been working with female prison populations for over 15 years. What has kept you in this particular line of legal work?
What’s fascinating about this work is how it represents the confluence of so many different topics: issues about racial discrimination, gender discrimination, domestic and sexual violence, education, and health and reproductive justice. All of those pieces get put together. Back when I first started, it was a population that very few people really knew about, or cared about. So it seemed like such important work and it provided me with an opportunity to work on issues that I really cared about. I can work on issues around reproductive justice, family, gender identity and sexual orientation, and racial discrimination, all while working on women in prison.
Why did you and your colleague Ayelet Waldman feel it was the right time to produce a book of oral testimony from female prisoners or ex-prisoners?
No matter how many times we’ve said it, people don’t really seem to be hearing about what is happening to women inside. And it seemed to be perfect for this long-form medium that McSweeney’s Voices of Witness series publishes. So we asked for a meeting, and we discussed it, and it was really heartening. Even though this is their first book focused on issues specific to women, they got it immediately. Dave Eggers really heard it, and understood why it was important.
How was this process different or similar to your work as an attorney? Were you asking different questions, or seeking other kinds of information?
As a human rights attorney, I almost never get to talk about what really brought my clients to prison, and their experiences before prison and their day-to-day life in prison. I’m spending a lot of time of trying to find out what kind of abuse they’ve been through, or how they got sterilized without their consent, and not the day-to day-indignities of trying to make a phone call or not getting enough toilet paper. With this project, I really got a full feeling for a person.
Can you explain why women are the fastest-growing prison population?
There are several factors here. By the time they get to prison, they have usually already experienced several human rights violations, which in many cases are worse than what they’ll face in prison. We tried to highlight in the book that the number of women who experienced childhood sexual abuse is off the charts. We know the numbers: at least two-thirds of people in women’s prison have experienced domestic or sexual violence. I think the numbers must be higher than that, because we know that at least two-thirds of our interviewees had experienced childhood sexual abuse before they ever got to prison.
That really stood out to us in terms of things that lead to prison, because you end up self-medicating. It’s so much easier to get drugs than to get decent health care, or therapy for these experiences. We as a society have broken these women. They have been broken, by our inability to provide safe homes, or decent education systems, or drug rehab for their parents. So we’ve broken them, and then rather than try to provide help, or fix them, we throw them away.
The other factor is the war on drugs and the “tough on crime” approach, which have both had devastating impacts on women. The number of people in women’s prisons has risen 800% in the last decade, and it’s not because women have really changed what they’ve been doing.
In many states, and in the US federal system, if you have X amount of drugs on you, you’ll serve Y amount of time. The judge has no discretion in sentencing. The only way for the judge or prosecutor do something different is if you have information to trade, to provide to the government in order for them to make a case and arrest other people for their involvement in a given drug deal or organization. In most cases, women are at the bottom of the totem pole in any sort of drug deal. They don’t have anything to exchange. Or in cases where they do have information to trade on someone, it’s their boyfriend or their partner, who they often love, or are afraid of, or both. So they’re far less willing to provide information than the reverse. That leaves them far more vulnerable to being put in jail for these long sentences.
I’ve read that the economic crisis, which has in many ways been disastrous for women, has actually led states and municipalities to rethink how they deal with their prison population. Can you give our readers a sense of what might be happening in the future and where they can make an impact on these issues?
Sadly, this issue has been shockingly resilient to rational thought. About ten years ago I thought for sure that if I let people know what was going on in women’s prisons, then that would be the end of that.
But that was not the end, and it’s been a very long hard road. For example, in every state, you’d think that you could pass anti-shackling legislation. It costs a bunch of money, it can’t be very useful, it’s incredibly heinous, and it’s against standard medical practice. Well, it’s a fight in every state. In California, it costs $40,000 to keep a person in prison for a year. Really good effective drug treatment doesn’t cost that much. Really effective therapy for abuse victims does not cost that much.
Progressive lawmakers have always heard us and pushed anti-shackling or prenatal care or changes to mandatory minimums, but there just hasn’t been enough of them. But now we’re being forced to make some hard decisions because the money is not there any more. I’m calling on activists and the general population to be vigilant - to make sure that we are sending people back to their communities, to halfway homes that are not connected to correctional system, and in ways that are really going to help people. We need to stop using prisons and policing, and start helping communities. This is moment to make sure the right choices are being made, and we can do that.
Were there any surprises, anything you didn’t expect, in doing the book?
Doing this project also gave us an opportunity to talk about some of the ways in which these women have found their strength and found a way to go on. They talk about ways they want to give back to their community, and start an advocacy group, or whatever way they have been able to show strength and come out from the other side of this abuse. We don’t usually get a chance to talk about that, so to be able to get into that was a really great opportunity.
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.