July 24, 2005


by Sarah Stillman from www.huffingtonpost.com.

Just when I thought we’d be spared any more jokes about Martha Stewart making festive, quick-burning Yule logs out of freshly-shredded financial documents or gluing periwinkle seashells to her electronic ankle bracelet, I saw yesterday’s Huff Post headline--“Brace Yourself for Martha-Mania”--and sighed a big ole sigh.

On the heels of Stewart’s new book deal and reality TV show contract, I can’t help but notice how the mainstream media gets a twisted kick out of celebrity women’s incarceration. Earlier this month, when Judith Miller went to jail over Plamegate and rapper Lil’ Kim received 366 days in prison for perjury, the Washington Post ran a fashion (that’s right, FASHION) article about the two defendants’ hairstyles and wardrobe selections for their “sentencing walks”--as if they were strutting down a Calvin Klein runway instead of appearing before a federal judge. (In case you, too, aspire towards courthouse chic: Lil’ Kim boasted a blue Louis Vuitton handbag made of “$3,200 worth of goatskin and brass hardware that says ‘fabulous,’” while Miller clutched “a black shoulder bag whose most distinguishing feature was its ability to keep a multitude of writing tools within easy reach.”)

Popular coverage of Stewart, Miller, and Lil’ Kim (a.k.a. Kimberly Jones) and their entanglements with the criminal justice system have ranged from the cute-’n-comical to the absurdly offensive. But not once has the media approached this trio of high-profile female inmates as an opportunity to elevate the public discourse about the real issues facing almost 100,000 women in U.S. prisons and jails.

Instead of indulging in the details of Jones’ post-sentencing couture, those of us who share the privilege of ignorance about daily life inside prison walls could have been asking hard-hitting questions about the rap diva’s new home: Why do young women of color with significantly less dough than Jones comprise America’s fastest growing prison population? Why do incarcerated women in Jones’ home state of New York test positive for HIV at sixty times the national rate? What role does each of us play in promoting this current catastrophe of a criminal “justice” system--one that generates more than $40 billion in annual profits for corporations like MCI and Sodexho-Marriott?

And instead of printing several paragraphs about Miller’s “tortoise framed sunglasses,” “sensible pageboy” haircut, and “just-stylish-enough clothes” on Judgment Day, the Washington Post could have run an investigative piece on why the number of females imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses--predominantly blacks and Latinas--has risen a mind-boggling 700% in the last two decades. Or on why pregnant inmates in some states are routinely shackled during childbirth. Or on why draconian policies like California’s three strikes law and New York’s Rockefeller drug laws continue unabated, despite the havoc they’ve wreaked on individuals, families, and communities.

And finally, instead of hearing about Martha’s epic struggle to get a frothy cappuccino on the day of her release from the big house (Alderson Federal Prison Camp) to the even bigger house (her $40 million, 153-acre estate in Bedford, where she’s currently under house arrest), our nightly news might have informed us about the Herculean challenges accompanying the average woman’s transition out of prison. These hurdles often include: the struggle to stay clothed and fed despite the lifetime ban on welfare and food stamps for drug offenders; the search for shelter notwithstanding the blockade on public housing; the odyssey to maintain parental rights and heal intimate relationships; and the quest for decent employment in communities where poverty has been normalized, feminized, and criminalized.

I guess it’s a whole lot cinchier to sensationalize the stories of a few celebrity inmates than it is to address such grim realities in a nuanced way--or to actually allow incarcerated women to speak for themselves.

But the media’s distortions have consequences. As Anna Clark notes, “The lack of cultural language about women in prison translates into a de facto acceptance of the state of women’s experiences today.” And that state--rife as it is with sexual misconduct by prison guards, unmet healthcare needs, invasive strip searches, alarming technologies of seclusion, and a litany of other dehumanizing phenomena--is anything but acceptable.

So when you pick up the latest issue of Vanity Fair to find a luminous Martha on the cover (cuddled up to her new French puppy, Francesca), remember that not all women emerge from prison as thinner, kinder, more fabulous people with multiple book contracts and lavender-scented soap lines to boot. Consider, instead, the less airbrushed consequences of mass incarceration for women, families, and society as a whole...then ask yourself if it isn't time to imagine and invest in radical alternatives.


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