In this piece, I reflect on India Porter’s “My Story”, an essay published by the American Prison Writing Archive. In it an African American woman named India Porter incarcerated in Michigan, reflects on her childhood, the lack of resources available to her within prison, and the ways in which her life is reflective of studies and statistics. This is one of two essays in the American Prison Writing Archive written by African American women. The archive needs volunteers to transcribe essays, if you are interested follow this link. This is the first in a series of posts about African American incarcerated women writers and intellectualism. If you know of a lesser known piece of writing that I should feature here, I would love suggestions.
Undergirded by studies of women and girls and crime, Porter argues that her own experience with crime was reflective of her upbringing. Born to a drug addicted father and a mother battling Schizophrenia, Porter became a victim of sexual abuse at a young age. As a teenager, she became a “victim of the sex industry,” though she wouldn’t have considered herself that at the time. After reading about girls and crime, Porter found that victims of sexual assault are more likely to commit violent crimes as teenagers. Porter’s essay, found in the American Prison Writing Archive, places her own life in the context of scholarship on incarceration, and puts forwards ideas about improving the experience of incarcerated women.
Porter goes on to critique the system of incarceration for it’s lack of rehabilitative services. Porter asserts that many of the women incarcerated in the United States are victims of sexual violence and other abuse, yet there are few treatment options available to them. They are being “punished” for their crime, with little emphasis on their personal histories of trauma. India goes on to discuss the lack of preparation for life in the “free world”: She is not serving a life sentence and will be released from prison. Re-entry services and preparation courses are not available to her until much closer to her release, though it may take much longer for her and other incarcerated women to learn job skills, computer literary, and other skills necessary for employment and survival post-incarceration.
Porter’s essay is a critique not simply of the criminal justice system, but of a system of incarceration that fails women, and women of color. Scholars and those working in the criminal justice system know that women who commit crimes are often victims of sexual assault and other violence, yet society does little to address these issues or help victims after. Porter, influenced by recent scholarship on women and crime, argues for the inefficiency of re-entry and post trauma services from women in prison.
These are issues that many of us know about: but reading Porter’s words, and her own analysis of her life in the context of scholarship on mass incarceration, should serve as a reminder that the people best equipped to write about injustice are those experiencing it.
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