The visiting rooms in women's prisons are usually
empty. The men don't come. Children don't see their mothers because
nobody is willing to bring them.
"I miss my kids," says Ida, a middle-aged mother of five. “That’s
what hurts most.” Ida is watering the daisies she planted at the
Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California.
Nearby, her best friend stoops to pull weeds. She’s in her late
40s and has been behind bars for 12 years on drug charges. “This
is what my life is about,” she says, “ripping out weeds.
It keeps me alive.”
The two look up as a voice calls them into the recreation
hall, known to inmates as “the barn.” As they enter, a 23-year-old woman,
also in on drug charges, joins them. A sad-eyed 50-year-old enters the
room next. “I’ve been waiting for this class all week,” she
“I’m ready to scream,” agrees another
An older Chinese woman gently lowers herself to the
carpeted floor. Like many women at the Dublin prison, she’s serving time for a
drug conviction. “Worked hard today,” she sighs, turning
her attention to a slight, brown-haired woman. “I’m tired,
I’m stressed. But I’m free now that I’m here with you,
Karina Epperlein is the only woman who has come to
the prison by choice. She’s here to spend the day teaching “soul work,” trying
to help imprisoned women feel free.
Epperlein is a native of Germany, a theater artist
and t’ai chi
instructor. Her simple instruction in breathing, poetry, voice, and song
unlocks capacities for artistic expression, strength, and self-esteem
that these women didn’t know they had and helps them cope emotionally
and spiritually with life behind bars.
Epperlein opens each class with the women facing each other in a circle,
airing their grievances and frustrations. Next, she leads the women in
stretching exercises, encouraging them to take deep breaths, sigh, and
make whatever sound they feel like. Then she might ask them to express
their energy with a good scream, encouraging them to feel the emotion
of their voices vibrating in their chests.
“I want us to find a common ground, and sound is a good way to
do that,” she says. “I really want them to express their
pains, their angers, their joys, their cultural
backgrounds, their ancestors.”
What emerges are haunting noises. “It felt like something was
dying,” says one woman, after listening to another. “It was
like she was letting some death out of her.” Often the sounding
off awakens memories, which Epperlein asks the
women to weave into stories, poems, or drawings.
Epperlein quickly became known as “the screaming lady.” The
nickname enhanced her reputation, and eventually
the women were bringing all kinds of emotions to the barn: the pain
of loss and separation, anger at being locked up and alone.
The Dublin prison was originally built for 300 inmates, but at times
it houses four times that many. Most women are packed three to a cell,
sharing a space the size of a bathroom. The toilet and sink are next
to the beds.
“I feel like the living dead,” Ida says. “Got a mama,
can’t touch her; babies, can’t love them. The only thing
I feel is freaked out inside. Useless to the
ones I love. What good is it to live like this? Why should anyone have
a life so useless?”
The fastest-growing prison population
Women make up between 6 and 8 percent of the state
and federal prison populations nationwide, but the number of women
entering prisons quadrupled between 1980 and 1994, a rate far exceeding
the growth in the male prison population. In 1999 the number of women
inmates in the US reached 146,000. A 1996 report by the National Council
on Crime and Delinquency called the jump in the number of incarcerated
women a “hidden crises,” a
disaster obscured by the unprecedented growth
of the total prison population.
Nearly 75 percent of women in prison today are there
for nonviolent crimes, often petty drug or property offenses that would
not likely have warranted prison time prior to the war on drugs of
the 1980s. The three-strikes law had an unforeseen effect on the women’s
prison population. Many of the women at the Dublin prison took the
rap to protect their sons or their lovers from a second or third strike.
A Council study found that the overwhelming majority of imprisoned women
were caught in a spiral of poverty, racism, abuse, and neglect long before
entering the prison system. Half of them were in trouble as girls. Nearly
a third say the income they made the year prior to their arrest was not
enough to support themselves and their children. A history of drug and
alcohol dependence is common, as is a family history of arrest and imprisonment.
More than 90 percent of women in prison report that
they suffered physical, sexual, or emotional abuse as children and/or
as adults, and Epperlein says prison’s “totalitarian” structure
reinforces feelings of isolation and fear, exacerbating habits of self-destruction.
Most difficult of all, many of these women are mothers.
Almost 80 percent of imprisoned women are mothers. Most of them are
single. Nearly 1.3 million minor children have mothers under supervision
by justice system agencies.
“Pain is seeing your children grow, your children wanting and
needing you, and you needing and wanting them,” says Ida, who is
serving 20 years for her part in her boyfriend’s hijacking of a
plane in the early Ã”70s. “Pain is having to say too
often in a letter, Ã”I love you, and not being able to be
there to comfort when they need you.”
“We don’t get to feel our pain,” Dylcia says. “We
don’t get to express that we’re mothers, that we’re
women, that we have lovers on the outside.” Dylcia is serving a
55-year sentence for seditious conspiracy for
her involvement with the Puerto Rican nationalist movement.
Once inside, these women are more or less forgotten.
Epperlein noticed that while women regularly visit their men in prison,
often bringing their children along, the visiting rooms in women’s prisons are
usually empty – the men don’t come. Children don’t
see their mothers because nobody is willing to
“I used to think that being alone was great,” says Florencia,
44-year-old mother of five. “But now I have too much time in solitude,
too much time to ache. Can’t see my babies laugh or sing. Can’t
be there when my children need me to be.”
Ida describes seeing her kids in the visiting room: “You’re
used to having a relationship with them, and then they put you behind
bars, and they’ve got this big glass between you and, you know,
they can’t touch you.”
For a child, losing a mother to prison is traumatic. “When your
mom is taken away,” Epperlein says, “you believe that she’s
bad, you’re bad, nothing makes sense.”
“I am so sick of being here that all I have to do is think about
it and cold chills run through my body and I get real teary-eyed,” says
Evangelina, who is serving five years for trying
to rob a bank unarmed.
In the beginning, Epperlein encouraged the women to put thoughts like
these to paper. But she says women would often come to class sick from
the food or the lack of heat in the prison. She quickly learned that,
given the conditions, completing a thought, let alone a writing assignment,
was a major accomplishment.
In spite of the challenges, Epperlein’s group
exceeded her expectations. They developed an awareness of the cost
of shutting down their emotions, and of the liberation that comes with
exploring them. They learned to release anger and frustration, to talk
about fear, and to open up to each other.
“At times I get really, really angry,” explains Florencia,
who is serving 14 years for drug possession. “But now I have the
art and the singing. That helps a lot. When I get to where I’m
crying and I want to scream and I want to break down the door and all
that, I usually start singing and it gives me a lot of peace. There’s
the inner strength I didn’t know I had and now I know I have it
and I’ll put it to good use.”
Epperlein’s classes came to an end in 1996 following a statewide
cutback meant to ensure that punishment take precedence over rehabilitation
in prison. But she preserved her experiences in a documentary film, Voices
from Inside. Through a combination of interviews, scenes from class work,
and excerpts from a performance of an original theater piece created
out of four inmate’s own poetry, song, music, and dance, the film
portrays the spiritual reawakening of women hardened by years of confinement.
It reminds those on the outside that locked inside each prisoner is a
woman still capable of joy, anger, love, and – especially – pain. “Many
times I witnessed these women’s despair of being forgotten,” Epperlein
says. “They feel buried alive.”
Epperlein says people grow uncomfortable when she
talks about incarcerated women longing for their children and the pain
of their isolation. It’s
easier to talk about prisoners in sensationalist terms – gangs,
drugs, and sex. There’s no denying that things happen – guards
smuggle in drugs, women trade sex for favors – but Epperlein says
dwelling on such stories perpetuates the notion that imprisoned women
are monsters. Instead of mobilizing demands for rehabilitation, such
notions feed the public’s fear of criminals.
With Voices from Inside, Epperlein hopes to end stereotypes
of women in prison. Gang activity and violence inside women’s
prisons are actually rare. Men commit 86 percent of the violent crimes
in the country.
Epperlein watched inmates transcend circumstances
bound to for a lifetime: lack of education, poverty, abuse, sexism, and
racism. “They’re not victims,” she says. “They’re
just amazing if you give them a safe place where
they can claim who they are and find their roots.”
The danger of showing emotions inside the walls of
prison is replaced with safety inside the circle of women. The women
help each other find the courage to break through their inhibitions,
to find their voices and project the pain and heartache they have stuffed
deep inside. When a prisoner’s tears finally begin to flow, the
other women in the circle gather close around, hug her, and sing to
Evangelina has the last word in the film. “Here and
says, “is a time for healing of the heart. No more self-pity, but
the healing of our world. Can’t you feel the pain around you? Can’t
you hear the cry for help? Cry out for mercy.
Cry out for peace. Don’t
hold back and keep the pain within, cry. Cry
out, and for God’s
sake, let the love begin.
Christine Schoefer is a freelance writer living in Berkeley,
CA. Voices from Inside is available on video from New Day Films by calling
510/559-8892 or at www.newday.com.
Since the premiere of Voices from Inside in
1996, Evangelina, Florencia, Ida, and Dylcia
have been released from prison. Ida became an activist in the San Francisco
Bay area, where she established Families with a Future, an organization
that reunites families torn apart by prison. Families with a Future
volunteers drive children to California prisons to visit their mothers.
If the children live out of state, the organization flies them in and
houses them during their stay. It also purchases envelopes and stamps
for kids to write to their mothers, funds phone calls, enrolls kids
in youth camps, and takes them to parks and places where they can spend
time just being kids.
Families with a Future welcomes volunteer help
and donations and can be reached at 415/255-7036 ext. 320 or by writing
100 McAllister St. Suite 200, San Francisco, CA 94102.
Imagine living in a bathroom with a complete stranger. Imagine being
able to see your children only once every two years through a pane of
glass. Imagine rude awakenings every two hours with the shock of a flashlight.
That's part of what Karina Epperlein helps you to envision while showing
you life on the inside of a federal prison.
Voices from Inside passionately
portrays the stories of four courageous women serving time in a federal
women's prison in California, and the journey one woman from the outside
took to use her skills as an artist to create change by establishing "a safe place for the women to
show emotion." Karina Epperlein, born in Germany, was "shocked" to
learn of the use of the death penalty here in
the United States. This catalyzed her to enter into a voluntary four-year
teaching stint in the prison. She used a combination of visual art, sound,
breath and movement therapy to help women prisoners enter, if only for
a short time, a safe space together, where no one is telling them when
to sleep, eat, drink, and work.
In this captivating, intimately shot video, we are transported into
a world few of us on the outside ever take the time to consider. And
yet, an increasing number of people are spending time inside prison walls
where privacy, even to take a shower, rarely exists. As the camera slips
silently through the barbed wire fence, we learn of the women's individual
stories, and we see their enormous tenacity to endure. Due to the racist
underpinnings of the court system, a disproportionate number of women
prisoners are African-American, Latina and Asian. Most could not afford
a good lawyer but had to accept the inadequate efforts of a public defendant.
The four prisoners featured in the movie are all women of color. And
beware, these women are far from useless, far from being beaten down,
and they don't at all fit the stereotype of infantilized female prisoners.
Voices from Inside helps us understand some of the causes and conditions
that brought these women to prison.
Additionally, the video
illustrates the existence of political prisoners here in the United
States, something our government has hypocritically denied. Dylcia
Pagan, a Puerto Rican independence activist sentenced to 55 years for "criminal conspiracy" speaks
out as a wise and courageous mother and revolutionary, who has never
abandoned her principles in the fight for her people's freedom. The
other three women—Aida, Evangelina, and Florencia—also share their
personal stories and the anguish they feel at being separated from
their children. We are introduced to these women as our own sisters,
mothers, and grandmothers. Most importantly, we are introduced to their
eloquent children, and we see the tragedy that occurs daily in this
country when the punishment of mothers is also the brutal punishment
of their children.
This documentary presents staggering figures. Eighty percent of women
in prison are mothers, with an average of two dependent children. Seventy-five
percent of women in prison have been convicted of nonviolent offenses;
36 percent have been convicted on drug charges, solely for possession.
Most women serve more time than men for committing the same crime. With
1.5 million people in prison, women inmates are increasing at a rate
far higher than men. This particular prison is so overcrowded that a
cell built for one now holds three women. With the passage of the Crime
Bill and so-called Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996 these numbers will increase,
as will the time spent behind bars for each individual. That this video
was made at all is a miracle. In the current climate not only would Epperlein
have a hard time showing up with a video camera, she would probably be
banned from teaching inside prison. This in itself makes this film a
Epperlein urges us to
act, as she asks us quite frankly, "What
will you do to stop this?" Of course there are many paths to action.
In this video, Epperlein chooses what she calls "pouring love into
bones," in a world of nightsticks, flashlights, and barbed wire. "Voices
from Inside" inspires and challenges us all on the outside to remember
and connect with those living behind prison walls.
As someone who works directly with the prisoner rights movement, I commend
Karina Epperlein for providing us all with an excellent tool for organizing.
I encourage you to buy or rent a copy and show it to a group.
(Susan Phillips lives in Philadelphia and is active in the prison rights
movement. As an anti-death penalty activist and member of the Philadelphia
Anarchist Black Cross, she is currently producing a video on one of the
groups she is active with called Books Through Bars, which provides books
and educational materials to indigent prisoners.)
Voices from Inside challenges the current direction of prison law that
is moving rapidly toward vindictive rather than rehabilitative imprisonment.
Karina Epperlein's sensitively rendered story of four women able to recover
their humanity even inside prison walls, poignantly illustrates the positive,
life-affirming value of creative rehabilitation as a path for prisoners
to discover the roots of their rage, to gain insight into its sources,
and to prepare themselves for a productive life upon release.
Epperlein, a German native who has been living in
the United States for 14 years, is a theater artist who volunteered
her skills weekly from 1992 to 1996 at the Dublin, California Women's
Federal Correctional Institution. Voices from Inside documents her
four years with a multicultural group of inmates ad Dublin developing
a program of instruction in, as she describes, "breathing,
sound, movement, drawing, writing and sharing." Viewers quickly
see that the program went far beyond this modest description. At first
simply a retreat for the prisoners from the brutality that is prison
life, their weekly sessions in the recreation hall ("the barn"),
soon became an opportunity for creative release and new understandings
of their rage as a means of coping with life behind bars. With Epperlein's
support and encouragement from one another, the breathing became moans
and screams, the sound became hums, rhythms, drumming, chants and songs,
the movement, drawing and writing became creative dancing and poetry,
all expressing the participants' anger and pain, their sadness and hope,
their hidden strengths and emerging self-esteem. Thrilled with their
new understandings and newly found talents, the participants organized
an original theater piece of their own music, song, and dance that they
presented during two nights for their fellow inmates and for prison volunteers.
A poignant tribute to their ongoing transformations was the first question
from a fellow inmate at the start of the question and answer period following
the presentation: "Have (any of) you been incarcerated?"
Voices from Inside does a fine job of taking the
viewer through the development of both the program and the self-described
changes in the participants. Through on-screen interviews with four
of the program participants, we learn about their lives, the experiences
leading up to their incarceration, and the reasons for their anger
and frustration with the prison system. Chief among the latter is separation
from their families. Three of the four women have dependent children
and the women's anguish at being separated from them as they grow is
palpable: "I feel like the living dead;" "Got
a mama, can't touch her, babies, can't love 'em;" "I can only
see my kids through glass." Each begins to cry as she thinks and
talks about her children. Epperlein interviews children of two of the
prisoners at their homes. They speak of the difficulties of having a
mother in prison, of not being able to touch her, of rarely even seeing
her, of not having her around when they are troubled. One especially
misses his mother's way of "calm(ing) your heart down," of "mak(ing)
you so touchworthy."
This is a hopeful, uplifting video, superbly edited
and produced. Voices from Inside documents some of the possibilities
of creative, rehabilitative programming for inmates. However, it does
not shy away from recognizing what prison is: "having to do what they want," explains one
participant; "It's no privacy, not even on my period. Prison is
sleepless nights, flashlights every two and a half hours, peeping Toms
watching your every move. Prison is having to endure, without becoming
them." The prisoners' lives inside the prison are not shown or discussed
here although pertinent facts and statistics about prisons and women
in prison are mentioned and shown throughout the video. We learn that
Dublin prison, for example, built for 300, houses 1200; its cells, intended
for one, hold three. We learn that the 1.5 million prisoners in 1995
represent a three-fold increase overall since 1983, but a five-fold increase
for women; that most women are in prison for nonviolent crimes. Voices
from Inside puts flesh on these numerical bones: "How would you
like livin' in a bathroom with someone you never knew?" "A
circle of madness controls your life." We are jolted to hear that
80 percent of women in prison are mothers; most
are single and have an average of two dependent children; to hear that
20,000 children in California, 1.5 million nationwide, have mothers in
prison. Most cannot see their mothers--prisons are too far away from
their mostly urban homes, and children have no one to bring them to visit.
Voices from Inside connects human faces and human suffering with these
It is in the life stories, the close look we have
of four powerful, committed women, that Voices from Inside becomes
so useful for sociology classes dealing with issues and concepts such
as labeling, resocialization, gender, inequality, groups, deviance,
crime and delinquency, social policy and families. Shown fairly early
in an introductory class, for example, the video could be a frequent
point of reference and basis for discussion for all of these topics.
Unlike other, also excellent videos on women in prison--Through the
Wire, for example, is a 1990 PBS P.O.V. documentary about the prison
lives of three women convicted of politically motivated crimes who
are serving time at the Lexington, Kentucky federal underground prison
that uses isolation to break prisoners down, both physically and emotionally--Voices
from Inside offers the lived experiences of four of the women in Epperlein's "circle of caring" and
the experiences of their children. Their stories offer typically unavailable
information describing prisoners, their pasts, their current lives,
and their hopes and dreams. Students can connect real experience, real
human beings, to the sociological analysis of gender inequality, or
of social welfare and family policy: What will happen to Aida and her
three dependent children when she is released and faces some of the
new welfare policies that prohibit former prisoners from applying for
welfare? What will happen when women like those we meet in the video
who are gaining self-esteem and hope for their postprison lives face
the employment discrimination when female ex-prisoners search for jobs?
Questions instructors might use with Voices from Inside would vary depending
upon what course they were teaching, and this video could be used in
a wide variety of courses. However, for an introductory course that includes
a unit on crime and punishment, some of the questions might include:
Like others who
are in "total institutions," the
women we learn about
in Voices from Inside have undergone a
process of resocialization.
Describe some of their
comments that indicate
example, what they have
to be or do to survive in this prison.
Three of the women
in this video are African
Americans, one is Puerto
Rican. To what extent
does this sample reflect
the proportions of ethnicities and races of America's female
prison population? How reflective of this population is the whole
group of "circle
of caring" participants? How has the female prison population
changed over the past
30 to 40 years? What are some of the reasons
for these changes? For
example, what crime laws in recent years
have contributed to these
Why does Karina
Epperlein, the filmmaker,
say she could not carry
out such a program at
Dublin prison if she were to try and start it now? Dublin prison
is in California. What recent changes in the laws of that state
affect who goes to prison, the length of their incarceration, and
their prison experience?
How are children
and families affected
by their mothers' imprisonment?
Why do female prisoners
receive fewer visitors while in prison compared to male prisoners?
What policies could change this situation and what policies presently
work against children visiting their mothers in prison? How will
recent changes in welfare law affect women released from prison?
For example, how will they contribute to or detract from their
ability to effectively assume family responsibilities?
What insights does
sociology offer to understand
what is happening, and
what could be done to
address the problems? Why would these women be considered deviant
in American society? What reasons can you think of that explain
why relatively little scholarly research has been done on women