Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Martha Stewart’s holiday letter from her West Virginia prison, which appealed for sentencing reform for many female prisoners, made me wonder what was going on in the way of coverage of women in prison.

In a subdued but pointed missive, Stewart took shots at the prison food and the boredom. But certainly knowing that her celebrity would get attention for issues, she also made a heartfelt appeal on behalf of the Alderson Prison Camp inmates.

"Many of them have been here for years–devoid of care, devoid of love, devoid of family," she wrote.

I wondered if Stewart was lifting the lid on an area of journalistic neglect.

After all, the female inmate population has been soaring, with the number of women in state and federal prisons leaping eight-fold since between 1980 and 2003, from 12,300 to 101,000. Much of the increase has been attributed to mandatory sentencing guidelines, especially for drug offenses. The vast majority of these prisoners are mothers.

Plenty of Mockery

Certainly, in the past year, that has been plenty of mocking treatment of Stewart, such as an Associated Press item gleefully reporting Dec. 31 that the home-making celebrity and her team had lost the Alderson Federal Prison Camp’s annual holiday decorating contest. So I wasn’t looking for that sort of thing.

Nor did I need to know more about the televised death watches, such as the one for Karla Faye Tucker, executed in Texas in 1998. And I wasn’t looking for "biopics," such as "Monster," the feature-film dramatization of the violent life of Aileen Wuornos, executed in Florida in 2002.

My search was for what journalists had written in the recent past about the vast majority of inmates, the ones who were out of the limelight, crowding the cells and serving the 18-month sentence that is the average for incarcerated women. I’m talking about the young mother with a drug habit and indebtedness to her dealer; the insurance-office manager who wrote checks to herself; the clerk who pulled a knife on her abusive husband.

Unlike Stewart, such women will not be released to cared-for suburban estates. When they get out, most won’t have much going for them. Conviction for a drug offense makes women ineligible for federally subsidized child assistance and food stamps, and can cause them to be denied housing subsidies. Parental rights are terminated after a child has been in foster care 15 months.

Rehabilitation Appeal

"I beseech you all to think about these women–to encourage the American people to ask for reforms, both in sentencing guidelines, in length of incarceration for nonviolent first-time offenders, and for those involved in drug-taking," Stewart wrote. "They would be much better served in a true rehabilitation center than in prison where there is no real help . . ."

I was prepared to find Stewart’s voice to be one of a few. But what I found in the way of serious and empathetic coverage–mainly by female reporters–was impressive.

In fact, Brenda V. Smith, formerly of the National Women’s Law Center and now an associate professor at Washington College of Law at the American University, credits an improving understanding of incarcerated women to news coverage that "focuses much more on the reasons women find themselves in the criminal justice system, such as past physical and sexual abuse, and the personal consequences of their incarceration, such as having their children cared for by relatives or in foster families. This coverage has meant that the public and policymakers may be more concerned about what happens to women during incarceration."

A major piece of that improving coverage was ABC’s 1999 "Nightline" report, a three-hour, six-part series called "Crime and Punishment: Women in Prison," filmed at California’s Valley State Prison for Women. Its prison doctor was reassigned after Nightline anchor Ted Koppel asked him about prisoner reports of unnecessary cervical exams and Pap smears. Dr. Anthony DiDomenico replied, "Inmates tell me that they would deliberately like to be examined. It’s the only male contact they get."

Recent Standouts

A few more recent standouts in print news follow:


  • Ellie Hidalgo’s Dec. 3 article in The Tidings, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, about an interfaith women’s group’s visit to the California Institution for Women, built to house 1,000 women and now housing 2,100. Hidalgo zeroed in on the folly of a "one-size-fits-all" punitive system designed for violent male offenders being imposed on mostly non-violent women inmates.


  • Cynthia Griffin’s Nov. 17 report for Los Angeles’ Wave Newspapers, one of the largest chains for black audiences in the U.S., on incarceration’s disproportionate impact on communities of color.

  • Cara Mia DiMassa’s Dec. 20 "Women Reach Out After Doing Time" in the Los Angeles Times, which spotlighted a group that organizes an annual holiday party for alumnae of the California Institution for Women. The party was held at the home of Joyce Ride, mother of astronaut Sally Ride. Joyce Ride had worked tirelessly to free the party’s host, Gloria Killian, when she was jailed for murder. Killian’s conviction was eventually overturned.


  • Amy Lotven’s Dec. 22, report for New York City’s Queens Chronicle on Hour Children, a private nonprofit in Long Island City that works with children to break the cycle of dysfunction that led their parents into prison.


This type of coverage comes from investigative reporters who persist in spite of officials reluctant to provide information and access to inmates. It is also spurred by vigilant nonprofit organizations–such as the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women in Philadelphia and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners in San Francisco–who monitor the penal system.

To be sure, there are gaps in coverage. The American Civil Liberties Union report on women on death row–the first of its kind–received astonishingly scant attention after its Nov. 29, 2004 release. Stewart’s letter and decorating contest loss garnered a lot more.

But lapses aside, the work has been of a high quality. As the worrisome trend of rising incarceration for women shows no sign of abating, it’s important to see more of it.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., which received the 2004 "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.



For more information:

Martha Stewart’s holiday letter, December:

Stop Prisoner Rape–
Brenda V. Smith, Sexual Abuse Against Women in Prison, 16-SPG Criminal Justice 30 (Spring 2001):