Lecturer speaks about the lives of women in prison

Carolina Colon

Rachel Williams called upon her audience to think about the alarming prison rate statistics while they were watching “Orange is the New Black” for entertainment.

Williams mentioned this and other aspects of life in prison at her lecture on April 8, where about 130 students gathered in the Great Hall to listen to her experiences working with women in prison.

Williams is an associate professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies at the University of Iowa.

She has worked with several projects including Detroit Race Riots, The Prison Chronicles, which are a series of stories about working in women’s prisons. Williams has worked with incarcerated women since 1994.

Williams started her conversation giving the definition of prison. The main characteristics seen in prisons worldwide are composed of intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality.

“Women in prison are a very particular population,” Williams said. “Only 10 percent are female in state prisons.”

Nearly 8 in 10 women were abused before prison. About six to 10 women were sexually abused in the past. Seven in 10 women have minor children. Williams said having a child while being in prison is punishing your child.

“When you watch ‘Orange is the New Black’ for entertainment think about these statistics,“ Williams said.

Levi Jensen, sophomore in child, adult and family services, said Williams’ topic is one not talked about enough.

“When it comes to women in prison, it’s an issue that needs to be talked about more,” Jensen said.

Williams also addressed how individuals make money out of prison. Calling a family member behind the bars is an expensive hour.

According to the Iowa Prison Industry, workers go to prisons to help make furniture to teach offenders the skills needed to be successful citizens upon release.

Some of Iowa State’s furniture was made in prisons. Open a drawer — if living in a residence hall — check the side and notice it says, “Iowa Prison Industries.”

Prisons in Iowa are overpopulated by roughly 12 percent, with Hispanics and Black the majority of this percentage. About 39,000 individuals are in the prisons of Iowa.

Substance abuse is considered an element of mental illness in women.

“I go to the women prison at least one time a week. I’ve done this for at least 16 years,” Williams said. “The thing about prison — life goes on. They will tell you stories that are crushing, you think of how they lived through this and they still find ways to continue with life.”

After prison, it can be hard to make a life. Individuals consider you as a criminal, employers often won’t offer work and prisoners also have a felony on their record.

What actually happens to people who go to prison is that they tend to disappear from our memories and create an enemy for the society to feed on, Williams said.

“Prison dehumanizes everybody, not only the people who are actually incarcerated,” Williams said. “Even the doctors, nurses that work hard everyday to help prisoners.”

Madison Bates, junior in child, adult and family services, said Williams was very engaging and fun to listen to.

She is also involved in a project named Women’s Collective, which sends students to different prisons, where they work in circles. Women’s Collective has been around for about four to five years.

Williams found the biggest problems women face while being in prison were motherhood, medical care, substance abuse and healthy relationships.