The Common Good
February 2006

The Cost of Prisons

by Tom Montgomery-Fate | February 2006

The remarkable thing about Renny Golden’s writing is that it provides a bridge of understanding between a silenced, disenfranchised community and those who need to hear what that community

The remarkable thing about Renny Golden’s writing is that it provides a bridge of understanding between a silenced, disenfranchised community and those who need to hear what that community is trying to say. Via her books, Golden, a professor of criminal justice, sociology, and social work at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, has constructed these bridges by deftly balancing social analysis with her deep concern for the voices of the analyzed. Whether writing about the sanctuary movement, the war in El Salvador, or the child welfare system, her compassionate listening seems to encourage tired or beaten lives back into vitality. Golden’s new book, War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Families They Leave Behind, continues this theme. She doesn’t approach her work with an academic agenda, she writes in the introduction, but as “an act, however fraught with risk, of solidarity.”

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War on the Family is a searing indictment of the booming prison industry and the hell it has unleashed on the victims of its “success”—primarily African Americans, Latinos, and Arabs. “We can’t build prisons fast enough to hold this world’s cargo of dark-skinned prisoners,” Golden writes. “The U.S. incarceration rate rose almost 300 percent between 1980 and 1998, eclipsing both South Africa and Russia’s all-time international imprisonment record.”

From this wide angle, Golden zooms in on the subject of her book—incarcerated mothers and their children—and the immense social costs of the severed bonds between them. Her statistics are revealing: “...the female state and federal prisons population increased 275 percent between 1980 and 1992, while violent offenses increased only 1.3 percent.” While not suggesting that incarcerated women live admirable lives or are only victims, Golden proves the idiocy of the race-based “drug-addicted welfare mother” stereotypes that are often propagated by the “family values” Christian Right. She deconstructs the myth that it is “personal choice and individual character, rather than social opportunity” that enables social transformation. She does this by listening so carefully to people’s lives that she is able to demonstrate how poverty, too, is a kind of violence.

The many narratives of incarcerated mothers reveal a recurring tangle of physical abuse and addiction within the cycle of poverty. The first group of interviews comes from Chicago.

“My mother had 12 children in all,” says Joanetta Smith, who spent four years in prison. “My father left mama when I was 13. I think we were middle-class because we always had breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My dad worked construction, but when he left we ate a lot of pinto beans.”

“When I was a teenager,” she continues, “my mother met my second father, an alcoholic. He gave us a better life, but he beat her and had other women. She [her mother] went back to gambling.... We were on our own and had almost no food. I lived with my friend’s families. I was pregnant at 15 with Ringer.”

Later we hear from Ringer, who has become an addict and imprisoned, and then from his sister, Leona, who has somehow remained clean. Now in her 20s, Leona is the single parent of three and, like her mother, adamantly against drugs or alcohol of any kind. She finished her GED and did some work at a city college on scholarship before going to work for her father at a community newspaper in her neighborhood.

Leona represents what is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this book. After taking readers into the brutal lives of families broken to pieces by incarceration, Golden also tries to lead them out—uncovering and sharing alternatives to the desperate cycles of prison and poverty. She provides new models. The book ends with 25 pages of support organizations for incarcerated mothers and their children, bridging newly educated readers and their opportunity to be part of the solution.

Tom Montgomery-Fate, a professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, is currently writer in residence at Chicago Theological Seminary. His memoir Steady and Trembling (Chalice Press) was released this year.

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