Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States
Surprise—it’s a real downer to read about prison. That glaringly obvious statement aside, Interrupted Life is quite an achievement. The book comprises eighty-seven pieces, which are written by scholars, activists, incarcerated women, and formerly incarcerated women and span breadth of generic types. There are poems, reflections, and essays; there are excerpts from research, a Bill of Rights, a United Nations Report; there are journal entries, excerpts from interviews, vocabulary lists, and letters to lovers. There are so many perspectives, experiences, reflections, assertions, and expressions that no one point of view is easily privileged, and the reader who may try to do so would have to try very hard to lump everything in this book into one picture of the "standard" incarcerated woman. This, of course, is one of the goals of this book: to resist readers' attempts to maintain a generalized view of who the incarcerated woman is or what she is like.
I admire the honesty of Ruby Tapia's introduction. She directly admits that any representation of incarcerated women—even of a single incarcerated woman—will necessarily fail to convey fully what her experience means to her and how it feels to her. Likewise, it will also fail to fully show how such a representation relates to the larger social, political, and economic problems of justice, the category of the "criminal," and the overwhelming homogeneity of economic class within prison populations. She insists that creating a representation of incarcerated women—even such a nuanced, heterogeneous representation as the book attempts—is still to reproduce the categorical violence done to incarcerated women by setting up a space in which "we" (non-incarcerated, non-criminal/criminalized readers) can take a leisurely look at "them"—"they" who exist outside of the laws that bind us into a group that can evaluate the criminalized other, who cannot evaluate us in ways that count.
Interrupted Life makes a provocative and accessible (if continually heartbreaking) book for the lay reader. The future professor in me can't help but imagine this book as a text for introductory level courses in philosophy, women's studies, multicultural studies, justice studies, political science, criminal justice, economics, or sociology. The readings are not too difficult for undergraduate students to understand and the many perspectives lend themselves to lessons in critical thinking. For advanced students, the readings in this book could challenge—or confirm—more highly theorized academic studies about justice, prisons, gender, and the experiences of incarceration.