Any One of Us: Words from Prison

In this post we will discuss a community event, Any One of Us: Words from Prison, geared towards raising awareness about the domestic and sexual violence experienced by incarcerated women. We will also review national data regarding the incarceration of women and explore some relevant Texas legislation that is currently up for a vote at the Capital.

Eve Ensler, Tony Award winning playwright, performer, and activist, author of Any One of Us: Words from Prison.
Eve Ensler, Tony Award winning playwright, performer, and activist, author of Any One of Us: Words from Prison as well as The Vagina Monologues.

Any One of Us: Words from Prison by Eve Ensler

At the beginning of April two local non-profits, Empower Art and Conspire Theatre, put on a collaborative production entitled Any One of Us: Words from Prison by Eve Ensler. Any One of Us is part of V-Day, a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. This play in particular is part of a community campaign to raise awareness about the issues of domestic violence, sexual violence and childhood trauma and how it relates to the incarceration of women.

Empower Art is a local non-profit that facilitates healing and empowerment for victims of domestic and/or sexual violence through creative expression while Conspire Theatre is an Austin-based theater company dedicated to working with incarcerated women and previously incarcerated women. Conspire Theatre has created a supportive community as well as a safe space for incarcerated women to explore their traumatic past through creative writing and theater arts. Even though Conspire Theatre works primarily with women in the Travis County Jail, the stories performed in Any One of Us: Words from Prison were actually a compilation of stories from incarcerated women across the US, namely Michigan, New York, Florida and California.

conspire_LOGO_final Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 2.58.57 PM

National Data about the Female Prison Population

As previously discussed, the number of people being incarcerated in the United States has drastically increased since the 1980s primarily due to the War on Drugs. For example, drug offenses account for more than 50% of the current prison population growth (Snell & Morton, 1994). Consequently, the number of women in prison has grown at an astronomical rate between 1980 and 2010 (646%), even faster than the rate of incarceration among men (419%) (Guerino, Harrison & Sabol, 2011). Even more disturbing is the disproportionate rate at which women of color are incarcerated; black women are imprisoned at nearly three times the rate of non-hispanic, white women and hispanic women are imprisoned at nearly twice the rate of non-hispanic, white women (Guerino, Harrsion & Sabol, 2010).


As explored within Any One of Us: Words from Prison, the social and psychological circumstances that proceed the incarceration of women is somewhat different than men (Moloney & Muller, 2009). For example, the Department of Justice (1999) reported that 23-36.7% of incarcerated women have experienced sexual abuse during childhood, compared to 16.8% of the general population (Gorey & Leslie, 1997). Further, 34-43% of female inmates have experienced either physical or sexual abuse prior to incarceration, and of those who had experienced abuse, almost 50% experienced it at the hands of an intimate partner (Snell & Morton, 1991; James & Glaze, 2006). Another study found that 60% of incarcerated women in California had been physically assaulted during adulthood (Bloom, Chesney-Lind, & Owen, 1994). This all provides support for the creation of preventive policies and/or programs that provide economic, social or psychological services for women at risk.

The Continuation of Marginalization during Incarceration

Copyright: Conspire Theatre.
Copyright: Conspire Theatre.

One major issue explored within Any One of Us: Words from Prison is the prevalence of rape and sexual misconduct among female prisoners at the hands of male prison guards. In fact, in 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (P.L. 108-79) was passed, which requires that the Bureau of Justice Statistics collect national data on the prevalence of sexual violence within correctional institutions (Beck, Harrison & Adams, 2007). According to Beck, Rantala & Rexroat (2014), 48% of substantiated incidents of sexual assault involved staff and inmates. And while women represent approximately 7% of all state or federal inmates, they account for 33% of staff-on-inmate incidents of sexual victimization (Beck, Rantala & Rexroat, 2014). While there have been some strides in terms of collecting information regarding sexual assault within prison, there is major criticism for the lack of consequences faced by perpetrators and overall impunity for prison guards (Buchanan, 2007). Scholars have been pushing for gender-appropriate policies since the 1990s, although little change has been enacted (Bloom, Owen & Covington, 2004). In fact, one paper argued that the sexual abuse of imprisoned women is a modern corollary to slavery, particularly due to the disproportionate arrest of women of color (Smith, 2005). Needless to say, this is still a major issue that needs to be addressed on a county, state and federal level.

Mental illness is another prevalent issue among inmates. The number of individuals with serious mental illness in prisons and jails now exceeds the number in state psychiatric hospitals tenfold (Torrey et al., 2014). One study found that 56%-64% of state and county inmates had some type of mental health problem, not included substance dependence or abuse (James & Glaze, 2006). Once substance abuse and dependence were included, rates jumped to 74%-76% of all state and jail prisoners (James & Glaze, 2006). A more recent study found that 34%-38% of female inmates had a serious mental illness (Steadman, Osher, Robbins, Case, & Samuels, 2009). However, only 17%-33% of state and county inmates with mental illness received some type of mental health services even though 42%-49% had previously received mental health services prior to incarceration (James & Glaze, 2006). 

Lifelong repercussions of incarceration

ywcaAfter the production of Any One of Us: Words from Prison, the producer of the show conducted a talk back with a panel that consisted of a program manager, social worker and counselor from the YWCA as well as a professor of Theater and Dance from Texas State University. One of the major issues discussed was the reintegration of formerly incarcerated women into the community, and the services that could be provided to improve the process. For example, the YWCA offers a group to women released from prison in order to create a supportive community and decrease recidivism rates. 

In the United States, people who are found guilty of a crime and sentenced to prison do not have the same rights as average Americans. For example, some states prohibit ex-offenders from voting or driving while federal restrictions include the inability to receive social welfare like food stamps or even public housing (depending on the crime) (Petersilla, 2005). While there are some safeguards in place to prevent employer discrimination of ex-offenders, research suggests that discrimination still occurs (Demleitner, 2002; Lam & Harcourt, 2003). Therefore, it is no surprise that rates of recidivism are as high as 68% within 3 years of release and 77% within 5 years of release (Durose, Cooper & Snyder, 2014).

Relevant Texas Legislation 

So why is a community event like Any One of Us: Words from Prison relevant to social policy? Social justice is a major component of social work, as it ensures that disenfranchised populations are given an opportunity to advocate for their needs. Many times this opportunity is provided during a legislative hearing in order to influence change within current policies. Therefore, understanding current state and federal policies is essential, since changes in social policy can improve the lives of hundreds or even thousands of people.

HB 1083: Mental health assessment for inmates

This piece of legislation has two major goals:

1) identify inmates with mental illness through standardized screening,

2) restrict the confinement or segregation of inmates with mental illnesses.

As mentioned above, mental illness and substance use disorders are highly prevalent among prisoners; therefore, it is imperative to screen all inmates in order to identify mental health issues, as well as provide access to appropriate treatment. Additionally, solitary confinement has been increasingly used as a way to manage difficult prisoners, sometimes for months or even years at a time (Metzner & Fellner, 2010). While isolation by itself can lead to significant or even severe psychological harm, solitary confinement also limits the services that an inmate can receive (Grassian, 2006; Metzner & Fellner, 2010).

HB 569: Providing inmates with reentry information

This piece of legislation proposes that jails and prisons should collaborate with organizations across the state of Texas that provide reentry programs in order to create county-specific resource guides for prisoners released on probation, parole or otherwise. While some counties already offer a resource guide (check out the Travis county guide here), it is important to make this a state wide requirement because there is not guarantee that someone serving time in a Travis county jail or prison will live in the Travis county area upon release.

As mentioned above, it can be very difficult for the formerly incarcerated to reintegrate back into society, and recidivism rates are as high as 37% within the first 6 months (Durose, Copper & Snyder, 2014). Therefore, it is important to “front load” post-prison services in order to decrease recidivism rates (Petersilla, 2005). Additionally, this type of legislation may lead to higher rates of mental health or substance abuse treatment for formerly incarcerated individuals that either did not receive adequate services during their sentence, or require a continuation of care (i.e./ medications, therapy, group interventions, etc.). If enacted, it would be important to keep track of any changes in recidivism rates to inform future policies or changes. 



Beck, A. J., Harrison, P. M., & Adams, D. B. (2005). Sexual violence reported by correctional authorities, 2004. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Beck, A. J., Rantala, R. R., & Rexroat, J. (2014). Sexual victimization reported by adult correctional authorities, 2009-11. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Bloom, B., Chesney-Lind, M., & Owen, B. (1994). Women in California prisons. San Francisco: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Bloom, B., Owen, B., & Covington, S. (2004). Women Offenders and the Gendered Effects of Public Policy1. Review of Policy Research, 21(1), 31-48.

Buchanan, K. S. (2007). Impunity: Sexual Abuse in Women’s Prisons. Harv. CR-CLL Rev., 42, 45.

Demleitner, N. V. (2002). Collateral damage: no re-entry for drug offenders. Vill. L. Rev., 47, 1027.

Durose, M. R., Cooper, A. D., & Snyder, H. N. (2014). Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Gorey, K. M., & Leslie, D. R. (1997). The prevalence of child sexual abuse: Integrative review adjustment for potential response and measurement biases.Child abuse & neglect, 21(4), 391-398.

Grassian, S. (2006). Psychiatric effects of solitary confinement. Washington University Journal of Law & Policy, 22(24), 325-383.

Guerino, P., Harrison, P. M., & Sabol, W. J. (2011). Prisoners in 2010. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Harlow, C. W. (1999). Prior abuse reported by inmates and probationers. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Glaze, L. E., & James, D. J. (2006). Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Lam, H., & Harcourt, M. (2003). The use of criminal record in employment decisions: The rights of ex-offenders, employers and the public. Journal of Business Ethics, 47(3), 237-252.

Metzner, J. L., & Fellner, J. (2010). Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness in US Prisons: A Challengefor Medical Ethics. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 38(1), 104-108.

Moloney, K. P., & Moller, L. F. (2009). Good practice for mental health programming for women in prison: Reframing the parameters. Public health,123(6), 431-433.

Petersilia, J. (2005). Hard time: Ex-offenders returning home after prison.Corrections Today, 67(2), 66-71.

Smith, B. V. (2005). Sexual Abuse of Women in United States Prisons: A Modern Corollary of Slavery. Fordham Urb. LJ, 33, 571.

Snell, T. L., & Morton, D. C. (1994). Women in prison. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Steadman, H. J., Osher, F. C., Robbins, P. C., Case, B., & Samuels, S. (2009). Prevalence of serious mental illness among jail inmates.psychiaTric services, 60(6), 761-765.

Torrey, E. F., Kennard, A. D., Eslinger, D., Lamb, R., & Pavle, J. (2010). More mentally ill persons are in jails and prisons than hospitals: A survey of the states. Arlington, VA: Treatment Advocacy Center, 2010.


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