Locked Up: 4 Books About Women Prisoners

There are approximately 220,000 women incarcerated in the United States. Most of them are mothers. Lots of them are casualties of the wars on drugs and sex work. Most have been abused by people they should have been able to trust. Society has not figured out what to do with them, so these women end up in prison. Today, I am blogging about literary novels about women the justice system has thrown away. All involve complex characters who drive the story, playing the hand dealt them as best they can. 

Romy Hall worked at an end-of-the-line strip club called The Mars Room before she was jailed for two life terms for killing her violent stalker in Rachel Kushner's devastating novel. Romy never really had a chance, though she desperately wants one for her young son as she adjusts the hustle that is prison life. Told in alternating voices, Kushner's spare prose and unsentimental main character often drift into a poetry of sorts that has a magnificent sense of place, whether the seamy side of San Francisco or the oppressively big sky of the Central Valley.

Janet Fitch's White Oleander is a more hopeful book, in which Astrid is thrown into the brutal foster care system after her mother, Ingrid, kills the man who dumped her. Despite a harrowing five years with different families, Astrid discovers herself as an artist and a worthwhile person. Ingrid, meanwhile, becomes a celebrity in prison and figures out a way to free herself, if only Astrid will cooperate and commit perjury. Astrid's spot-on observations and the exploration of the mother-daughter bond make this a winner.

Author David Lida is a mitigation specialist, a person who looks for reasons the court should go easy on a defendant. He writes what he knows in One Life, about a man who looks for reasons for a woman not to get the death penalty. Esperanza, migrating from Mexico to get a post-Katrina clean-up job, is convicted of murdering her infant. Richard heads to Juarez to find justification for a more lenient sentence. Unfortunately, he meets with a violent fate that does nothing to diminish his love of Mexico or commitment to the case. An irreverent tone and wonderful descriptions of locations leaven a tale of horrendous luck.

Ladydi must rely on her fellow inmates to avoid despair in Jennifer Clement's Prayers for the Stolen. That's at the end of the book, though, after the rich portrait of a matriarchy under patriarchy. In the mountain town in Mexico that Ladydi is from, girls dress as boys and are fiercely protected by their mothers in an attempt to thwart the purveyors of drugs and women who frequently blow into town. The husbands and fathers, of course, are all in the United States. While plenty of brutal things happen to the characters, there is a lyricism amongst the grit in this portrait of the little seen cost of the war on drugs and immigration.

Have more stories of women prisoners? Tell us in the comments.

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