Women prisoners

Moral as well as penal punishment

  • Punishment is the basis of prison. But punishment is not the same for everyone, and it varies depending on gender, race, social class and other social factors. There is a punishment system for Basque women prisoners which is clear for all to see. Prisons are places and times designed for men, women have to face up to patriarchy and hetero-sexism. Several feminists and former women political prisoners have taken the time to explain what this means in terms of daily life.

Jenofa Berhokoirigoin @Jenofa_B
2017ko otsailaren 10a

Reality in prison is not the same for everybody. Punishment varies depending on the different systems of repression in different prisons. For Basque women prisoners the incrementation of punishment is clear: instead of being punished just once, their punishment is triple or quadruple. "The first punishment is penal, being in prison because of what the law defines as a crime; in addition to that, being a Basque prisoner means that there are exceptional measures for political reasons, as well as punishment for being a woman", says Idoia Arraiza Zabalegi, a member of Bilgune Feminista. This is not something established by the code of law; however, whenever prison is discussed from women's perspective, it is clearly almost systematic. "The patriarchal mentality is that crime and women are incompatible and, usually, we are brought up to be good women in society. If we go off the script written down by the patriarchy, we get punished." These are the words of former political prisoner Rosa Iriarte Laset, who spent two years in Soto del Real prison.

At present, there are 52 Basque women political prisoners in 28 different prisons. Realising that things which are not named do not seem to exist, she speaks more and more often about the prison system from a woman's point of view. This can be seen in the growing number of written texts, conferences and events held about this issue. Due to this context and the visibility which feminism has gained in recent years, around 60 former women prisoners have taken the step to speak in public, individually and as a collective as part of the Kalera Kalera initiative: "Until now we ourselves had not paid enough attention to this issue, and we've been moved to put it where it should be", says Olatz Dañobeitia Ceballos. Dañobeitia Ceballos was a prisoner for six years, between 2001 and 2005, and between 2007 and 2009, at Madrid's Soto del Real, Avila, Alicante's Villena, Galicia's A Lama and Araba's Langraitz prisons. Drawing up a list of the types of violence to which women are subjected in prison, in addition to calling for an examination of the consequences of the armed struggle in the Basque Country, she also called for "work on other types of violence, which have been hidden away", when she spoke in Usurbil. Realising that this is everybody's responsibility, the objective is to create an area for collective work between many stakeholders.

Olatz Dañobeitia Ceballos:
"Prison is a machine for turning bad women into good women, always in terms of comparison with the heteropatriarchy. In fact, the moral weight put on you is incredible"

Men for men

There are things to be said. If you look at that third, additional, hidden type of punishment, you realise that there are many faces there. Prison being a place and time designed and built by men, discrimination and hetero-sexism are daily occurrences for women. In fact, women are scarcely mentioned in documentation about prisons. Because they are a minority, and they are not considered to be important. The organisation of space in itself shows how they have to face up to discrimination. Teresa Toda Iglesia has no shortage of examples of that when it comes to talking about the six years she was imprisoned in Madrid's Soto del Real, Salamanca's Topas and Cordoba prison. "In Topas prison there are standing-up lavatories and very few where you can sit down… Nobody suggested adapting them when women were sent there. In Cordoba prison, there is no infirmary in the women's area. Emergencies or treatment after operations have to be dealt with in the general area. On close examination, it is not only the place which is sexist, it is also the atmosphere, behaviour, the way time is organised, means of control, punishments… Everything is sexist.

Stereotypes of violence

In fact, women who fight for causes contradict public stereotypes about gender. Good, sensitive, sweet and generous are the things women are expected to be, their characteristics. Men, on the other hand, are strong, energetic, determined and, to an extent, they can be imagined in prison. According to that binary interpretation, the fact that women are in prison at all calls for them to be punished. "You've turned everything upside-down, and the system will punish you", in Arraiza Zabalegi's words. Oihana Etxebarrieta Legrande, a feminist representative and militant who has studied couples’ relationships in prison, says that it is incredibly violent: "It is a space which is incredibly influenced by gender construct, and gender itself becomes a type of prison."

As Dañobeitia Ceballos adds, in addition to using punishment they also believe that the wrong way must be taken away and the right way imposed: "Prison is a machine for turning bad women into good women, always in terms of comparison with the heteropatriarchy. In fact, the moral weight put on you is incredible". That leads to the activities which are on offer in prison being complete stereotypes: sewing, ceramics, painting and suchlike, tasks which lead you towards tranquillity and discretion. There is no football or boxing: those are things for men. If you get a job, it's the same thing. There are only jobs which are usually for women, and the wages are much lower. As well as in prison, the same thing happens during arrest and interrogation. When discussing women's political character and militants' denial, there is a tendency to concentrate on the body, sexuality and stereotypical roles. This former prisoner gives several examples of the type of 'nonsense' they have to listen to: Their contribution is limited to being cooks for men, or meeting their sexual needs; They've had to commit themselves politically because of their male partners, etc.

In addition to that, Arraiza Zabalegi also points out that the code of law tends to be harsher for women. For instance, in a prison riot women are put down faster than men because men can be imagined in a riot, but women cannot: "Women are often tried not because of the law but because of having committed a sin, it's more a matter of moral punishment", the Bilgune Feminista member states. The following significant numbers bear witness to that: Basque women political prisoners are only 13% of the total, but they account for 63% of those in solitary confinement.

In order to make women well-behaved, the prison system "makes the prisoners infantile" and "completely controls their sexuality", denounces political prisoner Itziar Moreno Martinez, in a letter sent from Fleury prison and published on January 13th. While that also happens with male prisoners, she points out that it takes place quicker with female ones. In fact, while recognising that men do have sexual needs, they are provided with means of satisfying them; women's needs, on the other hand, are not taken into account. For instance, pornography, which is available for men in prison, is censored in women's prisons; it is difficult for sex to take place during visits because of the inspections carried out, control even "becoming just an attack". The "humiliation" as a result of being made to strip, following "insulting" orders, has been felt to be "rape" by many women. Toda Iglesia also remembers that she often felt uncomfortable during visiting times: "Intimate visits are often almost public, the guards know when you are going to do it; you can sometimes feel pretty bad." She adds that the time for loving is harshly limited. Basically, there is a general lack of intimacy and, in general, the chance for sexuality is limited. Communication between men and women and the chance to have relations being almost non-existent, Iriarte Laset point out that there is "a great risk of unhealthy provision". And if heterosexual relations are hard, homosexual ones tend to be even harder. The atmosphere is completely hetero-regulatory. Iriarte Laset has also denounced that lesbian relations are often treated as "infantile" or "games".

The importance of the carer's role

Not being able to fulfil the role of carer in prison as much as outside prison can bring with it a quadruple punishment, according to Arraiza Zabalegi; in that sense, a punishment which women impose on themselves. In fact, women are brought up to put others' needs before their own and, willingly or not, this is usually a deeply-rooted attitude. "When they are imprisoned, they punish themselves for having let the people around them down." This member of Bilgune Feminista says that this sense of guilt is a weight which many women feel.

Moreno Martinez points out another aspect to caring: "When they go for the men, who's in the waiting room? Mothers, wives, children… And in the waiting rooms at women's prisons? Mothers, wives, children…" She explains that most people at visiting time being women is "a token of the carers' role." In other words, there is a substantial difference in proportion between girlfriends who go to visit boyfriends and boyfriends who go to visit girlfriends. Arraiza Zabalegi says the emotional support which women guarantee is not valued. Furthermore, Etxebarrieta Legrande denounces the severe restrictions on resources for healthy sexual-emotional relationships. One example of this is the lack of spaces for communication and the fact that communication is strictly controlled. In order to have the healthiest relationships possible, Etxebarrieta advises not focus all emotional needs on a single person. In other words, prisoners finding a network of support among other prisoners and, with regard to people outside, finding several people other than their partner to give them love and care for them.  

Empowering feminism

Toda Iglesia says that prison is a "hard school" for finding out about many different types of gender violence. In addition to prison guards' attitudes, ordinary prisoners also have "very crude sexist attitudes", and that, too, affects women's "acceptance". In that difficult situation, it is possible to despair: "You often get furious about what you hear or see, and feel completely impotent." In order to survive there, they take on and strengthen a feminist point of view, she says. Basically, Dañobeitia Ceballos says, feminism can be a rapid tool for empowerment: "It is an excellent tool for understanding what we have gone through, and also for responding to the different ways in which that repression expresses itself." In addition to that, she says it also gives them the warmth and solidarity which are needed in all processes of liberation. However, the feminist perspective depends on each person's experiences, route and conscience. Which means that it cannot be defined as an empowerment tool for all prisoners. Knowing that feminists are not created, Dañobeitia Ceballos asks the following question: "The question could be what processes and resources the Basque Left and the Basque feminist movement have used in order to bring those women towards feminism."

Teresa Toda Iglesia:
"Prison is a hard school for finding out about many different types of gender violence"

One of Bilgune Feminista's areas of work is promoting feminist reflection on the political struggle. The march to Valladolid prison on February 11th is an example of the decision to link the two issues. At the same time, last year Emagin centre organised training, research and documentation for feminism with Eskola Feminista's objectives in mind. They have agreed to take a step further and include prisoners in their reflections. "Our objective is to strengthen their relationships and their relationships with us", Arraiza Zabalegi explains. Until now, there have been contacts to resolve specific issues; we want to go beyond that. On the prison march – after expressing solidarity and demanding the return of all exiles – they will begin reflections about prisoners. For one thing, the prison experience for women; for another, they will ask them what the empowerment tools for facing up to that reality could be. They will collect and send the answers; in Arraiza Zabalegi's words, "they will feel that they make up a subject." Starting from prisoners' words and experiences, Bilgune Feminista will continue to take the subject to the public. Dañobeitia Ceballos also mentions the need to collect prisoners' testimonies quickly: "Until now, we have not looked at the pain and resistance of each repressed woman. Which means we have no collective narrative, and have put together no collective reading." Seeing the will to examine the political struggle and the consequences of the struggle from a gender point of view, it seems that the components for filling these gaps are going to be brought together.


This article was translated by 11itzulpen; you can see the original in Basque here.

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