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Incarceration and Choice

Owl's picture

One of the themes that weeds through all our classes is the notion of choice. We choose to be silent; we choose to have a voice; we choose to live the kind of lives that we do. After reading "Prisoners of a Hard Life" I find myself really annoyed at how the notion of choice, despite how much people want it to have a positive spin, is ultimately used against us: somtimes by others and sometimes by ourselves . When we talk about incarcerated women, in particular, the idea of choice has really had negative consequences on how they are viewed in society. Incarcerated women: choose to be criminals, choose to drop of school and a consequence choose to work in below mininum wage jobs, choose to be teen mothers, choose to have their children taken away from them, choose to be involved in abusive relationships. Both my education and life experiences have taught me that the freedom of choice only goes so far. To argue that the individual chooses to live a life of poverty and shame is a gross failure to see the mutiple array of physical and metaphorical road blocks that women of all walks of life must face before making a decision about the road they must take to better themselves and their lives.

Denise James was one such women. In her pursuit to offer her children a safe and loving home (not to presume that this is the way it was) she provived her landlord with a bad check. The judge "felt he had to teach her a lesson" and sentenced her to six months in jail. Here was a woman who was battling with societal norms of what a good mother/parent should be and what it means to have a "stable home", that she committed a crime in order to provide that for her family; then you have a judge who has come to a position in his life where he has not only gained the authority to sentence someone to jail because "he felt he had to teach her a lesson", but has been the suject of societal thought reform by which he feels he is in the right because, after all, she chose to wite a bad check. Now isn't that justice at its finest?

It is not to say that Denise or other women in similar situtions did not have other choices to decide from, but it is difficult to understand what is the right choice and what is the wrong choice, when you have been exposed to the negative sides of the right choices. To be more clear, what we as a society see as being the right thing to do always has consequences, but when it comes to the criminalization of women, the right thing to do has negative consequences, especially for women and their familes. Children are sent to foster care, and women are released from prison with higher chances of recividism.  

So, how do we begin to understand choice in a positive way? Any ideas?