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In Anne’s Silence class we’ve been talking a lot about poetry, and the idea that there is silence on the page surrounding the words in a poem.  In some ways, the white silence around a poem gives the words themselves added weight, because the noise and distraction of typical prose is stripped away, and all that is left are the most important thoughts.  I found a similar phenomenon to be true when reading the “Prisoners of a Hard Life” graphic novel, but rather than being surrounded by emptiness, the words were attached to illustrations.  Growing up, I never read comic strips or any kind of graphic novel, but I have come to really love their poignancy since taking an English course that largely focused on a graphic novel about the Weather Underground.  Stories mirroring Latisha’s, Denise’s, Ramona’s, Angelica’s, and Regina’s are relayed in innumerable scholarly works about the prison system, but somehow their intensity seems much more subdued compared to a comic with illustrated faces jumping out of every page.   Ramona’s story is especially heartbreaking to me because I’ve done a lot of work with sex workers and there is an incredible irony in the fact that carrying around condoms – which can not only protect their own health, but is an incredibly effective public health strategy – can also get women arrested for solicitation. 

In prison, Ramona lays in her bed surrounded by thought bubbles, looking up as if the reader is strapped to the ceiling, looking right back at her.  “Why am I so bad?” “Why can’t I just stop using drugs?” “Why can’t I just be a good mother?” Her expression seems to be actively looking for an answer – as if understanding her situation might be the impetus Ramona needs to change what she sees as personal failings.  By the time Ramona is re-arrested and diagnosed as being HIV-positive, she can no longer look the reader in the eye.  Instead, the close-up of her face is heavily shadowed, as if her life has suddenly become dark, and she is averting her glance.  Her trust in people has diminished.  Rather than wondering why, Ramona asks “who?” “what?” “how?”  Her questions have gone from being inward, trying to find out what she is doing wrong, to outward, asking about a wrong that was done to her.  Even though HIV is now a highly treatable disease, approached more as a chronic illness than a terminal one, this reaction seems to be common.  The diagnosis is heartbreaking, and even more so considering that for many women it  could have been prevented if we had a judicial system that allowed them to carry condoms, go to needle exchanges, and continue to have access to both even while they’re in prison. 

                Sometimes this realization becomes a weight, pushing people into despair, sometimes it’s ignored completely, and sometimes it’s a call to action.  All of the women featured in “Prisoners of a Hard Life” had different stories, but what was profound is they were all the victims of the same unfair system.