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Review: Unruly Women by Karlene Faith

April 2, 2012

Unruly Women coverTitle: Unruly Women: The Politics of Confinement and Resistance
Author: Faith, Karlene
Length: 339 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Gender, Law
Publisher / Year: Seven Stories Press / 2011 – first published in 1993
Source: From the publisher for review.
Rating: 5/5
Why I Read It: You need to ask? Re-read the title!
Date Read: 29/01/12

We should all be aware that we are in a culture, here in North America, that is increasingly about confinement and police action. The United States has more people in prison than any other country and the prison population only continues to grow – and women are the fastest growing prison population. Sadly, Canada is moving down the same path with the new ‘crime bills’ our current government is pushing through. In this book Faith looks at what this means, especially for women through history who have been incarcerated. Most women aren’t in for violent crimes yet sometimes face years behind bars, and while there they encounter specific types of situations that are often little reported or understood by the public. In this book Faith tries to bring us all to a place of understanding and knowledge about what it can mean to be a woman who transgresses.

Faith is the type of researcher and writer who truly delights me. Through this book she not only examines topics that greatly interest me, but she also does with a truly intersectional focus discussing also race, class, and more. She discusses language and breaks down the stereotypes behind the various terms which make it difficult to even write about women who are behind bars without bringing up negative pre-conceptions. She also provides endless references and a large index. AND even better, unlike most books which deal predominantly with the United States, Faith is a Canadian who discusses the issues and the system in both the United States and in Canada.

The continuum, then, does not follow deterministically from victimization to criminalization. Rather, social victims en masse serve as the very large pool from which the anomalous woman, who sells sex, steals or hurts people and gets caught, is a candidate for prosecution. These unruly masses are the target of criminal justice as well as the target of other dominant regulatory institutions in bureaucratized societies. The continuum from victimization to criminalization is arbitrarily drawn according to power relations as constructed through racially divided and class-based social structures, in tandem with the authority of law and other dominant discourses such as medicine, social sciences and welfare, which all serve selective law enforcement practices. (page 108)

Throughout the book Faith examines the ways in which women in prison are seen as transgressors of the law, and the different ways they are viewed and treated from males in prison. They are more likely to be sedated, to be punished more severely for speaking out / attempting things such as hunger strikes, and in how they are viewed upon release as well. Through history various means, such as witch hunts or nunneries, were used to keep women in their place. The prison system and mass incarceration is simply the latest in a long line of ways in which dominant society has placed rules on the acceptable options for women and punished those who transgress. Currently prison is used as an alternative to fixing social systems that would give all an equal chance, instead any who steal (even small things like a loaf of bread), or who resort to sex work, are criminalized. Crime exists in all levels of society, the author reminds us, we have simply chosen to punish more harshly the crimes committed by those with the least.

This was a fantastic and very well-written and researched book that I highly recommend to all. If you are interested in social justice, gender issues, mass incarceration, history, or just learning more about our society, you definitely want to search out this book. My only criticism with the book is that although Faith discusses so much, including class, race, and sexual preference, transgender men and women were not discussed. No doubt their situation would have required even more research and time, but I would have appreciated at least a comment about the fact that they exist. Despite this fact, I still can’t recommend enough that you go read this book.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2012 3:36 pm

    “Currently prison is used as an alternative to fixing social systems that would give all an equal chance, instead any who steal (even small things like a loaf of bread), or who resort to sex work, are criminalized. Crime exists in all levels of society, the author reminds us, we have simply chosen to punish more harshly the crimes committed by those with the least.”

    This bit alone makes me think I’d love this book. As always, you read the most interesting non-fiction, Amy.

    • April 8, 2012 6:05 pm

      Isn’t it just fascinating Ana?! The whole book is that amazing. It makes me giddy exciting just thinking about it, heh.

  2. April 2, 2012 3:59 pm

    You make some brilliant points in this review, and have opened my eyes to a few things that I have never realized about the penal system. When you stop and think about it, a man coming out of prison is seen as rough and hard, where a woman is just seen as evil and damaged. Very interesting post today. It gave me a lot to think about.

    • April 8, 2012 6:06 pm

      Thanks so much zibilee, I’m glad that you enjoyed and learned from my review. The book truly is fantastic. I find that the more I read on social justice the more appalled I am by the way in which we unthinkingly do things!

  3. April 2, 2012 8:37 pm

    This sounds fascinating! I’ve read a couple of really interesting books about the penal system and how screwed up it is, but nothing that’s focused particularly on women.

    • April 8, 2012 6:06 pm

      Ooohhh any in particular that you would recommend to me Jenny?? I want more!

  4. April 3, 2012 10:54 am

    Interesting, I remember there was a big thing about it in the UK a couple of years ago. Because there are far fewer female prisions than male, female prisoners were often being sent further away from home so contact with family was often very restricted as a result. I remember all kinds of reports about this flying around because of the impact.

    • April 8, 2012 6:07 pm

      Yes, the fact that they are farther from home and thus harder for family to visit is discussed in this one too Jessica. It’s so interesting to learn more about. Opens your eyes for sure.

  5. April 3, 2012 8:38 pm

    This sounds really fascinating. Women and prison is not something that is really discussed in the US. Prison in general, I think, is something we all just avoid talking about. Clearly it’s a discussion that we need to have.

    • April 8, 2012 6:08 pm

      Yes, we do have to talk about it and do so much more Lu, you are right.

  6. trish422 permalink
    April 3, 2012 9:56 pm

    This sounds absolutely fantastic! Actually, it’s giving me ideas for a whole unit in my courses…

    • April 8, 2012 6:08 pm

      OK, this as part of a course unit sounds incredibly amazing Trish!

  7. aartichapati permalink
    April 4, 2012 10:42 pm

    This sounds like such an important book, so of course it will probably not be widely read at all. I’m so glad YOU read it, though, and brought it to our attention. I love that it is called Unruly Women, which I thought would be about women taking control of their lives. I’m a little disturbed that it’s about women who get themselves into prison, but I still like the title.

    • April 8, 2012 6:10 pm

      Heh you are right Aarti, sadly I bet it won’t be widely read. Funny how those books that are most important usually aren’t. And sad. Also, yes, the title is awesome 🙂 Because it talks about how and why women end up in prison and how it’s about the rules society sets and how they often don’t make sense, in some ways it is about women taking control of their lives – in advocating for better service and treatment in prison, for advocating for better and more just laws, in working together to learn and grow, and more.


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