Notes on a Visit to TPFW, the Tennessee Prison for Women
Written by Vanderbilt Law School Professor Edward Rubin
One’s first impression of TPFW, the Tennessee Prison for Women, is that it excessively ferocious-looking – high chicken wire fences festooned with rolls of concertina wire at the top and bottom. The sun was shining when we visited the prison, but the daylight appeared garish as it glinted off the edged and pointed metal. Once inside, however, things seem more benign. Unless you were fortunate enough to attend a fancy private school, the hallways where the prison shops and offices are located will remind you of your high school. The cells, called residences by our tour guide, have solid, almost normal-looking doors, not the archetypical metal bars, and are grouped around open areas with tables reminiscent of a high school cafeteria. The central yard, bounded by low, nondescript brick buildings, looks like Nashville State Community College; true, it seems rather desolate because there are no trees in this vast expanse of open ground, but there aren’t many trees at Nashville State either.
It is only after we had a chance to speak with some of the inmates that the true character of the place was revealed. TPFW is a symptom, an emblem and an embodiment of political insanity, the total inability of our nation to deal with its social problems in anything that approaches a rational manner. Nearly all the women who shared their life stories with us are the products of broken homes. Many of them had no mother in their lives, for one reason or another, and were consigned to a dreadfully inadequate foster care system. Lacking supervision, instruction and maternal love, they became truants, drug addicts, drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves. They also became mothers, very often by men – or boys – who were unready for parenting and rapidly departed.
So how do we deal with the social problem of these misbehaving women? We lock them away in prison, thereby consigning their children to exactly the same conditions that they themselves experienced. TPFW is an institution designed to breed the next generation of criminals. And these criminals will, in their turn, be locked away, thus producing the next generation. In other words, the social strategy that this prison represents, laughably described as the criminal justice system, does nothing more than perpetuate the problem it is supposed to solve. A single afternoon at TPFW, speaking with the inmates, is sufficient to make this process clear as daylight, and as pointed as the barbs on the concertina wire.
The only imaginable justification for incarcerating these women is that they have broken the law and deserve punishment. But the laws that many of them have broken are the result of a societal decision to define a public health problem as criminal activity. There is no doubt that a woman who is taking drugs will be a less than optimal mother, employee and citizen. That is also true for a woman who is an alcoholic, or is chronically depressed, or has contracted AIDS. We could punish these additional women for sub-optimal performance by imprisoning them as well, thereby increasing the number of women in prison from 200,000 (one third of all the women prisoners in the world) to 20 million or so, and the cost from $6 billion or so to $600 billion. That would bankrupt every state government in the nation and put millions of more children out on the streets to become the criminals of the future. But no one would favor such a policy – indeed, most people would consider it insane.
One might argue that people become addicted to psychotropic drugs voluntarily, but that is true for alcoholism. Moreover, until quite recently, depression was regarded as mere weakness of the will, and thus voluntary as well. And most people contract AIDS from having sex with someone other than their spouse, which is also voluntary behavior, and undesirable according to the Republican Party. One might also argue that a drug addict isn’t a particularly desirable mother for a young child. Certainly a substance-free mother would be better, as would a mother who had a husband, loving and supportive relatives, a six-figure income and a PhD in child development. But the idea that addiction to narcotics turns a person into a raving maniac or a savage beast is vulgar propaganda from the War on Drugs. It not only appears in formulaic government publications, but also in popular entertainment produced by our overly compliant entertainment industry. Even a thoughtful movie like the Academy Award winning Moonlight succumbs to this cliché. The daylight of more responsible research reveals that it simply isn’t true, and would be even less true if people didn’t need to break the law in order to get drugs. What is even clearer is that an addicted mother is generally better than an absent one. When that absent mother is difficult to visit or to talk to, and is branded a criminal, the point becomes still clearer.
A sane policy – but that may be too high a standard for the United States. A minimally rational policy would be to treat drug addiction as a public health problem, the way we treat alcoholism and nicotine addition (except of course, that we don’t; we rationally avoid criminalizing these behaviors, but we don’t provide necessary public health measures to remedy them). Instead of imprisoning women who take drugs, or sell drugs to other voluntary users, suppose we left them in their homes where they could take care of their children, and in some cases continue their gainful employment. Suppose we then took the $6 billion we spend incarcerating them, and the additional billions we spend capturing and convicting them, and provided programs to help them control or overcome their addiction. Suppose we provided their children with an expanded Headstart program and teen or pre-teen after school programs to keep them off the streets. If you have any doubt that this would be a better option, just schedule a visit to TPFW, walk past the concertina wire, and talk to the inmates.