Silja J.A. Talvi of Seattle is a 21st-century muckraker. The 37-year-old native of Finland is an independent investigative reporter with an intense dedication to exposing societal wrongs in hopes of affecting change.
Some of her work is published by "In These Times," a progressive monthly on the East Coast where she is a senior editor. But two years of travel, research and writing have just produced Talvi's first book -- "Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System" (Seal Press, 295 pages, $15.95). This comprehensive and passionately argued indictment of the inhumane treatment of female prisoners is the sort of shocking expose too seldom seen in these media days of so much celebrity fluff.
Talvi will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, a free event hosted by Powerful Voices, a Seattle non-profit with programs to aid at-risk adolescents.
P-I: What interested you in women in prison in the first place?
Talvi: I had looked at women in prison previously and that experience got me to see that it was a more serious issue than I thought. But the incident that inspired the book was my 2000 visit to the segregated housing unit at the world's largest women's prison in Chowchilla, Calif. I thought I had prepared for that visit, watching documentaries about super maximum security prisons. But being led into this concrete facility that looked so foreboding, I was soon surrounded by the screams of these prisoners -- moans and wails echoing off the concrete walls. And in the middle of the ground floor there was a small cage that contained a woman who was being admitted for processing ...
It was disturbing to see women in what is a barbaric insane asylum, a place so invisible to the public and tax money doing this.
P-I: What convinced you to do a book on this subject? And how long did you think it would take?
Talvi: Most of the treatments of the issue of women in prison have been academic. Most are focused on one woman and most journalism uses that approach too. I decided I could do a lot more. ...
The book was supposed to be done within a year, but it took two years. The travel required was a real issue for me; my publisher wouldn't fund that. I visited women's prisons around the U.S., plus three international ones, and each trip required me to raise money by writing articles or using my own money. By the end of the book, I had little money at all. But what I had done with the book was different from what existed before.
P-I: What was the most surprising thing you discovered?
Talvi: I did not expect to see the commonality in the threads of these prisoners' lives. Nearly every woman I interviewed (around 100) had a serious history of trauma or abuse in her life, emotional abuse or sexual abuse or domestic violence. Many had been raped. More than a third of the women entering the prison system were homeless, while 70 percent had moderate or severe mental illness.
I also didn't expect the women to be as tremendously resilient as they are. I expected to hear "Help me!" or "I can't take it anymore!" or "I'm going to kill myself!" They didn't do that. ... Instead, they often said, "This isn't just about me" ... they have a real sense of responsibility for each other.
P-I: You document the shocking rise in the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. (up 775 percent since 1977, double the rate of male prisoners). What is the No. 1 cause of that increase?
Talvi: Hands down, the acceleration of the drug war. ... We are getting these increased numbers in prison but these are not high-level traffickers, even the most conservative legislator will agree. ... There's also the fact that women are less likely than men to snitch on loved ones. Prosecutors will come to them and say they will go to prison unless they give up the names of three higher-ups, but women usually either say they don't know those people or will simply decline. Men will snitch and, unfortunately, they often get less time in prison than women who don't.
P-I: Why should people who are not behind bars care about women in prison?
Talvi: Here's the thing -- prisoners are us, members of our society. Yet we've done something in this country to think of prisoners as being so deviant, so disgusting, as if their sentence is part of a lifelong punishment with a kind of scarlet letter stigma.
Since ex-convicts ... have to check that criminal record box on employment forms, since they are not given public housing, these people will fall into an even lower class and will commit more crimes, sometimes more serious crimes. We are guaranteeing a more unstable society.
P-I: You did all this research on a little-covered area of society, then your book is published in a paperback edition by a small press -- is that disappointing?
Talvi: No, on the contrary, this book is a paperback so those in prison and their families and friends can afford it. Affordability was important to me. I was not targeting academic or high-brow readers. I walk around and talk about these issues and want more people to discuss them.
P-I: What's the relationship of Powerful Voices to your project?
Talvi: Powerful Voices is just up the street from where I live in the Central District. They go into juvenile halls and work with these girls. In a short space of time, maybe three to five minutes, they get those girls, usually in shutdown or blotto mode, to open up about deep stuff in their lives.
A lot of these girls are pregnant or have been sexually abused. The people at Powerful Voices are incredibly effective, offering honest information about HIV, about pimps. They do this work with high-risk, low-income girls from middle school and work around empowerment, too.
They brought me into juvenile hall here, getting me different access. I was a volunteer, leading writing workshops for the girls. I also got permission to record their stories, without using their full names. Some of these stories were more disturbing than I ever imagined.
P-I: How has what you learned about women in prison changed your own behavior outside of prison?
Talvi: Holy cow. I think the thing that struck me the most, although it sounds corny, is waking up in my own bed and having the right to get up and eat when I wanted to and the right to go outside and go for a walk. There is no one to give me an order about any of those things. I began to feel tremendously grateful for things I once took for granted. The ability to move around without regulation and control felt like an absolute luxury. Some mornings, I would wake up feeling guilty about that, thinking of the women in their beds in prison. I often wonder if I could last a few days in there. I have immense gratitude for the fact that I am a free woman.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.