The Oppression Olympics: Women Prisoners Share their Stories of Abuse and Tragedy

Ashley Houcin and Angela Jones
Ashley Houchin, right, and Angela Jones pose for a photograph in Rock Springs. The two close friends both spent time in the Wyoming Women’s Center. Jones was transferred to a county jail. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Between 1980 and 2021, the number of incarcerated women in the US increased by more than 525 percent, rising from 26,326 in 1980 to 172,700 in 2023. What’s gone wrong ? How can we fix it?


Excerpts from a prison writing workshop, Wyoming Women’s Center, 2017

When you are young you feel that you are invincible — bulletproof. You know everything you need to know, and you can do no wrong. You feel that the world is your personal oyster and that you’re just waiting for that one grain of sand to make you the perfect pearl. Then, in an instant, youth’s fragile window of optimism gets shattered and you realize that the world is now your cage. In one downward stroke of some Judge’s gavel, you are forever branded a felon.”

— Amanda B., “The Juice Box,” Wyoming Pathways from Prison[1]

I lived with domestic violence for many years. I could see no way out as I was blinded by fear — fear of breaking up my family, fear of failing in my marriage, fear of my husband. My story is one of many behind these walls… It is made worse by denial and victim-shaming, which in turn shuts us down…We should not feel ashamed. We should be understood and helped.”

— DeeDee, “The Secret Storm,” Wyoming Pathways from Prison[2]

“Dear President of the United States of America,

We see commercials where animals are sad because their owners have left them unattended in a cage. There are two of us in a room smaller than our bathrooms at home. In fact, two of us are in a one-person cell. Are you saying that because we broke the laws of man that we’re to be treated less than household pets?

We…choose to incarcerate moms, dads, and grandparents, charge children as adults, where they are denied nutrition, sunshine, space, human contact, exercise, and basic education. When do we/you start facing the reality of what mass incarceration is doing to our great United States of America? When do we stop playing ‘prison reform’ and do an entire prison overhaul?”

— Chris, “Silently Crying out Loud.” Wyoming Pathways from Prison[3]


These stories come from the principal women’s prison in the state of Wyoming.

A college writing workshop, started in 2016 by Dr. Susan Dewey, then a University of Wyoming professor of gender and social justice, allowed these women to fully express their frustrations, hopes, and sense of responsibility for their crimes — and those of the State.  I began to read their stories in Wagadu, a SUNY-Cortland academic journal on gender and women’s studies, to which Dewey and a group of editors and workshop writers collaborated.

WAGADU: An international journal of women’s and gender studies, published a special issue on the writings of women prisoners in Wyoming

My first reaction to these essays was shock, then tears. If these women could write with such incredible intelligence; if they could appeal to a US President for better treatment, citing deficient understandings of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs within the prison system; and if at least one of the women could explain why she finally shot a husband who was literally battering her to death, why couldn’t the courts take note and amend their sentences?

I asked Susan Dewey these questions when we began our conversations about women’s prison reform at the University of Alabama in 2022. She’s now a full professor of criminology and criminal justice at UA, having co-authored more than 100 peer-reviewed papers and reports, along with 16 books on gender, poverty, sex work, drug addiction, and domestic abuse. Among her titles are Outlaw Women: Prison, Rural Violence, and Poverty in the American West (New York University Press, 2019). Her new book, Gun Present: Inside a Southern District Attorney’s Battle against Gun Violence (co-authored with Brittany VendeBerg and Hays Webb; University of California Press) will be published May 2024.

The US epidemic of mass incarceration, a trend that has happened since the 1990s, appalls her. “One out of 31 Americans are now involved in the criminal justice system,” Dewey told me. “Far more women are being criminally charged and sent to prison than decades before, mostly for non-violent crimes and the vast majority (58%) are mothers.”

“This is personal for all of us,” she continues. “Most women in prison experience violence and abuse much more often than women in the general population. Though the treatment of women [prisoners] has gotten better because of decades of feminist research, most do not receive opportunities to get substance abuse treatment before they are incarcerated.”

Chris’s Story

As a child I was passed from one foster family to another. I also lived with my real father three to four years, after which I was adopted at age nine. At age 11, I was placed back in foster care. I was sent back to my adopted Mom’s home at 13. I moved out on my own at age 14, and have been on my own ever since…. I was finally free from rape and daily beatings. I was also never again locked in a closet, left unfed, and no one tried to drown me in the bathtub, or burn my face with scalding hot water. I was even allowed to sleep lying down…At no time in my life have I ever been able to move to the “love and belonging” stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Save for my brother and children, I don’t understand what love is. — Chris, “Silently Crying Out Loud.”[4]

Many of the 17 writers who participated in Dewey’s “Wyoming Pathways from Prison Project” had histories of childhood rape, violent abuse and non-violent drug crimes. And several couldn’t find a decent job once released from prison.

Amanda Baynes, the author of “The Juice Box, had to sell everything of value in her house to support her small daughter after futile attempts for months to get a job. She filled out applications, five to ten a day, tried every business on a city block, tried temp agencies, her probation officer, and a Workforce Services Center. She was denied food stamps.

“I felt that I should stand on the street corner with a sign, “I AM A FELON LET ME DO ALL YOUR HARD WORK FOR YOU. I thought, what was the point of working so hard to better my life when all anyone could see was the felon, not the woman behind it?”[5]

Dewey described for me how much the writing workshop helped to demonstrate the creative force and eloquence of these women, many of them impoverished from birth (some, not all). The workshop and college courses have given them an outlet of learning, self-evaluation, and eventually, publishing that might help (or might not) transform their lives.

To this day, I’m haunted by the waste of talent, intelligence, and sorrow, the fallout of the mass incarceration crisis we face today.

Susan Dewey — Prison reform from the inside and out

Dr. Susan Dewey, author, professor of criminal justice, University of Alabama

She’s a champion for prison reform at every level — educational, institutional, the court system. Dewey co-founded the Wyoming Pathways from Prison project several years ago, which was based on eight years of research and volunteer service, 10 to 30 hours a week, at a Denver women’s transitional housing facility. Dewey did this while holding down a full-time academic job. Today, her programs have spread to correctional systems in six states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina and, marginally, in Alabama (though she’s encountered a lot of official resistance to change in that state). Her programs have morphed into “Southern Women’s Pathways to and through Prison.” Her new initiative in South Carolina centers on Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) in prisons, in which long-term incarcerated women participate in mentoring newly arrived women, helping them cope with the emotional shock of confinement while providing opportunities for growth.

When I first met Dewey, I noticed her pixie smile and prom-girl optimism. Tempered, of course, by the realities of her research. She seems a bit of an odd duck working against a remorseless engine of US public policy and criminal code. Before she co-founded the Wyoming Pathways project several years ago, she studied how education, community-based participation and support, and early substance abuse and domestic violence treatment might help incarcerated women avoid the traps of prison and ultimately, recidivism.

“For me as a feminist, this calling has always been to work with women,” Dewey said. “I’m not a religious person. But I do feel deeply committed to using whatever little power I have in the world to help women who are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault or trauma. You see all of those things in a women’s prison. It’s a sisterhood of suffering.”

An interesting fact: Dewey is the daughter of a sheriff’s deputy who worked undercover for the Drug Enforcement Agency in New York in the 70s and 80s. “He’d buy kilos of cocaine from guys who brought it in from Pablo Escobar in Colombia,” Dewey recalled. “Confidential informants called our house (we didn’t have cell phones then). And I’d pick up the phone saying, ‘Hi, I’m six years old! Do you want to speak to my Dad?’” Her family was blue collar, she says, without a lot of money. Yet she pursued anthropology and criminal justice degrees relentlessly, visiting more than 100 prisons to learn from incarcerated women throughout the US. This became a total commitment and career.

The Oppression Olympics — Dewey Style

She’s a funny lady, calling out prison activist networks who’ve excluded her on the basis of not having done time (she hasn’t, except wearing a central office badge for her research work). She finds the whole activist scene a little weird, a little self-defeating.

“You know, it’s about who gets to have a voice related to prison reform,” she says. “Even among people who’ve done time, they’ll be like, ‘Oh well, that guy over there was in the federal system — that’s so easy. It’s Club Fed, you get a salad bar.’ Or, someone else saying ‘I did 20 years in Sing Sing’ (and the message is you didn’t). It’s like the Oppression Olympics — people competing to see who has had the most punitive background. It’s silly, like the movement is eating itself.”

Dewey says she works within state Departments of Corrections to get things done because it’s less tiresome than activist infighting. And when it comes to scholarship and the passion to alter the system, reduce sentence time and identify ways to keep women out of the system, she’s unmatched. Her work has been supported by US and international grants: The National Science Foundation, Census Bureau, Department of Justice, Fulbright-Hays, UN Women, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, and several others.

One in nine African-American children have parents behind bars.

So what’s gone wrong with the criminal justice system? That’s a crazy, complex topic (I recommend reading Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America for astonishing background). But here are some basic facts:

One in nine African-American children today have parents behind bars. Throughout the 1990s, following the Reagan administration’s Anti-Drug Abuse Acts (1986 and 1988), followed by the Clinton Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (1994), mass incarceration and punishment of both men and women, especially African-Americans, grew rapidly. By 2010 the rate for incarcerated black women was three times that of white women; today the rate is six times to one. On Mother’s Day, 2022, 150,000 mothers in jails and US prisons were separated from their children.[6],[7]

The US incarceration frenzy happened between the Reagan and Clinton Administrations. Politically, both Republicans and Democrats have traded for decades on the national obsession, amplified by media, with crime and murder, “law and order,” “freedom from fear,” and, specifically, fear of black criminality, a concept turning emotion and a search for root societal causes into Draconian prison building, three strikes laws, and grossly lopsided sentencing that keeps non-violent drug offenders, both juveniles and adults, in prison for years stretching to decades.

Our country has had a history of racial animus — slavery, lynchings, chain gangs, segregated schools, toilets, Jim Crow laws, relentless lack of equal employment opportunity and voter suppression to boot. It’s all incredibly difficult to tease out who is responsible for what. But I do know there is little evidence of mercy, logic, or help in our current criminal justice system.

Rise in Women’s Incarceration 1980–2021

Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics: Historical Corrections Statistics in the United States 1850–1984 (1986); Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear Series (1997- 2021), Prisoners Series (1980–2021). Washington, DC. Available from:

Lessons of Abuse

In Wyoming, Chris, the workshop writer, wrote in her “Silently Crying Out Loud” essay that she begged for PTSD therapy while in prison but was refused. Officials said her “mental health profile” was not part of policy. DeeDee, writing in her essay, “The Secret Storm,” described two abusive husbands who tried to kill her.

“Elwood beat me so bad one night…..He beat me and then got his pistol. I was shaking…I had my first son, Oscar, on one side of me and my third son, J.J. on the other… Their dad was yelling and calling me names, waving his gun. He then shot it off into the floor scaring us all. My son, Oscar, got the gun by begging his dad for it. After Oscar got the gun, Elwood grabbed me by my hair and threw me off the deck, onto my flowers. At that moment I thought for sure he was going to kill me. By the time he came off the porch I was barely getting up. He grabbed a hold of my hair again and began kicking me with his steel-toed boots. Dragging me all over our yard in front of the kids and neighbors. Hitting me and yelling. God only knew how I wished I was dead at that moment.”

Dee Dee’s second husband battered her repeatedly and one night pushed her through a shower door.

“We started to argue over his daughter, about me sticking up for her being a lesbian because someone had to. I went to the bathroom in my room, and when I turned around…he shoved me into the shower door, which broke. I got away from him and got my gun. I told him to get out…He told me to ‘fuck off’ and came at me. ‘Oh God, I really made a mistake,’ I thought. The biggest mistake of my life. I knew I was going to be dead if he got the gun. I shot him.”

Dee Dee was never given the chance to plea self-defense in court. When she turned herself into the Sheriff’s office, a domestic violence advocate was barred from seeing her. “They said I was the aggressor and he was the victim. I cried for help and wanted to die. What were they thinking?” Dee Dee was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20–30 years in Wyoming Women’s Center. She left behind five children, including a ten-year-old daughter.

I wasn’t able to find out what happened to her or the other women writing these stories. For privacy and confidentiality reasons, wardens of the Wyoming Women’s Center can’t disclose contact information about prisoners or their release. Neither can U Wyoming staff researchers. I tried to find several of these women on Facebook, but so many names are incomplete or blocked out, and those with criminal records shy away from full identification.

What Next?

Dewey is trying to do something about all of this. The loss of a child’s mother. The repeat cycle of violence, abuse, addiction, suicidal anxiety and despair. She’s written handbooks on how to mentor women in prison, drawing from the feedback of the inmates themselves. Her sister Kyle, a dancer, has devised performances of women prisoners expressing every dilemma of long-term confinement (Dewey hopes to make the performance part of a national tour). And as the expert in criminal justice, Dewey has testified about the need for reform in multiple outlets: The Washington Post, The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, PBS, and The Huffington Post, among others.

In the end, she asks questions, wanting to see an end to politicizing and tug-o-war over the “right solutions” to prison reform. “I think fewer women need to go to prison,” she said. “Some prison abolitionists want to close women’s prisons altogether because the vast majority of women are committing non-violent crimes. There are so many going to prison for untreated substance abuse disorders. Prison wasn’t in the cards for them. When we talk about a solution, we have to talk about how we got here as a nation. How did we get here so we’re on a par with Russia and China?

“The biggest barriers are set by the justice system itself,” she continues. “For many of these women, post-prison life is incredibly difficult because they are branded, not able to find decent jobs. Some of these women have to take three bus transfers to get to some kind of employment post-prison. It’s a full-time job just staying out of prison,” Dewey said. Lifelong punishment after prison isn’t the answer. Real reform may include teaching skills of entrepreneurship so that women can start businesses themselves.

“Ninety- five percent of women in prison are going to get out someday. They’re going to be your neighbors,” she predicts. “The question we all need to be asking is, ‘What kind of neighbors do we want to have?’ The availability of opportunities for self-improvement in prison plays a significant role in answering that question.”

And maybe, just maybe, the kindness of strangers.


[1]Bayne, A, (2017) “The Juice Box,” Wagadu: A Journal of Transnational Women’s & Gender Studies: Vol. 17: Iss. 1, Article 14. Available at:

[2] None, DeeDee (2017) “Secret Storm,” Wagadu: A Journal of Transnational Women’s & Gender Studies: Vol. 17: Iss. 1, Article 17. Available at:

[3]None, Chris (2017) “Silently Crying Out Loud,” Wagadu: A Journal of Transnational Women’s & Gender Studies: Vol. 17: Iss. 1, Article 5. Available at:

[4] Available at:

[5] Available at:

[6] Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that punishing them with incarceration tears their children away from a vital source of support.” Available at:

[7,8] The US incarceration frenzy happened between the Reagan and Clinton Administrations. Read more in Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How liberals built prison America. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


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