Fairfield professor examines life inside women's prison

The idea of rehabilitation for women prisoners in Connecticut has been largely abandoned and replaced by an emphasis on punishment and retribution, according to author Andi Rierden. A lecturer in English and journalism at Fairfield University, Rierden depicts the day-to-day struggles of inmates at the Connecticut Correctional Institution in Niantic, the State's only prison for women, in her new book The Farm: Life Inside a Women's Prison.

Published by the University of Massachusetts Press, the book is based on three and a half years of interviews conducted by Rierden who spent more than 1,500 hours among the women at the prison. Starting in 1992, she recorded interviews, strolled the grounds with inmates and correction officers, shared meals, attended classes and group counseling sessions and tracked former inmates after their release.

Built in 1917 as a work farm for prostitutes, unwed mothers and other women of allegedly immoral character, "The Farm," as it is still called, has long served as a barometer of prevailing social attitudes toward women. Rierden received permission from the warden to conduct research within The Farm and explored how the women come to terms with their crimes and adapt to the realities of incarceration, form friendships and alliances, and cope with the absence of children and loved ones. She spent time with gang members, a prostitute with AIDS who considers the disease a spiritual gift, and the prison's matriarch, a long-term inmate convicted of murdering her child.

The stories of these women reflect on the effects of increasingly stringent drug laws and sentences as well as the rise of violence among inmates.

Spread out over 1,000 acres of forests, lakes and meadows, the Niantic Farm was originally self-sufficient as the inmates grew their own vegetables and raised poultry, cattle and sheep. Until the 1960s, the prison maintained its own nursery where women could keep their children up to the age of two years. Then the State decided it could no longer support the growing number of inmates' children. The Farm was lauded as a national model but in the past decade, the women began sharing some of the problems that face male prisoners, notably overcrowding.

During the 1980s, the number of women in America's prisons and jails tripled and Niantic was no exception. By 1991, the population at Niantic had risen to 606, an increase of 159 percent from 10 years before. Today the prison houses about 1,200 inmates.

Rierden found that the increase and turnover of inmates has made it difficult for counselors to know the women and help them reshape their lives. She has reported that two-thirds of the women who leave The Farm eventually return. According to Rierden, women's prisons throughout the country are experiencing similar problems and she traces much of the increase in women prisoners to the federal and state crackdown on the sale and use of narcotics. She added that because the number of women's prisons remained so low in the past, little has been written about their evolution.

Rierden is also the author of "Reshaping the Supreme Court: New Justices, New Directions," and her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor and Connecticut Magazine and she has written for film and television.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on June 1, 1997

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