Volume 1, Issue 2, January 1999

ISSN 1096-4886 http://www.westerncriminology.org/Western_Criminology_Review.htm
© 1999, The Western Criminology Review. All Rights Reserved.

Book Review

'In the Mix': Struggle and Survival in a Women's Prison, by Barbara Owen. |
Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998. 219 pp. $19.95.

Joanne Belknap
University of Colorado at Boulder

Barbara Owen's new book, 'In the Mix': Struggle and Survival in a Women's Prison, is a timely and welcome addition to the recent attention given to incarcerated women (see references). The general public, and probably many criminology students, are unaware that almost everything bad about males' incarceration is worse for females. For example, the rate of incarceration is increasing at an even faster rate for females than the break-neck rate for males, the war on drugs has been more of a war on women than men, the rate of incarcerating people of color is even more disproportionate in women's than men's prisons, and the medical, vocational, and educational programming for incarcerated women is far inferior to that of their male counterparts. Thus, the recent surge in books on female offenders is necessary, to say the least. In addition to the increase in the numbers of books on women in prison, an important aspect of these books (listed in the references) is that they are guided by a feminist perspective: giving voice to women's and girls' experiences and accounting for the diversity among female offenders.

In the Mix is significant in its contribution to this literature. This book is the result of an ethnographic study of the largest women's prison in the U.S. (and therefore, probably in the world), the Central California Women's Facility. Owen carefully details each aspect of this study on both academic and personal levels. This as a very appealing aspect of this book: In the Mix provides the reader with pertinent information on the politics and care with which such a study must be guided, but also allows the reader to understand the dilemmas, rewards, and frustrations this researcher encountered in her attempts to understand how incarcerated women "do time."

I am choosing to organize this review largely around what I perceive as the most important contributions of this book. The first aspect of this book that I praise is the thoroughness and organization in the presentation. Unlike too many scholarly books, In the Mix is easy to "consume," and I attribute this to the thoroughness with which Owen approaches her subject (how incarcerated women "do time") and the care she must have taken to structure the reporting of the information. Indeed, this book is not only understandable and easily consumed by those knowledgeable on this topic, but it also offers a clear reading to the novice on female offenders (which is almost everybody) about who these incarcerated women are and what it is like to experience incarceration in a women's prison.

The second contribution of this book is that most existing books fail to explain what it is like for today's woman prisoner to experience prison. Indeed, in my opinion, Owen is too generous in her review of some of the classic books on women prisoners. I would argue that these "classics" were obsessed with women prisoners' relationships (especially sexual) with each other, while failing to adequately address the numerous troubling conditions of their lives in and outside of prison. In her presentation on the day-to-day lives of women prisoners today, Owen routinely accounts for different types of women throughout the book. For example, lesbianism isn't the focus of the book, nor, conversely, is it simply given one token chapter. Rather, issues for lesbians and same-sex sexual relationships are presented throughout. Similarly, although Owen was limited in what she was allowed to report about the "death row" women (on their request), she consistently brings up issues that make the lives of "long timers'' in the prison unique throughout the book. Owen also devotes some attention to the additional problems experienced by disabled women prisoners. By interviewing a broad range in age and time-served, Owen is able to account for how the prison experience for women has changed over time, for example, the influx of some gang members. Unlike most of the older or more recent books on women prisoners, In the Mix provides in-depth insight into the daily lives and coping means employed by incarcerated women.

Another important aspect of this book is the feminist method of providing marginalized women with a voice. Probably the greatest strength of this book is the manner in which direct quotes from the almost three hundred face-to-face interviews with the women appear throughout the text. The honesty of these women about their own fears of incarceration, ranging from concerns about sexual and physical assaults from other prisoners and staff (especially for the newcomers, the "fish") to their painful and stressful separations from their newborns, babies, toddlers, young, adolescent, and grown children. The direct quotes from the women also provide the reader with a realistic impression of the varied aspects of imprisonment: the boredom, the excitement, the warmth and generosity provided by some other prisoners, the insensitivity of some other prisoners, and so on.

A fourth aspect of this book that I particularly appreciated was the chapter on pathways to offending. Owen admits that researching or reporting on the life histories of these women prior to imprisonment had not been her intention, but is convincing in her argument that an understanding of their abusive life histories is essential. The life histories not only explain how many of these women ended up in prison, but how their entire lives, including incarceration, are affected by their childhood and adulthood experiences, particularly their violent victimizations in the form of child abuse and intimate partner battering.

In sum, In the Mix offers an important contribution to the growing research on female offenders. It carefully explains how women experience incarceration. Scholars on prisons and offenders will want to add this book to their shelves. Given the quality of both the research method involved, and the superb organization and presentation, this book is also ideal for an advanced undergraduate or graduate course. Indeed, I have assigned it for an upper-level course I am teaching on female offenders next semester. In short, I was pleased to read and review this book and appreciate the contributions it makes to understanding female offenders.


Chesney-Lind, Meda. 1997. The Female Offender: Girls, Women, and Crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Diaz-Cotto, Juanita. 1996. Gender, Ethnicity, and the State: Latino and Latina Prison Politics. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Odem, Mary E. 1995. Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Richie, Beth E. 1996. Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Black Battered Women. New York: Routledge.

Watterson, Kathryn. 1996. Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb. Revised Edition. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

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Joanne Belknap

Joanne Belknap, Ph.D., Departments of Sociology and Women's Studies, University of Colorado at Boulder
e-mail: belknap@sobek.colorado.edu


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