A few weeks ago, I volunteered at the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Annual Global Women’s Rights Awards in Los Angeles. This inspiring event celebrated individuals who have contributed to the advancement of women’s rights across the globe and who demonstrate strength and activism in the face of injustice, and this year’s honorees included Philomena Lee and Jane Liberton of the Philomena Project.
Does the name Philomena sound familiar? That’s probably because of the award-winning movie that came out in the winter of 2013 that tells Philomena’s (true) story.
As a teenager growing up in Ireland, Philomena knew nothing about the birds and the bees, and when she got pregnant, she was sent to a Magdelene Laundry. At these Catholic institutions, which existed across Ireland, countless young women pregnant out of wedlock were taught to be deeply ashamed in themselves, were held captive for four years during which they did hard labor (for which they were never paid), and their children were stolen from them, sold to American adoptive parents for a profit.
Not only were these women’s liberty, dignity, and family taken from them, but even after release they were never given information about the whereabouts of their children, making reunification next to impossible.
The Philomena Project is an organization that seeks to raise awareness about the Catholic Church’s inhumane treatment of women in Ireland, and to create a support network to help reunite women and children. Philomena is a courageous woman to come forward and share this painful story with the world, and is an example of the great power of transforming silence into language and action (as theorized by the amazing Audre Lorde).
At the Awards event when it was stated that the last of these workhouses remained open until 1997, the crowd gasped. We were all appalled that such a blatant violation of human rights could have continued until so recently. How could the imprisonment of women for the “crime” of having immoral sex, the forced slave labor, and the ripping apart of families possibly have continued for so long unquestioned and unchallenged?
As much as we should celebrate the accomplishments of The Philomena Project, we must also realize that those same human rights violation are all happening in the United States today within our prison system.
One parallel between Philomena’s story and the prison system in the US is the stigmatization and criminalization of young women for what is viewed as a sexual transgression.
The FBI estimates that every year over 100,000 children are sold for sex in the US. While these exploited children, who are not old enough to legally consent to sex, should be seen as the victims of this coercion, abuse, and violence, instead, we prosecute them, send them to juvenile detention centers and later in life, to prisons. Law enforcement claims that this is just the way it has to be, because it’s “easier” to arrest a woman sex worker than her exploiters. These girls are often forced to have sex with more than 10 men every day, meaning that every time a girl is arrested for prostitution, we are forgetting about the hundreds of men who raped her who walk free.
Another parallel between Philomena’s story and the status quo in prisons in he US is extreme economic exploitation. While Philomena and other Irish women were forced to work for four years with no pay, in the US, in Georgia and Texas, the minimum wage for prisoners is $0. That’s slave labor. In Nevada, prisoners make an average of 13 cents an hour. And if prisoners refuse to work for 25 cents an hour, they may be put in solitary confinement (extended solitary confinement is considered torture by human rights groups). Also, just as the Catholic church profited by selling children for adoption, while incarcerated people in the US are exploited prisons make huge profits.
Lastly, the rights of pregnant women, mothers, and children are violated in US prisons. In Philomena, it is revealed that many young women and their children died in childbirth in the Cahtolic institutions where they were held. In the US, many women die due to inadequate healthcare in prisons. With regards to reproductive healthcare specifically, women are unable to access abortions, are forcibly sterilized, get inadequate prenatal care, and shackled during labor (which is both dangerous and dehumanizing).
Once incarcerated women give birth, their babies are taken from them, and if a mother is incarcerated and has no one else to take care of her children, she may lose all parental rights permanently. This was exacerbated by the 1997 Adoption and Sate Families Act, which allowed parental rights to be completely and permanently terminated after 15 months (much shorter than many women’s prison sentences), while this was intended to increase the number of children who were permanently adopted while reducing the number of children, it only backfired, increasing the number of children in the foster care system.
Even when women manage to maintain custody of their children, or have a relative who can take care of them until the mother is released, the separation of mother and child during incarceration causes great emotional pain to women and their children.
The policing and criminalization of women’s sexuality, the economic exploitation and forced labor, and the destruction of families are all common themes in Philomena and in prisons in the US today.
The Philomena Project was honored at the Global Women’s Rights Awards because they sought justice for women who were wronged by the powerful and exploitative institution of the Church. If we value their activism, we must remember that today, in our own country, the prison industrial complex remains a powerful and exploitative institution that we must challenge.
Like Philomena, women who have faced the injustices of our justice system are speaking up and telling their stories. It is up to us to listen and to amplify their voices, helping them to transform the silence around prison humans rights violations into discourse and action, working towards a more just future.