May 20, 1999
University Gazette


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Getting the 'Inside' Story of Women in Prison

SPH's Angela Browne spends time interviewing women inmates about their exposure to violence and trauma

By Sharon M. O'Brien
Special to the Gazette

Angela Browne: "I am confronted with such a range - humor, love, pain, loss, catastrophe, physical and mental illness, death. It's such a complex environment. There are puppies, a nursery, acutely mentally ill women, and a death row. It's impossible to communicate what it's like."

For Angela Browne, going to prison is easy -- what's hard is coming out again. Browne, a senior research scientist at the School of Public Health's Injury Control Research Center, has been going in and out of prison for 20 years.

For the past 10 years, she has held the position of consulting psychologist at Bedford Hills, New York state's maximum security facility for women, in Westchester County. Each month she spends more than a week at Bedford, then returns to her position in the Department of Health Policy and Management.

"Walking in the first morning is easy," she says. "For some it's difficult -- the gate, the razor wire -- but for me it feels familiar and comfortable. I'm glad to be back. What's hard is leaving, when I clear the gate and I'm in some vehicle going to the airport. Then it's culture shock. I spend eight to nine days in a maximum security prison, get on a tiny 19-seat plane back to Boston; I grab a cab. Then I'm home on the water in Boston, and back to Harvard. The juxtaposition of these two worlds is jarring every single month."

Browne, a social psychologist, is a nationally recognized expert on the lifelong effects of trauma on women. Her involvement began in 1979, when she took a job interviewing women for the Colorado-based "Battered Women Syndrome Study," sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health. The project was the first research study in the United States to focus on women who were in, or had been in, relationships with physically aggressive men.

Browne became part of a project team that pioneered the application of self- defense pleas for women who had killed their abusive mates. An analysis of interview data formed the basis for her doctoral dissertation in social psychology for The Union Institute in 1983, and later her 1987 book, When Battered Women Kill.

In 1987, Browne moved her work "inside" to Bedford Hills. There are more than 850 women at Bedford, one-third with life sentences. Browne, initially there to train both civilian and uniformed staff in trauma issues, is now doing field interviews with women on the waiting list for the Family Violence Program.

Her Time 'Inside'

Browne spends the first day at Bedford Hills "walking the grounds" and catching up with the news as she prepares for her formal interviewing. For the next five days, she meets with one woman a day, and spends about six hours taking down each woman's life history. Browne focuses on the woman's history of exposure to violence, both her experience as a victim and as a witness. She starts with each woman's earliest memories, and ends with her current incarceration.

Despite the "outrageously sad" aspects of her work, and the traumatic content of the stories, Browne loves her job. "I find the environment very positive and rewarding to be in," she says.

It doesn't fit what most people probably imagine when they think of prisons: catwalks, armed guards, and incredible violence. "There is a relatively small amount of physical danger, unlike the genuine physical danger in male prisons," Browne says. "I virtually never feel unsafe. There are many women there who are acutely mentally ill, so there could be a minor incident, like being pushed against a wall, but that would be due to illness."

In general, the women are very friendly. Almost everyone makes eye contact and exchanges greetings. "My first day or two back in Boston, prison is still very present," Browne says, laughing. "I keep making eye contact with people I don't know, and saying 'hello.' They stare at me blankly. I have to remind myself that we're not quite as civil here in Boston.

"Occasionally, inside, when I say 'How are you today?,' someone will say, 'I'm blessed, thank you.' It's very humbling to hear that -- coming from my privileged lifestyle -- when I think of their losses, the loss of family and freedom."

Despite the extremely different worlds that Browne travels between each month, she feels that she doesn't have to change who she is in any major way. "I don't have to speak differently, but I am more careful to stop and listen there. I take more time." And as a civilian she doesn't have to dress in uniform. Browne dresses as if she were at Harvard, teaching a class. "At first I wondered if I should dress less formally, but I was told that the women see it as a sign of respect if you dress up."

And if you choose to spend your birthday with them.

Browne spent her 40th birthday with the women and the superintendent at Bedford Hills. The kitchen made her a cake, and one woman stitched her a wall hanging. "It has a white cat looking out through a barred window -- not like prison bars, but like a home. Out of the window you can see clouds, trees, blue sky." The gift continues to hang on her office wall at the prison. The woman who made it for Browne knows that it is still hanging there -- she is still in the prison, sentenced to life. "I've seen her go from a beautiful brunette to a woman with white hair," Browne says.

It's details like that that suddenly point out how different this world is. "I am confronted with such a range -- humor, love, pain, loss, catastrophe, physical and mental illness, death. It's such a complex environment. There are puppies, a nursery, acutely mentally ill women, and a death row. It's impossible to communicate what it's like."

One day, as a joke, someone posted the official "count" -- the all- important head count around which a prison revolves -- by listing: inmates, babies, puppies. Currently there are about 20 babies in the nursery, living with their incarcerated mothers. "On warm days mothers are pushing babies in strollers," Browne says. "You see officers bending over cooing to them." The puppies are being trained to become Seeing Eye dogs by women in the Honors Cottage, who are chosen for the job because of their good character. Naturally, babies and puppies affect people "inside" the way they do everyone else.

Balancing Pain and Joy

But these humanizing touches don't negate the cold realities. There are enough teenagers that the superintendent had to start a group for them. Half of them are there for drug-related offenses related to stringent mandatory minimums. Some women are sentenced for crimes committed by abusive mates, who forced them to participate or to remain silent through violence and threats. There are severely mentally ill women who should be hospitalized but instead are sentenced to prison, and physically ill women at lower security levels who need more intensive medical services than other prisons can provide.

While there, Browne is completely immersed in the prison environment. She lives with staff, and work is naturally the main topic of conversation. While the housing is currently off-site, for the first seven years Browne lived on the grounds. Not only did she get a sense of the realities of Bedford, but she gained status as a trusted civilian. She may not be in uniform, but as someone who responds to 4 a.m. emergencies with other staff, she is a civilian who "gets it."

Browne tries to come home with as much of the weekend left as possible to allow for transition back to her other life. Images from her most recent trip are still present at first: a woman whose last family member has just cut off contact, a group of young mothers with AIDS. She "sees blades" (knives) in her sleep for several days, a leftover from the life histories she has heard.

Browne actively works to balance the pain that she is exposed to each month.

"I have learned that my work and its content is heavy," she says. "I don't try to make it lighter. Instead I take the other side of the scale and try to deliberately add positive, joyous things to that side.

"I come back exhausted, so the first 24 hours I am not social. I work out, and put one foot in front of the other until it gets easy. I never miss the first day back at work, so that I adjust as quickly as possible. I prioritize my friends, I live on the water, I sail."

Browne also refuses to own a hardtop car. "I've driven a convertible for 20 years. I love dancing and music and baseball. This kind of immersion also makes you think differently about colleagues, friends, and loved ones. I see them as adding a strong positive element in my life, and I don't take anything for granted. I try not to deny the negative. Instead I deliberately try to integrate and accept it into my life, while using counterweights. Since 1979 I have never been bored one day. The range possible in this work uses every bit of my intellect, ability to analyze, critique, and communicate. It requires balance and fortitude."

Collecting Life Stories of Women in Prison

In 1998, Browne was awarded a Senior Soros Justice Fellowship, which is now allowing her to gather the qualitative data to "wrap flesh around the statistical skeleton" of the quantitative data she collected in earlier National Institutes of Health-funded research at Bedford.

She hopes to complete the narratives in July, begin analysis this summer, and start writing a book this November that will focus on violence in the life histories of women in prison. Browne hopes the findings will encourage policies and interventions that will help break the cycle of violence and imprisonment for women, now the most rapidly growing component of the United States' enormous prison population.

Browne will continue teaching in the Department of Health Policy and Management as she writes. And naturally she will continue her life at Bedford Hills. Despite her constant journey from one world to another, she says, "You couldn't pay me enough to stop doing this work."

Sharon M. O'Brien is a freelance writer in Cambridge.


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College