The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1999, Volume 45, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

“In the Mix:” Struggle and Survival in a Women’s Prison.

By Barbara Owen. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Bibliography, 219 pp. $19.95 paper.

Reviewed by G. Thomas Gitchoff, Professor of Criminal Justice Administration, San Diego State University, author of Kids, Cops & Kilos: A Study of Contemporary Suburban Youth (1969) and co-author with James Gazell eds., Youth, Crime & Society (1972).

Professor Barbara Owen has produced a study of women in prison that will become an instant classic in the style of earlier ethnographers and qualitative research scholars. She and her colleague, Barbara Bloom deserve kudos for their earlier efforts to enter women’s prisons and have the freedom to conduct their research.

Dr. Owen brings to her work both practical and academic credentials that assure her credibility as researcher and scholar. Her choice of conducting an ethnographic study at a time when most emphasis is on quantitative analyses is refreshing. The fact that she was able to conduct interviews in the largest women’s prison in the U.S. (California’s Central Women’s Facility) is equally impressive. It is important that as we study human and social phenomena, we continue to seek information directly from the primary source through face to face interviews and observation of the environment/event whenever possible. Dr. Owen has succeeded like none other in women’s prison. It is significant, both from the number of inmates (300) interviewed and the time span (3 years) covered. Her work, the first in a new series of books dealing with “Women, Crime and Criminology” from the State University of New York Press, will generate the continued interest and research of criminal justice and criminology students throughout the U.S.

“In the Mix” refers to that condition which the woman inmate must be both part of, and apart from, a situation that can either help or jeopardize her place in the institution. As Owen notes: “Most women want to do their time, leave the prison, and return to the free worldÉ. (They) can get caught up in the mix of risky and self-defeating behaviorÉ. Most women avoid the mixÉ. For a small minority, the lure of the mix, with its emphasis on the fast lifeÉexcitement of drug use, fighting and volatile relationships proves too hard to resist” (p. 8).

Another theme that Dr. Owen describes is the critical importance of personalized relationships. She notes the significance of the “play family” and the intimate dyad that forms the basis of life in a women’s prison as well as a means to both avoid and survive the mix. These relationships with other prisoners mediate how women learn to do their time and may also provide some protection from the self-destruction of the mix. Thus, surviving the mix is grounded in a woman’s ability to develop a satisfying and productive routine within the prison and the nature of her relationships with other prisoners (p. 9).

“In the Mix” raises concerns about the nature of prisons and its presumed utility in modern society. Prisons, for both women and men, are misunderstood (and misused) institutions. For most of the free community, prisons are seen as abstract places of punishment and deterrence. Regardless of popular belief, neither California nor the nation can prove the deterrent effect of imprisonment. In fact, the increase in the prison-industrial complex has done little to decrease crime, but much in creating employment for guards. Apparently, this failure of public policy is tolerated by a society that continues to believe erroneously in the power of deterrence (p. 13).

After completing some 300 interviews, Dr. Owen has given us insight into the culture and social structure of women’s prisons, a better understanding of the etiology of their commitment, their lifestyle and survival skills. Serving short time and long time creates unique situations among these women in the mix. Dr. Owen’s unique ability to gain rapport, understanding and data is noteworthy for both academics and policy makers. Her interviews with death row, aging and handicapped inmates are important to understand future directions in planning and administering women’s correctional facilities. Her investigation into sexual and physical assaults from other prisoners and staff (especially the new inmates) is revealing. The revelation of the emotional pain and separation from loved ones and children, of the escape from domestic violence, and of early child abuse are all part of the fabric that makes reading the interviews compelling and disturbing.

Overall, this is an excellent book that will soon be considered among the “classics” in sociology and criminology. It represents contemporary views that incorporate a feminist perspective and interviews with the “real experts”…those serving times behind bars. It is a valuable contribution to the literature, however, there is one constructive criticism: the excellent bibliography does not include the revealing works of Jean Harris. Harris was the head mistress (Dean) of an exclusive girls school, convicted of killing Dr. Herman Tarnower, the Scarsdale Diet Doctor, in 1980 and sentenced to prison in New York. She wrote Stranger in Two Worlds about women in prison based upon her experiences. While in prison, using her skill and knowledge, Harris set up a mother-infant program and tutored many of the less fortunate inmates. I urge a reading of her books. Aside from that shortcoming, “In the Mix” is must reading for those concerned with our policies of incarcerating more and more of our minority female population.