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Family by Proxy - Love, Marriage and Family in Women's Prison

Life in prison for women can be just as violent and deadly a place as it is for men. Women with life sentences know that prison is their home for the rest of their lives. Others will come and go, but they will remain. With this knowledge and ultimate acceptance, comes the need to nest, adjust, acclimate, and make the best of what is now their forever home. While male lifers go through the same process, women do it in an entirely domestic way. Males tend to become more isolated as years go by. Women do the opposite. They form families by proxy and each member fulfills a vital, and oddly colloquial, role within the family unit.

Women who have a life sentence to serve start out like everyone else. It is after the years accumulate that she begins to take a place of honor among other long-term inmates and the newbies quickly learn she is the one to respect. Some women take on this role with a firm hand and hard line. Others are more soft and motherly, keeping to themselves and imparting their wisdom when called upon. Which route they take depends solely on their personality. These lifers with time in, are the most schooled on prison life and so they take on the role of mother or father in a prison family, depending upon their sexual orientation. The mother/father will often choose a mate and the couple will live together in prison as if they were a married couple in the free world. 

These families by proxy are pieced together in every way an actual family can occur. Sister, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins. The roles they take on in the family they join determines the responsibilities they are accountable for. Household chores, shopping and errands usually fall to a sister. They clean cells and take care of the parents but also help bring in money and necessities. Parents bring in the largest part of the money, largely through running businesses of some sort or even through less wholesome means like theft or intimidation.

Income in prison is surprisingly like any other type of society. Inmates can hold jobs for the prison, such as laundry, library and cafeteria, for menial pay; a few cents a day, but the majority of their income often comes from their own family hustle. Seth Ferranti, inmate turned bestselling author of the true crime Street Legends series, explains it this way;  

“In prison there’s a barter system and prisoners use stamps, mackerels, or cigs to trade for whatever. Some people smuggle food out of the kitchen, sell exclusive pens or white-out or tape, some do braids or tattoos, or even have stores in the unit, cleaning services, food they made for sale. The hustles are endless.”

Seth built a writing career after landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list. While serving an LSD kingpin conviction, he earned a Masters degree from California State University. His raw portrayals of the New York crack era gangsters gained the attention of Don Diva and VICE, who he began writing for from behind bars. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher with books like Street Legends and Supreme Team

The services themselves are even used as a form of barter. Prisoners trade their own services to work off drug debts or trade for sex. Fallon Tallent, a Tennessee woman serving two life sentences for the murder of two policemen she hit with her car, has seen every business venture possible in the 14 years she’s already spent behind bars.

 “Women get creative when push comes to shove. I’ve seen people charge for everything from calligraphy and origami to personal training and maid services, all to bring money home to their family.

Just as in life outside, some of these families are of the rough and tumble variety and just as in the male prisons, violence is prevalent. Some families make their money selling drugs. Enforcements, retribution, and punishments for non-payment are doled out severely.

These make-shift families are just as real as any blood-tied family outside the prison walls and taken just as seriously. They often last for the entire duration of an inmate’s sentence. It is possible to find a family and stay with it for years.  It is a way to survive in a world as alien as Mars to many inmates.

In a very unexpected way, it also serves to rehabilitate the inmate. Living in a family of any sort that functions well is a lesson in personal survival. It may not be the most academically sound of programs, but sometimes it is the only option available for rehabilitation on the inside. 


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