Harvard Educational Review
  1. Gender, Ethnicity, and the State

    Latina and Latino Prison Politics

    By Juanita Diaz-Cotto

    Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. 480 pp. $24.95 (paper).

    This comprehensive and analytical book focuses on a long-neglected condition — that of Latina/o inmates within the New York State penal system. The book has been exhaustively researched and passionately written by Juanita Diaz-Cotto, a long-time advocate for prisoner rights and presently a professor of Sociology, Women Studies, and Latin American/Caribbean Studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton. The author traces the organizational strategies for reform undertaken by Latina/o prisoners, the participation of their respective outside communities, and recalcitrant policies of the penal system from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. This history is especially illuminating and engrossing within the context of New York City jail rebellions and the Attica Rebellion in the 1970s.

    The author compellingly documents the prisons' dehumanizing policies (alternatively punishment or rehabilitation) and the strategies of divide and conquer among inmates along the lines of ethnicity, language, sex, and gender differences. Diaz-Cotto's two extended case studies provide the reader with the singular experience of personalizing the harsh/tender voices of marginalized and incarcerated men and women.

    The penal authorities made some of their most virulent responses against inmates' demands for bilingual programs and academic and vocational schooling. This was because teachers were perceived as dangerous agencies of empowerment. The penal authorities were not used to seeing professionals who were Latinas/os, and these professionals were constantly harassed and intimidated by the racist correctional guards of the time.

    Throughout this period, most Latina prisoners were prevented from participating in educational programs. According to the author, "The current research has shown that the attempts by women prisoners to empower themselves were primarily thwarted, not by their passivity, their apolitical stance, or the existence of prison families and network, as some social scientists have argued, but by structural barriers created by penal personnel and the lack of third party support" (p. 408).

    Diaz-Cotto also reports that Latina/o prisoners continue to be overrepresented nationally in both federal institutions and state facilities. Most Latina/o inmates come from impoverished families and tend to be the most "educationally disadvantaged" (only 13.3 percent of males and 16.7 percent of females are high school graduates).

    This book should be read by all educators, especially those committed to critical pedagogy. Too often and for too long, schools have made Latina/o youth expendable and consigned them to a barred labyrinth of involuntary solitude.

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    Book Notes