This article discusses two intertwined forms of care that engage with incarcerated women in Argentina. First, it examines the consequences of a policy change that allows incarcerated women who are pregnant and/or caregivers of small children to serve their time at home. Institutional confinement extends beyond the prison and has taken various forms, such as the shelter, the asylum, relocation centers, and prison camps. Inspired by recent prison studies that disrupt the prison as a fixed and hardened site, this article contends that house arrest is far from a benefit. Rather, home confinement constitutes a site of neglect where women must fend for themselves to perform reproductive labor as a way to complete their sentence. This practice reveals new forms of social control and state surveillance in which judges, social workers, and penitentiaries determine which women are appropriate for house arrest while policing the terms of their confinement. Second, this article presents the author’s fieldwork involving a women’s collective that offers art-related workshops to encourage incarcerated women to develop a different understanding of their agency and potential. Institutions such as neighborhood and women’s collectives offer new forms of sociality that redefine imprisonment. As women under house arrest are expected to provide for themselves and their children, it is important to understand how they meet such challenges, considering how gender norms and institutional violence impact women’s lives today.
Freedom is not a static condition we achieve once and for all. Nor is it something absolutely foreclosed to us by male domination. Instead, it is a process of struggle we engage in, in part by resignifying the personas of femininity, and the meanings given to our “sex,” so to express and represent who we are in singularity, and in the complexity of our other basic identifications.—Drucilla Cornell, Beyond Accommodation
On October 27, 2009, a symposium titled “Arrest Sweet Arrest” was held at the Centro Cultural Rojas, a center created in 1984 as part of the Outreach Program of the Universidad de Buenos Aires. The cultural center, located in a historically diverse neighborhood of Buenos Aires, was established as a permeable entity between community and higher education. At a walking distance from the theater district, the neighbor-hood of Balvanera is usually the home of artists, brothels, and cumbia night clubs. It is filled with cafés and small businesses, covered in murals, and traditionally inhabited by Armenian and Jewish communities, as well as Koreans and Bolivians. The “Arrest Sweet Arrest” symposium examined a recent policy that extends the “benefit” of house arrest to incarcerated women who are pregnant, mothers, or the primary caregivers of small children. Before this extension of house arrest, incarcerated women who were pregnant or had children under the age of four were assigned with their children to special units in the penitentiary, often referred to as “prison nurseries.”1 Policy makers, journalists, women under house arrest, and neighborhood collectives all gathered to analyze what this new alter native to incarceration entailed and to raise urgent questions about how this new form of care actually domesticates imprisonment. As Drucilla Cornell suggests in the epigraph above, freedom in this particular context is an unresolved struggle that women engage in, not only to negotiate what alternatives to incarceration mean but also to construe ways of interrelating to one another that disrupt the “hegemonic story of how femininity is mapped onto femaleness within patriarchal cultures.”2
This research focuses on YoNoFui, a collective that since 2002 offers art-related workshops both inside and outside prisons to women who have been released, community members, and incarcerated women (both in prison and under house arrest) with once-a-week permits to attend the workshops. Feminist interventions have long critiqued the dichotomy between the public and the private, showing that the home is often a site of abuse as much as of care.3 YoNoFui emerged out of these broader movements, taking particular inspiration from the actions of Argentina’s Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an association comprising mothers whose children were “disappeared” in the late 1970s. According to prominent geographer and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “In Argentina, under the fascist military government (1976–1983), Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo defied the presumption that women should not meddle in affairs of the state—which is to say the male, or public, sphere—by organizing on the basis of a simple and culturally indisputable claim that mothers ought to know where their children are.”4 Las Madres are a constant collective reminder of the power that organized women can garner to challenge institutional and state violence.5
The juxtaposition presented at “Arrest Sweet Arrest,” of carceral logics moving into the domestic sphere and women’s collectives organizing against them, embodies the larger stakes for prison abolition and collective liberation under neoliberalism. If we account for the gendered politics of prison, of motherhood, and of women’s labor, house arrest can operate as a cruel mechanism that expands the social control of women. House arrest in the contemporary Latin American context reveals much about the gendered character of the prison industrial complex and the erosion of social policies of the welfare state. As historian Premilla Nadasen explained, “Neoliberalism’s dismantling of the economic safety net, trend toward privatization, and rise of the security state have increased the burden on women.”6 Through this framing, I consider state-based care practices as inevitably entangled with the profit-making, social control techniques that characterize contemporary prisons in Argentina and beyond. I argue that house arrest, portrayed in state policy as a form of care for children of incarcerated mothers, in fact relocates punitive methods of the carceral system into the home. I contextualize the ways motherhood substantially challenges ungendered, unraced constructions of the prison by redirecting individuality toward an interrelated and intersubjective construction of the self.
To seriously examine alternatives to incarceration for women, one must look to more radical forms of care, such as those created by YoNoFui, the women’s collective that was the focus of my ethnographic research in Buenos Aires from 2014 to 2017. YoNoFui does not just offer educational spaces in women’s prisons; as a workers’ cooperative YoNoFui also sells the handcrafts from the workshops, such as clothing, notebooks, their magazine YoSoy, and carpentry items, to become a self-sustainable collective. This is not a job-training program. The work of these women is presented as a tool to carve out new practices for new social roles. Their objective is to make visible the continuum of institutional violence women endure, both inside and outside of prisons, and to strengthen the constitution of collective subjects. They put together photo exhibits and poetry readings and organize protests against institutional violence and campaigns for prisoners’ rights, providing care on a broader spectrum. In addition to spending time at YoNoFui, I also interviewed legislators behind this new house arrest policy, as well as social workers, lawyers, women under house arrest, and incarcerated women whose applications for house arrest had been denied. This ethnographic work unveils how the practice of house arrest informs broader national anxieties around women’s maternal responsibilities and the constitution of a desired “feminine” citizen. It also emphasizes the carceral system as one drenched in discriminatory and punitive practices toward women who defy conventional ideas of motherhood and find themselves outside heteronormative middle-class values.7 YoNoFui illustrates the increasing organized political power of formerly and currently incarcerated people, women under house arrest, artists, scholars, and community members who work to provide the radical care that the state fails to provide.
The rise in the criminalization of poverty follows a global trend in the expansion of the carceral state. Anthropologist Carolyn Sufrin, in her ethnographic account of pregnant women in a San Francisco jail, exposes how care that emerges behind bars is a symptom of broader social and economic failures to care for society’s most marginalized people.8 For example, marginalized women in jail receive medical care behind bars that they cannot access on the outside. Care, in this instance, is not only about controlling and governing subjects but also about fostering everyday affective relationships. Mahuya Bandyopadhyay, while not focused on women’s prisons, also offers a sociological analysis that emphasizes the everydayness of prisons as social sites that allow for negotiation, resistance, and subversion.9 Despite these and other important studies on women’s incarceration, care practices regarding women in prison have remained peripheral, dispersed, and outside critical anthropological debates.10 In the case of YoNoFui, everyday affective relationships are also paramount, but what makes their care distinct and radical is that they attend to the bureaucratic procedures that are necessary to improve the living conditions of women involved in the carceral system. By tracing how processes around punishment and social control affect understandings of gender norms and family ideals, I investigated the ways women reimagined their lives under such constraints.
One of my research participants, Sabrina, offers a sobering example of how the prison provides basic services unavailable to women outside.11 Sabrina’s parents never registered her birth, so Sabrina never had a formal identity document to apply for jobs and benefits. As a young woman she began the process in 2003 and only received her document in April 2018, after YoNoFui assisted her with the manifold required bureaucratic procedures. During that time, Sabrina was formally recognized only by the penitentiary, where she completed her elementary education. When I met her in 2014, she was in her midtwenties and a single mother of an eighteen-month-old daughter. As her release date approached, she was more afraid of her life on the outside than in prison. Instances of care such as this complicate depictions of prisons as dehumanizing punitive institutions while also underscoring the cruelty in having prison be the first horizon of inclusion for people living at the margins of the state.
In Argentina, the vast majority of incarcerated women are located in Buenos Aires, and over 80 percent of them are mothers. Between 1989 and 2008, women’s incarceration increased 271 percent while men’s incarceration increased 112 percent.12 Neoliberal policies that marginalized the urban poor, along with the implementation of a war on drugs modeled after that in the United States, help explain these increases. Since the 1990s, harsher punishment and longer sentences have been applied to deter drug trafficking. Such punishment has fallen disproportionately on minor actors, overrepresented by women and foreigners.13 Anthropologist Aihwa Ong insists we understand neoliberalism not as an economic doctrine but as an extraordinarily malleable technology of governing that is taken up in different ways by different regimes: “Neoliberal govern-mentality results from the infiltration of market-driven truths and calculation into the domain of politics.”14 Further, neoliberal technologies are inextricably linked to the biopolitical mode of governing that views the population as living resources to be harnessed and managed by governing regimes.15 In January 2009, as women’s incarceration grew to exponential numbers and penitentiaries proved ill-equipped to manage prison nurseries, the Argentine state extended house arrest to pregnant women and women who were the main caregivers of small children and/or disabled family members.
The Neoliberal Prison
While recent prison studies have focused on disrupting the prison setting as a rigid and impervious site, house arrest as an alternative to incarceration and an instance of state care should be interrogated as well.16 In 2018, Michelle Alexander wrote about house arrest in the United States as “e-carceration.” She warned that “if the goal is to end mass incarceration and mass criminalization, digital prisons are not an answer. They’re just another way of posing the question.”17 In Argentina, house arrest constitutes a site of neglect where women must fend for themselves. Rather than offer caregiving support, the state abandons incarcerated women by placing them in the domestic sphere to perform reproductive labor as a way to complete their sentence.
The prison system is designed to promote individualism and isolation rather than strengthen community and familial ties.18 Prison nurseries were introduced as a benevolent measure to keep mother and child together. However, the institutionalization of children provides a new array of challenges. In 2008 and 2013, women in prison nurseries in Buenos Aires staged hunger strikes to protest the penitentiary’s failure to provide enough food for the children, the presence of rats and insects, and the deplorable infrastructure. According to official reports, prison conditions for mothers and their children were highly inadequate in terms of diet, clothing, medical care, and the physical and emotional development of children. Transitioning to life outside of prison is especially traumatic for children who have only experienced life behind bars and are suddenly separated from their mothers when they reach the age of four.19 House arrest emerged as a more humane alternative to the institutionalization of children. Discourses on the rights of children were at the forefront of the legislative project to extend house arrest to women. Such discourses, however, and the sanctions for women to mother “appropriately,” follow women throughout their carceral experience as a constant threat to lose their children or the benefit of house arrest.
From a historical perspective, the prison has always been considered a masculine space and continues to be so today, partly because women worldwide comprise around 5 percent of the prison population. Taking motherhood as a lens to understand punishment and social control foregrounds the masculinist frameworks that penal institutions rely on. Because women are a minority in institutions of punishment, women’s issues have been largely ignored, silenced, and poorly addressed.20 Motherhood as a category of analysis brings to light the multiple contradictions and heteronormative expectations that society places on women.21 Understood as a social and historical construct, motherhood reveals itself as a highly political and contested site of inquiry.
Before the 2009 extension of this “benefit” to mothers, house arrest was limited to the elderly and terminally ill, suggesting and reinforcing the home as a preferred location for care practices. When “Arrest Sweet Arrest” was held in October 2009, there were only a few dozen women who could provide testimony. Marcela Trujillo was one of these women, with children ages five and three. While providing testimony at the symposium, she noted: “I have to request permission for everything. If my son is dying, what do I do? I am locked up, I cannot take him to the doctor. I have the same issue with food. In prison, I was locked up but I had a job. If I had a headache, I could go to the infirmary and ask for ibuprofen. Now I have to put up with terrible headaches because I cannot afford it.”22 Her statement expressed some of the concerns women face as they are granted house arrest, considering that most of them are unmarried and single heads of households.23 According to the 2001 national census, 81.75 percent of single-parent households in Argentina were headed by women, while only 18.25 percent were headed by men.24 As the main providers for their families, women face the difficult decision to stay in prison with steady employment or apply for house arrest, where work opportunities are slim. The lack of public policies to address the myriad situations women face under home confinement is another symptom of broader social and economic failures to care for society’s most marginalized people.25
House arrest, a seemingly more humane alternative to incarceration, not only fails to address the needs of women and children but also reconfigures the flawed logic of the prison system in the domestic sphere. For example, in 2015, the Patronato de Liberados, the official entity in charge of overseeing parole, conditional release, and house arrest, was on strike for several months. This meant that visits from social workers ceased, and women under house arrest had no contact with the criminal justice system for several months. Such was the case for Amalia, whom I met in October 2014 at a book-binding workshop in YoNoFui where participants learn how to make notebooks for retail. When Amalia joined the workshop (weeks after it had begun, as often happened with women under house arrest, whose permits were always delayed), she was asked to introduce herself. Amalia was unafraid and outspoken: “I’ve been hungry. I lost a lot of weight after I left the penitentiary. I am not ashamed anymore. I am as poor as they come, and it is just me and my daughter.”
House arrest as a site of neglect punishes women even more harshly when they are migrants, Indigenous, and/or survivors of abuse. Amalia had come to Argentina from Peru for surgery after a bus accident left glass shards in her arm. Since she could not afford the surgery in Peru, Amalia traveled to Argentina, where public hospitals provide medical care to everyone. When I visited Amalia at her home I did not ask why she had been incarcerated. As a rule, I never asked women why they were in prison. Early on I learned this was simply not a polite question to ask, nor did it elicit the most interesting conversations. Amalia told me about her time in prison prior to being granted house arrest, during which she discovered she was pregnant. Her first missed period coincided with her time of arrest, so Amalia attributed her missed periods and fatigue to the stresses of prison life. Though she had been told in Peru that she was infertile, she found herself pregnant at age forty-two. She gave birth to a daughter behind bars, with a lot of pain and poor medical treatment. When her daughter was about a year and a half, Amalia was granted house arrest and moved to a rented room with a shared outdoor bathroom and no support system. A neighbor was willing to sign the papers saying he would support her, but soon after that he moved away. The federal legislation that extended house arrest to mothers offered no suggestions or solutions to the economic uncertainties that incarcerated single mothers face. Amalia never told her family in Peru that she was incarcerated. When they called her urging her to visit as her father was dying, she said work prevented her from returning.
YoNoFui’s book-binding workshop allowed Amalia to focus on handmade objects made with recycled materials and invited her to visit once a week. They offer a safe space where women can interact with others while also engaging in cultural productions, such as photo exhibits and poetry readings, and considering alternative ways of thinking of themselves. In doing so, YoNoFui provides the actual care that the state takes credit for. This alternative care model, which exists outside the state system, offers a sense of belonging and creates communal ties that were not always there.
Writing about neoliberal governmentalities, James Ferguson and Akhil Gupta argue that, by focusing on the ways in which states are spatialized, an analysis of the legitimacy of the state gives way to understanding the particular practices, ideologies, and experiences that shape such legitimacy. They introduce the term vertical encompassment to illustrate how state power works: on the one hand, by naturalizing the notion that the state finds itself above society implementing policies in a top-down fashion while, on the other hand, by revealing that the multiple scales of state power comprise family dynamics, the community organization, the nation, its geopolitical location, and its relation to globalization.26
Despite this vertical encompassment that defines governmentality (processes in which the conduct of the population is governed through institutions, discourses, norms, identities, etc.), Ferguson and Gupta suggest that with neoliberalism “the logic of the market has been extended to the operation of state functions, so that even the traditionally core institutions of government, such as post offices, schools, and police, are, if not actually privatized, at least run according to an ‘enterprise model.’”27 This remark is also shared by political scientist Wendy Brown in her description of neoliberalism as a political rationality that renders every human being and institution, including the state, on the model of the firm, supplanting democratic principles with entrepreneurial ones in the political sphere.28
After spending time with women under house arrest who participated in YoNoFui’s workshops, the humane practice described in the the legislative proposals was not evident to me. Sweet it was not, nor was it homey. The ongoing neglect and bureaucratic contradictions that characterize the experience of women under house arrest reflect how prisons are organized with men as the model prisoner, failing to address the gendered dimensions of childcare. House arrest relieves the state from providing food, shelter, and care. This shift, from government to maternal responsibility, uses symbolic and discursive tools that assume that women are the ideal caregivers of children and that the domestic space is their ideal site of belonging. Women under house arrest are subjected to the intersection of two institutions: motherhood and the criminal justice system. As institutions of social control, they make the state an active participant in engendering specific habits and ideologies for incarcerated mothers. Using the domestic space to complete the prison sentence works to socialize these women into the citizens and mothers they are supposed to be, imposing habits and ways of being that were “lacking” in the past.
House Arrest in Praxis
House arrest is still filled with ambiguities and contestations from the judges who have the authorization to grant it. Judges rely on reports from social workers who assess the woman’s neighborhood, living space, and support network to determine how feasible home confinement would be. The confusion arises from misguided beliefs that house arrest offers a form of freedom when in fact it is another way to complete a sentence. Judges vary in their interpretations of what is allowed under home confinement. Some judges might grant permissions for daily leaves or to work from home, while others do not. Mariluz, a young mother from the Dominican Republic, requested permission to drop her son off at school; her permit was approved quickly with no questions asked. But for Denise, the request to drop her daughter off at school was approved only after she drew a detailed map of the route between her home and the school. Judges often scrutinize the most intimate aspects of a woman’s life, including how she handled herself during her pregnancy, her socioeconomic standing or neighborhood, and the number of children she has (“too many” is frowned upon and constitutes a failed character).
After I interviewed women who immigrated to Argentina from Peru, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and Spain, I found state bureaucracies that included embassies and consulates even more confusing. Camila had arrived from the Dominican Republic, and as a single mother of twins, she found herself at the prison nursery. When her twins approached the age of four, she decided to apply for house arrest to avoid separation from them. She had a cousin on the outside who agreed to help her out, and a comadre (comother), a term I heard many women use to refer to close friends that help raise the children. Camila described the weeks leading up to the judge’s decision as incredibly grueling. She was depressed and anxious at the possibility of losing her children. When her house arrest was approved and she left prison, she suffered from panic attacks and dizziness. The city, with its buses, people, and cacophonic sounds, was overwhelming and difficult to manage. Even though the surveillance mechanisms under house arrest are not comparable to the constant visibility that women are subjected to in their cells, the prohibition of leaving the home is still a very distressing factor for women under house arrest, particularly when they have to care for small children.
While most women were diligent about the restrictions that house arrest imposed, a few tested the limits of their confinement. Claudia was under house arrest after a brief stint in prison when she arrived at the documentary workshop riding a motorcycle. Within minutes of arriving, she mentioned that after the workshop she was heading to the cinema school to post fliers renting her home to students for their movie projects. Claudia was the main caregiver of her three grandchildren and thought this would be a good way to make some money from home. Claudia struggled to understand our concern that she could lose the benefit of house arrest if found riding a motorcycle around the city and that YoNoFui could lose the ability to offer workshops to women under house arrest if women went to other places on the days of the workshop. Even though she was used to disregarding rules except her own, with time she embraced the collective and continued to attend workshops even after completing her sentence. To Claudia, this had become a space for herself.
After being part of the collective for a few years, the day came when Claudia was stopped on the streets and asked for paperwork for her motorcycle. Since she could not produce the required paperwork, the police took the motorcycle away. At the workshop, she confessed that she did not recognize herself when she chose to stay calm and let them take the motorcycle. But she kept thinking about the collective and how she was not alone. The care that Claudia found with YoNoFui was not just about healing and providing a sense of belonging. It was also about building strategies for how best to deal with the patriarchal defilement of the state. This form of radical care is unlike the care of the state: while public policies aim to domesticate women, YoNoFui offers political imaginaries that encourage women to engage in self-management practices and collective endeavors. Workshop participants collaborated, selling food staples at popular events. The textile design workshop and the book-binding workshop received orders from buyers, and in supporting women under house arrest, YoNoFui created opportunities for them to work from home and earn an income.
In November 2014, I attended another house arrest symposium. This time it was held at the Bauen Hotel, a recuperated business run collectively by its workers in the financial district of Buenos Aires. Self-management practices were precipitated after Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis, during which neoliberal policies disfavored national factories and small businesses for large transnational corporations. Facing the closure of the factory they worked for, workers chose to organize among themselves and continue to run the factory in a collective manner. Veronica Gago has elsewhere called these practices baroque economies, that is, the articulation of economies that mixes logics and rationalities that tend to be portrayed (in economic and political theories) as incompatible.29 With a similar DIY philosophy, YoNoFui emerged in 2002, first as a poetry workshop inside prison and later adding more programs both inside and outside prisons.
As with the early symposium, this event gathered judges, lawyers, social workers, women under house arrest, formerly incarcerated individuals, neighborhood collectives, and organizations against state violence to search for better answers for women under house arrest. As the concerns discussed that day began to multiply, government officials were heard whispering, “Don’t complain too much or the benefit will be removed altogether,” revealing how the state’s care of the children had slowly morphed into a threat used against criminalized women.
One of the main sources of distress was the denial of permits women requested and the subsequent isolation they suffered. Examples of permit requests included dropping off/picking up their children from school, going to therapy or a doctor’s appointment, and taking a class or workshop. Incarcerated mothers are often single heads of households, and being unable to work, to leave for grocery shopping, or to make trips to the pediatrician when the children’s health is at stake is a constant source of affliction. The nominal stipend women get from the state not only reflects that women’s lives are devalorized but also manifests the lack of consideration toward single mothers, who often do not rely on other sources of income. Women are faced with impossible choices: remain in a violence-stricken, drug-fueled prison nursery that provides diapers, shelter, and food, or accept the alternative of house arrest, even if that involves, at least for some, going back to an abusive household. Once under house arrest, the threat of losing this benefit if found outside the home is a very powerful and cruel tool for social control.
Immersed in a heavily male-oriented criminal justice system, incarcerated women, both in prison and under house arrest, face myriad challenges in which the patriarchal control that dictates many societal norms is indisputable.30 Constructions of motherhood are critical sites where the sexual division of labor becomes explicit and reproductive labor is revealed as undervalued yet vital sustenance of the state. The constructions of dominant normative constraints create certain categories of mothers deemed “bad” or “inadequate” because they fail to live up to ideals of motherhood imposed through public policy.31 These categories, however, are not reflective of the care that the children receive but are actually used to reinforce normative values of family making.
Motherhood as Institution
I met Ana in a journalism workshop, where she wrote a chronicle to make sense of her ever-confounding experience with the Argentine justice system. Her son, Bautista, born in 2012, was the first baby in Argentina registered with two mothers. In a drastic turn of events, when Bautista was six months old Ana was incarcerated, and they ended up in a prison nursery. Ana had worked for the government granting permits to nightclubs. On December 30, 2004, there was a fire at República Cromañón, a cumbia nightclub in the Balvanera neighborhood, and 194 people died. Over 1,400 people were injured, largely because some of the emergency exits were locked. Ana had been demoted from inspector to desk clerk because she had repeatedly warned her superiors that understaffing prevented the city government from ensuring venues were safe. Regardless of the mountains of paperwork that proved she was not responsible for this systemic oversight, Ana was found guilty of neglect and sentenced to two years of incarceration. Her application for house arrest was denied on the basis that her son had another mother, Gabriela, who could take care of him. But Bautista went to prison, incarcerated as an infant, because Ana was breastfeeding him, and Gabriela and Ana, despite both being his mother, were not interchangeable caregivers.
With this particular case, the court, as an institution, proved to be ill-equipped to understand mothering outside of a heterosexual framework. Here, the study of motherhood is relevant in two important ways: on the one hand, it exposes assumptions that women, and not men, are the individuals who should be in charge of child-rearing, and on the other hand, it proves that behaviors that challenge institutions, such as same-sex marriage, are still considered deviant, or criminal, despite their legalization.32 Had Ana been married to a man, not a woman, the assumption that the baby could stay at home with the dad would not have been made, and Ana would most likely have been granted house arrest.
While incarcerated, Ana participated in YoNoFui’s pinhole photography workshop, which collectively produced a photo exhibit titled Iluminaciones. During this time, Ana also appealed the rejection of her house arrest application and won. Under house arrest, Ana joined the journalism workshop in YoNoFui, offered in the central neighborhood of Palermo. The radical care YoNoFui offers, aimed at changing the structural conditions under which criminalized women reimagine their lives, is relevant not only to social movements in Latin America but also to discourses of alternatives to incarceration worldwide. Care, in this women’s collective, involves the reliance on others to inform the process of self-determination.
As others have shown, alternatives to incarceration can often expand rather than contract the net of social control.33 The fact that prison nurseries exist only in women’s prisons reinforces the misconception that reproductive labor is a predominantly women’s enterprise. It also points to the need to make visible the ways in which “institutional motherhood revives and renews all other institutions,” so that those aspects of women’s lives that contribute to patriarchal structures can be identified.34 Carol Smart argues that motherhood is an institution that presents itself as a natural outcome of biologically given gender differences, as a natural consequence of (hetero)sexual activity, and as a natural manifestation of an innate female characteristic: the maternal instinct.35 By paying attention to the expectations attached to mothering, the material conditions and constraints placed on women as they carry the responsibility of bearing and rearing children become more apparent.36 As Adrienne Rich points out, “The experience of maternity and the experience of sexuality have both been channeled to serve male interests.”37 Smart provides a revisionary history of motherhood, writing that there has been “such a heavyweight machinery brought to bear on women to force them into motherhood [that] we must ask why these measures were necessary if motherhood itself was simply a biological process like aging.”38 Smart presents a Foucaldian analysis that connects the naturalization of motherhood as an institution with the institutionalization and criminalization of sexual norms as techniques of power.
In The History of Sexuality, Foucault traces how reproductive intercourse was actively “naturalized” during the Victorian era and how other forms of sexual activity became defined as unnatural and perverse.39 Alongside this particular construction of sexuality, pregnancy and motherhood were equally “naturalized” to satisfy very particular ideals. While folk knowledges of contraceptive and barrier methods were commonly and widely used, during the Victorian era these folk knowledges were “forgotten,” and “English upper-class brides of the late eighteenth century, trained to hide any interest in sexuality, warned not to listen to the gossip of servants, and cut off from the larger female community, were probably more ignorant of the workings of their bodies than their grandmothers had ever been.”40 Working-class women, on the other hand, were being forced to interrupt their breastfeeding as it clashed with the demands of labor. With the suppression of contraceptives and the criminalization of abortion, motherhood became increasingly unavoidable while at the same time hailed as a woman’s greatest achievement. Unsurprisingly, women who deviated from these Victorian ideals were criminalized, pathologized, or both.41
Anthropologist Lynn M. Morgan recounts how, throughout the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the collection of embryos created a further categorization of human development that redefined when human life begins.42 This new conception of human development interpellated women to care for the fetus from the moment of conception. The scrutiny of women expanded not only to monitor women’s behavior but also to introduce techniques of monitoring into women’s bodies. A contemporary example that illustrates this dimension of policing was reported recently in Wisconsin when, according to the “fetal protection” law, a pregnant woman can be arrested at a health clinic during a prenatal checkup and convicted if she has a past history of drug addiction.43 Motherhood highlights the normative constraints that affect women’s lives today, and the carceral system enforces these constraints even more firmly. As the criminal justice system administers punishment on mothers who break the law, motherhood as a category of social analysis makes explicit the punitive consequences for deviating from a dominant view of gender roles.
Sociologist Lynne Haney explored the practices and uses of motherhood in a prison designed for mothers and children in the United States. In her study she concluded that, when implemented in this particular institutional space, this promising alternative ended up undermining, subsuming, and punishing motherhood, often in quite contradictory ways. Women were instructed on specific ways to reprimand their children and on specific rules on when to allow children to snack between meals and when to watch television. Troubled by their constant exposure, women “surrounded their bunk beds with sheets, creating a cave-like area where they could retreat with their children.”44 The institutional processes of control and domination that operate in traditional prisons do not vanish in prison nurseries. Rather, they are reconstituted to reflect dominant ideas about gender, race, and class.45 Motherhood in this prison was an expression of true intimacy and a sign of potential pathology, a model of selflessness and a sign of selfishness. It was represented both as a way to absolve oneself of those crimes and as a symptom of those crimes.46 These contradictions draw attention to a need to revisit motherhood as an institution that is often naturalized and romanticized but also very much punitive.
While these interventions and critiques of motherhood emerged from groups of women belonging to distinct socioeconomic and racial backgrounds in the United States, in Argentina Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo were highly influential in symbolizing the political terrains of motherhood. Las Madres have historically been regarded as beacons of human rights while at the same time been referred to as las locas who would not compromise under the terrorism of a dictatorial regime. Their work was not meant to eradicate motherhood from women’s lives but, rather, to change the conditions under which motherhood was being conceived while holding the state accountable for its terrorism.
Broad concepts such as motherhood that engage a wide variety of ideologies, experiences, and practices run the risk, if uncontextualized, of rendering issues of power invisible.47 The social context of motherhood can reveal the often unequal relations of power between men and women, dominant and subordinate groups, colonizers and colonized.48 To understand the practice of motherhood, it is relevant to first understand that “a feminist praxis is not limited to gender issues, but rather sees gender as part and parcel of a number of contingent issues, such as race, sexuality, class, and able-and disabled-bodiness, insisting that these cannot be viewed in isolation.”49 Indigenous social movements have been pivotal in addressing how colonial violence is always entwined with the carceral state, making prisons necessary institutions to maintain settler sovereignty.50
The house arrest of Milagro Sala is an exceptional case that makes evident the unequal power relationships between the Argentine state and Indigenous communities. Milagro Sala is an Indigenous leader and activist who founded the collective Tupac Amaru in the northern province of Jujuy. In 2016 she was detained on the grounds of inciting social unrest and has been incarcerated ever since. In July 2017 she was hospitalized after carrying out a hunger strike for being placed in solitary confinement in a cell without a window. In 2018 she was granted house arrest due to concerns for her declining health. Adding to the arbitrariness that characterizes house arrest, police constantly surveil the house where Milagro is serving time, and she has a strict schedule for visiting hours, two regulations that are not part of the stipulations of house arrest. While the decisions of who is approved for house arrest are discretionary to each judge, there is a pattern of harsher punishment for women who deviate from middle-class values (homeowners in a heterosexual marriage), such as migrant, transgender, and Indigenous women. Further, persecutions of political leaders that contest neoliberal policies are not unique to Argentina. In Brazil it was Marielle Franco, a Black feminist and socialist leader, who was punished by the mandates of the neoliberal state; she was shot multiple times and died in March 2018. Berta Cáceres, an environmentalist and Indigenous leader in Honduras, was also shot to death in March 2016. These persecutions across Latin America bring to light the continuum of institutional and gender-based violence that women experience, as well as the historical linkages between settler colonialism and the carceral state. Milagro Sala’s life is endangered. She embodies the way that interlocking systems of power impact the bodies of Indigenous women, who are surveilled and punished more harshly for their condition of being women, Indigenous, and poor.
Mothers of all races, classes, and ages are subjected to patriarchal control, however differently they may experience this control.51 Poor women and women of color are particularly subjected to invasive forms of control and assaults on their rights to mother. For example, between 2006 and 2010, 150 incarcerated women in California were unlawfully steril-ized.52 Middle-class women face other hurdles: lack of access to legitimate family planning technologies, such as abortion services, or lack of accommodations in their workplace for breastfeeding. Faye D. Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp discuss “stratified reproduction,” originally coined by Shellee Colen, as “the power relations by which some categories of people are empowered to nurture and reproduce, while others are disempowered.”53 This stratified reproduction sheds light on which lives are privileged and whose futures are discouraged. Situating motherhood in prisons highlights the current workings of stratified reproduction and the ways in which institutions are complicit in this process. Further, it also reveals new expressions of neoliberal governmentalities that not only execute violence on women’s bodies but also redefine the ways in which the state, implementing cost-effective policies, cares for incarcerated women.
Sociologists Constanza Tabbush and Maria Florencia Gentile describe in their study of Argentine prisons how mothering is a key aspect of many incarcerated women’s emotional lives, shaped and constrained by prison regulations as well as cultural expectations. Prison cultures themselves are rife with emotions attached to mothering, positioning it as one of the main social objects that regulate a prison’s informal moral economies. For instance, in women’s prisons, infanticide, the killing of a child, is considered to be the worst crime a woman can commit (in men’s prisons, sex offenders are similarly maligned). As such, other women informally penalize it in the form of verbal abuse or mistreatment in everyday exchanges. In the context of prison, as in the world outside its walls, motherhood distributes specific material and symbolic resources, whether in the form of rewards or as negative sanctions.54
Motherhood is central to the critical inquiry of prisons, not peripheral, invisible, or an afterthought in a system created for men, because the production of knowledge is in itself gendered. Dominant systems of knowledge used for the design of prisons and policy making reflect masculine views of the social world that leave out the richness and complexities involved in child-rearing practices. Michelle Rosaldo warned anthropologists that ignoring gender asymmetry blinds us to the sorts of facts we must understand and change and instead proposed that what appears as “natural” must be understood as a by-product of “non-necessary institutional arrangements that could be addressed through political struggle and, with effort, undermined.”55
Institutional confinement extends beyond the prison and has taken various forms, such as homeless shelters, the asylum, detention centers, and prison camps. As women and children move from the institution into home detention, certain legacies of the penal system move into the home as well.56 However, other types of institutions, such as neighborhood and women’s collectives, offer new forms of sociality that redefine imprisonment, family, and care. YoNoFui promotes solidarity and acknowledgment of differences in their community-led space, allowing for alternative subjectivities to prosper. More important, the collective contests house arrest as a condition of isolation and instead cares for a community that reconfigures the notion of neoliberal governmentality as an enterprise in the search for profit. As Veronica Gago has explained, the informalization of the economy emerges primarily from the strength of the unemployed and of women, who enact from below the potentials found in the receding effects of neoliberalism.57 Rather than coexisting in isolation, YoNoFui is interested in developing communal ties and strengthening collective efforts against institutional violence.
Still, the violence that characterizes the carceral state has impacts that defy the imagination. Mariela was a member of YoNoFui who participated in the textile design workshop. She and her two adult daughters, one of whom had a newborn, were under house arrest. In 2016, a van from the penitentiary picked them up to take them to court to sign an abreviado, a legal agreement similar to a plea bargain. Mariela and her daughters were part of the nearly 50 percent of incarcerated women who are pretrial, that is, detained without a conviction. Women sign abreviados, relinquishing the right to go to trial, in the hope of accelerating the process. When the van that was taking them to court crashed, Mariela died, and her two daughters, including the newborn, were hospitalized. The baby died some days later. The delivery of Mariela’s body was delayed because they had to wait for the judicial order to remove her ankle bracelet. The penitentiary stated that the women had some sort of metal baton, and the van crashed as the women executed an attack. Everybody who knew Mariela insisted this could never be the case. Yet this is one of many instances in which the criminal justice system favors the interests of the penitentiary over the welfare of incarcerated women. The stigma and invisibilization that incarcerated people endure made her death just one more of the many bureaucratic procedures that legitimize the carceral state.
While it is uncertain how the praxis of house arrest will develop in the coming years, certain constraints are already easily identifiable. Instances of radical care that work to compensate for the erosion of the welfare state are not found in the public policies addressed to care for women and children. Instead, it is through grassroots efforts and collectives, such as YoNoFui, that women create a supportive environment where they can advocate for their futures. What could be defined with further detail and more precision are the specific transactions in which the state punishes through neglect while labeling this management of social control a humane form of sentencing that protects the interests of children. The institutional violence that incarcerated women endure, whether in prison or under house arrest, replicates, albeit in alternative forms, the gender-based violence that is prevalent in the Argentine state and much of Latin America today. While prison strikes and feminist social movements can change the conditions under which women live, it is ultimately the public policies put in place, such as house arrest for women, that can shed light on the material consequences that ideologies of gender and motherhood have on women’s lives. Attending to those who push the boundaries of such ideologies, the deviant mothers themselves can provide much foresight when considering alternatives to incarceration, gender roles, and family ideals.
I am indebted to the generosity of YoNoFui and all their participants who contributed to my research. This work was funded by the American Association of University Women’s American Dissertation Fellowship, the Dr. Clyde Snow Fund for Latin American Studies, and the Latinx Scholars Graduate School Fellowship. I extend my gratitude to editors Hi‘ilei Julia Hobart and Tamara Kneese for their labor in producing this special issue. To the anonymous reviewers who carefully commented on earlier versions of this article, I am thankful for your suggestions. To Maria Elena Garcia, Danny Hoffman, Ann Anagnost, and Janelle Taylor, I thank you for your guidance and support. Any oversights or mistakes are my own.
In the United States, for example, eleven states provide prison nurseries: California, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and West Virginia.
Except for Ana, all names of research participants have been changed.
For more details on mothers’ incarceration in Argentina, see Tabbush and Gentile, “Emotions behind Bars.” For more details on poor women in Buenos Aires, see Geldstein, “Working-Class Mothers as Economic Providers.”
Same-sex marriage was legalized in Argentina in July 2010. It was the first country in Latin America and the second in the Americas to allow same-sex marriage nationwide.
Rich, Of Woman Born, 42. In this work, Rich describes how during the 1970s feminists in the United States perceived motherhood as a burden that contributed to the oppression of women while also considering it a source of power and a way to engage with communal ties and activism. See also Chase and Rogers, Mothers and Children, 6–8. For example, Mom’s Apple Pie is a documentary that recounts the struggles and hardships that lesbian women faced in the 1970s in the United States as they were stripped of their parental rights due to their sexual orientation. It also features interviews with founders of the Lesbian Rights Project (now the National Center for Lesbian Rights) and the Seattle-based Lesbian Mothers’ National Defense Fund who throughout these years organized, assisted, counseled, and supported hundreds of women facing custody battles (Laine and Reinstein, Mom’s Apple Pie).
Alicia Beltran was arrested after admitting a past struggle with Percocet. The fact that she was clean at the time was not enough proof that she could control herself. Silva, “Shackled and Pregnant.”
Dr. James Heinrich defended the sterilizations as “cost-effective” by stating, “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money, compared to what you save in welfare paying for those unwanted children.” However, victims stated otherwise: “He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it” (“California Prisons Were Illegally Sterilizing Female Inmates”).