top of page
K & K Flowers.jpg

The Keepers & The Kept

Weaving Through the Cloistered World of Female Incarceration

Cathia Leonard Friou
Center for Documentary Studies
Duke University

December 2021


It was the chance sighting of a Facebook post, on my birthday no less, that catapulted me into the unlikely stratosphere of female incarceration. Interfaith Prison Ministry for Women, a non-profit organization in Raleigh, NC was searching for an “oral historian” to help tell their story in celebration of their 40-year anniversary.


The thought of being involved in a project like that struck me like a tuning fork, yet it made no logical sense. Who was I, a 50-something, non-local, non-religious person, to work on a documentary-style project on a topic I knew nothing about? But when the idea was still swirling about several days later in that part of my brain reserved for what if? and why not?, I decided to engage.


In March of 2020, I attended volunteer training to prepare for my role as oral historian for the prison ministry. It took place in a double-wide trailer that served as both classroom and church for the minimum-security prison for women. The Hope Center sat on the edge of the prison campus near several dormitory-style buildings with similar siding.


Walking across a patchwork of grass and earth, I happened to spy, through a sliver of a window in one of the housing units, a socked foot resting on an upper bunk within arm's reach of the bunkbed beside it. It looked both casual, like summer camp, and suffocating to imagine that many adults crammed into an open stall of a room.  


Because I didn’t realize that something as foundational as human dignity was so absent in our criminal justice system, I became keenly interested when I saw evidence of it being honored. The Mecklenburg County Detention Center (formerly called the jail) is one of those places. I’d read about the new child-friendly Contact Visiting room for incarcerated folks to visit with their young children and was eager to learn more about it.


What had been only through-the-glass visits before now allowed a toddler to hug and climb on their mom or dad during a visit, and to read books or play with toys once antsy. It was the recently elected progressive sheriff who was the catalyst behind that room – a room with teddy bears painted on the walls and colorful carpet with the ABC’s swirling about.


In the 1970’s, sociologist Robert Martinson was part of a team of prison researchers who determined that programming and other rehabilitative efforts provided “no appreciable effect on recidivism.” The “nothing works” narrative took hold and was welcomed by both sides of the criminal justice reform debate. Left: If nothing works, then there is no need for indeterminate sentencing. Right:  If nothing works, then there is a need to be even tougher on offenders. That he later retracted his findings did little to interrupt the narrative that had taken hold in the criminal justice system. Less than a decade later he died by suicide.


With gratitude to the folks profiled in this essay. Your willingness to share so openly with me was vulnerable and courageous. This essay is about you and for you.


I am grateful to the women who grace these pages anonymously. We see you.

Keepers (2)_edited.jpg
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Lilla Watson
bottom of page