Aisha White went to the all-female State Correctional Institution -- Mucny to talk to inmates about books. As a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Information Science, White decided to investigate so-called information poverty in prisons for her dissertation. At the study's crux, the question was whether inmates had suitable accessibility to the prison's library, as well as adequate resources to help them use the information they found there.
But these women had more pressing issues than books. Many were worried about how their children and loved ones were doing on the outside. Some wondered how to satisfy their crack or heroin fix. They needed everything from pain relievers for menstrual cramps to translators to help Latina prisoners communicate their problems.
One inmate White interviewed was arrested after crashing into a police officer's car, injuring her own scalp. In jail months later, White says, the inmate told her pieces of her untreated scalp had started coming off, despite many requests to prison guards for medical attention.
Having interviewed 18 inmates, all of whom seemed to her to be losing their head in one way or another due to prison negligence and mistreatment, White says she saw the "natural connection" between human-rights violations and prisons, with information accessibility an important factor.
After completing her study earlier this year, White decided it wouldn't be the end of her Muncy experience. White formed Rights and Responsibilities, a human-rights advocacy collective that has attracted men and women in their mid-20s -- the same ages as White's son and daughter, Sundiata and Jamilla. "Getting young people dispels these myths that they are not interested in political or human-rights issues," White says.
The first items on R&R's agenda: simply getting people to pay attention to human rights in general, as outlined in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to direct more traffic to that sometimes-less-than-appealing institution -- the library.
Because her first love is cinema, White decided R&R's first function would be to screen films from independent black artists at the grand new Carnegie Library in Homewood.
Says White: "When I watch movies, particularly documentaries and [films with] themes of injustice, I'm moved. I think it's one of the best ways to get conversations started."
The first screening, The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Times of Sara Baartman, is the story of a black South African woman taken by British and French "scientists" for her unusually large buttocks and genitalia and exhibited as a freak throughout Europe. There are many correlations between Baartman and the women from Muncy, White says, and not just in their captivity.
"[Baartman] didn't really know what was in store for her when she was taken to Europe," says White. "The inmates told me, 'I knew it was going to be bad but I didn't know it was going to be this bad.' In Sara's case there were abolitionists trying to get her released, but ... there's not a lot of people trying to help women in prison."
Women are filling prisons faster than any other segment of the U.S. prison population. In New York, the female imprisonment rate increased almost 500 percent between 1977 and 2003. There were 1,815 women in Pennsylvania state prisons in 2002 (the latest figure available). About half of the state's women inmates today are at SCI - Muncy, in central Pennsylvania, the other half in SCI- Cambridge Springs, near Erie.
When more than half the women in Pennsylvania prisons need intensive drug or alcohol treatment, it's no wonder White had trouble capturing their attention about library use. More discouraging to White was finding that prisoners only had 30 minutes a day to use the prison's library -- an hour for its law library. The walk to those libraries from cells was at least 10 minutes.
If they did make it to the library with time to spare, women found other barriers: outdated and incomprehensible information or, for Latinas, a lack of Spanish material. Then, there was what White calls the "chilling effect" -- inmates discouraged from seeking information from prison officials because when they did, as they told White, they were treated like "pieces of shit."
Compared to the prison guards, White must have had a warming effect on the inmates. She wears braids and miniature tattoos of African symbols. Officially now Dr. White, she carries no airs of condescension or of the Ebony Tower. This professor is mild-mannered, almost shy. Her ideas are chewable, as accessible as her East Liberty home, where she often has neighbors over for films and food.
Before studying prisons, White had wanted to explore what she calls the "diffusion of independent African films." For the past decade White had been working with the National Black Programming Consortium's Pittsburgh chapter, holding independent black film screenings and mini-film festivals. When the Carnegie Museum of Art's film and video department was operating, screening indie films from smaller distributors, White and crew were given the films to show at the Homewood branch of the Carnegie library.
This was just one aspect of her longtime social activism. "We went to jail together," says Fred Logan, director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Black Programming Consortium. "We were members of the Black Independent Political Party and also involved in Pittsburghers Against Apartheid, led by the late [city councilor] Dr. Jake Milliones."
Logan and White were among a crop of black activists who would protest cop killings, the imprisonment of black political dissenters and economic exploitation of the poor. Today, you can find them at the Highland and Penn Avenues intersection in East Liberty, protesting the Iraq War as Black Voices for Peace. In the late '80s to early '90s they worked, at their own expense, to put on the Harambee Black Arts Festival in Homewood, then the largest display of local and international black performers, designers, painters and vendors before the modern-day, like-minded E-Fest in East Liberty.
After completing her Muncy prison study, White didn't forward the document to the Urban League or the NAACP, telling them, "I found the problems, now you deal with them." White believed she could assemble a team to spread the word about the types of human-rights violations she found at Muncy. She also hoped to push the importance of the library.
As a child she had a "terrifying" experience with a sour-faced Hill District librarian on Wylie Avenue. "When you go to the mall, people are inviting because they want you to spend money," White says. A librarian should make the library just as enticing.
At The Hottentot Venus screening, R&R will distribute a library reading list about Sara Baartman. Though the Baartman story unfolded in the early 19th century, White believes people will see the connection to music-video culture. Take pop artist Nelly's "Tip Drill" video, infamous for its wild display of half-naked women exhibited much like Baartman. When watching it with her son, White says, he told her that the women in these videos are there by choice.
"My position is that they decide to be in it but not what role they play," says White. After these women sign on to do the videos, "it's understood that you will hump and grind on a man or woman and show your butt, take it or leave it."
At an R&R meeting, one member asked White what was the point of advocating for human rights with the U.S. leadership's recent record at the Abu Ghraib Iraqi prison and the Guantanamo Bay detention center. The success of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary about the Bush administration gave White her answer:
"Moore crystallized the potential for independent film and people are saying it could sway the election. Right there, you can see where consciousness-raising can lead to change and social action. So even with women exploited in the music videos, if we make one person think 'Maybe this isn't the right thing to do,' then for me this is the right thing to do."