"I call myself a survivor." With this flat statement, Sharon Krebs introduced her story of life in prison to a group of law students assembled in O'Brian Hall. Sharon is a healthy-looking woman, not showing the tattered remains of an 18-month struggle in Bedford Hills State Penitentiary. But her voice contained the dull matter-of-factness of resignation and defeat that follows a long-term prison confinement.
Ms. Krebs assured her stunned audience that "Bedford was no dungeon. It was more like a campus." She found it amusing that whenever she visits a university now, it reminds her of prison. "We are all passive recipients of a treatment," she explained. From the beginning she saw the totally self-defeating behavior of the penal institution—which positively reinforced the anti-social attitudes that she was supposed to be "correcting."
While men in the prison were brutalized, the women were treated like children. The men began to act like animals and the women like children because these were the only roles available to them. The women fight, scream and throw tantrums like jealous, spoiled children; this is the only way they will be heard, Ms. Krebs emphasized.
Ms. Krebs sketched in some detail the monotonous daily life of a woman prisoner, which mainly consists of cleaning and maintaining the prison itself. Every floor houses 60 women in individual cells, who must share a radio, a television and two hotplates. Their intellectual diet revolves around the afternoon soap opera and the strictly-censored books. Although Ms. Krebs was a political prisoner, convicted on conspiracy to commit second-degree arson, she was allowed to read the works of radical thinkers as long as the author was dead. "I could read Karl Marx, for instance, but no contemporary writers were acceptable," she said.
Most of the hour was devoted to a great variety of questions from the audience. The majority of the lawyers-to-be were interested in discussing alternatives to the penal system. Society cannot afford the kind of "rehabilitation" necessary in today's prisons, Ms. Krebs said; only maintenance and custody are feasible accomplishments for America's antiquated, oppressive prisons.
"Maybe capitalism can't exist without the prison," she suggested quietly. "But I don't like violence and I wouldn't want a bloody revolution." She offered examples of women convicted of murder—a common outcome of desperate domestic struggles—who were allowed to remain in society. By working at a job and taking care of her children, society gained financially as well as socially, by keeping a citizen from total incarceration, she said.
This differs from some form of early parole, because in any contact with the prison system, the woman's behavior—her ways of coping with society—would be severely damaged. "Parole is so negative. The world is just waiting for you to fail," Ms. Krebs said bitterly. She lamented that when on parole, a woman retains all the previous problems that rove her to crime, and the added burden of being completely stripped of the Bill of Rights, the right to vote, and her dignity as an equal citizen. "Parole depends a lot on your particular parole officer. She can really make it hell for you, questioning your movements so closely, that you are overwhelmed with red tape for everything you do," she said.
Ms. Krebs is optimistic about her future. She has applied to five New York State law schools, even though there is a strong possibility she will never be able to practice law in this county as a result of her ex-convict status. She already holds a Masters in Russian Literature, and is presently teaching courses on omen in prison at the New School for Social Research and the New York Women's school.