Racism and the Inprisonment of Women

Why So Many Black Women Are Behind Bars

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

AlterNet – Posted on December 5, 2006


Some years ago I briefly worked as a social worker.
Occasionally I would visit clients in jail to determine
their eligibility for continued benefits. They were all
men — with one exception. She was a young black woman
serving time for theft. She had two small children.

She entered the visiting room handcuffed to another
woman and dressed in drab prison garb. We talked
through a reinforced glass window. The guards stared
hard and barked out gruff commands to the women.

The idea of a woman in prison then was a novelty. It
isn’t anymore. According to a recent Justice Department
report on America’s jail population, women make up
about 10 percent of the America’s inmates. There are
now more women than ever serving time, and black women
make up a disproportionate number of those women. They
are twice more likely than Hispanic, and over three
times more likely than white women, to be jailed.

In fact, black women have almost single-handedly
expanded the women’s prison-industrial complex. From
1930 to 1950 five women’s prisons were built
nationally. During the 1980s and 1990s dozens more
prisons were built, and a growing number of them are
maximum-security women’s prisons. But the prison-
building splurge hasn’t kept pace with the swelling
number of women prisoners. Women’s prisons are
understaffed, overcrowded, lack recreation facilities,
serve poor quality food, suffer chronic shortages of
family planning counselors and services, and
gynecological specialists, drug treatment and child
care facilities, and transportation funds for family

Female prisoners face the added peril of rape, and
insensitive treatment during pregnancy. A United
Nations report in 1997 found that more than two dozen
states permitted pregnant women to be shackled while
being transported to hospitals for treatment. A report
by the National Corrections Information Center revealed
that the U.S. is one of only a handful of countries
that allow men to guard women, often unsupervised.
Author Donna Ann-Smith Marshall, who served several
years at Central California Women’s Facility,
California’s top maximum security prison, in her new
book, Time on the Inside, tells in shocking and graphic
detail the callous, often brutal treatment many women
are subjected to in women’s maximum security jails.

Unfortunately, the tepid public debate over the
consequence of locking up so many women is riddled with
misconceptions. One is that women commit violent crimes
for the same reasons that men do. They don’t. Women are
less likely than men to assault or murder strangers
while committing crimes. Two-thirds of the women jailed
assaulted or killed relatives or intimates. Their
victims were often spouses, lovers, or boyfriends. In
many cases they committed violence defending themselves
against sexual or physical abuse. Women’s groups and
even the more enlightened governors have recognized
that women that kill abusive husbands or lovers have
acted out of fear and have loosened parole standards.
The governors have granted some women earlier release
from their sentences.

More women, and especially black women, are behind bars
as much because of hard punishment than their actual
crimes. One out of three crimes committed by women are
drug related. Many state and federal sentencing laws
mandate minimum sentences for all drug offenders. This
virtually eliminates the option of referring non-
violent first time offenders to increasingly scarce,
financially strapped drug treatment, counseling and
education programs. Stiffer punishment for crack
cocaine use also has landed more black women in prison,
and for longer sentences than white women (and men).

Then there’s the feminization of poverty and racial
stereotyping. More than one out of three black women
jailed did not complete high school, were unemployed,
or had incomes below the poverty level at the time of
their arrest. More than half of them were single

While black men are typed as violent, drug dealing
“gangstas,” black women are typed as sexually loose,
conniving, untrustworthy, welfare queens. Many of the
mostly middle-class judges and jurors believe that
black women offenders are menaces to society too.

The quantum leap in black women behind bars has had
devastating impact on families and the quality of life
in many poor black communities. Thousands of children
of incarcerated women are raised by grandparents, or
warehoused in foster homes and institutions. The
children are frequently denied visits because the
mothers are deemed unfit. This prevents mothers from
developing parenting and nurturing skills and deeply
disrupts the parent-child bond. Many children of
imprisoned women drift into delinquency, gangs and drug
use. This perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty,
crime and violence. There are many cases where parents
and even grandparents are jailed.

There is little sign that this will change. The public
and policy makers are deeply rapped in the damaging
cycle of myths, misconceptions and crime fear hysteria
about crime-on-the-loose women. They are loath to ramp
up funds and programs for job and skills training, drug
treatment, education, childcare and health, and
parenting skills. Yet, this is still the best way to
keep more women from winding up behind bars.

[Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and
social issues commentator, and the author of the
forthcoming book The Emerging Black GOP Majority
(Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting
look at Bush and The GOP’s court of black voters.]

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