Prison injustice is demanding our attention, and as intersectional feminists, taking action against it should come from deep within our values.
While some of you may think we’re drawing our attention away from the most pressing feminist issues to focus on prison injustice, this is not a separate issue.
The problems with police and prisons are already a huge part of the issues that we commonly address as feminists.
And we can’t ignore that.
If we do, then the most vulnerable people among us – those who are often most heavily impacted by systems of oppression and who have the fewest resources for support – will continue to be silenced and forgotten.
And we’ll miss the chance to address several significant aspects of our intersectional feminist work, as we try to put band-aids on the most visible parts of the issues (while allowing the roots of injustice to go untreated).
So let’s talk about why prison injustice is a feminist issue and how we can help stop the destructive path of this viciously oppressive system.
What Is Prison Injustice?
Fighting prison injustice means taking on the prison industrial complex – a multi-billion dollar industry building massive wealth for corporations while incarcerating disenfranchised people in jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers, and immigration detention centers.
In the United States, the prison system has a troubling history, developing from roots in slavery, expanding through rhetoric such as “tough on crime” laws and the “War on Drugs,” and earning the disturbing title of incarcerating the largest population of people in the world.
Today, the pervasive impact of such a monstrous prison system is clear: Mass incarceration, fearful communities, and seemingly endless cycles of violence take a devastating toll on people of color, poor people, and other already disenfranchised groups.
The injustice of the police and prison system includes targeted criminalization of marginalized groups of people, prisoner abuse and other human rights violations, and the startling profits corporations make from dehumanizing and exploiting incarcerated people.
What Does This Have to Do With Feminism? Here Are 3 Connections!
Here are a few basic concepts to ground us in how all this relates to feminism.
1. Intersectionality Matters
The first is that, in the words of Black lesbian feminist warrior Audre Lorde, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”
In other words, intersectionality for the win!
If your concept of feminism is limited to the basic definition of “equal rights for women,” then you’re missing something.
After years of scholarship and activism, we’ve learned that we can’t separate multiple oppressions, just as we can’t separate multiple parts of a single person’s identity.
If we’re going to fight the patriarchy, we have to get to its roots, which means we also must address the other forms of oppression that intersect with sexism to create a hierarchy of the value of human life.
So the driving forces of classism and racism that fuel the prison system make this a feminist issue.
We also now have the concept of kyriarchy to describe the complex social system that keeps intersecting oppressions in place.
Kyriarchy helps us understand that what we’re fighting is not only gender oppression, but all of the oppressive systems that impact us in compounding ways.
Fighting prison injustice isn’t a matter of stepping away from feminism to address something else.
It’s stepping into the whole truth of what it means to be a feminist working to shift the very foundations of the harmful cultural norms that have so many people struggling to survive in oppressive conditions.
2. Justice for All
Which brings me to my second observation that grounds us in this issue: the fact that, by engaging with intersectional feminism, we show how great we are at thinking compassionately and critically about what’s going on in our world.
It naturally comes with the territory of seeking to create a just world.
Regardless of whether the terms “intersectionality” and “kyriarchy” are regular words in your vocabulary or completely new to you, your engagement with feminism gives you the capacity to care about other people’s suffering, to draw connections between their struggles and your own, and to empathize with experiences of oppression even if they’re not your own.
Even if prison injustice doesn’t directly impact your life, you’ve already demonstrated that you care about the issues that relate to it.
We should be very careful about asking the question, “What does this have to do with feminism?”
In my experience, the people who ask this question are frequently missing a fundamental piece of the bigger picture.
They often don’t realize that what they mean to say is “What does this have to do with cisgender middle-class white women?”
And exclusionary feminism hinders our movement toward a world of true justice for everyone.
3. It’s a Gender Issue
Feminism began by focusing on gender justice, and the third truth to ground in is the fact that fighting prison injustice is very much a matter of fighting for gender justice.
Since 1985, the number of women incarcerated has increased at nearly double the rate of men.
Through an intersectional lens, we see rates increasing even more at the intersections of identities.
One in five transgender women has been incarcerated at some point in her life, with an even higher rate, at 47%, for Black transgender people.
In the age of Ferguson, you may have heard many conversations about state violence as it relates to Black and Brown men.
But the truth is that mass incarceration and police brutality have a devastating impact on people of all a/genders.
Expanding Our Feminist Work
We have to bring this fight into feminist circles. Let’s examine three ways we can expand the conversations we’re already having to do just that.
1. Intimate Partner Violence
Intimate partner violence has been a concern in the feminist movement for a while now.
In the 1970s, it was known as the Battered Women’s Movement, focusing on spousal domestic violence.
It’s time for us to also recognize that ending intimate partner violence must include addressing the problems with the criminal justice system.
This can be hard to realize, especially because even feminist anti-domestic violence campaigns often push for more police, harsher sentencing, and other approaches based on law enforcement and courts.
While the common response to intimate partner violence is police intervention and incarceration, these “solutions” simply aren’t solutions at all for many survivors.
For example, some survivors are retraumatized when they call the police and face law enforcement officers who don’t believe them or take them seriously.
And because people living at the intersections of oppression are disproportionately targeted by police and prison systems, they also take the greatest risk in calling for state intervention.
A staggering 75% of incarcerated women are domestic violence survivors.
For so many people, police and prisons make the problem of intimate partner violence worse, not better.
So instead of pushing for an approach to intimate partner violence that relies on another violent system, we have to recognize that the criminal justice system isn’t helpful for all survivors, and that it’s downright abusive to those who are from the communities that this system targets and criminalizes.
2. Sexual Violence
Sexual violence is also often at the forefront of feminist activism.
And similar to campaigns to end intimate partner violence, many people approach anti-rape work with an understanding that reporting rape is one of the best ways to prevent rape.
That understanding is wrong. There are many barriers to reporting sexual assault, including victim-blaming, a lack of support, and hostility from law enforcement.
Within custody, sexual assault is also a huge problem. One in ten report being sexually assaulted while incarcerated, frequently by prison staff, and queer and trans people are far more likely to experience sexual assault in custody.
Alarmingly, the connection between prison injustice and sexual violence begins even before incarceration. Girls in custody are four times more likely than boys to say they’ve been sexually abused.
And the school-to-prison pipeline punishes disabled children and children of color more harshly than others, increasing their chances of entering the violent criminal justice system even from a young age.
Sexual violence affects survivors of all backgrounds, including men, incarcerated people, and young people, and the prison system fails them all.
Rather than framing police and prisons as our end-all solution to sexual violence, we need to support survivors in making their own choices, and include in our anti-rape campaigns an understanding of how prison injustice perpetuates rape culture.
Just like intimate partner and sexual violence, the feminist focus on healthcare has shifted as our understanding of the big picture around it grows.
We used to frame campaigns around subjects like abortion rights, birth control, pregnancy, and motherhood as “women’s issues” – and many people still do.
A deeper understanding of healthcare reveals that women aren’t the only people these topics are relevant for.
To advocate for a just healthcare system, we’ve discovered that we must address disparities in access and quality of healthcare for people of color and LGBTQIA+ people.
And with what we know about prison injustice, we can also understand now how our feminist values call us to address the problems with healthcare in the prison system.
Healthcare in prisons is deplorably inadequate, while the companies contracted to provide healthcare to prisoners make billions of dollars.
The reality of the healthcare issues feminists have long cared about is horrific when it comes to prison.
Recent reports have found “shockingly” substandard reproductive care in prison, including delays in accessing gynecological care and denial of access to items like contraception and sanitary supplies.
People are routinely shackled during pregnancy and childbirth, despite laws forbidding the practice.
Transgender people in custody are often denied necessary medical care.
Legislation to bring charges against people who struggle with drug addiction during pregnancy is one example of how poor mothers and mothers of color are especially criminalized.
All of this and more have led to a deeper understanding of how feminists can and should approach healthcare.
For instance, Black women are leading a shift from using a pro-choice framework to focus on abortion rights to advocating for reproductive justice.
Reproductive justice includes a broader analysis of the racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints that prevent many of us from having a safe and health environment to live and raise families in.
There are also people making efforts to raise awareness of and address the impact of mass incarceration on community health, revealing startling truths about the rates of anxiety, depression, and other results of trauma in communities with high incarceration rates.
You can help by changing the conversation, too.
Don’t let conversations on feminist concerns about healthcare leave out the distressing reality of the prison system.
Moving Forward – How to Fight for True Justice
So you’ve already entered this conversation with the powerful tools of your compassion, critical thinking skills, and passion for the advancement of true justice.
Now you can also consider how you might apply this expanded anti-oppression framework to help fight prison injustice as an integral part of your feminist work.
Don’t stop at the limits of how issues like intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and healthcare relate to able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class, and/or white women.
Speak up when you can to correct the misconceptions many people hold about the criminal justice system as a fair institution that punishes “bad” people and protects survivors. Let people around you know that the system of criminal “justice” isn’t justice.
Instead of getting behind policies and campaigns that build the power of the harmful prison system, look out for opportunities to advocate for and donate to organizations and agencies that support all survivors’ self-determination and a transformative approach to justice.
I’ll end with the words of a woman I work with and admire immensely, Samantha Rogers. She’s a formerly incarcerated co-founder of Fired Up!, an empowerment program of the California Coalition for Women Prisonsers (CCWP).
When I asked Samantha about why fighting prison injustice is a feminist issue, she told me how the dehumanizing experiences that come with incarceration often follow a lifetime of silencing and abuse, leading inmates to have an even more hopeless outlook on the chances of surviving this difficult life.
But, she said, fighting the prison system, “gives us back our dignity, self-respect, and self-worth. It allows us to come back to being mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunties – back to sisterhood. When all that happens, it allows us to trust ourselves all over again.”
Maisha Z. Johnson is the Digital Content Associate and Staff Writer of Everyday Feminism. She is also an apprentice editor with Black Girl Dangerous and a blogger for Pyragraph, and she facilitates empowerment groups with incarcerated women as part of Fired Up!, a program of California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Through her own project, Inkblot Arts, Maisha taps into the creative arts and digital media to amplify the voices of those often silenced. Read her blog or follow her on Twitter @mzjwords.