Editor’s Note: This article is focused on women of color in the prison system, but only cites statistics about Black and Latina women specifically. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, information about Asian, Indigenous, and other women is difficult to come by “due to information system configurations.”
Conversations about the massive prison population in the United States have become more and more commonplace. But there’s still so much to say about the prison industrial complex’s inherently imbalanced power dynamics – and the folks living at the intersections of oppression who are so often targeted by it.
Incarceration, in the United States of America, is used as a tool to enforce societal hierarchy and maintain systems of privilege.
The people who comprise our prison population usually end up in the criminal justice system due to the circumstances of their oppression, and that system almost always robs them of their opportunities to ever break free from those circumstances.
More than ever before, those people are women of color. And from their time in public school through their lives after incarceration, the criminal justice system strives to keep them down.
Below are five disturbing facts to know about women of color and the prison industrial complex:
1. Women and Girls of Color are Funneled into the Prison Industrial Complex
For years, education advocates have raised concerns about the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which refers to the disciplinary policies and educational standards that keep people of color from educational attainment and deter or prevent them from pursuing higher education.
Unfortunately, this discourse has often been used to push for better opportunities for Black boys exclusively – leaving their female counterparts out of the equation.
In doing so, our culture’s narrative about how racism has created the school-to-prison-pipeline has effectively erased its impact on women and girls of color, and especially Black women and girls.
“Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected,” a recently-released report, proves that narrative wrong.
Through interviews and an analysis of quantitative data, they found that Black girls across states were criminalized by their school districts and felt unsafe and undervalued in the classroom.
In one school, Black girls were 53% more likely to be suspended than white girls. In some, only Black girls were suspended for an entire academic year – even in schools with sizeable white student populations.
Girls interviewed expressed that the law enforcement programs put in place to “keep them safe” – such as punitive discipline systems, metal detectors, and fine systems for acting out – made them feel overpoliced and less safe in school, thus deterring them from forging ahead. They commonly expressed feeling like the people doing that policing didn’t respect or trust them at all.
The impact of these findings is important.
Black girls are more likely than their white counterparts to drop out, be expelled, or otherwise fail to earn a high school degree, placing them at a higher risk for incarceration.
Girls of color are also disproportionately charged in the juvenile justice system and face harsher punishments, increasing the odds that they’ll enter the criminal justice system before they even graduate.
While Black people face harsher sentencing than white people in general, the systemic oppression gradient drastically increases when you consider the various oppressed identities that intersect with Blackness.
For example, Trans women of color are aggressively criminalized by legal authorities.
They’re targeted by police harassment and violence and, consequently, often come to distrust law enforcement. 22% of trans folks have been harassed by police, and that percentage increases for trans people of color.
Monica Jones, a sex workers’ rights activist and Black trans woman, was sentenced to jail time for accepting a ride in the rain with two undercover police officers under the premise of “manifesting prostitution.”
During her trial, Jones was vocal that officers from the same department were among the men who harassed her every day on the street – and she was insistent that she had been targeted and profiled because of who she was.
2. There’s More Women of Color in Prison Than Ever
Women are the fastest-growing prison population in America, which already has the largest prison population in the world.
Over 1 million women are under criminal justice supervision right now. Around 200,000 are in prison or jail. Between 1977 and 2007, the population of women in prison grew 832%, while the male prison population only grew by 416%.
Women of color disproportionately make up the booming numbers of women in prison.
Two-thirds of the women in prison are women of color. 93 of every 100,000 white women were incarcerated in 2008, but 349 Black women and 147 Latina women of every 100,000 faced the same fate.
Black women bear the brunt of the prison industrial complex’s failures in this arena, as they are three to four times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, and the incarceration rate for Black women has increased at about double the incarceration rates of white women.
Latina women, meanwhile, are 69% more likely to be in prison than white women.
Many of the women in the criminal justice system are in jail cells or under state supervision for nonviolent crimes.
The result of our country’s racist and punitive criminal justice policies is a culture in which women of color are losing their shot at a life outside the system at record numbers.
3. Self-Defense Is a Crime for Women of Color
A quick glimpse at crime statistics will tell us that self-defense is a crime for women across ethnic and racial backgrounds.
90% of women in prison for killing men are there because those men abused them. And while men who kill their female partners are sentenced, on average, to serve two to six years in prison, women who kill their abusers typically get 15.
Considering that most men who kill their partners are abusers and most women who kill their partners were being abused, those numbers seem awfully unfair.
Self-defense may be a risk for any woman in the eyes of the criminal justice system, but for women of color, that’s magnified.
Marissa Alexander, a mother and survivor of domestic violence, was jailed and threatened with over 60 more years for firing a warning shot when her abuser began to attack her – despite the fact that nobody was hurt.
Although her trial came to a close this year and she evaded doing any more time in a prison, she’s still on house arrest and coping with the consequences of doing three unjust years.
Unfortunately, there remain many unrecognized and otherwise made invisible women of color just like her facing legal consequences for trying to save their lives.
A lack of political clout and legal protections can also leave LGBTQIA+ women vulnerable to retaliation for self-defense.
CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman, was imprisoned for defending herself against hate violence in which she and her friends were attacked by multiple men who were also screaming racist and transphobic epithets at them.
She ultimately served time in a men’s prison, compounding an unfair charge and sentence with a profoundly disturbing lack of recognition for her gender identity and safety.
4. For Women of Color, Prison Can Break Their Families
65% of incarcerated women have minors at home, and as the number of women in prison has increased, mothers have entered the criminal justice system in larger percentages than fathers.
Women of color entering the system could also lose the legal right to take care of their own children while serving time. It could even be the last time they see them.
38% of mothers in prison won’t see their children during their incarceration, and 50% are imprisoned over 100 miles away from their families.
Women of color are more likely to be the primary or sole caretaker of their children, meaning they could end up in foster care while she’s serving time – and if her sentence is longer than 15 months, the state can petition to terminate her parental rights. Women, on average, are sentenced to a minimum of 36 months in prison.
If women who serve time are able to reunite with their families, the impact of their sentence could once again activate a cycle of incarceration for their own children, and most of those kids are of color.
1.5 million children have a parent in prison right now, and they are thus at a higher risk of being incarcerated themselves. 1-in-15 Black children and 1-in-42 Latinx children fall into this category – but only 1-in-111 white children do.
5. It Can Be Harder for Women of Color to Reestablish Their Lives After Prison
It’s not easy for any person convicted of a crime to “bounce back” after doing time.
For women of color, various factors make the process of fostering a healthy, productive life on the outside even more of a challenge.
Discrimination prevents most women of color with criminal records from reentering the workforce and achieving success there.
Even if they do get employed, they still encounter the challenges that assault women in the work force, such as the wage gap, a lack of paid leave for workers or their families at most employers, and a recession that has kept women out of work.
Black men and women suffer the most from prison time when it comes to the wage trajectory after they are released. But even if there was no difference between a Black man’s salary and a Black woman’s upon entry into the system, that woman would likely experience wage growth at a 21% slower rate than her male counterpart.
Additionally, women of color often leave prison with job experience in fields like nursing, child care, and home health care – all domestic care fields that, in some states, are legally impossible for people with certain criminal histories to reenter.
Women of color who enter the criminal system don’t leave that system rolling in dough, and it can be hard to financially reestablish yourself after prison because of laws that prevent convicted felons from entering public housing or applying for social services like welfare and food stamps.
Considering how many of the women of color in prison are primary caretakers in their families, those laws also keep their entire families hungry and homeless.
Educational opportunities are key for anyone in reestablishing their lives on the outside. Unfortunately, higher education will remain inaccessible to most formerly convicted women of color for their entire lives – because their sentences disqualify them from ever gaining access to loans, grants, or work study programs that make higher education possible.
My favorite parts of the show Orange Is the New Black are the flashbacks –because no matter what the crime, the opportunity to humanize the “criminal” makes me think more critically about the work I do, the true meaning of justice, and the myriad ways that notions of crime and humanity have robbed us of our empathy.
It’s easy to think of the people convicted of crimes as deserving of some rough times. I, too, find myself falling into the mindset that extreme punishment is sometimes deserved or justified.
But when we dig deeper and challenge ourselves to examine the real stories of the people in prison and jail – or on probation, or in juvenile detention – it becomes clear that the same things we rail against in the streets are often unfairly keeping people in the “justice” system from ever really tasting justice themselves.
Carmen Rios is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She splits her time disparately between feminist rabble-rousing, writing, public speaking, and flower-picking. A professional feminist by day and overemotional writer by night, Carmen is currently Communications Coordinator at the Feminist Majority Foundation and the Feminism and Community Editor at Autostraddle. You can follow her on Twitter @carmenriosss and Tumblr to learn more about her feelings.