Written by Gina McGalliard, Truthout
It is well known that the United States imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other industrialized country. And while it is true that the prison population is predominantly male, the number of female prisoners has risen more than 800 percent in the last three decades, outpacing the approximate 400 percent increase in the male prison population during the same time period. And according to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice report “Hard Hit: The Growth in the Imprisonment of Women, 1977-2004,” in 1977, the United States imprisoned ten out of every 100,000 women, while in 2004 that number had increased to 64 out of 100,000. And because women tend to be caretakers, particularly of children, the effect their incarceration often has on families can be disastrous.
The Roots of Mass Incarceration
“The rise of what we now know as mass incarceration happened on the heels of the civil rights movement and the various liberation movements in the U.S.,” says Vikki Law, author of “Resistance Behind Bars: the Struggles of Incarcerated Women.” Lower-income communities began to be policed more heavily as a way to prevent people from getting organized, says Law. The war on drugs had kicked into gear by 1982, which “wasn’t focused across the board on everybody,” says Law. “There were specific images, like the black mother on crack and crack babies.”
Because women tend to be nonviolent offenders, a large factor in the increase has been the popularity of mandatory minimum drug laws, which were seen as a tough-on-crime measure during the war on drugs.
“The Rockefeller drug laws mandated that first-time offenders for drugs got mandatory sentences,” says Law. “Which meant that if you were, say, in a car with your boyfriend who happened to have two to four ounces of narcotic drugs, you could be charged and sentenced to 25 years to life even if it was a first-time offense.” Minority urban women were disproportionately affected by these draconian laws, as more affluent white women tended to have greater access to drug treatment centers and better legal representation.
Furthermore, because women are usually low-level players in drug deals, they often don’t have information they could use to negotiate a plea deal, says Executive Director Georgia Lerner of the Women’s Prison Association, an advocacy organization devoted to helping women who are or have been in prison. “It’s never the queen pin, it’s the king pin.”
Poverty is also a factor in the rise of women being imprisoned, because people sometimes resort to criminalized means to make ends meet. “In the 1990′s [there were] a lot of cuts to social welfare programs,” says Law. “So you suddenly see that [what] would keep a family of three – say a single parent with two children – afloat in terms of welfare and aid to families and dependent children and food stamps and housing benefits, are suddenly getting slashed.” Women in prison are also more likely not to have completed high school, which undoubtedly has an effect on their ability to provide food, rent and basic necessities for themselves and their children. Also, Law noted that many women were thrown off of the welfare rolls during the Clinton administration’s welfare reform, and there was a marked correlation between women being removed from the welfare rolls and the scores of women entering prison.
“Much of what we know about women’s pathways into crime has to do with earlier trauma, has to do with mental illness, addiction, relationships, so they’re often involved in crime through the relationships they have with men,” says Lerner. “And poverty is a big driver for plenty of women, so they’re committing little crimes over and over again.” For the drug addict or petty dealer who was trying to make extra money to pay rent, says Lerner, going to prison fails to address the underlying factors that led to incarceration in the first place.
The percentage of women incarcerated varies from state to state, with Oklahoma being the highest (129 out of 100,000 women) and Massachusetts and Rhode Island being the lowest (11 out of 100,000 women). Two-thirds of female inmates are convicted of nonviolent offenses and nonviolent offenders are more likely to have children. Nonviolent offenders are also the ones most likely to end up in a vicious cycle of reimprisonment.
“People who commit violent crimes are locked up longer and are less likely to reoffend,” says Lerner. “People who commit nonviolent drug and property crimes tend to go in and out [of prison] over and over, because if it’s addiction or economic issues driving the crime, it does not get solved, it only gets exacerbated by people being removed from the community.”
Many people are also unable to afford legal help when arrested, which increases their odds of ending up behind bars. “There’s a big difference between having a private attorney who can represent you and having publicly appointed counsel,” says Lerner, who also noted that defendants who are able to make bail are statistically less likely to end up convicted. People of color are overrepresented in poverty-stricken communities, says Lerner, which are usually also neighborhoods where high schools tend to have high dropout rates and children are likely to enter kindergarten unprepared. In this we see how education, or lack of it, can affect a child’s chances of ending up in prison as an adult: high school graduates are 70 to 75 percent less likely to end up involved in the criminal justice system.
Photo from Curtis Gregory Perry via flickr
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