Why So Many Black Women Are Behind Bars

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 visits.

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 parents.

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.

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