Making Connections Between Feminism and Prison Abolitionism

In the last few weeks, two studies came out: The first about the rate of incarceration in the United States and the second about the rate of STD cases in teenage girls. Activists and organizers recognize the complexities of the issues and campaigns we work on. In order to build stronger movements we have to talk between sectors and build alliances that further push our theories of change and our collective agenda.

Sounds like idealistic talk for those that are not part of the movement for social change, but as someone who spends day in and day out working with people on these issues, I see how talking each other about our differences is sometimes the only way to make connections between our issues. Specifically, the feminist movement and the anti-incarceration movement need to be talking to each other. Thanks to a reader, who saw my article on STDs and on prisons, I was sent a study that came out years ago on the connections between rate of STD cases and the rate of incarceration. The conclusion? Women in communities with higher rates of incarceration are more susceptible to high rates of STD exposure, even when they are engaging in low risk behavior.

An op-ed in the Washington Post titled, "An Epidemic No One wants to Talk About," elaborates,

A decade ago, the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine published a landmark report, "The Hidden Epidemic," examining sexually transmitted diseases in the United States. In 1995, the report noted, STDs accounted for 87 percent of cases of the 10 most frequently reported diseases in the nation. Despite the huge costs that such infections imposed on our health-care system, awareness of their importance was all but absent from the public consciousness. We fear that this latest study will have its 15 minutes in the spotlight and also fade from view.

Sadly, our national silence may be related to our difficulty in discussing the roles that race and poverty play in these trends. In 2005, for example, the rate of gonorrhea (a curable STD) among African Americans was 18 times greater than the rate among whites. The contrast in rates for HIV-AIDS, syphilis and chlamydial infection among blacks and whites is only slightly less dramatic. These diseases cost tens of billions of dollars each year, but with the exception of HIV infection, STDs remain the elephant in the room when it comes to the national conversation about health and health care.

One obvious reason is that conversations about sexual behavior, race and sexually transmitted infections remain taboo. Another is that the incidence of many STDs, particularly HIV, is concentrated in poor, segregated neighborhoods that are characterized by high rates of incarceration. Inner-city populations of African Americans and Latinos account for almost two-thirds of the 2.2 million Americans in prison nationwide, and two disturbing trends are increasingly present in these communities.

To take this even further, STDs are also spread in prisons where rape is prevalent and health needs are neglected, well beyond the usual problems of distribution of condoms. The shame functions on two levels, the first is homophobia leading high risk behaviors underground and the shame of being sexually assaulted and the questions that brings up around masculinity, again creating a wall of silence as to the actual conditions for incarcerated populations and rape. Finally, the op-ed concludes that concurrent sexual partnerships are one of the main factors fueling the spread of STDs.

One is the shift in the patterns of marriage and courtship that result when so many men are removed from a community. The other is an increase in the number of "multiple concurrent sexual partnerships," in which individuals are engaged in sexual relationships with more than one person at a time. In many communities, when one sexual partner is imprisoned, the person left behind chooses another partner. When widespread, this behavior creates an efficient, effective pattern for introducing and maintaining an STD through a network of sexual relationships.

Concurrent sexual partnerships, our research indicates, are a more effective engine for transmitting STDs than sequential partnerships. In the latter case, an infected individual is more likely to be diagnosed before a new partner is infected. In the former, an individual infected by one partner can immediately pass the infection on to another, potentially spreading it quickly through the network. As people move in and out of relationships and in and out of communities, such infections become almost impossible to treat efficiently. Movement in and out of prison aggravates these trends.

While this is true, given that the rate of incarceration for men is much higher, this finding potentially blames this high-risk behavior on women that are being left behind by their male partners who are being incarcerated. Obviously, the op-ed doesn't say that, but I will say that it is a variety of factors that lead to the spreading of STDs and men are more often carriers than women.

High rates of incarceration has such deleterious side effects that we have only begun to understand. Beyond dismantling and shaming entire communities, the onslaught of emasculating practices via police has created greater threats to masculinity, which backfire in the form of unsafe sexual practices, multiple partners and in its extreme form, rape.

Rate of incarceration and the prison industrial complex is a feminist issue whether it appears to be on the surface or not. Prisons serve to denigrate men of color through violence and rape, along with breaking the family, hurting mental and physical health, destroying livelihoods and creating loss of hope. Furthermore, the rate of incarceration for women is increasing at a staggering rate which is having the same consequences, only sometimes worse, as women prisoners are given even less attention. The police state and prison system function to render communities powerless in the face of the legal system.

In order to effectively address this situation, we have to not only break the silence, but realize that this issue is not just for certain activists and lawyers. The prison industrial complex is part of a larger culture of violence, misogyny and militarization that is funded by tax dollars and as a result effects every single one of us.

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