Understanding Mass Incarceration of African American Women

Ruthie Sherman

You open your eyes to concrete walls, three roommates, a couple square feet of space, and a toilet about a foot from your bed. You sit up, only to slam your head on the body of your bunkmate, resulting in a large red mark. You slowly stand up because you really have to go to the bathroom and 3:45 a.m. is the only time the guards are too tired to stare at you while you go. This hypothetical situation might seem terrifying, but it is like the common experience of millions of prisoners every day in the U.S. While most Americans are unaware of and desensitized from the consequences of being in prison, incarcerated Americans have to deal with overcrowding, lack of privacy, and isolation on a daily basis. How did this become the norm? How have so many Americans become so unjustifiably desensitized? How is this situation affecting different groups of people in the United States? To begin with, how did we decide that the punishment for crime should be incarceration?

Today, the concept of incarceration is normal. Most people would not think twice when a person is sentenced to time in jail or prison. However, this was not always the case. In The Historical Origin of the Prison System in America, Harry Elmer Barnes chronicles the evolution of criminal justice in the United States. Starting with the Colonial period, Barnes attributes the origin of the modern penal system to two institutions: jails and prisons, which he considers one institution, and workhouses. During the Colonial period, jails and prisons were locations meant only to hold prisoners until a punishment was decided after their trial, creating the practice of placing criminals in separate spaces from the majority of society. Workhouses were designed to repress people of lower class, especially poor people, and were not meant to punish criminals. However, the practice of forcing labor on lower class citizens originated with workhouses. For a long time, these two institutions existed in isolation from each other, containing the group they were constructed to manage.

American Quakers are credited with combining the practices of each institution. According to Barnes, “they originated both the idea of imprisonment as the typical mode of punishing crime, and the doctrine that this imprisonment should not be in idleness but at hard labor” (36). Without knowing it, Quakers transformed the perception and implementation of prison systems in the United States. They took the premise of prisons, isolation of criminals as punishment, and the premise of workhouses, making active use of unproductive members of society, to produce the modern practices of imprisonment and incarceration (Barnes, 36). However, the Quakers had no means of predicting how these principles and practices would become the platform for a dehumanized perspective on criminals.

When prisons were established on the belief that criminals should be isolated based on deviance, the perception of criminality and punishment shifted. Instead of a societal responsibility, there was an invisible solution. Criminals were put out of sight, barricading issues of criminal justice and punishment from the daily concerns of the majority of Americans. This enabled a dependency on criminal justice policies that absolved the larger society of responsibility or of being conscious of actively pursuing social reform for people who had committed crimes. As this dependency grew and became more institutionalized, criminals became viewed as mere shells strictly defined by crime instead of complex human beings with backgrounds and identities that could contextualize their criminal activity (Meares, 8).

According to Christina Meares, some of the invisible dynamics that could contextualize the experiences of incarcerated individuals include, “homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, illiteracy and dependency on welfare.” She continues, “These are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages” (8). When people perceive criminals, not only are such dynamics generally unacknowledged, but the multifaceted ways they impact each person depending on their identities are ignored as well. As a consequence, society’s dependence on prisons to reform members of society has ignored the dynamics that were enabling and reinforcing crime among certain groups of people (Meares, 8). An unfair practice of criminal justice was established. Prisons were expected to change and reform criminals, even while society remained silent about the contexts maintaining and reinforcing criminal behavior. The silence surrounding these dynamics, which allowed individuals to be strictly defined by their crime, along with the concentration of criminals into prisons became the foundation for a dehumanized perception of the incarcerated population. And this perception of criminals fed the rise of mass incarceration, the extreme rates of imprisonment, and the manifestation of a dehumanized and racialized perception of criminals that ignores the contexts of institutional issues of poverty and race (Stevenson, 15).

While the perception of criminals has evolved since the Colonial period, mass incarceration emerged relatively recently. During the 1980s, the dynamics that society surrounded with silence, most noticeably drug use, became the defining factors that would directly lead to the rise in incarceration. Although crime was decreasing at the beginning of that decade, President Reagan started his “War on Drugs” against the use of crack cocaine (Alexander, 3). In the introduction to her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander describes how this war was not necessarily founded on an actual widespread drug problem. She writes, “[T]here is no truth to the notion that the War on Drugs was launched in response to crack cocaine. President Ronald Reagan officially announced the current drug war in 1982, before crack became an issue in the media or a crisis in poor black neighborhoods” (3).

Subsequently, the Reagan administration even hired staff to produce a media campaign demonizing crack cocaine, which succeeded almost immediately in gaining support from both the public and the government. Unsurprisingly, many of the images used in this campaign displayed men of color wearing stereotypical inner city clothing, implying they were the villains of the crack cocaine story. Since the public had been conditioned for nearly the entire history of the United States to depend on prisons to act as social reformers, Reagan’s so-called War on Drugs could then easily and swiftly mass incarcerate the poor people of color in the United States (Alexander, 3).

The current debate surrounding mass incarceration is dominated by discussions of how this issue impacts men of color or poor white men. But it is important to see that American patriarchal society has empowered another destructive force within the emergence of mass incarceration, namely, ignoring how this phenomenon has affected women. In Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, the twelfth chapter, entitled “Mother, Mother,” grapples with the mass incarceration of women in the United States. Stevenson writes, “In the United States, the number of women sent to prison increased 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, a rate 1.5 times higher than the rate of men” (235-36). Stevenson credits two key components in the high rate for the mass incarceration of women: the criminalization of infant mortality and the enactment of the “Three Strikes” law, which increased sentences to life in prison for a crime when an offender had committed two or more serious crimes in the past (236). While the attitude towards criminals generally is defined purely by their crime, the attitude toward gender for female prisoners also shows that these prisoners are being subjected to strict and decontextualized definitions using the crime of the prisoner. Rather than just being criminals, drug users, thieves, or murderers, the attitude is that women prisoners are also sluts, horrible mothers, abusive mothers, and undeserving of help from society.

Stevenson notes, “[W]e’ve created a new class of ‘untouchables’ in American society, made up of our most vulnerable mothers and their children” (237). Rather than consider the circumstances that may have put these women in the position of committing crimes, society defined these women as despicable and abominable (Codd, 8). Once again, society is depending on prisons to deal with the larger social issues that remain out of sight, reinforcing a dehumanized and decontextualized perception of female prisoners. While defining these women as “untouchable” because of one set of actions is entirely unjustified, this perception has been particularly destructive for women of color, especially African American women.

The intersectionality of African American women’s identities and experiences reveal how they are subjected to the worst consequences of mass incarceration. Intersectionality, the inseparable nature of one’s multiple identities and how those identities simultaneously filter one’s experience, acknowledges historical influences on stereotypes and discrimination that construct these women’s experiences. In Disappearing Acts: The Mass Incarceration of African American Women, Christina Meares described her research on white and black women’s experiences in the Georgia prisons, which aimed to quantitatively assess intersectionality as it pertains to African American women. According to Meares “The sentence inequality of black women is the result of the cumulative effects of being members of a disadvantaged race, class and gender” (2). The mass incarceration of African American women cannot be credited or understood through just one of the identities they can claim, but must be understood through a careful examination of how their identities intersect to craft their experiences. These intersecting “disadvantaged” identities reveal the unique devastating consequences of mass incarceration for African American women.

African American women experience potentially the worst consequences of mass incarceration, directly and indirectly. While the culture of incarceration in the United States has conditioned society to define prisoners strictly by their crimes, mass incarceration has embedded stereotypes and perceptions of African American women that reinforce institutions of oppression and domination. In “Black Women’s Prison Narratives and the Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in US Prisons,” Breea Willingham describes how black women use writing to try to escape experiences of sexual abuse, silenced self-identity, and ostracism. Willingham quotes the writing of black female prisoners that describe sexual abuse from prison guards, a lack of support from family and friends, and a sense of isolation that extends beyond the physical prison. All three of these kinds of experiences reinforce the stereotypes that contextualized how these women arrived in prison. They support the misperception of black women as sexual objects and as less significant than other women (Willingham, 63). While examining why these black women use writing to escape their experiences, Willingham highlights the larger issue that is a relatively unique consequence for African American women: silence. She writes, “…what is different about the incarcerated black woman’s story is that it allows some of these women to express themselves and define their existence—to tell us that they still matter despite their absence” (64).

African American women’s relative absence from mainstream society in combination with their almost non-existent social power eliminates any potential for this group to be defined by its members. Rather, the conditioned perception of incarceration, the stereotypes of African American women, and the combination of these two socially embedded perceptions allows the dominant members of society the power to define African American women. This reinforces systemic oppression and domination of African American women, resulting in a group that exists in society without the capacity to present their own definition of their identity. The inability to construct a definition of oneself because of the intersecting membership between two disadvantaged groups is an unprecedented and unjustified consequence that uniquely impacts African American women due to mass incarceration. This complex understanding of the issue lacks the magnification received largely by African American men in mass media, further silencing African American women and distancing them from control over how they are perceived. While these issues cannot be solved merely by media attention, extending the conversation of this issue to its impact on African American women could create more opportunities for collaboration between groups to fight against discrimination and oppression. However, the mass incarceration of African American women requires a critical examination of the history of this group in the United States in order to attempt to dismantle oppressive institutional structures.

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010. Print.

Barnes, Harry E. “The Historical Origin of the Prison System in America.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 12.1. (1921): 35-60. Print.

Codd, Val. “Women and the Prison Industrial Complex”. Off Our Backs 31.2 (2001): 8–8. Web.

Meares, Christina Faye, Disappearing Acts: The Mass Incarceration of African American Women. Thesis, Georgia State University, 2011. Print.

Mustakeem, Sowande. “Suffering at the Margins: (Re)Centering Black Women in Discourses on Violence and Crime.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 42.3 (2014): 323-7. ProQuest. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Stevenson, Bryan. “Mother, Mother.” Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014. 227-41. Print.

Willingham, Breea C. “Black Women’s Prison Narratives and the Intersection of Race, Gender, And Sexuality In US Prisons.” Critical Survey 23.3 (2011): 55-66. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Instructor’s Memo

As the final major writing assignment for our English 100 class, part of a First-Year Interest Group whose theme was the Immigrant Experience in Education, students were asked to write an argumentative paper addressing an issue of social or cultural importance to a marginalized group. As an extra wrinkle, students were required to choose a group to which they did not belong, so that the task of advocating for the issue necessitated cultural empathy, or imagining the lived experience of people with whom one might have very little in common. The class, a diverse cohort of students who had spent the semester discussing issues of discrimination and appropriation in all of their FIG classes, including English 100, worked together to develop the theme and requirements of the final paper, which included a companion presentation/multimedia project.

Ruthie’s essay, “Understanding Mass Incarceration of African American Women,” is an excellent example of a writer framing, analyzing and making a forceful argument about an issue concerning a very specific social group. One of the most powerful moments in the piece comes in its very first paragraph. “You open your eyes to concrete walls,” she writes, immediately placing the reader within the lived experience of an incarcerated person through vivid, concrete imagery and the deft use of second-person point of view. Throughout the process of drafting and revising, Ruthie took note of the fact that she had learned to be unafraid to use such techniques, normally associated with more “creative” or narrative forms of writing, in an argumentative, academic piece of writing. Doing so here allows the author to ease the reader into the more analytical, idea-driven parts of the paper by touching on an often- overlooked truth: abstract issues have a significant impact on real human lives.

Ruthie structures this paper in a simple and powerful way. She begins by tracing the history of the more problematic trends in the American prison system, then advances her argument by narrowing her focus, first to the ways in which mass incarceration disproportionately harms African-Americans, then to the fact that black women in particular, because of the intersectionality of their race, class and gender, “experience the worst consequences of mass incarceration, directly and indirectly.”

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Ruthie’s essay is that she was able to use sources and data that did not directly pertain to her topic to make a highly persuasive argument. Early in the process, she expressed frustration with the fact that though many of the sources she was reading dealt with issues of mass incarceration, racism and dehumanization, hardly any spoke to the world of the marginalized group she had chosen to write about, incarcerated African American women. She discovered that she wasn’t researching poorly or in the wrong places. The sad fact was that hardly any scholar before her had addressed the incarceration of black women in a substantive way. Instead of taking the easy way out and broadening her topic, Ruthie decided that she would fill the missing research space—with her own paper. In the essay’s second half, she quite effectively uses the concept of intersectionality to tie the broader issues to those of her group. The result, I believe, is a powerful example of what can happen when a writer-researcher trusts her own voice in telling the story she intends to tell.

— Walter B. Thompson

Writer’s Memo

From the outset of my final assignment of my English 100 course, I was pretty excited about the endeavor because the professor gave the class some freedom in terms of the subject. There were only two real requirements when it came to the topic: it had to be about a marginalized group in American society and you could not be a member of that group. I chose to focus on the impact of mass incarceration of African American women because the discourse surrounding mass incarceration almost solely focuses on African American men. I already knew I was very passionate about criminal justice and wanted to use that passion as my momentum for working through this assignment.

Since I chose a subject that I knew was so interesting to me, the actual project of researching and writing was incredibly fluid. The larger challenge occurred in outlining how I wanted to present my research. As the details and context for my subject was so vast, I found it very difficult to eliminate information and narrow my focus. However, a meeting with two of my peers during an English 100 class proved very useful in this dilemma. During our discussion of my paper, we talked through distinguishing between information that is important because it isn’t well known and information that is important to the argument I was making in the paper. Although my excitement about my subject definitely made the writing process easier, my excitement at times overwhelmed my ability to outline the paper and differentiate the key points that supported my argument from the points that I felt were important.

This final assignment for English 100 was one of my first major research papers as an undergraduate. As such, the experience taught a few important lessons about researching and writing. First, if you have the option, pick a topic that fascinates you. I have found that if I am hungry to learn about something, the excitement and passion about a topic can fuel the process of a project. Second, research projects need and take time. DO NOT try to do this stuff overnight. Not only does that hurt your assignment, but it hurts your ability to absorb the information and grow from what you learn. Third, use your peers to help you. Peer reviews can seem tedious at first, but hearing another point of view about your work can help you see it in a different light to change the work for the better; also, the ability to give and receive construct criticism is a priceless skill. Doing this assignment also reaffirmed something I have learned a lot throughout my life: the more you put into something, the more you get out of it. Throwing yourself into your work can really change your work ethic as well as your perspective, so try to take advantage of these opportunities for growth.

— Ruthie Sherman

Student Writing Award: Informative Essay


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