Mass Incarceration and Black Women

sisters-journer-larry-poncho-brownMass Incarceration: Triple Jeopardy for Women in a “Color-Blind” and Gender-Neutral Justice System
by Sandra Enos, Bryant University (2012)


[…] In a recent article in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik wrote, “Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.”

Gopnik goes on to report that there are more people under the grip of correctional supervision than there were under the yoke of slavery in the period before the Civil War. Our American correctional system is atypical among industrialized nations not only for the large numbers of inmates it holds, but also for its failure to rehabilitate, the conditions of confinement, and the length of sentences served by its inmates.

The incarceration of black males has received most attention from scholars and critics of criminal policies, yet these policies have had enormous impacts on women, as well, as we will explore in this article. In fact, mass incarceration has hit particular communities and particular populations with a vengeance. In fact, one could question the purposes of a system, which has had such a debilitating effect on individuals, families and communities who are poor and of color, in such disproportionate numbers, with minimal social benefits. Mass incarceration has also, one could argue, had a negative effect on an over-burdened criminal justice system itself, ensnaring more and more citizens in systems that remove them from the economic and social mainstream at enormous costs to taxpayers, human capital, public safety and other ends.

The wider the net cast by the criminal justice system, the more complex the problems faced by the police, courts and corrections. Because corrections is increasingly the end point of criminal justice involvement, social problems unaddressed by other social systems, find their way to our nation’s prisons and jails. Contemporary prisons are highly developed systems addressing, not always well, problems of health, mental health, histories of poor nutrition, low education, poverty, histories of abuse and neglect, threats of violence, substance abuse and others. America’s prison complex serves populations from the very young who are waived into adult prisons from juvenile courts and extends into the aging population, where prisons are creating gerontological services to deal with assisted living needs of elderly populations.

A recent conversation with the retiring head of prison rehabilitation services at a northeastern correctional department surfaced the complications of designing systems of incarceration that have become in some states both increasingly powerful systems of control and default systems of care for marginalized men and women. Four decades ago, this system had been placed under federal court trusteeship after the conditions of confinement were declared by the federal court to constitute cruel and unusual punishment (Palmigiano v. Garrahy 1977).

In the mid-1970s, when this landmark case was heard, the size of the incarcerated population numbered around 500 men and 18 women. Fast forwarding to the second decade of the twenty-first century finds a population of 3800 inmates, 250 of them women in a well-managed organization with community partners, educational programs, laws against sex with inmates, internal systems to investigate harassment and sexual assault and other innovations. In progressive prisons (some would object to that characterizations) one can find good quality pre-natal care for women, mental health services, follow up in the community for HIV/AIDS positive patients, support for victims of domestic violence, and in some cases, so-called gender responsive programming.

Reform minded administrators and advocates have long called for systems of care and confinement that recognize that women inmates present challenges that are different from those posed by men. While it has long been the rule that women account for a small percentage of the prison population, (5% – 8%) and it has long been the case that policies for managing male inmates are generally applied to women, there have been reforms based on the premise that women offenders represent a population quite different from the male prisoners.

Prisons do provide some women with opportunities to desist from crime and turn their lives around (Cox 2011). That said, few would argue that prisons represent the ideal setting within which to provide these services to this population. Conditions of confinement, often brutalizing, infantilizing, demeaning and debilitating, work against delivery of programs that are effective and whose results are long lasting.

Traditionally, women offenders have been neglected by both scholars and administrators. Literature that was purported to explain the etiology of crime and the development of criminals was in truth oriented to the patterns and characteristics of male crime. Yet, with the significant increases in women behind bars, we have seen increased interest in the female offender. Women occupy a unique position in the criminal justice system and are triply disadvantaged by low socioeconomic class, gender and race. The deeper their involvement and entrenchment in the system, the more their criminal histories serve as another crippling disadvantage.

In this article, we will trace the growth in the number women inmates in our nations’ prisons and jails, identify sources of the imprisonment boom, assess the collateral costs of mass imprisonment, understand sentencing protocols and “reforms”, take a look at prison management and propose recommendations for a path forward.


It is clear that women’s pathways to crime are different than are men’s. It can be argued that women face a different structure of criminal opportunity. If there is a glass ceiling in the legitimate world, there are certainly obstacles to success for women in the world of crime. Women’s entry to crime may be accelerated and promoted by histories of abuse and exploitation, drug use, family connections to crime through kin and other networks, and the involvements of male partners in criminal enterprises (Miller 1987).

Many women who become involved in crime and drug use can trace their entry to relational components—individuals in their family, nuclear, blended and extended networks—where paths to crimes and drugs are part and parcel of intimate relationships and strategies for survival (Gilfus 1992). Living in poor neighborhoods makes it likely that marginalized women will be recruited into criminal networks, where they may combine legitimate and illegal enterprises to patch together a subsistence living.

The idea of “blurred boundaries” which refers to the connection between women’s victimization and their criminality (Huebner, DeJong and Cobbina 2009) also provides important insight into the role of victimization in paths to crime. Ritchie’s research on women criminals in a New York correctional institution identified the brutalization these women faced as victims of abuse, creating paths to offending. Using life-history methodology, Richie chronicles gender entrapment—the ways in which the circumstances of women’s lives lead them into lawbreaking. Early victimization and dependence and emotional vulnerability lead women into compromising, illegal activity, some of these violent crimes (Richie 1996).


The number of women serving sentences of more than a year grew by 757 percent between 1977 and 2004—nearly twice the 388 percent increase in the male prison population. Although the size of the gap varies, female prison populations have risen more quickly than male populations in all 50 states. The trend has also been persistent, with median annual growth rates for women exceeding growth rates for men in 22 of the last 27 years, including each of the past 11 years (Frost, Greene and Pranis, The Punitiveness Report: Hard Hit: The Growth in the Imprisonment of Women 2006).


Feeding the beast:
The growth in the population behind bars

It is impossible to understand the impact of mass incarceration on women without reviewing the recent history of the factors that have created the incarceration boom for men and women. Scholars identify several factors that have led to the massive growth in the incarcerated population.

Basically, two factors control the size and composition of prison and jail populations; first is the number of commitments, that is, the number of offenders sentenced on a criminal charge to prison or jail or returned for a violation of probation or parole. The more that judges use incarceration instead of community supervision, like probation and other alternatives to punish offenders, the larger the prison population will grow. The second factor that constitutes the prison population is the length of sentences; the longer those inmates are confined and the less likely they are to achieve early release through parole, the larger the size of the prison population.


A War on Crime and Drugs:
Casualties and Strategies

Two important works of recent scholarship examine the roots and branches of mass incarceration. The New Jim Crow (Alexander 2012) and Imprisoning Communities (Clear 2007) point to the complex nature of the criminal justice system and the societal impact of mass incarceration.

The New Jim Crow examines the growth of the prison population, focusing mainly on the incarceration of poor black men, primarily from the inner city. Alexander argues that rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have expanded police powers to stop and frisk, allowing them to conduct pretense stops of whomever they wish, based on a modicum of suspicion. She suggests that this has led to aggressive policing in poor neighborhoods, targeting poor black men and women and paying less attention to white offenders who constitute the majority of drug users and traffickers.

The result has been that blacks and Latinos account for seventy-five percent of all those imprisoned for drug offenses despite the fact that drug use among whites exists at a rate equal to or greater than that of blacks and Latinos (Travis 2002). Multiple data sources establish the greater prevalence of drug use among white youth despite the impression by the general public that drug crime is a crime of poor ghetto blacks and Hispanics.


Clear argues along the same lines citing a body of research that suggests weak casual relationships between crime rates and incarceration rates. The rate of incarceration has climbed for decades despite a decline in the rate of crime. While some theorists may argue that severe sentencing and long terms of incarceration have deterrent effects, the opposite in the case. In fact, Clear argues that mass incarceration increases the recidivism rate. While incarcerating a few people in a community may have a deterrent effect, incarcerating significant numbers weakens the community, not only because it empties communities of their members but because it weakens the respect for the criminal justice system and its agents in the community.

Neither author specifically addresses the issue of the incarceration of women, except to refer to so-called collateral damage due to incarceration. The aim in each book is to create a coherent analysis of the links between crime rates and incarceration and to show the impact of mass incarceration strategies on individuals, communities, and families. However, the implications for women are clear. 



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