Data from The Prison Policy Initiative shows a recent rise in the number of women and girls in confinement.
"Fueled by more than five decades of a misguided and failing “war on drugs”, the US leads the world in the incarceration of women. Today, more than half of American states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana.
Even as it might seem that the war on drugs is drawing to a close, its brutal policies continue to create havoc in the lives of American women," said The Takeaway host Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, and the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University.
"The intersection of gender, poverty and incarceration is not race neutral," and women’s pathways to confinement often exist at the intersection of mental illness, trauma, and gender-based violence.
Black women make up about 29% of the women who are incarcerated in this country. Hispanic women make up about 14%. American Indian and Alaska Native make about up about 2.5%. These are dramatic overrepresentations of women of color in the criminal legal system in comparison to their make-up of the U.S. population.
80% of women in jail and 58% in prisons are parents.
More than half of the 76,000 locked away from families, children, work and home are awaiting trial, much less a conviction. Harsh sentencing for low level drug offenses and the inability to afford bail are primary causes of women's prolonged incarceration. $10,000 dollars is a typical bail, but the Prison Policy Initiative found that the median annual income for women awaiting trial in jails was about $11,071 dollars.
"The legal system is much more likely to be punitive towards people of color and poor people. I think that that's an important dimension to this as well, and poverty plays a critical role in this," said Mike Wessler, Communications Director for the Prison Policy Initiative.
"Whenever I'm talking about this, I often think about a tweet sent by law enforcement in New York City during the pandemic where they proudly boasted a photo of a bunch of diapers and formula, and they rightfully got pretty significant backlash for that," he told The Takeaway.
Law enforcements were pictured with haul of diapers, formula, and other products worth $1800, closing 23 warrants; Parents on social media horrified by kids’ items. February 2022. Tweet was later deleted.
For Mike, that defined a common factor of women's incarceration in the U.S.: women are often arrested and put in jail because they're trying to meet the daily needs of themselves and the people that they care for.
"Women and girls are much more likely to be incarcerated for drug and property offenses. They're much less likely to be charged with more violent crimes, things like murder and manslaughter and kidnapping and the like. And I think there's a couple of explanations for this. Property and drug crimes are often crimes related to poverty and crimes related to addiction," Wessler told The Takeaway.
"Ultimately, the enforcement of drug laws in this country as a criminal offense is a public policy choice. It could very easily be treated as a public health issue. We use things like treatment and counseling to help people who have substance use disorder get the care they need," said Mike Wessler.
He added, "We saw poverty numbers drop during the pandemic and this is related to why we saw lower incarceration rates, particularly of women during the pandemic. Women had more resources at their disposal to meet those needs. They [mothers] were receiving assistance from the federal government for their children." Stay-at-home orders and a slowing down of the court system are also said to be factors. But as courts return to pre-pandemic operation, women and girls' incarceration rates have climbed at a pace faster than that of boys and men.
Black women and girls are hit disproportionately, making up 29% of U.S. prisons while only making up about 13% of the U.S. population.
The National Black Women’s Justice Institute (NBWJI) researches, elevates, and educates the public on the overcriminalization of Black women and girls, and NBJWI is conducting research on Black women's policing, health, and incarceration. Sydney McKinney, Executive Director of NBWJI, joined the Takeaway to discuss the current data surrounding Black women and girls' incarceration and what healing-centered alternatives can look like.
See above for full transcript.