Monday, July 2, 2012

Incarcerated Women in America and Social Justice

Prison Cells 1
At the Wild Goose Festival, I had the opportunity to attend a session about a prison writing program.  This program, called Project TURN, connects students from Duke Divinity School with female and male inmates in North Carolina.  In this program, inmates are guided through the writing of their spiritual story as part of a healing and growth process.  Two former inmates shared their stories with the audience.  The first speaker read what she had written of her life: a story of neglect, abuse, abandonment, alcoholism, and heavy drug use.  She had been raised by a step-mother who treated her harshly.  She left home at age 16.  Then her mother, who had sunk deeper and deeper into alcoholism, ended her life by her own hand.  Thus, she also began a downward spiral which included crack and heroin use and multiple pregnancies that resulted in the birth of 9 children, all of whom were taken from her, some immediately after birth.  I cannot do her story justice.  All I can say is that her story brought tears to my eyes and the audience to its feet when she finished reading.

Thanks to the people in Project TURN, this young woman has found redemption and hope.  I go into our local jail on a regular basis and I can say with certainty that, as sad as this woman's story is, it's not unique.  Once when a woman in our organization was talking to one of the inmates who was about to be released, my friend expressed happiness for her.  The woman sadly told her that "I'm just going back to what got me here in the first place."  

I write about incarcerated women and social justice because our system is failing.  The system is not concerned with rehabilitation and the good of both the those who are incarcerated and society in general.  It is about punishment - and money.  According to this 2005 MSNBC article, women make up about 7 percent of the prison population and account for 1 out of every 4 arrests.  The rise in arrests among women is not due to a rise in crime.  In fact, crime rates have actually been falling.  Part of the problem is the "war on drugs" which has encouraged tougher sentencing for drug convictions.  Despite declining crime rates, the US has a higher incarceration rate than any other nation.  According to the New York Times, "the United States leads the world in producing prisoners."  Making up just 5 percent of the world's population, we have 25 percent of its prisoners.  Further, we incarcerate individuals for far longer than other nations and for activities that rarely result in prison time elsewhere.

Prisons are increasingly owned and managed by private corporations.  The theory is that private corporations can be more efficient in running the prisons and save taxpayers money.
The reality is much different.  One article from 2008 reports:

It is, of course, in these private prisons' economic interests to see more people in prison serving longer sentences. And with current facilities bursting at the seams, times for this burgeoning industry are good. The country's largest private prison provider, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), spent more than $2.7 million from 2006 through September 2008 on lobbying for stricter laws. Last year alone, the company, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, generated $133 million in net income.
With the increased privatization of prisons, the bottom line is money and money can be increased through two methods:  decreasing costs (and much could be written about how they do this) and/or increasing the number of prisoners.  Prisoner population can be increased through tougher sentencing laws.  However, even this change can only increase the population so much.  With approximately one-third of African American males having been incarcerated at one point in their lives and poor men making up the bulk of the prison population, it would seem that it is time to begin tapping into a new demographic:  women.  My belief is that women are not committing crimes at an increasing rate(especially in an era of decreasing crime overall), rather the net through which "guests" for these private institutions are caught has been widened to include women.

Women are typically arrested and convicted for so-called "victimless" crimes such as illicit drug use and prostitution.  These types of crimes often occur as a result of life circumstances.  According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 92% of juvenile female offenders have experienced some type of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse.  In general, the common thread among female inmates is prior victimization.  Thus it seems the victims are being victimized for being just that, victims.  And it creates a vicious cycle from which it is nearly impossible to escape.

Once an individual is incarcerated for any felony, their lives tend to begin a downward spiral.  Unable to obtain legitimate employment, felons often return to their lives of crime, resorting to theft, prostitution, drug dealing, or any activity that ensures they have money to put a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs.  Otherwise, they become homeless, which is another social justice issue.  They also resort to or resume illegal drug use to escape the pain of their lives and their downward spiral.  Families are often destroyed and children repeat what they have seen.  This cycle of repeat offenders and multi-generational incarceration guarantees increased profits.

We need to question the goals of the criminal justice system.   Neither individuals nor society are served by this system.  Programs that seek to avoid incarceration and instead find ways to redirect these broken lives are what are required for social justice.

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