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Behind Bars: 6 Things You Should Know About Black Women in Prison


March is Women’s History Month, a time to reflect upon the accomplishments that women have made in our lives and in our communities, the leadership they have demonstrated, and the obstacles they have overcome.  But this is also an opportune time to examine the plight of Black women in the criminal justice system, as Black people find themselves bearing the brunt of destructive policies — the war on drugs, “broken windows” policing and “tough on crime” measures that have amounted to open warfare on Black families and children.  This, in a nation where one in three Americans — 70 million to 100 million people — have a criminal record, and roughly half of all children (between 33 million and 36.5 million) have a parent with a record.

In that vein, the Center for American Progress has compiled a study called “6 Things You Should Know About Women of Color and the Criminal Justice System,” with a focus on African-American and Latina women ensnared in America’s machine of mass incarceration.  According to the report, between 1980 and 2014, the number of women behind bars increased 700 percent, the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. And these are some of the things you should know about the women behind bars.

  1. Black women are more likely to go to prison than women of any other racial or ethnic group. In fact, 1 in 16 African-American women — in contrast to 1 in 111 white women and 1 in 45 Latina women — will see the inside of a prison at some point in their lifetime, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  2. In addition, Black women are extremely over-represented in state and federal prison, so much so that their rate of imprisonment is greater than double the rate for white women. While 53 of every 100,000 white women are sentenced to state or federal institutions, Black women suffer from an incarceration rate of 109 out of 100,000.
  3. Further, according to CAP, the war on drugs has negatively impacted Black and Latina women. When it comes to drug offenses, women are more likely to be imprisoned than men.  And while women consume and sell drugs at the same rate, Black and Latina women are more likely to be caught up in the system, with little leverage in negotiating shorter sentences.
  4. Shockingly, 12,000 pregnant women are locked up every year, amounting to 6 percent of incarcerated women. There are 28 states without laws prohibiting the dangerous practice of shackling pregnant women during childbirth, which places mother and child at risk.
  5. In addition, African-American and American Indian girls are more likely to be placed in juvenile detention facilities, at a rate of 1.7 and over 4 times more often than white girls, respectively. Moreover, Black girls face the highest risk of school suspensions.
  6. Finally, incarcerated women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence (71 percent of women behind bars, according to a 2008 study); suffer from mental health challenges (73 percent in state prison and 75 percent in local jails); and have a history of substance abuse (73 percent in state prison and 47 percent in federal prison).

However, while the report focuses on women of color, particularly Black women, it is also important to remember the impact that mass incarceration policies have on the fathers, husbands, sons, grandsons and nephews in their lives.  CAP noted that men of color in particular are hit hardest, as Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, and Latino men two-and-a-half times more likely than white men.

Prison sentences for Black men are particularly high — 19.5 percent longer than their white counterparts, and 25 percent less likely to receive sentences below the sentencing guidelines for a given crime.  And 1 in every 3 Black men will go to prison, as opposed to 1 in 6 Latino men, and 1 in 17 white men. African-American men have an astounding and unprecedented sentencing rate of 2,724 per 100,000 people.

A prison sentence is a family sentence, with Black families disproportionately facing a host of obstacles in terms of barriers to income potential and wealth, education, housing and family stability.  Further, 1 in 13 Black people in America cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement laws, impacting their ability to become productive citizens. From student arrests and juvenile detention to traffic stops and incarceration rates, Black people — women, girls, men and boys, collectively — have it rough.

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