It was the chance sighting of a Facebook post, on my birthday no less, that catapulted me into the unlikely stratosphere of female incarceration. Interfaith Prison Ministry for Women, a non-profit organization in Raleigh, NC was searching for an “oral historian” to help tell their story in celebration of their 40-year anniversary.
The thought of being involved in a project like that struck me like a tuning fork, yet it made no logical sense. Who was I, a 50-something, non-local, non-religious person, to work on a documentary-style project on a topic I knew nothing about? But when the idea was still swirling about several days later in that part of my brain reserved for what if? and why not?, I decided to engage.
As I embarked on the project, I immersed myself in the world of jails and prisons by reading books and perusing websites the prison ministry had suggested. I had no idea I would be so genuinely interested in a topic I had never given much thought to before. Or so disturbed.
"I am . . .
redemption and transformation."
I was familiar with the concept of mass incarceration, yes, but what I came to understand was how poorly people were treated – how thoroughly stripped of human dignity – throughout the entire process; apprehension, processing, punishment, parole, and even once they were no longer in the system and all the “collateral consequences” kicked in.
This socially invisible cadre of more than two million people who are not only human beings, but also folks who will be our neighbors, co-workers, and fellow citizens again one day – perhaps even one of us or our family members – how and why were we treating them this way? Warehousing people, sentencing harshly and often far longer than the crime warrants, and focusing on retribution instead of rehabilitation is hardly a recipe for success.
And yet I am not here to take on the Corrections Enterprise or to plead a particular case in the public square. I am here to explore the experience of female incarceration, give language to the problem of dehumanization behind the wall, and to grapple with whether and how incarceration can offer healing.
This could have been a story about any number of tentacles in the incarceration machine.
This could have been a story about the US having only 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, or how people of color make up only 30% of our population but 60% of our incarcerated folks, or about the failure to appreciably reduce jail and prison populations during the pandemic, which continues to put incarcerated people’s lives at risk.
It could have been a story about the tens of thousands of collateral consequences (i.e., blast radius) of having a record, or how almost two-thirds of the folks in jail (i.e., “incarceration’s front door”) are unconvicted (i.e., pretrial detention), or the more than seven million people who are either locked up, on probation, or on parole (i.e., under correctional control).
This essay could have been about any number of staggering statistics, but instead, it focuses on the group who make up a mere sliver of the incarceration population. Women, who comprise of just 7% of the incarceration pie, have been finding their way into jails and prisons at an explosive rate over the last 40 years.
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the research on how and why women end up incarcerated is “scarce, dated and limited in scope.” However, there is enough data to build a profile of an incarcerated woman:
Approximately 85% of incarcerated women have experienced sexual, partner and/or caregiver violence.
Approximately 75% of incarcerated women have suffered from substance abuse or dependence, which is often viewed as self-medicating in response to victimization and trauma.
Mental health issues plague 65% of the women, half of which are considered serious.
The number of children left motherless during this time is astonishing with an estimated 80% of women in jail and 62% of women in prison having children under the age of 18. Most of these women are single parents.
Most women are incarcerated for low-level, non-violent offenses such as property, drug, and public order offenses, many of which carry exceedingly long sentences.
When factoring in abuse, addiction, mental illness, single parenthood, and/or poverty, it is hard not to view many of the justice-involved women and girls as both victim and offender.