Women & Mass Incarceration


Below is a talk given by PSL member Teresse Watson at New York City at Justice Center en el Barrio.

Black Mommas Bail Out Initiative and Mass Incarceration is a Women’s Issue

Hello all. My name is Teresse Watson and I am a proud black woman, mother, social worker, and member of the Party for Socialism Liberation. In honor of Mother’s Day and just in time for the PSL Week of Action to End Racist Mass Incarceration, the National Bail Out Collective organized the Black Mommas Bail Out Initiative to raised funds and bail out Black caretakers all over the country. Grassroots activists across the country have organized fundraisers – including here in NYC – to address the epidemic of black moms kept behind bars simply because they cannot afford bail.

According to the organizers, “The mothers and caregivers are identified through court watch programs and through recommendations from attorneys and social workers. To qualify, the person must be a mother or caregiver, which would include the transgender and queer communities. You may not have ever physically given birth, but you take care of someone.” While the Black Mama Bail Out initiative is a great way to get women out of jail, and back to their families, we understand that it is not a solution to mass incarceration and its effects on women and families.

There is no question that mass incarceration is a women’s issue. The Sentencing Project states, “Women’s incarceration has grown at twice the pace of men’s incarceration in recent decades. The female prison population stands nearly eight times higher than in 1980”. Mass incarceration is growing at an even higher rate for women from oppressed groups. In 2016, the imprisonment rate for African American women was twice the rate of imprisonment for white women, and Hispanic women were imprisoned at 1.4 times the rate of white women. Mass incarceration is not just an issue affecting adult women. Girls of color are also being swept up by this racist prison system in astounding numbers. “Native girls are more than four times as likely as white girls to be incarcerated; African American girls are three-and-a-half times as likely; and Latina girls are 38% more likely to be incarcerated than white girls. Here in New York City, 70% of students arrested by school law enforcement officers are Black or Latino. Its important to the note there are more police officers in NYC public schools than school counselors and this trend is on the rise across the country.

Even among women, rates of incarceration are not indiscriminate. A recent study conducted by the U.S. national library of medicine and national institute of Health on incarceration rates of sexual minorities found that 42 percent of women in prison and 32 percent of women in jail identify as part of the LGBTQ community; in comparison to 9 percent of men in prison and 6 percent of men in jail.

This increase in women’s incarceration is a result of the state’s war on drugs and the unjust bail system. The ACLU states that,“40% of criminal convictions leading to the incarceration of women in 2000 were for drug crimes. Women are being incarcerated for drug related activity, instead of receiving the drug treatment services they need. 54,000 women are behind bars every day without a conviction, typically because they cannot afford money bail. In this way, poor and working class women are punished for their lack of wealth. Mass incarceration is imprisoning working class, non-violent women at high rates, with no regard for the impact this is having on these women and their families.

Mass Incarceration, Women and Families

When women are incarcerated, they face some unique challenges. For example, women are disproportionately located in local jails, which tend to restrict communication between women and their families. Prisonpolicy.org states that, “Jails make it harder to stay in touch with family than prisons do. Phone calls are more expensive, up to $1.50 per minute, and other forms of communication are more restricted – some jails don’t even allow real letters, limiting mail to postcards. Also, women tend to be held in pre-trial detention before they have been convicted of a crime. “A quarter of women held behind bars have not yet had a trial. 60% of women under local control have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial”. Furthermore, incarcerated women, who have lower incomes than incarcerated men, have a harder time affording cash bail, making them more likely to remain detained. Women in jails are also more likely to suffer from mental health problems and experience serious psychological distress than women in prisons, or men in either jails or prisons.

Incarcerating women also impacts children, because women are often primary caregivers. “80% of women in jails are mothers, and most of them are the primary caretakers of their children”. More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18. ). When these caregivers are incarceration, their children are impacted in various ways and over time. “Parental incarceration increases the risk of a child living in poverty or experiencing household instability, decreases chances of graduating high school and increases risk of parental rights termination or loss of custody”. “Even within the impact of parental incarceration, racial disparities exist. African American youth are as much as 65% more likely than white youth to become homeless as a result of a parent going to prison”. These statistics do not account for the women and femme people who are caregivers to other adults, elders or chosen family.

When women are incarcerated, it is families who bare the brunt of the costs associated with incarceration. There are fees and fines associated with bail, phone calls, visits to the facility, care packages, lawyers, restitution, commissary, ect. Because of the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration on poor and working-class families of color, the financial impact tends to fall on families that are already financially burdened. In 2015 The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together and Research Action Design release a report outlining the cost of incarceration to families. They found that ‘nearly 65% of families with an incarcerated member were unable to meet their family’s basic needs. Of the family members responsible for the court related cost, 83% were women. Furthermore, an incarcerated family member means that there is a loss of income to the family. “Nearly half of formerly incarcerated individuals contributed 50% or more to their families’ total household income prior to incarceration”. Mass incarceration is only deepening the poverty and economic deprivation our people suffer under.

Mass Incarceration and Capitalism

The prison system magnifies all the racist sexist and classist contradictions of capitalist society. The official justification for imprisoning more people is to bring down the crime. But there is no evidence that the increased jailing rate has had any impact on lowering crime. And the real criminals — the politicians who have launched illegal wars in the Middle East, the Wall Street bankers who defrauded millions of homeowners or served as money runners for big drug cartels, and the cops who frame and murder people on the daily — they never see any jail time at all.

The prison-industrial complex is a billion dollar business. Prison workers make furniture, license plates, clothing and much more. In New York CIty, how many CUNY students know that almost all the desks they sit at and the blue books they fill out for their final exams, were produced by prisoners making a few pennies a day? But profits alone cannot explain the prison explosion.

Capitalism is the root of the prison industrial complex that is increasingly impacting women, children and families. Under capitalism, profits are prioritized over people, and prisons have become big business. Private prisons, ran by corporations like CoreCivic, can take in billions in revenue. Other corporations, like Starbucks and Walmart, exploit prison labor by using prisoners to manufacture their products. Prisoners can make as little as 23 cents an hour for their work. The corporations that use their labor are worth billions. Mass incarceration doesn’t just serve corporations. Some small towns, like Letcher County, Ky, have campaigned to have prisons built in their towns to increase employment and boost the local economy.

While mass incarceration is profitable for some corporations and communities, it also serves as a form of social control and distraction. Imprisoning the poor and working class population allows the elites to manage the voting age population, control the surplus workforce and stifle radical working class movements. Mass incarceration also helps to deflect from the failures of capitalism.

Prisons are used as a way to control and intimidate the population, especially poor communities. Prisons are the ruling class’ solution to the contradiction of “surplus” workers in the high-tech era and the deepening capitalist economic crisis. As underemployment and unemployment continue to grow, millions of workers are forced to work in non-union low-paying jobs in the service industry. Crucial to protecting the interests and private property of the capitalist class, prisons function as warehouses of unemployed and poor workers to ensure wages remain low.

Focusing on this racist war on crime can deflect from the US’s imperialist campaigns, like the recent failed coup in Venezuela. Mass incarceration deflects from the lack of affordable health care, the rising cost of housing and the dearth of jobs that pay a livable wage. This control and distraction helps to keep capitalism thriving and unchecked.

Women’s oppression has changed over time as economic exploitation has changed. And since its inception, capitalism has generated profits by exploiting and undervaluing women to a greater degree than men. We see this in the everyday economic, gendered exploitation of women, as well as then then unpaid “double-shift” of caring for family members at home — which is itself a form of labor and production that rarely gets discussed.

The struggle for the liberation of women is inextricably linked to struggle for socialism.

Socialism as a Path to Women’s Liberation

The complex issues of individual and social crime can be solved only by socialism. Under a workers’ state, punishment of individuals for criminal acts and extreme anti-social behavior would continue during a transitional phase—but with a huge difference.

Guaranteed social and economic rights, empowering workers to control society, would eliminate many crimes of survival, as well as crimes built around petty material acquisition. A workers state would use the instruments of mass education to build solidarity within and between communities, to overcome racism and sexism, and help society overcome the hate and bigotry we’ve been indoctrinated with, and which currently structures the capitalist system.

The current prison system would be dismantled and replaced with a humane and effective set of institutions to that will bring true restorative justice to our communities.

By eliminating capitalism, we can eliminate mass incarceration, and create a society that truly reflects the values of women’s liberation. A socialist society would make way for the destruction of the patriarchy. Cuba has given us an example of what women’s liberation might look like under a socialist state. “Cuban women are guaranteed housing, health care, education and employment. Men and women are guaranteed parental leave for up to one year. Reproductive rights, abortion and birth control, for example, are legal and provided for by the national health care system.”

The US empire, with all of its wealth and international power, does not guarantee us a single one of these standard human rights. As we see with the recent wave of right wing attacks against the right to abortion won through Roe v Wade in 1973, our people continue to fight for decades on end to maintain the few rights we do have.

The PSL has joined the No New Jails Campaign here in New York City to stop the building of new jails in the boroughs. The campaign is also advocating for the closing of Rikers Island , where a shocking majority – 80% of inmates – are awaiting trial and are locked up just because they cannot afford bond. Recently, PSL members testified at the Queens Community Board meeting regarding the proposed jail in Queens. The Board voted no to building a new jail. Brooklyn PSL members demonstrated at the Brooklyn Community Board meeting and that board voted no the proposed jail in Brooklyn. These are early victories, but there is still more work to be done, as the process to build these jails has just begun.

By reclaiming political power from the capitalists, we attack the root of all bigotry and inequality based on white supremacy, patriarchy, LGBTQ oppression and every other form of systemic oppression. In doing so, we lay the basis for the full liberation of women and all oppressed people.

In her piece “A Marxist Perspective on Ending Women’s Oppression,” comrade Radhika Miller wrote, “Socialism lays the basis for two necessary steps toward women’s liberation: (1) removing the inextricable motivation for women’s oppression — the need to exploit workers in order to generate profits; and (2) building a society and state committed to combating oppression, and not just recognizing but also enforcing the equality of all workers.” A better world is possible, but we must be willing to fight for it. Talk to any PSL member – members please raise your hand! – if you would like to get involved in our work locally.

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