Some years ago, I briefly worked as a social worker. Occasionally I would visit clients in jail to determine their eligibility for continued benefits. They were all men — with one exception. She was a young Black woman serving time for theft, and she had two small children.
She entered the visiting room handcuffed to another woman and dressed in drab prison garb. We talked through a reinforced glass window. The guards stared hard and barked out gruff commands to the women.
The idea of a woman in prison then was a novelty. It isn't anymore. According to a recent Justice Department report on America's jail population, women make up about 10 percent of America's inmates. There are now more women than ever serving time, and Black women make up a disproportionate number of those women. They are twice more likely than Hispanic, and over three times more likely than White women, to be jailed.
In fact, Black women have almost single-handedly expanded the women's prison industrial complex.
Women's prisons are understaffed, overcrowded, lack recreation facilities, serve poor-quality food, suffer chronic shortages of family planning counselors and services, gynecological specialists, drug treatment and child care facilities, as well as transportation funds for family visits.
Female prisoners face the added peril of rape and insensitive treatment during pregnancy. A United Nations report in 1997 found that more than two dozen states permitted pregnant women to be shackled while being transported to hospitals for treatment. A report by the National Corrections Information Center revealed that the United States is one of only a handful of countries that allow men to guard women — often unsupervised. Unfortunately, the tepid public debate over the consequences of locking up so many women is riddled with misconceptions. One is that women commit violent crimes for the same reasons that men do. They don't.
Women are less likely than men to assault or murder strangers while committing crimes. Two-thirds of the women jailed assaulted or killed relatives or intimates. Their victims were often spouses, lovers or boyfriends. In many cases they committed violence defending themselves against sexual or physical abuse.
Enlightened governors have recognized that women who kill abusive husbands or lovers have acted out of fear and have loosened parole standards. The governors have granted some women early release from their sentences.
More women, and especially Black women, are behind bars as much because of hard punishment than their actual crimes. One out of three crimes committed by women are drug related. Many state and federal sentencing laws mandate minimum sentences for all drug offenders. This virtually eliminates the option of referring non-violent, first-time offenders to increasingly scarce, financially strapped drug treatment, counseling and education programs.
The quantum leap in Black women behind bars has had devastating impact on families and the quality of life in many poor Black communities. The children are frequently denied visits because the mothers are deemed unfit.
There is little sign that this will change. The public and policy makers are deeply rapped in the damaging cycle of myths, misconceptions and crime-fear hysteria about crime and women.
BlackNews.com columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator