It’s no surprise more women are being imprisoned as less men are. We need abolition, not reforms.
This issue is structural, and the problems will continue taking new form as long as prisons exists.
By Stanley Fritz
Last year during Mother’s day weekend, the National Bail out Collective, a coalition of black organizers working, including participants from The Movement for Black Lives and multiple affiliated groups joined forces on an initiative whose main goal was to liberate hundreds of mothers and caregivers who had fallen victim to the criminal justice system. Through a campaign titled, “Mama’s Bail Out Day,” these activist were able to raise a half a million dollars to help Black women sitting in jail because they couldn’t afford bail.
The efforts from the organizers gave these women a much needed respite from a crushing system. This year, activists from Vocal New York joined the coalition for the second annual “Mama’s Bail Out Day” for Mother’s Day 2018, and by some accounts it was even more successful than the original.
But these efforts also illuminated something that many people know, but few are willing to address. As the prison population for men continues to decrease, women are taking their place—and at a troublingly high rate.
In the last 30 years or so, the United States has become the top incarcerator for women in the world. These women often enter the system because of drug abuse, mental health issues, and domestic violence. Most of these women are mothers, caretakers, and the breadwinners of their families.
Like the current demographic of men in our prison system, a disproportionate number of these women are Black and Latinx. They are being punished by a system that hates them because of their skin color, and has no interest in their needs because they are women. This issue is structural, and the problems will continue taking new form as long as prisons exists.
The structural issues of America’s Criminal Justice system impacts real people like Natalie Pollard. During the summer of 2014, with the Fourth of July right around the corner, Pollard was excited to pick up some fireworks from Sam’s Club and celebrate the holiday with her kids. It would be her last day as a free woman for a long time to come.
Later that evening, Natalie would literally be in a fight for her life against Obinna Nwankpa, an abusive boyfriend who had broken into her house after being kicked out for being loud and drunk. Their relationship had already been on the rocks. Obinna was constantly drinking, would show up to her house unannounced, and had previously attacked her.
In fear of losing her housing, Natalie never submitted an official complaint, like many women who are pressured to suffer with their abusers in silence. With no other support system, she was forced to deal with him with violence.
The system doesn’t have a plan for women who literally have to fight for their lives, so instead of providing support, authorities threw Natalie in a jail. Just like when Marissa Alexander shot her legally owned gun into the air as a warning to her abusive husband and the state of Florida sentenced her to 20 years in jail, the state doesn’t ask these women how things got to this point, or even if they’re OK. It just throws them into prisons.
After years of “Tough on Crime” talking points, it’s interesting that “Criminal Justice Reform” has now become a politically advantageous buzzword. Elected officials with White House aspirations like New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo have suddenly found a desire to engage in “reforming” the broken justice system. Using the tragic story of Kalief Browder, the governor proposed a criminal justice packet that would “ensure equal access to justice for all accused, overhaul antiquated laws to ensure fairness in New York’s criminal justice system.” While this proposal excites the New York political establishment, many activist know these are just bandaids for problems they refuse to actually address.
According to the Criminal Justice Group, JustleadershipUsa, Cuomo’s “progressive bill” would allow for companies to enter the bail system by requiring accused people to purchase ankle bracelets as part of the terms of their release, using GPS to track people, and using pre-trial probation.
Half baked “reform” bills like this are happening all across the country, and this isn’t an accident. Our prisons expanded dramatically because of a concerted effort to incarcerate Black and brown people. Whether it was the Black Codes after the Civil War, or Nixon/Reagan’s “war on drugs” the mission has always been to incarcerate as many Black people as possible. That mission has turned into a profitable business, with the prison economy bringing in billions of dollars a year. There is no way they let that go without a fight.
If we’re going to make sure what happened to Natalie Pollard and Marissa Alexander doesn’t happen to other women, we have to be honest about what we’re facing; an inherently racist institution with the goal of crushing Black people and making a profit. If a house is burning down, putting up new wallpaper won’t solve the problem. You need to take drastic measures.
We can start that process by closing the concrete caskets known as jails and prisons, and use that money to invest into mental health treatment for people who need it, especially survivors of domestic violence, as well as the potential and active perpetrators.
We are living in a country with a faux justice system. It was not made to reform troubled people or even provide punishment for those who have done wrong. The only goal has been to imprison Black people. For years it excelled at capturing Black men, and holding them prisoner, it has naturally adjusted to our weak responses to that by shifting to Black women. Who in this world will stand up for and defend these Black women and girls? They bet on no one, let’s prove them wrong.
Stanley is a political writer, organizer, and a man on a mission to fight patriarchy and sexism by being less trash. So far it’s a work in progress.