Punishing Women

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, Beavercreek, Ohio, and Columbia, South Carolina highlight the dangers of our current war on drugs and crime for young black men. Despite ample video evidence to the contrary, public and civic discourse still frequently turns to problematic discussions of the young black male. In teaching a course on the Crack Era as well as past courses on Mass Incarceration, I am struck by the consistent, seemingly invisible violence met upon women. Both physical and structural violence are disproportionately met upon poor nonwhite women. In both macro and micro moral panics surrounding drug abuse, civic disorder and crime, discussions typically circle the same terrain. What of the young black male? Somebody save the children! Absent in popular and policy discussions is substantive conversation regarding the plight of poor nonwhite women.

women in prisonWomen are the fastest growing prison population in the United States. As of 2010, more than 1 million women were under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Black women were incarcerated at nearly 3 times the rate of white women while Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.6 times the rate of white women. Perhaps most damning—trauma, sexual violence, drug dependence and poverty are all strongly correlated with women’s incarceration. Despite more than 40 years of failed policy our nation elects to punish rather than heal. We lock women up instead of providing social services to help them cope with trauma, violence, addiction and poverty.

The preponderance of women in prison—roughly 85 to 90 percent—have a history of victimization prior to their incarceration. This often includes domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, and child abuse. As always color proves central to understanding our wars on drugs and crime: nonwhite women who are victims of abuse are more likely to be processed by the criminal justice system and labeled as offenders. Women of means are more likely to be treated as victims, often referred to child welfare and mental health systems.

When we do talk about poor nonwhite women, we demonize them. In the burgeoning years of the law and order movement Negor Family. Moynihan ReportPatrick Moynihan sloppily applied sociological theory to label the black family—particularly black women heading single-parent households—a “tangle of pathology.” Black women were not headstrong, independent, and self-reliant because they had to be. This was simply a character flaw, one responsible for driving away potential suitors and fathers. Realities of poverty, previous childhood and ongoing trauma, as well as the daily specter of violence and coercion were not explanatory tools in this case.

Throughout the Crack Era, the Moynihan Report and its requisite culture of poverty thesis found affirmations in nightly coverage of crack babies and their publically shamed mothers. Scholar Nancy Campbell has written insightfully on the spectacle of congressional hearings in 1989 and 1990 scapegoating drug-using women for a host of larger social and economic failings. Claiming that crack undercut the “maternal instinct” in drug-using mothers, apoplectic Congressmen like Joe Biden decried, “housing projects where more parents tonight will be cooking cocaine than will be cooking dinner for their children.”

Rather than acknowledge broader issues of deindustrialization, urban disinvestment and spatial mismatch Congress blamed Biden picwomen on crack. Rather than treat society’s victims through a public health approach, Congress sought to punish. In a veritable prosecutorial orgy, District Attorney’s began creating new crimes. Suddenly pregnant women found new and unprecedented charges leveled against them: assault with a deadly weapon (crack cocaine) with intent to kill the fetus, endangering the welfare of an unborn child, felony child neglect, and yes, drug trafficking through the umbilical cord.

In 1989, Jennifer Johnson of Altamonte Springs, Florida became the first woman to be convicted under a drug trafficking statute for delivering drugs to her infant through the umbilical cord just moments before birth. Johnson had been addicted to cocaine for over three years. She had sought treatment for her addiction during her pregnancy but no program would accept her—a relatively universal practice for public facilities throughout the Crack Era. Despite this reality Johnson gave birth to a baby that “looked and acted as we would expect a baby to look and act,” according to the attending obstetrician. Johnson nonetheless remained worried. Congress and TV news had been highlighting the “natural disaster” of crack babies for quite some time. Johnson came clean with her obstetrician and the county sheriff launched his case.

After being admonished by the judge for her poor choice to use drugs and reminded of her responsibility to seek treatment (she did), Johnson was sentenced to one year of house arrest and fourteen years of closely supervised probation. Jennifer Johnson had no prior criminal convictions. In the rush to punishment several states enacted laws to redefine “neglect” to include prenatal exposure to controlled substances. Although illicit drug use knows no boundaries of race and class, poor nonwhite women have been disproportionately targeted for prosecution. Black women were nearly ten times more likely to be reported for substance abuse than their white counterparts.

Losing IsaiahThroughout the Crack Era, songs like “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and movies like “Losing Isaiah” chronicle young women delivering babies without the help of public health officials. This practice, in part, is a response to punitive measures leveled against poor nonwhite women. Punishment assured that women would be less likely to seek prenatal care, and in some cases, help with delivery. Rather than help the unborn, moral panic surrounding “crack babies” only made the lives of the unborn more tenuous.

Ernest Drucker has warned of the “long tail of mass incarceration,” undermining the lives of the incarcerated and their extended family networks. Todd Clear has argued that mass incarceration seriously disadvantages whole neighborhoods. Indeed, incarceration rates for women speak to both arguments. 65 percent of incarcerated women report having minor children at home. 77 percent of incarcerated mothers report providing most of their child’s daily care before their incarceration. Half of all women in prison are incarcerated more than 100 miles from their families. Of the mothers who are imprisoned this far from home, 38 percent will not see their children at all during their incarceration. This, to be clear, is not by choice.

Poor nonwhite women are marginalized via their poverty, gender, and race. Those that use drugs are still further marginalized and scapegoated. Despite progress in terms of race and gender, significant questions in terms of equity remain. Surely pregnant women were abused in 1989 and 1990. Why were no new laws enacted to punish the male abusers of the unborn? Why no cases against drug using men for trafficking drugs through their semen? No murder charges for abuse ending in miscarriage? Perhaps because Congress and prosecutors were less interested in protecting the rights of the unborn than they were in the political utility of punishing drug-using women.

Demonstrations of paramilitary force in Ferguson have prompted discussions over what surplus military equipment small units may need—or more accurately—not need. The fine display of marksmanship offered by State Trooper Sean Groubert’s dashcam has rightfully prompted discussions over police training. Outrage over Ray Rice has prompted the NFL to hire a few more women because, after all, domestic abuse and parenting are the exclusive responsibility of women. Men are not concerned about such issues, nor should they be. (No, that was not a quote from Congress in 1989. It was sarcasm.)

In the future, women and the communities they live(d) in would be better served if policymakers discussed how to help women. Indeed, blame and punishment yield diminishing returns.

4 thoughts on “Punishing Women

  1. Thanks you for this succinct overview. My early career (1993-2000) was on the front lines of these issues and in the mid-90s my MA thesis was a case study of a “Community Prisoner Mother Program” I directed in Salinas, CA. The program was provided by a nonprofit (Friends Outside), contracted with CDC (no “R” at the time) sited in a community-based setting staffed by counselors. No bars, no correctional officers on site. The stated purpose of the program, one of nine in the state, was to allow women prisoners to live with and raise her child under five, learn parenting skills and deal with substance use disorder. Trauma was not even on the table. Carceratory trauma? Didn’t exist.

    When I was hired to direct the program I had no formal education in “criminal justice,” I was a certified addiction specialist and was working on a MA in Women’s Studies. As a feminist in recovery from trauma and addiction myself, I had educated myself via the few pioneering researchers, clinicians and scholars who focused on women, trauma, addiction, pregnancy and imprisoment, many of whom were working in CA, (Marty Jessup, Stephanie Covington, Barbara Bloom among others) fertile ground in the 80s – 90s as the exponential increases of imprisoned women offered no dearth of potential subjects and data. So I realized early on that trauma was at the root of these issues and began to create a feminist-informed model that incorporated trauma and addiction recovery where before there was nothing.

    During my six years running this program I saw just about everything of which you write. In CA several women busted on drug charges were imprisoned for the duration of their pregnancies “to protect the fetus,.” which after birth was immediately removed into foster care while the court decided if the mother could be reunited, Women came into our program having been sexually assaulted by the gynecologist at Valley State Prision for women, Dr. Anthony DiDomenico. (The idiot actually admitted this to Ted Koppel during a “Nighttline” segment filmed at the prison). Women with chronic illnesses like diabetes or cancer survivors were “rolled up” out of our program for “overusing the contracted medical resources. The last straw for me was when Dr. Anthony DiDomenico decided to make a site visit to discuss a women who was diabetic and asthmatic, whose 18 month old baby had been “failure to thrive” before he joined his mother in our program and was now thriving and testing normal on every measure, Through gritted teeth I and the agency’s executive director managed to convince him to leave the women in our care. We had, in fact decided to file for an injunction if the decision had been otherwise, a risky act for a program with a sole-source contract with CDC.

    More recently in 2014 another gynecologist at VSPW, Dr. James Heinrich, was fired for sterilizing multiple prisoners without consent http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2014/feb/13/prison-doctor-sterilization-controversy-cir/ . CA prisons are to women as Katrina was to NOLA.

  2. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Typically discussions about mass incarceration have focused on young black men and this focus is justified. It does not tell the full story. Michael Durfee at the Points blog has article shifts that focus to a discussion about the impact of mass incarceration of non-white women. Durfee points out that “roughly 85-90 percent” of women who are in prison have “a history of victimization prior to their incarceration.” While “women of means” are often “treated as victims” in these situations, non-white are much more likely to get entangled in the criminal justice system. Durfee’s post does an excellent job explaining why non-white women should be helped, instead of punished.

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