After years of working for social justice causes in the U.S., from the communities in South Los Angeles to the housing projects of Harlem, I was left with a major takeaway: mass incarceration is having a devastating impact on women, and not in the way you would expect.
After I finished law school, I moved to Harlem where I represented women who were being evicted due to criminal matters. Women like Susan, a single mother whose teenage son had been sent to prison for fighting.
His imprisonment affected everything: her other children’s grades in school, her own performance at work, and her bills. It was impossible for Susan to keep up with the costs of prison visits, phone calls, and commissary expenses. And after her landlord learned of her son’s incarceration, he sought to evict her. Susan was on the verge of becoming homeless.
What struck me while I was working with Susan, and other women in similar circumstances, was not only the financial, but the psychological impact that the incarceration of a loved one had on women’s lives.
Women felt ashamed, embarrassed, and isolated. Though perhaps unfair, women more than men are expected to be moral standard bearers, the natural caretakers, the stewards of family health and emotional well-being.
This resulted in women suffering profound isolation and depression following the incarceration of a loved one. Women were not only suffering from the grief accompanying the removal of a loved one, they were suffering because they felt that they had failed as mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters, girlfriends, and wives.
Holding it all together
Women like Susan should not be made to feel they have failed. On the contrary. Amidst an aggressive War on Drugs, draconian sentencing policies, and mass incarceration, women are the ones holding everything together.
Women are the leaseholders of apartments and primary caretakers of children. Women are doing the hard reentry work when a loved one comes home from jail or prison, often sacrificing their own resources because they lack support.
Women are often entirely responsible for the household income, many times foregoing higher education, and taking on second jobs to stay afloat.
With 2 million people behind bars in the United States and 90% of the imprisoned population comprised of men, women are left behind with immense responsibilities.
A New pilot program
What would happen if we built support for these women and connected women to one another? How might equipping women like Susan with financial literacy tools reduce recidivism and poverty? How might training women for advocacy influence criminal justice policy?
As a Soros Justice Fellow at The Women’s Foundation of California, I am working in partnership with the Foundation to answer these questions. I will be launching a pilot program for women with incarcerated loved ones this year that will deliver trauma healing, financial literacy, and advocacy training directly to women like Susan.
We hope and believe that strengthening, training, and uniting women will not only transform the lives of women and families, it will transform social attitudes and policies.