Ending the Silence: How Mass Incarceration Affects Women

Ending the Silence: How Mass Incarceration Affects Women

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In the era of mass incarceration, what happens to the women who are left behind?

Anita Wills of Essie Justice Group, whose son has been incarcerated since 2001, leaving her to raise her grandson alone.
Anita Wills of Essie Justice Group, whose son has been incarcerated since 2001, leaving her to raise her grandson alone. Photo: Dijon Bowden

Mass incarceration is beginning to gain recognition as the serious problem that it is.

Although the United States has only five percent of the world’s overall population, it holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population, making it home to the world’s highest incarceration rate. A disproportionately high number of America’s prisoners are Black and Latino men imprisoned for petty drug crimes, systematically disadvantaging communities of color.

In her groundbreaking book on the prison-industrial complex titled The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.”

However, although the issue of mass incarceration is gaining much-needed attention throughout the nation, we are continuing to leave out of the conversation one important group of people: women. On May 20, 2015, the Du Bois Review published a report about the effects of mass incarceration on the families of incarcerated people. The results were staggering: roughly one out of every 2.5 black women in the United States has at least one family member who is currently in prison.

What impact does this have on the women? Gina Clayton, founder and executive director of the Essie Justice Group, spells it out in clear terms: “Financial ruin. Being trapped in poverty. Trauma. One woman I talked to said that the experience of having her son incarcerated is like losing a child to death. The difference is that when someone in your family passes, there’s a societal understanding that this person is going through something, that we need to envelop them with love and support. For women who are experiencing the very similar pain and hurt of having an incarcerated loved one, they get the opposite of that. They get isolation, marginalization, stigma and judgment.”

The culture of shame surrounding incarceration often leaves women without a much needed support system during a difficult and traumatic time in their lives.

Essie Justice Group, which is housed by the Women’s Foundation of California, is committed to developing a powerful and loving network of women who have incarcerated family members. “We have a curriculum that focuses on three things: trauma healing, managing money through times of crisis and advocacy,” Gina explains. “Using this network, we are building something like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but for mass incarceration.”

When so many women are affected by this important issue, why has it taken so long to draw attention to their struggle? For Gina, this was expected: “To me, it’s not a big surprise that the first conversation we had around mass incarceration was about race. As a child, I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. but I didn’t learn about Ella Baker. I learned about racism, but not feminism. Now, we’re ready to talk about what mass incarceration is doing to people of color as well as to us as women.” Along with countless other women of color activists, Gina is working to spread awareness of mass incarceration as a women’s issue as well as a race issue.

Now that the effects of mass incarceration on women are finally on our radar, what can we do to support this issue? One important step we must take is to fight the stigma surrounding incarceration, starting with our own biases. “It isn’t true that you don’t know a woman with an incarcerated loved one,” says Gina. “You do. She just hasn’t told you. Make the world a safe place for women to come out and talk about these things to you.”

Another measure that we can take is to join the many organizing efforts around mass incarceration: “Get involved. There are awesome groups in every state of this country that are doing amazing, on-the-ground work to fight mass incarceration in your community. You should get involved because this isn’t a problem that rests solely in the hands and laps of communities of color and of women. It belongs to all of us, and we are all needed to get to a solution.”

Together, we can help build a safe and loving community where families are no longer torn apart by the prison-industrial complex.

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