Announcer: From WNYC and PRX in collaboration with GBH News in Boston, this is The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Earlier this month, the non-profit think tank, the Prison Policy Initiative, released a devastating new report. It details the realities of mass incarceration for women and girls in the US, and what it details is troubling. Fueled by more than five decades of a misguided and failing war on drugs, the US leads the world in the incarceration of women.
Today, more than half of American states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, but even as it might seem that the war on drugs is drawn to a close, its brutal policies continue to create havoc in the lives of American women.
Indeed, data show that our punitiveness towards women has worsened in recent decades. Compared with men, the incarceration of women has increased at twice the pace. While these statistics are distressing, perhaps the most astonishing feature of America's incarcerated women is the single most common crime these women have been convicted of committing, nothing. That's right, nothing.
According to extensive data, more than half of the 76,000 women held in local jails across the country have not yet been convicted of any crime at all. They are confined in local jails, locked away from families, children, work, home while they await trial, all because of the inability to afford bail. That's the primary cause of this prolonged pre-trial incarceration.
Now, $10,000 is a typical bail, but the Prison Policy Initiative found that the median annual income for women awaiting trial in jail was about $11,000. In short, a typical bail represents a full year of income for these women, and the intersection of gender, poverty, and incarceration is not race-neutral.
Sydney McKinney: My name is Sydney McKinney, and I am the executive director of the National Black Women's Justice Institute.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The National Black Women's Justice Institute researches, elevates, and educates the public on the over-criminalization of Black women and girls, and Sydney McKinney joined The Takeaway to talk about these troubling statistics.
Sydney McKinney: The numbers are really distressing. Black women and girls account for only approximately 13% of the general population, but Black women account for 29% of women who are incarcerated in the US. The numbers for Black girls are even more extreme, where the most recent data available show that they represent 43% of girls who are in youth detention, so Black women and girls, just like Black men and boys, are disproportionately represented in our US prisons, jails, and other places of confinement.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's interesting that you make that point almost off-handly, just like Black men and boys, because there are some similarities but then also some really critical differences. Talk to me a bit about the rates of disproportionality, especially maybe around Black girls.
Sydney McKinney: When I started out in this work, Black women and girls were always an afterthought. When people were talking about mass incarceration and its impact on Black communities, when they spoke about Black women and girls, they always talked about the collateral consequences of men's and boys' incarceration. What happened to Black women and girls was just a byproduct of what was happening to men and boys.
The reality has always been that Black women and girls have been disproportionately represented in places of confinement, and many of those factors that are associated with Black women and girls, for Black women, it's often drug-related, so the war on drugs in this country has really propelled and increased the number of Black women and girls who are incarcerated.
For Black girls, we see that a lot of it has to do with what's perceived as problematic behavior in schools, so truancy is a driver of girls in the juvenile justice system. We also see that Black girls and other girls, many of them, are impacted by the juvenile legal system because of running away from home, which is often something young people are doing to escape troubling and unsafe home environments. Those are some of the things that really, I think, differentiate for Black women and girls, their rates of incarceration.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to dig into each of those separately for just a moment. Let's stick for a moment with girls. I think we've often heard the school-to-prison pipeline, especially when talking about Black boys, and typically, that gets discussed, not exclusively, but typically, as underachievement or poverty, like leading low test scores being determinative or at least predictive of future experiences with the criminal justice system and incarceration. I know the work of so many scholars and activists over the past two decades has identified what you're beginning to hint at there with Black girls that, yes, there is what's happening in schools, but that is often about underlying questions of an abuse to prison pipeline. Can you tease that out a bit for us?
Sydney McKinney: Yes, sexual violence in the lives of system-impacted Black girls is very prevalent. As you know, there are some folks who write about the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline. There are academic scholars who have been writing about this for a very long time, talking about gendered pathways to incarceration for girls, and at the crux of that is an experience of sexual violence and trauma.
For the school-to-prison pipeline, what we see is that behaviors among Black girls are just treated differently. There is a concept called adultification, which is when adults look at children and perceive them to be more adult-like than they actually are. There's research to show that teachers are more inclined to treat Black girls as more adult-like than other young people. When they are behaving in what are considered developmentally appropriate ways for young people, when it's a Black girl who's doing it, it is perceived as not appropriate and an act of disobedience often, and they're expected to know better when other young people are treated like children.
We see a lot of school discipline that is happening disproportionately directed at Black girls. They're more likely to be suspended, more likely to be expelled, more likely to be arrested on school premises, more likely even to experience corporal punishment for their behaviors, and there's no evidence that Black girls engage in more behaviors that are perceived as problematic or unsafe, more so than any other young people. There's no difference in their behavior, it's merely a difference in treatment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, stay right there. We have more of my conversation about the incarceration of women and girls in America right after this.
I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. In 1965, Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's The Negro Family: A Case for National Action was released to the US public as a treatise on the ills affecting Black communities. Now, the report was released at a time when it was both legal and common to deny housing on the basis of race, to pay workers different wages on the basis of sex, and to deny school admission to Black students.
Despite these overwhelming barriers, Moynihan concluded the Black women were the main problem in our own communities. As America's war on drugs took hold a decade later, Moynihan's report helped to fuel a particularly punitive stance towards Black women. I'm still with Sydney McKinney, executive director of the National Black Women's Justice Institute.
Sydney McKinney: The Prison Policy Initiative recently put out a report showing that the major driver behind Black women and girls' incarceration, Black women in particular, is drug arrests. Those include mostly possession, but also sales. We also know for Black women who are incarcerated that they actually are more of them come into places of confinement with substance abuse disorders than other women, so much of what's happening, I think, among Black women is that because of the trauma that so many incarcerated women have experienced, they're turning to drugs to medicate, which is bringing them into contact with the criminal legal system. They're being arrested, and then they're also more likely to receive longer sentences than other women.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think I just keep thinking of how frequently we're reading about or even reporting on this idea of that war should be winding down, that there has been a broad recognition that it hasn't worked, that it's been expensive, and that so many states are beginning to decriminalize what would have been one of the major drivers in the war on drugs, which is marijuana arrests. How then can we be seeing an increase in the rate of incarceration for Black women?
Sydney McKinney: So much of our criminal legal data isn't disaggregated by gender and/or race, so it's really hard to know what are the specific drivers for Black women. That being said, we know that women have experienced a faster incarceration rate than men, and we also know that Black women's incarceration rate has been much faster than that of white women. When we talk about and think about what's happening, we're often recognizing the ways in which Black women's victimhood is not recognized.
If drug possession is one of the major reasons why women or Black women in particular are being incarcerated, the question for me is always, why are we incarcerating them? These are folks who need treatment, who need support, who need what we talked about at our organization as healing center justice, but instead, we're punishing them, and that, to me, just signals a general feeling in our country that Black women are inviolable, and therefore, our criminal legal system is responding in the exact same way. Rather than seeing them as victims, as survivors, as people who need support, they are seeing them as people who need to be punished and disciplined for breaking rules.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, that tracks right along with what you were saying about the adultification of Black girls, that when we see Black girls behaving in kid ways, that instead of seeing them as kids, we see them as somehow responsible for those what we would describe as bad actions when it's an adult but really are just childish actions.
Sydney McKinney: Exactly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: My understanding is what we know is that when men who have children are incarcerated, that typically, not always, but typically, their children will be in residence with the other parents often with the mother but that when women who have children are incarcerated, that it is far more likely that their children then end up system involved in the foster care system. Can you walk us through the question of motherhood and Black women caught up in this system?
Sydney McKinney: Yes. Many of the women who are incarcerated are mothers. I think the last data point I saw was about 80% of incarcerated women are mothers. That means that when women are incarcerated, especially Black women are incarcerated, it means that the primary breadwinner for that family is gone. That primary sole source of income for that family isn't there, and so it really devastates and throws families into a state of instability. Many of them are placed in foster care, which is not a system that any young person should be in. we also know that for kids who are in foster care, their risk of incarceration, later on, is actually increased.
We're really subjecting young people to greater harm. These are young people who, by all accounts, would have probably scored very high on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale, often referred to the ACES, and when their parent is taken away because of incarceration, that's another adverse childhood experience. Then, when they're in foster care, they are not able to have contact with their parents.
Many years before I came into this position, I actually worked at a foster care agency, and constantly, we were receiving reports that case planners were not making the visits to parents in foster care, which then leads to this very high risk of their parental rights being terminated and that being a young person who ages out of foster care may potentially lose contact with their family altogether. The consequences, when women are incarcerated, for their children, are devastating and have long-term impacts for their health, their wellness, their education, and their future employment opportunities that we often don't take into account or think about when we make the decision to incarcerate and place children in foster care.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've done a lot here to identify the problems. In the work that you all are doing and that you're partnering with others to do, what are some of the alternatives and solutions to the deep problems that are raised by this over-incarceration and over-punishment of Black women and girls?
Sydney McKinney: We think a lot about healing-centered justice. We think that real justice is actually supporting the healing of people. The work that we are doing is to help organizations that are working with directly impacted Black women and girls as well as the institutions that they come into contact with, help them implement policies and practices that are healing-centered and will not harm Black women and girls further.
In addition, we really are trying to push folks to invest in diversion. As I mentioned, Black women and girls who are directly impacted by the criminal and juvenile legal system, these are folks who are survivors. They are survivors of gender-based violence. They are survivors of generational trauma, and so punishing folks doesn't make sense, it's not the answer. The answer is supporting people in their healing and investing in their well-being. We need to be investing more in supporting people in the community so that they're not coming into contact with police, so that they're not coming into contact with foster care. That's where we need to be investing our time and money.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sydney McKinney is executive director of the National Black Women's Justice Institute. Sydney, thank you so much for joining us today.
Sydney McKinney: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
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