In September of 2015, Viola Davis broke color barriers when she became the first Black woman to be awarded an Emmy award for best actress in drama television series, How to Get Away With Murder. In what quickly became a power anthem for redefining beauty, talent, and ability, Davis quoted American slave abolitionist Harriet Tubman in her acceptance speech:
In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’ That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of Color from anyone else is opportunity.
There is a grim and yet redemptive truth in Viola’s words, and yet women of Color continue to be held back by a more pervasive line obscured from the national vision. While it has been well documented that the overwhelming majority of the approximately 13 million people filtered annually through the United States criminal justice system and detention centers are male, disproportionately Black and Brown men, it is the stories and circumstances of women incarcerated within the system that are far too often ignored, erased, and unheard. This essay will explore the counter-narratives of women incarcerated in the the U.S. Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) from an intersectional feminist lens, recording the testimonios of women of Color while celebrating the activist work that is working to document and dismantle structures of oppressive state violence.
The women locked up in America’s prisons do not have the political platform, financial resources, or network visibility to give their lives, stories, and truth a voice in the national dialogue. Indeed, they are altogether cut off from outside society through the barbed wire fences, iron bars of a cell, and the isolation of solitary confinement. Women now constitute what political activist and advocate of the prison abolition movement Angela Davis categorizes as “the fastest-growing sector of the imprisoned population”, adding that “women of color… constitute the largest group of women, therefore the fastest-growing population within the entire imprisoned population”(144). Indeed, research collected by the Sentencing Project reflect Davis’s observation “the number of women in prison increased by 646% between 1980 and 2010, rising from 15,118 to 112,797.” The statistics reveal that more than 205,000 women are now incarcerated within the United States, including locals jails.
Race and ethnicity are significant determinants in predicting whether or not women will serve time in prison in their lifetime. As of 2013, the United States warehoused 1,574,700 human beings within its state and federal carceral facilities on any given day, an increase of 500% over the past 30 years. Statistics reveal that as of 2001, 1 in 19 Black women will see the inside of prison walls, 1 in 45 for Hispanic women, and 1 in 118 for White women, with the overall rate of 1 in 56 for all women. The Sentencing Project cites that “in 2010, black women were incarcerated at nearly 3 times the rate of white women.” In California alone 6,098 women were incarcerated with the state’s carceral system as of 2012, a decline in population from the previous year’s 8,187.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) collective prison population was calculated at 134,534 human lives displaced throughout the golden state. California houses the greatest number of incarcerated women within its prison walls, more than any other U.S. state. In fact, Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) in Chowchilla are the two largest prisons for women in the world. The stories from women within the caged walls of the state’s carceral institutions are many, unique in their own personal narratives, but revealing a unilateral collective experience. According to California Prison Focus, “57% of women in State prison report that they were physically or sexually abused prior to incarceration.” Other statistics have reported an even higher precedent of abuse at 84%.
In a revelatory pamphlet published in The Black Scholar journal, “Women in Prison: How We Are”, political dissident and Black Panther radical feminist Assata Shakur documented the lives and stories of the women she met while incarcerated at Riker’s Island Correctional Institution for Women in New York in the late 1970s. In a startling disclosure, she observed that many women “were abused children. Most have been abused by men and all have been abused by “the system.”… Most of the women have drug related cases. Many are charged as accessories to crimes committed by men. The major crimes that women here are charged with are prostitution, pickpocketing, shop lifting, robbery and drugs”. The women housed within prison walls have been made victim to both the social environments in which they find themselves and by the economic system of capitalism that forces them to bargain with their sexualized bodies, numb themselves with illegal narcotics, and to commit petty crimes to support their families and survive.
Anti-drug legislation passed in 1986 requiring mandatory minimum sentences for simple drug possession has worked to criminalize people of color living in poverty. For women the repercussions have been disastrous as their population numbers have skyrocketed, their families destroyed and torn apart under the legislation. In her definitive work Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, Andrea Smith examines the colonization of Native lands through use of rape as a weapon of war, dominance, and control:
The overall impact of mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence have lead to decreases in the number of battered women who kill their partners in self-defense, but they have not led to a decrease in the number of batterers who kill their partners. Thus, the law protects batterers more than it protects survivors… there have been numerous incidents where police officers called to domestic incidents have arrested the woman who is being battered. Many undocumented women have reported cases of sexual and domestic violence, only to find themselves deported. A tough law and order agenda also leads to long punitive sentences for women convicted of killing their batterers. (170)
When women have exhausted all possible channels for recourse to escape abuse violent domestic situations, they are still at risk for even further abuse, and are targeted by state and federal institutions. Smith’s indictment of the criminal justice system in sustaining and enacting violence against women is reflected in Shakur’s testimony where she documented the physical abuse her fellow inmate endured:
Medical records… prove[d] that she had suffered repeated physical injuries as the result of beatings by the deceased and, as a result of those beatings, on the night of her arrest her arm was mutilated… and one of her ears was partially severed in addition to other substantial injuries… Not only had she been repeatedly beaten by the deceased, but that on the night in question he told her he would kill her, viciously beat her and mauled her with a knife. But there is no self defense in the state of New York.
The discrepancy within the criminal justice system that would criminalize and incarcerate a woman defending her right to life against a man who has enacted malicious, violent force upon her body is often overlooked by the state. A woman who is conscious of her power is perceived as a threat to the authority of male hetero-patriarchy, and must therefore be neutralized, controlled, and silenced to maintain the dominance of institutionalized white supremacy.
The long term effects of continuous and sustained abuse upon the collective bodies of women within private domestic spheres manifests psychologically, affecting their mental health and wellness, and by extension their children. Many women incarcerated within the U.S. Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) system are suffering from Battered Woman Syndrome, a post-traumatic stress disorder from a history of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Peace Over Violence reports that “more than 50% of women in the United States have been battered at some point in their lives. More than one-third are battered repeatedly every year.” In the documentary Crime After Crime exploring the life and wrongful imprisonment of Deborah Peagler. Peagler was a victim of physical abuse, mental assault, and forced prostitution by her boyfriend Oliver Wilson. When she attempted to involve the police to keep him away from her family and two daughters, Wilson was released and continued to torment Deborah. As Davis notes in The Meaning of Freedom, “Many women who are in prison for committing violence acts have killed in desperation in order to extricate themselves from a violence intimate relationship.” (148) In what may be defined as an act of desperation, Peagler was forced to turn to street or “ghetto” law for protection because the justice system had failed to protect her and her children. Wilson was murdered by two gang members, and in 1983 Peagler was sentenced to 25 years to life for her involvement in the death of the man that beat her mercilessly and sexually abused her daughters. After serving 26 years in both California’s Institute for Women and CCWF, Peagler was the 24th woman to be released through a California’s new state law for incarcerated survivors of abuse, the only law of its kind. Less than a year after she was released, Deborah passed away from terminal lung cancer after having experienced a short lived, but long earned, freedom.
While there are many women who have survived the exploitative U.S. carceral system, we are now witness to an increase of media-reported cases of women dying in police custody. The death of 28-year old Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas, sparked a national outpouring of debate, conversation, and protest surrounding systemic police abuse and discrimination of Black people in the United States. Bland was stopped and detained for a minor traffic violation on July 10, 2015, and as a video that quickly went viral after her death shows, Texas Highway Patrol Officer Brian Encinia escalated the situation that led to Bland’s unlawful arrest, failing to read Bland her Citizen’s rights, and physically assaulting her personhood. Sandy, a Chicago based child advocate and vocal critic of police brutality with her YouTube channel, Sandy Speaks, was found dead of an apparent suicide by hanging in a Waller County jail cell on July 13, 2015. However, Sandy’s video testimonios evidence a clear-minded, coherent, and empowered woman with a vision for the future.
Remarkably, Bland’s story is not an isolated incident. 18-year old Kindra Darnell Chapman was found dead of a suicide hanging in an Alabama jail on July 14, 2015, a day after Sandy’s death. Natasha McKenna, a 37-year old woman with a medical history of mental illness and schizophrenia, was killed by Virginia police in February after being electrocuted by an officer’s Taser gun, and going into cardiac arrest. She had been restrained from free movement, handcuffed, shackled, and masked with a spit-guard, an altogether terrorizing and dehumanizing experience. McKenna’s death was subsequently categorized as a tragic accident, and no charges would be filed against the officers who had attempted to restrain and subdue her with extreme force. It is imperative to trace and document the connections between McKenna and Bland’s treatment by the police state, as video footage of Bland’s arrest hears Officer Encinia threatening to “light [her] up”. The militarized police force is essentially enacting domestic terrorism against communities of Color through use of excessive and extreme force that threatens to take their lives at any perceived threat, real of imaginary.
While the human rights violations of the PIC and police carceral state are many, testimonios of political perseverance, social justice, and abolitionist activism making their way through mass and social media have moved outside the margins to the center. Today, Marissa Alexander, a 31-year old African American woman and mother of three, is free after having served 1,030 days in prison under mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and confined to house arrest with an ankle monitor. Alexander had just given birth to a child prematurely less than two weeks before when she fired a gun at her estranged husband because he had attempted to assault her. While no one was shot or injured, the state of Florida sentenced Marissa to 20 years in prison under the mandatory minimum laws for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The cruel and unusual hypocrisy of it all is that less than three years earlier, 17-year old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed while walking home at night, and the man who took his life, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of all criminal charges under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. The irony is not lost in how the law protects the murderer of a minor, but not the rights of a woman to stand her ground, and claim ownership over her own body in her own home.
Prison abolitionist Susan Burton experienced the overcrowding and high recidivism rates of California’s state prisons for 15 years as she struggled with grief and drug addiction after the death of her son. After recovering her health through healing and rehabilitation, Burton reformed her life to serve a greater purpose in founding A New Way of Life Reentry Project, community-based reentry homes for women coming out of the prison system. Citing the nation’s dependency on the protection of police, Burton is an advocate of communities taking a more active role in creating safe neighborhoods by redirecting state and local funds, stating “We rely too much on the police for public safety; people could help out with that. If we had one percent of the LAPD budget, we could hire 200 people and give them a living wage and full benefits. We would be reaching people in an effective way other than force.” Like Harriet Tubman before her, Burton has taken up the abolitionist cause in creating safe houses for people who have been made victim to an oppressive and violent state government.
Standing at a critical crux at this moment in American #Herstory and progression, activists, artists, and advocates have taken up the cause of on social media, utilizing Twitter hashtags and Facebook feeds to connect and share stories from the front-lines of social unrest, political protest, and civil disobedience. #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName have becoming cultural and social phenomenons documenting systemic police abuse, connecting people to a modern civil rights movement calling for accountability and justice. Performance artist, actor, and singer Janelle Monáe channelled the passion of the Intersectional Feminist movement with her powerful protest anthem, Hell You Talmbout at the Women’s March in Washington D.C., January 21, 2017.
At the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement, activists Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi are organizing communities across the nation to address the state violence and structural racism that Black women, men, queer, and transgender people experience throughout the world. Garza, an Oakland based special project director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) documents the need to address the violent oppressive forces of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy:
When we say Black Lives Matter… it is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country — one half of all people in prisons or jails — is an act of state violence. It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence.
By engaging in a truth-telling narrative that seeks to raise a critical awareness surrounding the precarious nature of Black women’s lives in America, Alicia is creating a dialogue that herstorically speaks to the perpetual state violence and poverty that has succeeded in tearing Black families apart since the birth of this nation.
In closing, let us return to where we began with Harriet’s narrative. The line in which divides Black women from White women — visibility. It is hard to be conscious of a problem that is intentionally kept out of our line of vision, and we cannot know what we do not see. That is why it is imperative that we begin to engage in a shared national dialogue about how to address state violence and domestic terrorism, across racial lines. We can come to a solution only when all parties are at the table, undivided by difference, working together in the creation of a more just, equitable union that recognizes everyones personhood and right to life.