Women Behind Bars
“Women in prison are among the most wronged victims of the so-called war on drugs …”, says former Black Panther turned political activist Angela Davis. This paper will present her viewpoint as well as others as it addresses the complexities that surround incarcerated women. I will examine the racial aspects of women sentenced to prison as a result of the war on drugs, the impact of female incarceration on society a9nd finally, some possible solutions.
If one visited a large women’s prison, it would be apparent that women of color are in the majority. In their book Crime, Justice and Society, Larson and Garrett give the following statistics: Six of every ten prisoners are African-American or Hispanic. 44 percent of the prison population is black. 15 percent of the prison population is Hispanic.
Although much has been made regarding the huge numbers of black men behind bars, black women may truly be the forgotten victims of America’s war on drugs. As a result of this campaign to eradicate drugs in the American culture, mandatory sentencing comes down heavily on purveyors of crack cocaine, a drug favored by many in the black community. These mandatory minimums require a five-year sentence with no possibility of parole for possessing five grams of crack cocaine. Although the same sentence is required for possession of powder cocaine, the amount necessary for the five-year prison term is a whopping 500 grams. Powder cocaine is almost exclusively in the province of white users . Why are so many black women, two-thirds of whom have children under the age of 18, behind bars? Many of them, some unwittingly and some not, have made poor choices in forming intimate relationships with drug traffickers. These women often have children within this relationship. Poorly educated and unable to support themselves and their children, they become dependent. When her man is arrested for dealing in crack cocaine, the woman will often be charged when drugs are found at the residence or if the prosecutor believes she has knowledge of drug trafficking. Involved or not, most of the women who are arrested have very little knowledge of the drug operation and therefore, have no bargaining chips to use in exchange for a lighter sentence.
I would like to briefly introduce another point of view. In his book, The Myth of a Racist Criminal Justice System, William Wilbanks makes the following statement regarding the validity of the discrimination theory: “If the DT (discrimination theory) is valid, why do not disparate outcomes by sex, which are greater than those for race, prove that sexism is more pervasive than racism”. He argues that racial gaps are less than gender gaps at individual decision points in the justice system, a fact that seems to suggest that sexism is a greater problem than racism .