We’re looking for a voice, because this place reminds us that we are to be quiet and compliant. [The staff] treat us like animals, between the constant sexual abuse and verbal harassment to the difficulty getting any type of medical care whatsoever, even an aspirin. There’s no rehabilitation, just punishment. We’re seen as numbers, and we want people on the outside to know we are human beings, and we want them to know what is happening to us.—Jan, a woman incarcerated in the California prison system1
In recent years, scholars and activists alike have turned their attention and energy to analyzing and raising awareness about women’s experiences with the criminal justice system, both in the United States and globally. Women, particularly those who are of color and poor, have always been affected by criminal justice processing and policy. However, the staggering number of women of color and poor women who are torn away from their communities and families, to be confined in patriarchal institutions whose primary purpose (as Jan notes above) is to silence and oppress rather than rehabilitate, has rightfully alarmed both scholars and activists.
This special cluster issue of the NWSA Journal, titled “Women and Criminal Justice: Policing, Prosecution, and Incarceration,” explores the myriad ways that women experience the criminal justice system, both nationally and globally, with a specific emphasis on the insidious phenomenon of incarceration. The scholarly and creative work showcased in this volume includes contributions from academics, activists, family members of prisoners, and women prisoners themselves. This work not only contributes to a growing body of cross-disciplinary research on this topic, but serves as a means to challenge and resist the silencing intent of the criminal (in)justice system.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. A report released in February 2008 by the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project reports that 1 in every 99.1 men and women (or 2,319,258 adults) are currently incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails (Pew Center on the States 2008). While men are still more likely than women to experience incarceration, the female prison population has increased at a faster pace than that of men. In fact, since the early 1980s, the numbers [End Page 1] of women who have been subjected to the criminal justice system, and subsequently imprisoned, have increased exponentially. Although women only constitute about seven percent of the prison population, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the rate of women entering prisons has grown faster than that of men every year since 1981. For example, in a report for the Sentencing Project, Mauer, Potler and Wolf (1999) show that between 1980 and 1997, the women’s prison population increased by 573 percent, from 12,300 to 82,800 women incarcerated in state and federal prisons nationwide. This contrasts with a 294 percent increase in rates of incarceration for men (Mauer, Potler and Wolf 1999). More than 200,000 women are now confined in the nation’s prisons and jails, in addition to 94,000 women on parole and 958,000 women on probation (Talvi 2007, xv).2
Like the trends we see in men’s incarceration, the surge in the imprisonment of women has disproportionately affected poor women of color. Close to seventy percent of women confined in local, state, and federal institutions are black, Latina, Native American, or Asian (Diaz-Cotto 2006; James 2005; Johnson 2003; Davis 2003); most are also poor or working class. Black women are four times as likely to be incarcerated as white women, and more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as Latinas (Talvi 2007, 7). According to the Pew study, one in one hundred black women in their mid to late thirties are incarcerated (Pew Center on the States 2008). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, thirty-seven percent of female prisoners, compared to twenty-eight percent of male prisoners, had incomes of less than six hundred dollars per month prior to arrest; approximately thirty percent of female prisoners, in comparison to only eight percent of male prisoners, reported receiving some form...