- Introduction: Queer, Trans, and Feminist Responses to the Prison Nation
The United States has the largest prison population and the highest incarceration rate in the world. Mainstream discussions of mass incarceration often focus on the “disproportionate” number of black men behind bars, as if the challenge were merely to achieve a proportionate level of incarceration for communities of color.1 Federal programs like My Brother’s Keeper have initiated a long-overdue conversation about the school-to-prison pipeline and other sites of systemic exclusion; but, as black feminist critics such as Brittney Cooper and Dani McClain have pointed out, the initiative conflates “Opportunity for all” with “Opportunity For Boys and Young Men of Color,” failing to acknowledge the challenges faced by girls and young women of color, or to invest equally in their education and support (The White House 2015; see also Cooper 2014 and McClean 2014).2 Meanwhile, black girls are expelled from school at six times the rate of white girls, and they are 20 percent more likely to be incarcerated (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 2014, Sherman and Balck 2015). Girls in youth detention report high rates of sexual violence and/or domestic abuse prior to arrest—as high as 80 to 90 percent in some states—and the trauma of this violence is only compounded by punishment, confinement, and sometimes further sexual abuse in youth detention centers (Saar, Epstein, and Vafa 2015). LGBTQ and gender non-conforming [End Page 1] youth are more likely than their straight-presenting and gender-normative peers to experience both the institutional violence of school expulsion and youth detention, and also the interpersonal violence of harassment and abuse at home, in school, and on the streets (Burdge, Licona, and Hyemingway 2014, Banner 2015).
The school-to-prison pipeline—or the sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline, as Rights4Girls has called it—is just one of many dangerous intersections where socially vulnerable groups are exposed to multiple forms of violence along axes of gender, sexuality, race, class, and ability. In the United States, black women are more than three and a half times more likely to be incarcerated than white women, and they represent the fastest rising prison population in the U.S. (Public Safety Performance Project, 2008). Between 1980 and 2010, the number of women behind bars increased 646 percent—that’s one and a half times greater than the rate of increase for men in the same time period (Sentencing Project, n.d.). In Canada, indigenous women are the most hyper-incarcerated group in the country, representing 4 percent of the population and 34 percent of the federal inmate population; these numbers have increased by 86.5 percent in the past ten years (Tefft 2013). Queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people are routinely targeted for police surveillance and arrest, and they are subject to multiple forms of violence within jails, prisons, and detention centers based on patriarchal norms and binary models of sex and gender (Defending Justice 2005).
Some feminists have endorsed carceral responses to gender and sexual violence, calling for expanded criminal penalties for offenders and more comprehensive enforcement of current laws.3 Others have criticized such responses, arguing that the prison industrial complex not only fails to protect socially vulnerable groups from interpersonal violence, but also compounds the harm of interpersonal violence and the structural violence of racism, poverty, sexism, and heterosexism with the institutional violence of forced detention.4 In Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation, Beth E. Richie argues that feminist anti-violence work “won the mainstream but lost the movement” by centering the interests of white, middle-class, straight women and relying on the criminal-legal system to shape the meaning of safety and accountability. This strategy not only fails to protect marginalized women from interpersonal violence, but it also exposes them to higher rates of arrest and incarceration, even in situations where they have experienced harm from others (Richie 2012). For example, the policy of requiring mandatory arrests in situations of domestic violence, endorsed by many feminists, has resulted in the arrest of poor women, women of...