USA: the rising rates of women in prison is an epidemic

In “The System,” a brilliant short story by American writer Judy Budnitz, a small town’s economy relies entirely on its prison. Inspired by the Tom Waits song, “Way Down in the Hole,” everyone in the town either works at the prison or used to work there or lives off someone who works there.

As they execute and parole, elderly inmates die, and crime tapers off, the town has to make more excuses to lock people up. The townspeople invent crimes and take turns being inmates so that the cook can make a meal and the corrections officers can bark some orders. The prison is a sinkhole that sucks in the whole town.

It’s a laugh in the pit of your stomach, calling into question the whole notion of prison; in order to remain relevant, a prison must invent ways to consume bodies. From the 1980s to now, consume bodies it did. And it has a special appetite for mothers and pregnant women.

The intersection of the war on drugs, reproductive rights, and mass incarceration may not appear obvious immediately.

In 1984, the CIA, under Ronald Reagan, facilitated the import of massive amounts of crack cocaine into San Francisco and South Central Los Angeles. The Iran-Contra scandal was a hall of funhouse mirrors: drugs, money, and weapons freely exchanged at the expense of entire low-income communities, while Nancy Reagan implored kids to say no to drugs with her program D.A.R.E.—a program that actually succeeded in increasing drug use among young people. Crack was racialized as a “ghetto” drug despite being chemically indistinguishable from cocaine and used as a bludgeon repeatedly to justify inflated sentences that targeted Black men. President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, President George H.W. Bush signed the 1033 Program, and President Bill Clinton signed the Crime Bill of 1994. The prison goldrush prevailed well into the Obama administration, where it flatlined.

While Black men bore the primary brunt of these punitive policies in the 1980s and ’90s (and continue to serve disproportionate sentences), women are the fastest-growing group in the U.S. prison system.

Between 1980 and 2017, the number of women serving time shot up by 700 percent, overwhelmingly for non-violent, drug-related crimes. Eighty percent are mothers with minor children, and many are single.

“Women are low-hanging fruit,” says Susan F. Sharp, a Feminist Criminologist and professor emeritus at Oklahoma University. Feminist criminology developed in the 70s when women scientists realized that all studies conducted on crime focused on men. Sharp is the author of Mean Lives, Mean Laws, a book exploring why Oklahoma has the highest per capita rate of incarcerated women in the country. “What the policies did was target people who had drug problems and then treated them as if they were kingpin drug dealers.”

The children of incarcerated mothers often get shuffled around to multiple homes, struggle or drop out of school, experience conflict with their caregivers, and lose contact with their mothers. The women inmates Sharp interviewed described a constant state of anxiety about the safety of their children. “Women are frequently the only adults in the home, so the children end up being uprooted, they are bounced around between family members.” Only “about 7 percent end up in foster care because everybody is trying to fly below the radar so the mother doesn’t lose her rights. Which means children don’t get the benefits they need, necessarily.”

Mothers are not the only low-hanging fruit in this warped system. Abortion-related, fetal personhood, and fetal-endangerment crimes spiked right along with harsh drug punishments. The federal government does not track reproductive-related crimes, but the ACLU tracked these types of crimes between 1990 and 1992 and cited 160 cases, 75 percent of whom were women of color.

The war on drugs and the war on reproductive rights are both long-game, state-by-state campaigns fueled at least in part by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative non-profit organization that drove thousands of tough-on-crime bills, shaping public policy across all 50 states. Rightwing activist Paul Weyrich founded both ALEC and the Heritage Foundation, the think tank that built anti-abortion rhetoric into a central conservative issue using Ronald Reagan as its poster boy. The organization boasts 2,000 legislative members, and the list of corporate donors includes Pfizer, Exxon Mobil, and Koch Industries.

ALEC claims to steer clear of social issues, but Wisconsin Representative Chris Taylor linked ALEC money funneled through groups like Wisconsin Right to Life into Governor Scott Walker’s campaign in 2014. The group has also been directly linked to parental consent abortion bills in the 80s.

Looked at in this light, one can almost visualize the pernicious female-targeted flow chart written on the whiteboard in the conference room: restrict abortion and prenatal care, flood the market with opioids, impose harsh sentencing on low-level drug crimes, incarcerate mothers. Children are an externality in this scheme. In other words, parent-child separation has been a feature of our justice system long before this recent policy disaster at our southern border.

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