The growing and disproportionate imprisonment of Black women in America

Inmate fence
Inmate fence

(NNPA) – Missy said she has trouble sleeping at night. It’s not the typical case of insomnia. It’s the after effects of spending more than seven years in prison.

Missy is not her real name. While in prison, her fellow inmates began calling her “Missy,” and the name just stuck. She doesn’t want to use her real name for this article because her children are of school age, and she is worried their classmates will tease them.

It’s a similar story to that shared by her friend, who we’ll call Tina.

Tina, who said she’s in her mid-40s, spent nearly nine years in prison.

“When I went in, I left behind two teenagers and one child that was 8 years old and autistic and another child that was 2,” Tina said.

While Missy was imprisoned for insurance fraud, Tina was sentenced on drug charges.

After hearing their stories, one might wonder: Why so much time?

Missy said she thought she was referring people to get legitimate assistance with old, broken- down vehicles and didn’t know the auto shop’s owner, who was once one of her closest friends, was committing insurance fraud.

Tina said her ex-boyfriend always denied being a drug dealer, and she could find no evidence that he was. No bankroll, no fancy car and certainly not a stack of cash, because she was often late on rent and utility payments.

“Every day, I’d take mail to his friend’s because his friend didn’t have a reliable mailbox,” Tina explained. “They all looked just like regular mail, letters and stuff.”

However, one of the envelopes contained drugs, and she was charged for selling narcotics.

Tina and Missy are part of an alarming trend – the growing and disproportionate imprisonment of Black women in America.

A recent NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet noted that between 1980 and 2015, the number of people incarcerated in America increased from roughly 500,000 to over 2.2 million.

Today, the United States makes up about 5 percent of the world’s population and has 21 percent of the world’s prisoners.

Also, according to the fact sheet, 1 in every 37 adults in the United States, or 2.7 percent of the adult population, is under some form of correctional supervision.

Further, in 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34 percent, of the 6.8 million correctional population total, and Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Whites. The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of White women.

The Status of Black Women in the United States was released in June 2017 and co-authored by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington and the National Domestic Workers Alliance in New York.

That report revealed that Black women are more prone to being jailed than White women, and that tendency starts in school. Racial disparities in discipline exist throughout the nation’s education system, the SOBW researchers said.

Black girls between 2011 and 2012 accounted for 45 percent of all girls suspended from K-12 public schools nationally, and they represented 42 percent of all girls expelled. They were suspended and expelled at higher rates than Black boys, according to the SOBW as reported by New American Media, which also noted that the “nation’s Black women are jailed at unfair rates.”

Disciplining of Black girls appears to be influenced by school administrators’ stereotypes and racial biases, the SOBW researchers said.

Black girls are more likely to be seen as disruptive or loud, compared with other students. They’re more often punished for dress code violations, talking back to teachers and “defiance” than other girls.

What’s worse, Black girls with disabilities are more prone to being suspended from school than other Black girls.

A June 2018 report from the Center for American Progress noted that infant mortality and mass incarceration are major issues affecting the Black community. But while they are often thought of and dealt with on separate tracks, structural racism firmly connects these critical issues.

Structural racism exposes Black women to distinct stressors – such as contact with the criminal justice system – that ultimately undermine their health and the health of their children, according to the CAP report.

The number of incarcerated U.S. women overall has increased dramatically in recent decades – from just 26,000 in 1980 to 219,000 in 2017.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the spike in female incarceration has disproportionately affected Black women, especially young Black women.

While Black women overall are twice as likely to be imprisoned as their White counterparts, Black women ages 18 to 19 are three times more likely to be imprisoned than their White counterparts, the CAP report noted.

Alarmingly, the report concluded that if current incarceration trends continue, 1 in 18 Black women will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetime.

One of the many detrimental effects of incarceration is that it’s associated with higher odds of low birth weight, preterm birth and infant mortality.

Mass incarceration has exposed millions of Black women to dangerous stressors that threaten their health and the lives of their offspring, CAP officials said, while noting that lawmakers must act to put an end to this persistent form of structural racism.

“I did time … hard time, and I know it was partly because I was naïve and mostly because I was stupid,” Missy said.

The African American mother of two had barely made ends meet when an opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. Or, so she thought.

“A friend of mine was running this auto shop not far from my house, and he asked that I send him some clients and he’d pay me for it,” Missy said.

Promised $250 per client, Missy said she turned a blind eye to what was really going on in the auto shop: insurance fraud.

“The clients would be folks who wanted to get rid of their cars, and my contact knew just how to get rid of them, get the clients paid, and of course, pocket the insurance money,” she said.

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