Nationwide, the prison industrial complex is a phrase used to describe the rapid expansion of the U.S. prison population, and the intersecting interests of government and private industry that use surveillance techniques, overzealous policing practices, and imprisonment as solutions to budgetary, social and political problems. The phrase also attempts to describe the cyclical nature of incarceration. It seeks to explain how policies, practices, coupled with plaguing societal issues facilitate criminalization and incarceration. Moreover, this phrase has become increasingly familiar within poor communities of color. Much of the public and scholarly discourse and activism around incarceration have focused almost entirely on Black and Latino males. Few studies have explored the devastating impact of incarceration on women. The fact of the matter is — women, particularly Black and Hispanic women are disproportionately affected by incarceration.
According to The Sentencing Project Research and Advocacy for Reform website, more than one million women are currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system in the U.S. More than 200,000 of these women are confined in state and federal prisons or local jails. And the number of women in prison has increased at nearly double the rate of men since 1985. This research also points out the fact that women in state prisons are more likely to be incarcerated for a drug offense (29 percent vs. 19 percent) or property offense (30 percent vs. 20 percent) and less likely than men to be incarcerated for a violent offense (35 percent vs. 53 percent). Furthermore, Black women represent over 30 percent of all females incarcerated under state or federal jurisdiction and Hispanic women represent roughly 17 percent of all incarcerated women in the criminal justice system. According to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Black women are more than three times as likely as white women to be incarcerated in prison or jail, and Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely to be institutionalized.
These statistics are grossly startling and have a crippling and demoralizing influence on Black and Hispanic households. Arguably, Black and Hispanic children are more likely to have a parent or caretaker behind bars than their white contemporaries. Current research shows that 1 in every 14 Black children in the U.S. have at least one parent in prison, compared with one in every 125 white children. Black children are almost nine times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison; and Hispanic children are four times more likely to have a parent behind bars. This picture, after examining the hard facts, becomes even more clear that this phase “the prison industrial complex” is inherently and explicitly linked to race, especially when one looks at the fact that more than 8.3 million children, namely over 2/3 of Black and Latino children, have at least one or both parents under some form of community or correctional supervision.
Nevertheless, there are some who would suggest that if only these women would pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, or make better life choices, they would be in a better position to lead their families. If one is to make this claim, one must also consider the fact that how one develops is partly dependent on the type of environment one is planted in. One must also consider the adverse affect of inner city poverty prompted by social and economic isolation and inaccessibility. For instance, the lack of financial resources, the lack of access to quality education, the lack of sufficient health care, the lack of employment opportunities, the lack of familial support, and systemic oppression are all contributing factors in keeping women of color in a perpetual state of deficiency.
A criminal record significantly hinders a woman’s ability to get on her feet. Frequently, an arrest, not even an arrest that leads to a conviction, hinders a woman’s ability to maintain gainful employment. Contrary to popular belief, women are discriminated against just as much as their male counterparts. More importantly, in the digital age in which we live, employers often conduct an internet search on potential employees. Most employers won’t openly admit that they engage in discriminatory practices with respect to the hiring process; but most employers are apprehensive about hiring someone with a traceable arrest history. As a result of this surreptitious practice, women have to battle yet another obstacle, which serves to handicap one’s progress and limit one’s potential from contributing to the global economic marketplace.
As Americans, we know these issues all too well. We know the overwhelming impact incarceration has on our children and our communities. No longer can we afford to sit idle on the sidelines with bated breath and watch our communities deteriorate. Instead, we must place stronger demands on our government and our institutions, including ourselves to work harder in expanding and improving access to basic services for the formally incarcerated. We must help to put them on a road to recovery instead of a road to permanent failure. If there were ever a time in history that we should stand together to transform this system of incarceration, the time is now. We owe it to our children, our families, our communities, and to the next generation and beyond. We know that our families and communities are stronger and better served with familial stability, and when families have greater access to resources and opportunities.