The Invisible Casualties of the US Carceral State

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer 

(Photo Credit)

Whether called mass incarceration, mass imprisonment, the prison boom, the carceral state,or hyper-incarceration, this phenomenon refers to the ongoing US experiment in incarceration, which is defined by comparatively and historically extreme rates of imprisonment and by the concentration of imprisonment among young African American citizens living in neighbourhoods of concentrated disadvantage.

Disturbingly, US prisons currently confine approximately 206,000 women (at a rate of 127per 100,000) compared to 150,000 ten years ago. Most of these are women of colour. Although it is true that women are incarcerated far less frequently than men, the statistics are still staggering – their number has been steadily increasing for years and the 25 jurisdictions with the highest rates of incarcerated women across the globe are all American states. Thus, the US imprisons more women than any other nation in the world – more than China, Russia, India, Mexico and Thailand combined.

Why is it important to talk about incarcerated women in the same week in which the world celebrates Mother’s Day? Because most women in jail are mothers - according to the US Department of Justice, 75 per cent of women in prison are mothers and two-thirds of them have dependent children below the age of 18.

The imprisonment of a woman who is a mother can lead to severe anxiety and distress not only for her but for her dependents as well, and can wreak havoc on the family stability and the children's well-being. Women currently in US prisons are mothers to more than 300,000 minors. The majority of children separated from their mother because of her incarceration subsequently live with their maternal grandmother or go into foster care, with only 17 percent of them staying with their father. Such children are at an increased risk of anxiety, depression, aggression, truancy, attention disorders and poor performance at school.

Even more disturbing than the actual number of mothers behind bars are the reasons for their sentence. If you find it hard to feel sympathy towards the plight of female prisoners, think again – an estimated two-thirds of the women incarcerated in federal prison are serving time for petty, non-violent, mostly drug-related, crimes. The US War on drugs has resulted in tens of thousands of children displaced into foster care and subsequent homelessness:

“It resulted in draconian policies that created a 100 – 1 disparate sentencing framework between crack and cocaine. That is, a person with 5 grams of crack would be subjected to the same mandatory sentence of someone caught with 500 grammes of powder cocaine.

Many recognised such policies as racialised and unjustified. Five years ago, President Obama signed legislation that reduces the disparity to 18 – 1. It was a good bi-partisan first step, but it too maintained disparities that have enormous racial and socio-economic impacts. Nor did the law address female incarceration,” says Michele Goodwin.

What is the solution? Considering the complexity of the topic, no one can give a straightforward answer. The point is – given the racial disparity and the high rates of imprisonment of women for non-violent crimes, incarceration is a significant generator of social inequality. Such drastic increase in mass incarceration rates would be justifiable only if public safety were dramatically improved. This, however, is not the case in the US.

Prison is not the solution to a nation’s social problems – it should be used as a deterrent to crime and only for the most violent and dangerous citizens in the community. Yet, all too often, prisons are the States’ first response to complicated social problems like drug addiction and poverty.

Alternatives to incarceration do work. Community service orders, restitution, alcohol and treatment, and mental and other health services, are substitutes that are proved to be much more successful in reducing recidivism and can be used at any point in the criminal justice process. Moreover, they are more cost-effective and enforceable and provide creative responses that address the real needs of both the women caught in America’s “warehousing of people” and their children who are almost always the ones bearing the brunt of the ineffective prison system.