West Virginia, April 30th, 1927, the first women’s correctional institution opens. This facility was described as a women’s reform school. The women sent to this prison were charged with federal crimes that resulted in a sentence of more than a year. Most of these crimes were for alcohol and drug charges during the countries prohibition period. The interesting part about this little nugget of history, was that these women were not treated the way modern day incarcerated women are treated, they were treated like women who made a mistake and got caught. The belief was that these women needed to brush up on their skills in order to be able to re-enter society as contributing members of society. This prison’s mission was to reform these women. They were given jobs in office management, canning fruit, and learning secretarial skills. Now we can, of course analyze that goal for days about the sexist way that these women were being forced into traditional “women’s work,” but that is a topic for a different time. What I want to draw attention to, is the amazing and advanced nature of this goal, which informed the treatment of these women. A women’s prison in New York didn’t even have fences and each woman was housed in a cottage with their own kitchen. In the early 20th century, women prisoners were treated with respect and the idea that they were not hardened criminals.
So, when did this change? Upon the heals of the women’s and civil rights movements, heavy policing activities began to increase in communities of color. Men and women alike were being accused and arrested for suspicious activity. Mass incarceration of people of color began and never slowed down. Although people of color make up 30% of this countries population, they make up over 60% of the prison population. The reasons why women are incarcerated have not changed over the last century. Women are primarily incarcerated for drug offenses or for retaliation against their abusers. What has changed is the perspective of an “offender”. There is no longer the idea that some one can actually understand their crime and make changes, there is no longer the idea that the system must provide an opportunity for these individuals to learn new skills, there is no longer the idea that these individuals should be trusted.
Of course, you may be thinking, “Lorena, these people are criminals, they broke the law and got caught, they hurt somebody some how, they should be punished.” My response is to look at the root of the problem; what is causing most of these women to make the decisions that are landing them behind bars. There is a level of self-control that is necessary and then there are social and systemic catalysts to having to survive in an unjust world. We also live in the country that is leading all developed countries in incarceration rates because we operate on a punitive system, not a restorative, not a preventative system. Looking back at the point at which mass incarceration started, those who historically held the power (white men) were policing communities that had gained an inch in equality (communities of color, women) and wanted to make sure that they maintained their power and that people of color and women understood that. Women are no more likely to use drugs than men and people of color are no more likely to use than white people, however men of color are incarcerated at a 37% higher rate than their white counter parts for drug related offenses and women are being incarcerated at a rate of 1.5 times more than their male counter parts. Sentencing laws do not allow room for consideration of why a woman chooses to remain silent while her partner or family member is involved in a drug trade, or why they chose to or were forced to participate.
Most women end up behind bars as a result of living in tumultuous circumstances, and having to do something about it. Until our sentencing laws begin to consider these factors, women will continue to rise to the top of the incarceration list. Until the war on drugs shifts from an excuse to continue to imprison marginalized and historically oppressed communities, women will continue to be on the top of the incarceration list, and until our society begins to invest in preventative measures including education, health care, and equal opportunity, women will continue to be the most hunted in our criminal justice system.