By Brenda Robinson
Women’s History Month has traditionally celebrated women who have made a difference in their lives, their family’s lives, and/or made their community, state, nation and even the world a better place. These women certainly need to be honored. Their selflessness and dedication, which often led to self-neglect, is admirable. However, there is a group of women that has been neglected in terms of outcries for justice and celebrations for their courage. This disenfranchised group is black women who have been incarcerated for crimes within state and federal jurisdictions.
There has rightfully been attention generated on the disproportion numbers of incarceration of black men. Nevertheless, that same attention must be given to the incarceration of black women. Reportedly, black women are more than three times as likely as white women to be incarcerated. Black females represent thirty-percent of prison populations. What a disconnect for black children. Elsie Scott, Ph.d, president and CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and a member of the Black Women’s Roundtable, said 60 percent of incarcerated black females have dependent children.
The reasons for the disparities between jailing of white and black females are familiar, economic deprivation, socialization patterns, racism and sexism. Studies continue to emphasize that low income, less job opportunities, and higher unemployment rates among black women lead to more criminal activity. In addition, since black women are disproportionately the sole or main economic providers for their families, they commit crimes to support their families. And, the research shows the likelihood that children will have parents who are incarcerated is disproportionately linked to race. In 1999, one out of every 14 black children had a 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 three times more likely. Whether the jailed parent is male or female, black children are more at risk. If the jailed parent is black male, the result is more black children are absent a parent as black men, as with black women, are disproportionately incarcerated.
Reportedly, compared to male prison populations, levels of assaults and rapes are much more prevalent in female prisons than in male prisons. In addition, 67 percent of black women are jailed for non-violent crimes, but must still check the “felony box” on job applications.
We recognize that America’s problems are numerous, but lets remember that the incarceration of black women is “not the least of them.” We must not remain silent when America chooses to punish black women (any women for the record) in lieu of establishing healing programs. There must be an outcry when returning female prisoners, to our communities, are denied, in some states, government assistance. These women are refused housing, educational loans, and even employment in health and child care facilities. And, employment in the aforementioned facilities are where black women so frequently seek employment.
So, as we close out Women History Month, let us salute black women who are incarcerated or who were previously incarcerated, yet found ways or currently finding ways to support their minor children. We celebrate those who walked to food banks to feed their children. We admire those who visited “clothing give away shops” to clothe their children. We salute those who have no health care and bravely stood for hours, outside in the cold, at Matthew 25 to get medical care. We praise those who took-off work, knowing their salary would be docked, to attend their children’s school conference and basketball games. We are proud of those who moved their families into substandard housing, when rejected by Section 8.
The failure is not the system’s responsibility to hold adult females accountable, but rather the failure to recognize the reasons many of these women committed offenses, remedy the causes, and insure a “healing climate” for these returning offenders.
Finally, a poem by Nikki Giovanni perhaps best expresses an appropriate sentiment of
black female victims of incarceration:
If I can’t do what I want to do, then my job is to not do what I don’t want to do.
It’s not the same thing, but its the best I can do.
It I can’t have what I want, then my job is to want what I’ve got,
and be satisfied, that at least there is something more to want.
Since I can’t go where I need to go, then I must go where the signs point
through always understanding parallel movement isn’t lateral
When I can’t express what I really feel, I practice feeling what I can express.
And none of it is equal, I know,
but that’s why mankind alone, among the animals, learns to cry.