Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Swept Under the Rug: The Incarceration of Black Women

Largely as a result of the war on drugs, women of all races—great numbers of them low-level offenders—have been swept up into the nation's correctional system, often for long mandatory sentences.

-Elliott Currie
Society is very concerned with the number of black men who are incarcerated in the justice system. Truthfully, when you look at the statistics, it is rather alarming. Black men comprised approximately 39.4% of the total prison and jail population in 2009 (Cadet, 2011). Black men are also imprisoned at a rate that is six times higher than white men and three times higher than Latino men (Cadet, 2011). Take into account that there are more black men “in prison, or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began” and it paints a very grim picture for the state of the black males indeed (Price, 2012, para. 1).

But there is another group whose incarceration rates have been steadily increasing for the past several decades as well: black women. Due to the policies created through the War on Drugs, black women make up the fastest growing prison population (Russel-Brown, 2004; Marable, Steinberg, & Middlemass, 2007). Yet, rising incarceration of black women is rarely talked about in order to focus on incarcerated black men and white women (as usual).

There have always been racial disparities of the incarceration rate of black women (and men). As early as 1910, the incarceration rate of black women was six times higher than white women and between 1926 and 1946, 31% of the incarcerated female population was black women (Russel-Brown, 2004). But it was not until the 1980s that an obvious and deliberate attack on black women was initiated (Currie, 1998; Merlo, 2006; Marable et al., 2007; Jordan-Zachery, 2009).

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan announced the so-called War on Drugs (Marable et al., 2007; Jordan-Zachery, 2009). This war which should have been waged against drug traffickers and attempting to keep drugs from entering U.S. borders in the first place instead focused on criminalizing users of powder cocaine and crack cocaine because of their widespread use and addictiveness. With cocaine, specifically crack cocaine, being a “black problem,” the finger was immediately pointed at the urban black community. Crack was associated with “ghettos, crime, violence, black users” and eventually linked to black women with the media’s introduction of the crack baby to the masses (Marable et al., 2007, p. 106).

The War on Drugs introduced legislation that doled out longer sentences for the possession of crack cocaine (mandatory sentence of five years for as little as 5 grams) as opposed to powder cocaine (maximum penalty of one year) (Marable et al., 2007). Rather than implement drug treatment programs for addicts, imprisonment was used as a form of “treatment.” Jail and prison sentences were meant to dissuade people from using the drug. The 1994 Federal Crime Control Act (under President Bill Clinton), among other legislation, led to “increased penalties in drug offenses, mandatory minimum sentences, increased sentence lengths, and the ‘three strikes and you’re out rule” (Marable et al., 2007, p. 108).

As a result, nearly half of the increase in female imprisonment was due to drug related offenses (Russel-Brown, 2004). From 1986 to 1991, the number of black female drug offenders in state prison rose by 828% while it rose by 328% for Latino women and 241% for white women (Marable et al., 2007). From 1985 to 2005, the rate of growth of female prisoners averaged 404% as opposed to the rate of growth for male prisoners, which averaged 209% (Jordan-Zachery, 2009). According to Merlo (2006), the incarceration rate for black women in 2003 was 185 per 100,000 residents compared to 38 per 100,000 residents for white women. It seems like the War on Drugs is really a War against Black Women.

Society wants to perpetuate the idea that people just get up one day and decide that they are going to start using drugs (similar to the idea that black people decide that they are going to be poor). In actuality, there multiple pathways that lead people to drugs. In regards to women who have been/are incarcerated for drug offenses, they usually have had a history with abuse and violence (Marable et al., 2007). They have either witnessed abuse and violence in their children and/or experienced it as an adult in an intimate relationship. Women who have experienced abusive childhoods tend to recreate those traumatic experiences with a romantic partner without their realization (refer to Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood). To deal with the abuse some women turn to drugs as a means of escape (Marable et al., 2007). Others become angry and lash out in violence. There are others who may have ran away from at a very young age and engaged in illegal activity, such as prostitution, as a means of survival. This would account for the percentage of black women who have been incarcerated for offenses unrelated to drugs.

The incarceration of black women (and men) is one of the many reasons why the black community is so broken. Here you have a large percentage of a racial group who are most likely poor and uneducated (academically anyway), and who will not be able to get a job to support themselves. If there are children involved then they are often left with family members or enter the child welfare system further breaking the bond of a family unit. Is it any wonder that the black community is in the state that it is in? This article does even begin to dig deep into the issue. All I have given you are the superficial facts of a bigger conspiracy that is being swept under the rug.


Cadet, D. (2011, November 19). Lisa Ling’s ‘Our America’ looks at mass incarceration of black men. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Crews, A. W. (2009). A house divided: Corrections in conflict. In J. I. Ross (Ed.), Cutting the edge: Current perspectives in radical/critical criminology and criminal justice (2nd ed., pp. 83-104). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Currie, E. (1998). Race, violence, and justice since Kerner. In F. R. Harris & L. A. Curtis (Eds.), Locked in the poorhouse: Cities, race, and poverty in the United States (pp. 95-116). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Jordan-Zachery, J. S. (2009). Mammy is a maniac: Black women, images, and crime. In Black women, cultural images, and social policy (pp. 49-79). New York, NY: Routledge.

Landrine, H., & Russo, N. F. (2010). Handbook of diversity in feminist psychology. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Marable, M., Steinberg, I., & Middlemass, K. (2007). Racializing justice, disenfranchising lives: The racism, criminal justice, and law reader. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Merlo, A. V. (2006). Sentencing trends and incarceration. In J. M. Pollock (Ed.), Prisons today and tomorrow: Criminal justice illuminated (2nd ed., pp. 43-78). Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

Price, D. (2012). More black men now in prison system than enslaved in 1850. LA Progressive. Retrieved from

Russel-Brown, K. (2004). Black women and the justice system: Raced and gendered into submission. In Underground codes: Race, crime, and related fires (pp. 119-134). New York, NY: New York University Press.


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