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With Eddie Conway

Black Women are the Most Rapidly Growing Prison Population, Criminalized and Stereotyped as Aggressive

Caryn York, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force and Nicole Hanson, director of Out for Justice, talk about why black girls are punished more harshly  than any other demographic and are the largest growing population in the prison system. Black women are given stereotypical handles like aggressive and hostile. Instead of dealing with the trauma that comes from a lack of investment in and support for black women, we criminalize them

Story Transcript

ERICKA BLOUNT: I’m Ericka Blount, producer for Rattling the Bars, here with host Eddie Conway, executive producer, to discuss why women and girls of color are the fastest growing population within U.S. prisons. As of 2014, black women of all ages were three times as likely to be imprisoned as white women.

Here to talk about these rising rates and some of the reasons why are Caryn York, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, where she encourages key policymakers and stakeholders to adopt and support policies and programs that eliminate educational and employment barriers to facilitate the successful entry or re-entry of low income adult workers and job seekers into the workforce. And Nicole Hanson, the director of Out for Justice, the policy arm for the re-entry community in Maryland, where she helps to organize incarcerated citizens, formerly incarcerated individuals, and family friends to introduce, support, and repeal laws that impact their successful re-entry back into society. Thank you for coming here.

So where do these racial and gender disparities and punishment start? Some people say it starts in middle school with girls receiving harsher punishments in school.

CARYN YORK: So you know, whenever I hear that question it’s frustrating, because I feel that we’re not even starting at the right point. When we talk about why black women and girls are in the system, we start asking questions starting at why their punishment is is more harsh than others. And I think we really have to talk about why women are even entering the system at such an alarming rate. And when it comes to black women, we really have to talk about and think very deliberately and intentionally about how other communities view black women. And how many times how society views a particular segment of the community is going to determine how they feel they should respond to that community.

And so we find in the black community that many times the responses to our actions or behaviors that may come across as aggressive or hostile, right, many of these stereotypical handles and names that we hear to describe black women, the response to that is the criminalization of the black female, just like we’ve seen the criminalization of the black male, righ? We take resources and support out of our communities, and then get upset when they react in a very traumatized manner. And instead of responding in a way that actually deals with the trauma that comes from this lack of investment and support, we then criminalize them.

And so for black women, because–and there are studies that have come out. I believe there was one that came out at the beginning of this year where overwhelmingly black women and girls were seen as being more aggressive and hostile and angry than even black males. And so when we have, when we’re dealing with these dynamics and within this context, then it explains why we have so many women that are going in, and why so many black women are facing harsher punishments at an alarming rate, because we’re looking at them as if, you know, you are just so overly emotional and unstable, and so angry and aggressive that you need to go into a cell, and that cell is going to calm you down and help you figure it out. So I mean–Nicole, I don’t …

NICOLE HANSON: No, you’re right. You’re right. And it’s happening in schools with young girls, right. We have teachers who come to teach in predominantly black schools that don’t have a connection with our children. They don’t have a racial connection, but they also don’t have, like, I live in your neighborhood connection, or I used to go to school your mom went to type of connection. They are viewing our girls as if they have a problem that they need to fix instead of looking at themselves and figuring out how they can be creative in teaching our girls, and how they can find some different solutions to supporting young black girls, and what they’re facing in community and at home.

ERICKA BLOUNT: Also–and talking about the rising number of black women going to prison. So it’s been said that a lot of black women are committing crimes because they’re defending themselves from crime. So can you talk about that?

CARYN YORK: Well, I mean, I think that ties into the first question, right? This idea that we’re constantly on defense. Now, there’s a piece of me where you could argue that many times we are on defense, because we lack access to services and resources and support because we are viewed as untouchable, or someone that cannot–you can’t reach them, as if there is some issue, some overwhelming issue that cannot be overcome if you just provide me with access to all of the other opportunities that our white or lighter counterparts may have.

And so when we think about this idea that we’re only interacting with the system because we have to fight, and that we’re defending ourselves, many times–and Nicole can talk about this more than I can. Many times they’re entering into the system because of survival. So you will have, you’ll find stats that will show that, you know, women are going to be more likely to suffer from financial crimes, or from sexual crimes, which we like to call quality of life crimes, quite honestly. Because these are crimes of survival. These are last resort. This is what I identified as necessary to support myself and my family. It may or may not be legal, but I felt that I didn’t have any other options.

NICOLE HANSON: And before I touch on the fact that, like you said, 67 percent of black women who are incarcerated are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. So the majority of black women and girls are not incarcerated for violent offenses. But back to that first question around the stigma of just being this black woman and, you know, having to be on defense a lot. I know, for me, I grew my hair, because when I had a short haircut folks wouldn’t to talk to me.

CARYN YORK: Really?

NICOLE HANSON: Yeah.

CARYN YORK: I loved your short hair.

NICOLE HANSON: I know. But I found that, you know, the same folks that talk to me now with hair did not speak to me without hair. And so we’re constantly having to make ourselves approachable for society. But like Caryn mentioned, in most cases women are trying to support themselves and a family. There’s a large percentage of women who are single mothers. I’m fortunate to have a significant other that supports me and supported me when I was behind the walls. But most women don’t have that. So they’re forced to take care of their children alone. And so when you’re forced to take care of your children alone, you don’t have the type of credentials that you need in order to access a job that’s a livable wage. And that’s the type of wages that you can take your family on vacations, and enroll your kids in extracurricular activities, you tend to find some non-traditional ways to make money. And that’s–unfortunately, that’s what I had to do. I had to find some untraditional ways to supplement my income because I had a large income. I mean–you know.

ERICKA BLOUNT: That actually leads into my next question, is what challenges do families face when black women are in prison? The families they leave behind; families in general. You know, black women take care of communities, not just families. So what do they face?

NICOLE HANSON: I think that the families are not praised and supported enough as they should be. When black women go to jail or prison it is the family that is holding everything down. It’s the grandmothers, the aunts, the uncles who are supporting these children while they’re behind the walls. But there’s immense challenges, right. And so, one, the children, they suffer when they don’t have the woman around. We are the caretakers of the family. Not only the caretakers, but we carry on most of the financial burden when we go. I can’t remember the numbers, but there’s a large percentage of women, I think like 60-something percent of those women, who actually go to jail or prison are the financial providers of their families.

And so financially, the family struggles. Mentally, children struggle when there’s things that’s happening at the school, and they want to bring their–everybody else has their mom, but this child doesn’t have their mom because their mom is incarcerated, and they have to find a way to explain where their mothers are. It’s just a lot, you know. The family is displaced. They have to move with other family members who, you know, in normal cases they probably wouldn’t be at these family members’ houses most of the time. They only would be, like, visiting. They wouldn’t be there to live. So the children are the ones who really suffer the most. And then, because they don’t understand how to express their feelings, then they get played as these aggressive kids, these aggressive little girls that don’t listen, and can’t stay focused, and are too grown and disrespectful, when if the adult just understood what the background was they would understand that they’re just a little sad that their parents are gone.

ERICKA BLOUNT: Now, what challenges do black women face reintegrating into society after being in prison? I know, Nicole, you can speak personally to that.

NICOLE HANSON: Yeah. So, number one, the stigma. That stigma, it goes with you everywhere. When you have to sit down for a job interview, and you may not be in a state like Maryland where some counties you don’t have to check the box, but in other states you do, you have to explain what you did in the past. And that could prevent you from getting a job. You have to-

CARYN YORK: Housing.

NICOLE HANSON: Housing. Thank you, Caryn. Oh, housing is a big one, because you have to fill out an application, and you have to check the box–or even if you don’t check a box, they’re doing a criminal background. And once they do a criminal background, in most cases you are denied housing.

CARYN YORK: Jobs, too, though. Jobs, too. Because even though we banned the box, there are still some employers that are requiring you to check that box, and they will still run that background check.

NICOLE HANSON: Yeah. Yeah.

CARYN YORK: So it’s the same for jobs and housing.

NICOLE HANSON: It’s the same. It’s the same for jobs and housing. I know a big thing for me was life insurance. And I will never stop talking about this, because the minute you have a felony, or even some misdemeanors, you are denied life insurance. So we talk about it like this family wealth and providing an opportunity if you’re not there, if you pass away; that your kids will have something to fall back on. Black women with felonies are often denied life insurance. So before I went in I was able to have about–my husband and I collectively had about $150,000 in life insurance, and we were paying $60 a month. And when I came home I had to be dropped from the life insurance policy, because if I was still on it they would not cover my family. So I had to come off of the policy and leave them, my husband just on the policy.

EDDIE CONWAY: Why, if I might, why is it so difficult to get life insurance as a released black woman?

NICOLE HANSON: You’re considered a liability. Because you’re a liability to them.

CARYN YORK: It’s the underwriting of insurance companies. And it’s, it’s honestly not just specific to life insurance, right? Insurance companies in general will decide who’s liable and who’s more riskier, right. And so many times because of the stigma that Nicole talked about, this stigma of who you are, or who you could become, or revert back into now that you’re home, means that you’re a risk. You’re someone who we should really give higher scrutiny to in terms of risk level. And so they’re not even looking at, you know, what type of offense, the nature of the crime, how long ago it’s been. Quite honestly, those are the things you shouldn’t even be considering when it comes to life insurance, because it’s literally your money, right. Like, you are putting in–the same with car insurance, right? Like, you cannot use the fact of my past against me when it has nothing to do with that.

And so it all comes down to liability, and how much of a liability you are to a particular company, and then how they can quantify that, and then monetize it. And then either have you pay more for the service and resource, or you actually are just ineligible for it altogether.

NICOLE HANSON: And up until 2017, Out for Justice and Job Opportunity Task Force was able to repeal a ban on food stamps that said if you had a felony drug conviction here in Maryland you were ineligible to receive temporary cash assistance and food stamps for up to a year after your conviction. That is the most important time for someone, in someone’s life after incarceration. You need that year. You need that support. And the state of Maryland was denying–mostly women were impacted by this. And black women were impacted. And they were not able to receive this assistance that they needed for not just themselves, but their children were also ineligible to receive these services. Many government assistance programs, too, also deny you access because of the record.

ERICKA BLOUNT: OK. Thank you, Nicole, Caryn, Eddie. Appreciate you, having you here at The Real News. We will continue this conversation, because there’s a lot more to be said about this. Thank you for coming to The Real News.

CARYN YORK: Thank you for having us. Very important topic.

ERICKA BLOUNT: I’m Ericka Blount, producer for Rattling the Bars. Thank you for joining us.