Women & Incarceration: A Crucial Conversation in Cambridge and Beyond

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Women & Incarceration: A Crucial Conversation in Cambridge and Beyond

By Anna J. Weick
Administrative Assistant, YWCA Cambridge

“[Prisons] are not places for human beings with spirits inside of them” – Andrea James

Anna Weick
Anna Weick

In the past 30 years, women have become the fastest-growing incarcerated population in the United States, and activists in Cambridge are determined to fight for alternatives.

This past Wednesday, the Cambridge Women’s Commission, the YWCA Cambridge, the Cambridge Restorative Justice Working Group, & On The Rise came together for an evening event focused on the impact of incarceration on women and families. The evening began with the screening of “Grey Area,” a documentary that follows the lives of incarcerated women in an Iowan maximum security prison. Attendees then participated in restorative justice-focused circle discussions about their own connections to the issues of incarceration, violence against women, institutionalized racism, and poverty. During the closing session, Andrea James of Families for Justice as Healing and Charyti Reiter of On The Rise spoke about their own experiences and work with issues of incarceration and its impact on women. At the end of the evening, audience members were asked to pledge one action they would each take in response to the discussion.

Evidence shows that the prison industrial complex impacts people of color, women, and LGBTQ people in disproportionately high numbers. Across the U.S., the number of incarcerated women grew by 21.6 percent from 2000-2009. The racial and ethnic disparities of incarcerated women are impossible to ignore; African American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated and Latina women are 69% more likely as compared with white women. While only 44% of incarcerated men have minor children, 65% of incarcerated women do, and 1 in 25 women in state prisons enter prison while pregnant. An alarmingly high number of incarcerated women (85-90%) have a history of victimization through domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, and/or rape.

Further research shows that queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people, predominantly women of color, not only face high rates of incarceration, but they also face alarming rates of poverty and homelessness, deportation/detention, and other related forms of state violence. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project details about such violence against transgender and intersex people incarcerated in men’s prisons in their report “It’s war in here.”

What next steps can be taken? The Jobs Not Jails coalition rallied on the Boston Common this past April, championing a plan to direct money from new prison construction into job creation. The FREE CeCe documentary project, featuring actress Laverne Cox, focuses specifically on the violence faced by trans women of color. Andrea James of Families for Justice and Healing is organizing the “Free Her Rally” in Washington D.C. on June 21, 2014 with the ultimate goal of ending the war on drugs and mass incarceration. The Massachusetts Women’s Justice Network has information about community alternatives to incarceration for women. The Massachusetts Bail Fund advocates for changes in the inequitable bail system and funds low-income folks to help them meet bail. The Pretrial Working Group addresses a number of goals related to the reform of pretrial practices, new jail construction, and community-based incarceration alternatives. Locally, Massachusetts just became the 20th state to pass an Anti-Shackling bill, which created a state-wide prohibition on the use of restraints or shackles with incarcerated women who are giving birth. The momentum is growing, and Massachusetts has the opportunity to become a leader in this struggle.

If Cambridge wants to continue its legacy of striving for a just, humane, and compassionate society, we need to commit to supporting incarcerated women and families from our community.

Anna J. Weick is a community advocate and activist living in Cambridge, MA. She works for the YWCA Cambridge and is a Commissioner with the Cambridge GLBT Commission. 

Cross-posted with permission from CCTV

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