Black women, mass incarceration missing from conversation

KIMBERLY TIGNOR
TRICE EDNEY NEWSWIRE

Former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw will spend the rest of his life behind bars for multiple counts of rape and sexual assault against Black women. Why did it take so long for most of us to notice this story?

The answer lies at the uncomfortable intersection of gender, race, and class. The Holtzclaw saga underscores a broader truth about America in 2015: our criminal justice system systemically undervalues and abuses – and our mainstream media routinely ignores – poor Black women.

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Katie Truslow (her name changed to protect her privacy) is a Black woman who has faced these injustices. Like 85 percent of incarcerated women, her prison story begins with physical and sexual violence.

After her abusive ex-husband raped her during their divorce, Truslow began dating the drug dealer who protected her. When her boyfriend was indicted, Truslow’s connection to him was all the prosecutors needed to charge her with conspiracy. Truslow’s status as a Black woman with little money made it easier for the criminal justice system to see her as a perpetrator rather than as a victim.

The theory of “intersectionality” explains our society’s ambivalence toward Americans who happen to women and Black. Intersectionality posits that social categorizations such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation overlap in ways that create unique disadvantages for individuals who belong to more than one category.

American civil rights law focuses on only one disadvantaged status at a time.

However, racial justice tends to be defined in terms of the needs of Black men and feminism in terms of the needs of White women. Hence the relative obscurity of Black women like Katie Truslow and the survivors of Holtzclaw’s crimes: they are victimized because they are women, they are ignored, stigmatized, and even incarcerated just because they are Black and predominantly poor.

A similar dynamic explains the lack of data about incarcerated Black women. Corrections agencies disaggregate prisoner data by race and by gender, meaning that we know plenty about Black prisoners and about women prisoners. Because the data is not separated by race and gender, we rarely know how many of the Black prisoners are women, and how many of the women are Black.

The lack of data limits the conversation. Activists and policymakers can have detailed conversations about Black people and women in the prison system but must resort to imprecise statistics and anecdotal evidence to describe the state of Black women prisoners.

We extrapolated from the one data point included about Black women in the “Prisoners in 2014” report provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that Black women make up 23 percent of incarcerated women. By contrast, Black women comprise only 14 percent of the U.S. female population. We also know that Black women are incarcerated at roughly twice the rate of White and Latina women.

Our national silence about Black women’s experiences with mass incarceration does not render their absences inconsequential. Katie Truslow’s sudden absence was keenly felt by her daughters, who were only 7 and 9-years-old at the time of her incarceration. Of the 61 percent of Black women prisoners who have minor children, more than three quarters were their children’s primary caregiver prior to their incarceration.

Against Truslow’s wishes, her girls eventually wound up living with the mother of her abusive ex-husband. Since Truslow was incarcerated, she was not there to protect her daughters, and the cycle of sexual abuse began to repeat itself. She describes one incident in which she had to call someone to track down her daughter when the girl ran away because of Truslow’s ex-husband’s sexual advances.

Truslow now worries that a different cycle will repeat itself—that of incarceration. She works with women who are reentering the general population after prison and sees the same stories filled with sexual trauma, domestic violence, and desperation time and time again. Truslow knows that story well: it is her story, and it is also the story of her daughters. And she worries that incarceration, like sexual abuse, is a “generational occurrence” and “a pain that will carry out to [her] daughter.”

To prevent that from happening, we must include the stories of Black women like Katie Truslow and the survivors of Daniel Holtzclaw’s crimes when we speak about the injustices of the American criminal justice system. More importantly, we must take concrete steps to address the ways that system uniquely burdens women of color. Only when justice is holistic and inclusive is it complete.

Kimberly Tignor is the interim director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Public Policy Project.

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